Sometimes S#&T Just Happens or When I Knew I Would Become A Writer

Al Lamanda here. Sometimes in life, s#&t just happens all by itself and seemingly for no good reason. Trust me; there is a reason, and a cause and an outcome. Most of the time, we’re too busy leading our lives to recognize the reason and cause, just the s#&t that happened to us and the outcome, and sometimes not even the outcome is revealed to us until much later down the road.

Some prime examples of some s#&t that happened to me for no good reason over this past miserableScreen Shot 2015-03-23 at 2.27.26 PM winter (stop me if you’ve heard any of this before) started in late December. It snowed (yeah, I know, you too) often and a lot. Except that it didn’t snow as scheduled. By this, I mean I would watch the weather report and it would say to expect up to a half foot of new snow the next day. I would prepare for the snow beginning with the exotic dance of moving the cars so the plow guy can plow the driveway and backyard. The dance of the cars is followed by positioning the shovels and boots for early morning use. Come morning, I would be fully prepared to shovel the walkway, deck and return the cars to their regular less exotic spots. Except that in the morning, there wasn’t a hint of snow on the ground. Odd, but the weather channel does make mistakes from time to time. Except that a few days later, the weather report didn’t mention snow and I woke up to nearly a foot of snow on the ground. No fair as I didn’t get the chance to conduct the exotic dance of the moving cars. This, it will, it won’t weather reporting went on for weeks leading up to the storm of the millennium, nicknamed by the weather gods, the snowicane. The snowicane had people running to the stores for bottled water, canned goods, bread, candles and batteries as if they were all contestants on The Price is Right and their names had just been called. Expected snowfall totals of three feet, with hurricane winds and power outages, so the weather gods predicted. I went to bed fully prepared and awoke to a few inches of fluffy snow that I swept off the walkway with a broom. And went about my business of packing and preparing for a planned vacation to Puerto Rico. Then, thirty-six hours before the flight, the airlines and weather reports issued a travel advisory. Snow. Winds. Snowicane conditions. The day of my flight, which was canceled by the way, the news stations were gloom and dooming about the raging storm while I was looking out my window at a calm, sunny day. My flight was rescheduled for the following morning, a day that no mention of snow or storm was in the forecast. So as I drove to the airport in a whiteout conditions, two things crossed my mind. The first was that I would never make it to the airport. The second was that I would never make it to Puerto Rico. Although we took off in a white out, the flight was surprisingly smooth sailing the entire trip.

While in Puerto Rico, enjoying the 85-90 degree sun, I kept hearing reports of snow and frigid cold back home, but decided to worry about that later and relaxed on the beach. A few days before leaving for Puerto Rico, this happened.

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 2.28.30 PMI was writing at my desk when I noticed that my cat was taking a keen interest in something on the rug. I investigated and discovered that my cat was watching a lady bug. I was about to squash said lady bug when my better half intervened on the lady bug’s behalf. Because lady bugs are cute little creatures that bring to mind Herbie the Love Bug, my better half had a fit that I wanted to kill it. She wanted to set it free. When I politely pointed out that it was six degrees outside and said Herbie would freeze to death, the result was the same as squishing the little bugger. Lady Bugs are beetles, smaller cousins to the dung beetles who spend most of their time rolling around in … well, you get the idea. Also, they bite. So while the better half and I were discussing the merits of squishing or freezing the lady bug, it up and vanished. We conducted a search of the living room, but the little bugger was nowhere to be had. I suspected that my cat had solved the matter by simply making a snack of the little creature and didn’t give it a second thought. Until the warm sunshine of Puerto Rico was behind us and freezing cold and snow greeted us at the airport. Along with hundreds of lady bugs in the house. They were everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. In lamp shades, the rugs, window ledges, my desk, my keyboard and even the bathroom sink. About the only place the lady bugs weren’t was inside my cat’s stomach, because as it turns out my cat doesn’t like to eat them, just watch them crawl around. My better half changed her tune of save the lady bug and you can guess the rest.

A few days after returning from Puerto Rico and dealing with the lady bug situation, this happened. I woke up and stumbled to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. Usually brushing your teeth is about as exciting as, well, brushing your teeth. Except that usually when I run the water in the sink, the water drains. Usually. Not that day, no, no, no. That day the sink just filled and filled even though the drain hole was wide open. I checked the kitchen sink, same thing. My pipes weren’t frozen, but the septic tank was. According to the company that deals with this sort of thing, while I was away basking in the sun, the lack of running water coupled with the sub-zero temperatures resulted in a frozen septic tank. The first order of business was to remove the snow from where the tank is buried in the backyard and then await their arrival. Easier said than done when there is six feet of snow covering the location of the tank. The emergency company said they would be there within the hour, which meant three, so I had plenty of time to remove the snow. Three hours later, when they arrived, I had the area clear. And the ground was frozen. Rock hard. So on a freezing February day, I stood by and watched as men with jackhammers tore up my yard. To unfreeze the tank that froze because I flew to Puerto Rico in a blizzard on a day when it wasn’t supposed to snow but did anyway. And while I was standing there in my yard that now resembled a construction site and smelled like a three-hundred-cow dairy farm, I felt something nibble on my left ear. I removed my hat and, you guessed it, found a lady bug.

So sometimes in life s#&t happens and most of the time we don’t know why and what the outcome will be, but sometimes we do. If we reflect back upon it.

At a recent library event, I was asked by a young woman if I always knew I would be a writer, and if so, when did I know? The answer to that question goes back a very long ways to some s#&t that happened to me when I was eleven-years-old.

My roots are in The Bronx, a borough of New York City. I grew up with cement sidewalks, three-sewer stickball and open fire hydrants in the summer as my beach getaway. Summer tans were acquired on Tar Beach, otherwise known as flat, tar-covered rooftops. We didn’t swim or water ski or play volley ball in the sand. Snow was good for just one thing, snowball fights. Nobody skied down a mountain and drank a hot toddy afterward at the lodge in front of a crackling fire. The only crackling fire I ever stood in front of as a kid was when a neighborhood house burned down, which was a frequent occurrence in The Bronx. People would bring lawn chairs and we would sit and cheer on the fire department and hope they would leave the hydrant on afterward. Sometimes, if the fire was big enough, people would bring food and drink for the firefighters and make it an all day event. Bets were placed on how much furniture the firefighters could save so that afterward the owners of the burned down house could have a fire sale.

I was, I believe eleven-years-old before I ever set foot out of The Bronx. Some distant relatives got together with my parents and decided it was a good idea to have me spend a month with said distant relatives at their place in the country. Which turned out to be a three-hundred cow dairy farm in upstate New York (which is how I knew what my backyard smelled like on that cold day in February some fifty plus years later.) My first impression of my distant cousin’s farm was that (you guessed it) it smelled really bad. There were no sidewalks or tall buildings and nothing was made of cement. There were a lot of cows and they seemed not to do much of anything except stand around and chew a lot. The large farmhouse was clustered with old stuff in every corner of every room, and the television was a small black and white set that sat on a small stand in the kitchen that didn’t get much use due to poor reception. Why, of why, was this happening to me? My distant cousin was an avid reader, as were his kids and books were everywhere. There must have been five hundred books scattered about the house. Now I’d read books before, it was required for school, but never for fun and usually meant a written book report to follow. Why read when you can watch Bonanza, Have Gun Will Travel and Gunsmoke?

That opinion changed during the second week on the farm. After dinner one night, when there was nothing to do except watch my cousins read, it was suggested to me to dig through the library and find a book to read. Up to that point, I had learned to milk a cow by hand, something still done to warm the cow up before using the milking machine, to shovel manure without getting any on me, to bail hay and make my own butter, so why not try reading a book.

I went through the library and found a paperback copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne. My first impression was what’s a league and do you need twenty thousand of them? But, bored with nothing else to do, I sat on the living room sofa and started to read. It was the first time in my life that I read something for pleasure and not because a book report was due. Without ever leaving the sofa, I was transported to faraway lands on wild adventures and met exciting heroes and characters, and all without turning a knob or buying a ticket. I finished the book in two nights and read Around the World in Eighty Days next. After that I discovered H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle. On the day I was to return home, my cousin allowed me to take whatever books I wanted to read. I took about a dozen. On the drive home, my dad put a ballgame on the radio, but I was too busy reading in the back seat to listen. It was then, at age eleven that I knew that one day I would be a writer, and hopefully to be able to transport someone to a faraway place and take them on an adventure without them ever having to leave their living room. That burning desire to be a storyteller has stayed with me since and burns as brightly today as when I was eleven.

So sometimes s#&t happens in life, and sometimes it may smell like a three-hundred-cow dairy farm, but sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.

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Creating a Character Bible

Lea Wait, here,. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog about what I needed to do after I’d finished a book. One task I mentioned was updating my Character Bible. E.J. Runyon contacted me and asked that I explain what that was. So today I’m sharing how to create a writing tool I develop for each book I write. I find it important for stand-alone books — and indispensable for writing a series.

A character Bible.

No; I’m not referring to THE Bible.

I’m referring to a place — a notebook, an electronic file, a folder …. whatever you choose … that contains the important facts about the people and places in your book. Who wants a character to change eye colors between chapters two and twenty?

Everyone has to find their own “best way” to create a useful Bible. I’ve found a hand-written loose leaf notebook is easiest for me. I can update it by hand either while I’m writing or after … I can refer to it easily … and I can add (or sometimes subtract) pages when necessary. Some years ago I treated myself to a really nice leather “circa” notebook from Levenger, because it’s a comfortable size to take with me if I’m writing on the road, 6.5 x 8.5 inches, and I love the way it looks and feels. Since I use it all the time,I think of it as an investment. At the moment it contains information about the people and DSC02174places in both my Shadows Antique Print Mystery series and my Mainely Needlepoint Series.

OK — what’s in there? Maps of the major towns where the books are set — in these cases, Haven Harbor and Weymouth, Maine, and the campus where Maggie Summer teaches in New Jersey. If another town appears in a book I also draw maps … but usually I leave them in the folder of back-up information (research, ideas, outline, etc) I keep for each book.

Most of my Bible is made up of alphabetical listings of information about each character. A character who only appears in one book may have a short listing — how old he or she is, what they look like, and specific quirks they have, what their secret is, what they want, and what they’re willing to do to get it, and perhaps their relation to my series protagonist and to the specific plot line.

DSC02176In a mystery, if they’re either murdered or the murderer, that may be all I need — they’ll only appear in one, or maybe two, books.

For my major, repeating, characters, I include not only that basic information but other details.

For instance, my Bible tells me Maggie Summer (in the Shadows series) has never smoked, drinks Diet Pepsi, and loves chocolate covered cherries. She pays high taxes on her house in NJ. She drinks Dry Sack sherry out of Edinburgh Crystal. She likes to treat herself to baths with lavender-scented soap. Her father took her deer hunting when she was 13 but she refused to shoot, even though he’d taught her how to use a gun. She cried when he killed a doe. (He never took her hunting again.) And so forth

Angie Curtis, the protagonist of the Mainely Needlepint series? Her Gram calls her “Angel.” She has a birthmark on her shoulder that matches one her mother had. She has scars on her toes from walking on barnacle-covered rocks as a child. She drives a small red Honda, likes her coffee black, and is pretty flexible about her choice of beers – but prefers those made in Maine.

Gussie White reads late at night, so it’s OK to call her then. Aunt Nettie has a Thursday morning appointment every week at Cut ‘n’ Curl. Angie Curtis’ fashion-plate friend Clem Walker was fat as a teenager and now works for Channel 7 in Portland.

Not all those details appear in all my books — but they have been mentioned in at least one. The real purpose of the Bible is to ensure that my words don’t contradict themselves. I don’t want Maggie eating chocolate covered cherries in one book and being allergic to cherries in another. (If I don’t notice, one of my readers definitely will!)

The character Bible is also the place to include backstories, phobias, hair styles, fears and goals.

In addition to characters, I have pages for specific places — Harbor Haunts, a restaurant in Haven Harbor, has red Formica counters. Maggie Summer’s kitchen table is pine. What kind of trees are on the main street of town? What do characters’ houses look like? How far away are local hospitals, and how long does it take to drive there? All details that may be important in more than one book.

When do I put information in my Bible? I used to create or add information when I was planning my book. But although I do a general outline of each book before I start writing, I tend to change details as I write. So, for me, the time to create my Bible is when I’ve finished a strong draft, or when I send the manuscript to my editor.

Having the Bible helps avoid changing a character’s hair color, or height, or the name of his or her ex-spouse. It’s also a convenient place to check that I haven’t created two characters with the same first name (ouch! yes, that’s happened) or even two characters with similar last names. I try, in fact, to have all character names in one book start with different letters. That makes it easier for readers to keep them straight. (Me, too.)

Reading through the Bible not only makes sure I don’t make continuity mistakes; it also gives me ideas for future plots, and doesn’t let me forget minor characters who might have key roles to play in future books.

It is right next to my thesaurus and dictionary on my desk.

It is essential.

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Weekend Update: March 21-22, 2015

fallsbooks1Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Lea Wait (Monday), Al Lamanda (Tuesday), Barb Ross (Wednesday), Dorothy Cannell (Thursday), and Katherine Hall Page (Friday).

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

If you’re not sure you’re up for an all-day conference, but you’d love to meet Maine’s crime writers and/or try out your deathless prose why not come to the Friday night pre-Crime Wave social at the Portland Public Library on April 10? Here are the details::

Two Minutes in the Slammer April 10 event

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share. Don’t forget that comments are entered for a chance to win our wonderful basket of books and the very special moose and lobster cookie cutters.

 

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora: mailto: kateflora@gmail.com

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Talking Heads

couplewithsquareKaitlyn Dunnett here. Earlier this month I finished the first of numerous drafts of what will eventually be published in 2016 as the tenth Liss MacCrimmon mystery, Kilt at the Highland Games. My preferred name for this version is the “rough draft” because it is, indeed, very very rough writing. Other writers have other names for it, many of them scatological. This is the draft that no one else will ever see, the one that reads like the work of a rank amateur, full of typos, continuity errors, and other even more egregious sins. A few extremely rare individuals are able to write just one nearly perfect draft the first time around. I suspect this is because they were revising in their heads as they wrote. I also suspect they’d register at genius level on an IQ test.

I am not one of them.

computer-writing-298x300Like most writers I know, I slog through this initial effort wondering how I ever thought I could write anything longer or more complicated than a grocery list. It’s tough to keep going, knowing that what I’ve already put down on paper is garbage. Partway through, I do go back and fix a few things. I move some scenes around and add others. I might even insert a clue, if I’ve thought of some twist that will be important later in the story. For the most part, though, I force myself to keep plodding along, moving steadily toward the end of the novel. My chapters generally consist of three scenes. I try to rough out at least one new scene each day. I don’t aim for a specific word count, although most days I seem to end up with 1000 to 1500 new words. They aren’t great words, you understand, but each one brings me closer to completing a draft of the novel.

My rough drafts are always considerably shorter than the finished book. Each time I revise, the word count goes up. My contract for the Liss MacCrimmon series requires that the manuscript I send in be between 75,000 and 100,000 words in length. I’ve had some rough drafts come in at around 70,000 words. Others were closer to 60,000. In every case, during revision, I had no trouble hitting 75,000, although my books don’t tend to be much longer than that. The word count at the end of the day I officially wrote the last scene in the last chapter of Kilt at the Highland Games for the first time was 50,829.

Oops.

And yet, not a crisis. I already have ideas for beefing up the subplot, which kind of fell by the wayside as I concentrated on the primary mystery, a case that involves both missing persons and murder. It would have been nice to start revising with a longer rough draft, but it’s not an impossible task to add another 25,000 words. How? Well, not by throwing in any old words just to get the word count up. That’s called padding and it is always painfully obvious to readers. No, a big part of the solution lies in looking at all those scenes that, at present, consist of talking heads.

bubblegroup (300x154)You know the ones I mean—two or three characters are together somewhere. Maybe they are meeting to exchange information, or one is interrogating the other, or this is just a casual encounter but the dialogue contains a clue that will be important later. Whatever the reason, they talk. The dialogue is written. Maybe it will need a little tweaking, but essentially what they say to each other moves the story forward. But therein lies the problem—these scenes are almost all dialogue. Talking heads. There’s no sense of place. There are no indications, other than in the words they speak, of how the characters feel about or react to each other. Without descriptive, especially sensory, details, scenes with talking heads are flat and uninteresting, no matter how important the information in the dialogue.

As I revise, that’s what I’ll be looking for—not details to pad but details that enhance. I’ll be trying to imagine what each character sees and hears, what impinges upon him or her as the dialogue continues. There are endless possibilities. Is it raining? Uncomfortably hot and humid. Dusty? This novel is set in July, so I won’t have to wonder if they freezing their butts off trying to find privacy by slipping outside in mid-February, but whenever a story is set, the physical environment should play a role.

Outside NOWThat includes other people. Who else is around, both near at hand and at a distance? Are there animals in the scene? And what about the sound the speakers hear? Does something momentarily distract one of the characters from an exchange of words? Maybe what’s important to mention is that a character sees or hears something but doesn’t pay attention to it at the time. Whether it’s with action, descriptive details, physical reactions, or the addition of the thoughts of the point of view character, scenes that feature taking heads can be salvaged . . . and so can the roughest of rough drafts.

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Growth Spurt

hydrangea

Hello again from Sarah Graves, writing to you from beneath fourteen feet of snow in Eastport, Maine, and what better location for some gardening dreams? Snow is the poor (wo)man’s fertilizer, after all, and considering how much of it we’ve gotten we should all be harvesting giant string beans and house-sized tomatoes come August. Personally, I feel I put up with enough “fertilizer” all year round, but never mind; at left is a hydrangea that came as a “free gift” (my favorite kind!) with a nursery order. They’re not supposed to like wintering indoors but this one didn’t read its own instructions, apparently.

 

photo 1At right is a three-dollar Walmart orchid, about a year old. It’s in a north window and has been re-potted once, with new bark chips, and given a half-hour water plunge each week. For that piddling amount of trouble it has repaid me with big purple blooms that last and last, even putting up a whole new stalk of them instead of going dormant as I’d expected. The one you see here is the tail end of the flowering. I’m going to clip off the flower stems soon, and hope it takes a well-deserved rest. I don’t know what to do to make it take its nap, though, and I confess I’ll be watching to see if it stubbornly puts out even more flower stalks from the small bumps on the bits of stalk remaining. If you’ve got three bucks and a north window, you might want to bring one of these home.

 

photo 4African violets like north light, too. This one is an offspring given to me by a neighbor who was trying to find homes for a lot of violet babies. That’s the trouble with violets; if they do poorly, they sulk and glare accusingly while drooping flabby yellow leaves and refusing to bloom. Happy ones, though, grow madly, flower exuberantly, and produce so many offshoots that you’re forced to divide them, and then what do you do with all those bouncing infants? Here also is a packet of seeds that I’m planning to start indoors soon, under the same lights I’m using now for more of the African violet baby-boom. Last year’s nursery-bought tomato plants had plenty of stem but not much root system, a deficiency I’m hoping to cure this time around with a nice fluffy seed-starting mixture, better-balanced nutrients, and lots of TLC overall.

 

photo 3Thomas Jefferson grew cardoons in his wonderful garden at Monticello, where today’s gardeners have recreated many of the flower and vegetable beds that flourished when he was there. The plant has beautiful blue flowers and grey-green frilly leaves on thick, celery-like stems that can be cooked and eaten — if you are very hungry, that is, and very determined. Because the thing is, first you cut the leafy portion off the stem, then peel off the tough stringy parts, then chop the trimmed stems and parboil them. And then you egg them and bread them and fry them, which seems to me like a whole lot of work for a vegetable dish. Nevertheless I am determined to try them — growing them, I mean, not necessarily eating them — this summer, mostly on account of the flowers.

 

cardoonHere is a cardoon in bloom. I think you’ll agree it’s worth an experiment. Blue flowers are a particular favorite of mine, and spiky, ball-shaped blooms are also right up my alley. They give variety to the shapes in the garden, and since I tend to combine colors with the abandon of a toddler playing with crayons, it’s good to have plenty of blue to help pull it all together. White works well also, so there’ll be lots of white lobelia and Shasta daisies, white phlox, and if I can find any some white coneflowers. Oh, and white dahlias? I’ll have to order some. I’m a little afraid to go up to the attic to check on the dahlias we do have; ordinarily they winter over nicely there, wrapped up in newspapers and brown paper bags, but this winter has been a (insert expletive here) so fingers crossed — for the dahlias, and for spring which believe it or not really will be here soon.

 

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