Writing While You Work

Hey all,

Gerry Boyle here. A little stiff from an afternoon mulling mystery ideas. Lower back. Biceps. It’s hard work, as you can tell from the photo at right.

Essential writing tools

The mulling was done as I moved some of the five cord of firewood stacked out at the far end of the barn. A couple cord of the dried oak is going in the cellar, to feed the woodstove down there. The rest  will go in the woodshed, to be used after we burn the very dry ash already in the shed from last year. The shed supply is used in the woodstove in the kitchen, which will soon become the epicenter of our lives.

In the winter this big old 19th century house shrinks as we spend more and more of our time  in our comfortable chairs in front of the kitchen fire. I suspect the residents of this house have been doing the very same thing for the last 190 years. If we had ghosts, they’d be opening the stove door in the middle of the night and putting in another stick of wood.

Research assistant

So what does this have to do with mystery writing? Well, a lot. Because it’s when I’m doing chores like this—moving wood, cutting wood, raking leaves, painting the house, mowing the lawn—that I’m able to really think about books to be written, books already underway. You might think that this creative pondering might best be done in the solitude of the study but I find that the best ideas come when half my attention is on the story and the other half is concentrating on maneuvering the loaded wheelbarrow down the hill without hitting the stone wall.

Swerve left.

Maybe McMorrow should come into the story before Tiffany is killed.

Ease right.

Or maybe the readers should hit the ground running in this one, open right at the crime scene, McMorrow talking to a detective.

Across the driveway and down the stone walk.

But do I want a flashback early? Or just motor on, let Tiffany’s character emerge from conversations after her death? 

Climb down into the bulkhead opening. Toss the firewood into the cellar. Go back for another load.

This is the writing process, at least for me. In fact, I’ve been known to keep a notebook in my back pocket to get ideas down before they blow away in the wind. I learned that lesson the hard way.

I was painting the cupola atop our barn. This means ascending the ladder on the second floor of the barn, pulling the louvered panels out of the cupola, climbing out onto the ridge of the roof. I work my way around, clipping myself to a cross beam when I do the high sides as the roof is steep and it’s a long way down.

On this particular day I was painting, admiring the view of the lake, listening to the birds in the woods out back. And mulling. And suddenly, out of nowhere, I had a great idea. It had to do with just how a character in the town of Scanesett would go missing. I was so afraid I’d lose some of the progression of events that I climbed back into the cupola, unclipped my safety line, descended the ladder, went downstairs to the workshop, and grabbed the clipboard that was there for taking notes on projects.

Added to the list of materials needed for repair jobs was a key plot point for my novel Borderline.

With me, ideas come when I’ve got only half a mind on them. It’s like the old watched-pot adage. Maybe the same goes for a watched plot. You’ve got to put it on to simmer, and then turn your attention elsewhere until the ideas boil over.

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6 Responses to Writing While You Work

  1. Andrea says:

    I find the same to be true when I am out walking in the woods with the dogs every day. Only with me, instead of plotting out a mystery, I am planning a new lesson or blocking a play in my head. I suspect there is some brain research that explains how using one part of the brain frees up the creative side, but the why is less important than the realization itself….and the full wood box.

    • Gerry Boyle says:

      The “why” would be interesting, Andrea. But I worry I’d be aware of which synapse was firing when and foul up the whole process. Nice to hear of someone whose Muses are at the end of a leash. Nothing like a dog to put you in the creative zone. I used to type with one hand and scratch behind my terrier’s ears with the other.

  2. Gram says:

    Great! Whatever works for you is what you should do. The results are wonderful.

  3. Lil Gluckstern says:

    I don’t get up early AND I live in California, but here goes anyway 🙂
    A lot of research has been done with meditative states, with very interesting conclusions. If you get into a rhythm of focusing on your brush stokes, and lose yourself in doing that, it allows another part of the brain to flash an idea, a feeling. This is akin to meditating your way into enlightenment. For me, I love it when writers talk about their ideas and when they show up. That part of the brain is always learning and produces different brain waves. The brain does not forget as much as the part we work with everyday. Sorry, it’s been a while since I studied this. I also belong to a school of thought that says we are constantly adding to that well of ideas and knowledge; we just aren’t aware of it. When we write, we can access this part, and it is astounding what we see, learn, and remember, and we have no idea that we do. Sorry for going on so long, but I love this stuff.

  4. Gerry Boyle says:

    Very interesting, Lil. I love the comparison to painting. I like to think of writing as very akin to other arts. Writing dialogue is like a musician improvising. Find your way into the zone and watch what happens. But the zone can be elusive, and that’s where discipline comes in. You have to put everything else aside and sit and wait. The muse will come.

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