I did my best writing of 2015 sitting outdoors in the Spanish sun, writing in a lined spiral notebook. “Go write!” Peter Murphy, of Murphy Writing Seminars, told us. “Tell a secret, tell a lie, and never tell anyone which is which.”
I sat at a wooden table outside our cottage at L’Avenç, a beautiful lodge high in the Pyrenees, and I went to a new place inside myself and wrote. I found fictional characters and brought them to life by exploring their five senses. Some were characters I had written about before, from novels I have written. In my novel Lydia’s Story, I wrote about the title character’s journey into the Pyrenees from France with a group of Jewish children to escape the Nazis. The trip to L’Avenç meant a visit to the scenes I created in my novel. I visited the reality of my imagination. Other characters were new, but they slipped right into place with the old friends.
And I wrote about myself, the me I was long before I knew I could travel to far off mountains, long before I knew I could write. Somehow the girl that I was growing up on a farm in southern Illinois, seven miles from nowhere, came alive to me in Spain. I felt the wistfulness and longing for a bigger world that I felt so often as a child and teenager, the longing that pushed me to move on to the world that I knew existed, if only then in my imagination.
When I am at home, I do most of my writing at my laptop, looking out over the parking lot of our condominiums. But I found that there was something liberating about writing in a lined spiral notebook. I took pleasure in the scratched out phrases, words added in the margin, and arrows drawn to indicate sentences and paragraphs that needed to pick up and move to another spot. My experience at the writing retreat brought out the creative side of my writing again. And isn’t that why we became writers? To create. To express ourselves. But what I learned this summer was that I cannot express myself unless I explore who I am.
One morning my husband, who is not a writer but came along to Spain with me because he enjoys being a “writer groupie,” found a hawk feather on one of his mountain walks, and left it on my notebook. I found the feather when I sorted through my writing materials when I returned home, and it seemed to symbolize the feeling of soaring that I felt writing in the Pyrenees.
A change of scene, a new geography, opens my eyes and changes my life, as well as my writing. This happened when I moved to Costa Rica, and ended up staying for seven years, but that’s another story. Traveling two hours up into the mountains from Barcelona was more than a writing vacation. All the changes in daily life that accompany such a trip affected my writing. There were my writing friends — some new and some old friends from previous writing adventures with Murphy Writing Seminars. We made small attempts to speak Catalan, at least to say “Bom dia!” to the staff. We were all affected by the sense of history that goes along with staying at a site where the main building dates to the eleventh century. And we luxuriated in the modern swimming pool where we could wash off the writing dust at the end of the day.
The writing retreat in Spain focused on the creative side of writing, and I came home refreshed. Refreshed from writing from a new place inside myself, from contact with fellow writers, and the instruction and encouragement of a master craftsman.
Barcelona is all about the senses. On my first trips to Europe over twenty years ago, the streets smelled of exhaust fumes. One whiff told me I was in Europe. No more. The air is cleaner. I walk down the Passaig de Gracia in Barcelona and inhale the freshness of bread baking, meat grilling, and the overwhelming aroma of perfume from the air conditioned confines of department stores. My senses come alive. My eyes rejoice at the sight of La Pedrada, one of Gaudí’s masterpieces, but I pause only to take a photo of a French woman who wants a memento of her visit to this remarkable building. I am on my way to a very special coffee shop, Café Onna, owned by a friend from Costa Rica. I cross the Diagonal and turn right, then left down a tiny street called Carrer de Santa Teresa, and on my right I see a man standing at a high table sipping coffee. I have found Café Onna.
I introduce myself, and as I wait for my friend who owns the shop to arrive, I savor the warmth of my café con leche along with a tuna sandwich that is nothing like your mom’s tuna salad, and begin one of the best days of the trip, maybe of my life.
My friend Anahí is a vibrant, passionate young woman . Her dark eyes sparkle with enthusiasm for her work, her coffee, and her family. She is focused, but has time for friends. She invites me to go with her to a restaurant near the port area of Barcelona to deliver bags of her freshly roasted coffee. I help her carry the fragrant cargo up the street to the corner where we hail a taxi. The driver helps us to stow the coffee in the trunk and we are off across the city. Anahí never stops talking about her plans, her excitement about what she does, her two teenage sons. She tells me how she does not supply her Costa Rican coffee to just any restaurant. Oh no! It has to be one that appreciates the attention and love she gives to the beans she imports from the farms in the Central American mountains. She nurtures the process beginning with visits to the farmers who grow the beans, all the way to her custom roasting and brewing. We arrive at Box Social, a trendy new restaurant in a boutique hotel near Barcelona’s port. After greetings with kisses on both cheeks, the Spanish way, we settle down to order lunch. It begins with a tomato salad, made with succulent tomatoes called “cor de bou,” Catalan for “heart of ox.” The tomatoes grow large but not entirely red, and exude a juicy tomato essence I have rarely tasted. For the main course, Anahí chooses fish with a green pea sauce, and I order chicken with grilled vegetables. Time passes quickly as we linger over our lunch. Why hurry? Our conversation is mostly about what we are eating, the flavors and how they are blended and contrasted to tempt the palate. Anahí is intrigued by the tiny green leaves that garnish her fish. Some kind of herb, but what is it? I have grown herbs in pots on my deck for years, and am familiar with most of the common ones used in the kitchen, but I don’t know this one, nor does anyone in the restaurant seem to know. The chef, apparently, is not available. I take a photo and post it on Facebook. Soon a friend with a Costa Rican connection identifies it. It is rue, or “ruda” in Spanish. I have never seen it used in cooking, and it has a taste reminiscent of coconut. Delicious!
After dessert, fresh melon for me, and a “cortado,” (similar to a caffé macchiato, where a small amount of warm milk is added to an espresso) we go up to the roof to explore the garden, which is lovingly tended by another young woman from Costa Rica. Vegetables, herbs, and flowers grow happily in pots, shaded from the hot Spanish sun. We are surrounded by apartment buildings, where clothes hang drying on lines in the sun. (Why is this considered unacceptable in many U.S. neighborhoods?) The hotel was designed to fit in with the working class neighborhood it occupies, and it seems to be comfortable in its place.
On our walk to the Metro stop (no coffee to carry now, so no taxi splurge), Anahí points out sights along the way. We pass El Molino, the Barcelona counterpart to Paris’s Moulin Rouge. And we talk about our senses, about awareness. She tells me that she has always been sensitive to smells, tastes, and tactile sensations. That is what makes her an exceptional coffee roaster and brewer. But more than that, it is her passion.
A few days later, after my husband arrives, we make plans to meet her at her coffee roaster to watch the process. We arrive shortly before 10 a.m., early in the morning by Spanish standards. Raw beans, shipped from Costa Rica, are loaded into the hopper of the machine. Soon the fragrant beans spill out into a circular bin where a long metal arm stirs them to cool. She talks about how different beans behave differently in the roaster, and how the weather can affect the roasting. It has been a particularly hot summer in Barcelona, and this is a factor. She will not sell or serve an inferior coffee. Anahí and her assistant check the color and sniff the beans, and from the smiles on their faces, I can see that it is a joyful process. A few beans that emerge the wrong color are discarded. The process is constantly evaluated. The beans must not roast too quickly or too slowly.
Finally we leave, with plans to meet for dinner, and bags of coffee beans to take home. I feel energized by my coffee friend. I sense her ability to be “in the moment” with her coffee.
We return to Café Onna again the day before we are due to fly home. It is another sweltering day, and after our walk from the Metro stop, we are ready for a cold coffee beverage. “I’ll make you something special,” she says with a smile. We watch the process. Tonic water and a slice of lemon over ice in a small glass. Then we are each handed two small bottles of cold brew coffee concentrate. “You can use one, but I recommend both,” she adds. We pour in both and watch the coffee sink into the tonic water. Unbelievably refreshing! My husband has another, but concerned about the caffeine and an early flight the next morning, I make do with one. As we say goodbye, she presses a small package into our hands, rosemary polenta cake, her mother’s recipe, for our breakfast before we leave for the airport.
Somehow this experience of the senses has made me more aware, not just of my own five senses, but of something inside myself. It is through the senses that I reach the person I am. I am more than a writer sitting at a keyboard. My words come not just from my brain, from the years of reading, writing, listening to advice, revising. Through my senses, my best writing comes from my heart.
I did not spend my entire Spain trip in the city of Barcelona. The real purpose of the trip was to attend a writing retreat at L’Avenç, a retreat center up in the Pyrenees about two hours from Barcelona. Although I have tied the two experiences together with the five senses, I cannot combine them into one post.
Please watch for my next blog post, “Writing at L’Avenç.”
“I love your books! When is the next one coming out?” Music to a writer’s ears, to be sure.
But what happens when a writer has the urge to write something different than her previous novels? Maybe a different genre, a stand-alone that is not part of an established series, or a young adult novel when the previous ones have been aimed at adults. Will her audience stick with her and her new adventure? Will she find new readers?
I am about to find out. The novel I am currently working on is a departure from my first three which were all mysteries involving Nara Blake, an adventurous young woman from the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Clare.
I am now on about the third revision of a completely different type of novel. Different audience — young adult. Different genre — historical fantasy. The two consistent characteristics are the connection to authentic facts in British history (as I did in Lydia’s Story), and a strong female protagonist.
Without giving too much away, I will tell you that I have taken some historical events of thirteenth century England and created a parallel magic world that explains some of the mysteries surrounding these events. I just can’t get away from the mysteries! Creating a world for a fantasy novel has been great fun as well as challenging. On the one hand, I have the freedom to let my imagination run wild. What if I could slip through a secret doorway and emerge in a castle and in another century? At the same time, a new world needs rules. If magical people can slip from one century to the next, how much do they know about each time and place?
These are complicated questions, but fun to exercise the freedom of working it out. As I have told my students, writing is exercise for the brain, and brains need workouts just like bodies do.
Many well known writers have been criticized for writing novels outside of their established mold. J.K. Rowling will forever be known as the creator of Harry Potter and his magical world, no matter what else she attempts as a writer. John Steinbeck endured criticism for not writing a follow-up to The Grapes of Wrath. And while I don’t place myself in either of their categories, I understand the fine line between pleasing an audience and exercising my creativity, which is what led me to write in the first place.
And if you love Nara and her adventures in my first three books, I am planning another one, which will probably take her to Spain to solve another mystery involving art.
“I Think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Alice Walker
Market in Granada, Spain
Our eyes are drawn to color. Visual color attracts us and demands our attention. Like a magnet, it pulls us in. Advertisers and film makers know the value of color, or lack of color, to create the effect or reaction they desire. Steven Spielberg created an unforgettable image in Schindler’s List with the little girl in the red coat. Separated from her family, she instinctively runs to escape the Nazi soldiers. The next time we see her, the red coat tells us without question that she has failed.
Creating color in a piece of writing demands that the writer evoke the same intense images through black and white words on a page. Often what a writer refers to as color involves more than visual sense. If I were to attempt to describe the photos above from the market in Granada, I would draw on my memories of the shop, the smells of spices, fruits, teas as I walked from bin to bin, the sounds of Spanish and Arabic, and the company of my brother as we explored together.
On this gray March day, I challenge you, readers and fellows writers, to look for the color in your day. And don’t limit yourself to visual color. Color is really about intensity. So look for intensity the wakes up your senses. Be aware of the smells, sounds (think colorful music), tastes, touches, and sights that add color to your life.
A dungeon in Lleida, Catalonia, Spain. Might work it into a new novel.
Beginning a new novel is both exhilarating and scary. I enjoy the new ideas for plot details, setting, and characters that pop willy-nilly into my brain. Old characters poke their heads in to say, “Can I be in this one? You said it was a series.” Another says, “I’ll do one more. So you can kill me off in this one.” Then a new character comes in with “Hi there! I’m a little crazy, but I would fit right in with your story. Some of your characters are way too serious!” And I can’t forget the ones who speak to me in a foreign language, begging me to set the story in their home country. “ịHola! Soy de españa y mi pais es muy bueno. Venga aquí!”
Out of these bits of inspiration, if I can call it that, I begin to see the barest outline of a plot. And I say yes to that little voice from Spain. I will set the story at least partially in Spain, Aragon, to be precise. And just in case you are wondering, Nara Blake, Alex Collier, and Lily Carrington, all of whom appeared in The Gate House and Lydia’s Story, will be back. But I have a lot of writing to do before my readers will be able to see what these three are up to in Spain. And is Nara ever going to marry Alex?
The last few days I have been brainstorming and writing down ideas for plot as they pop into my head. My next step was to do some preliminary research. The Gate House and Lydia’s Story both had to do with art theft. My new novel also makes use of that theme. I am looking for a connection between Britain and Spain through art, and I think I have found a link.
I have made a preliminary outline, even though I am not generally a maker of outlines, but I thought this time I would give it a try and see if it would make the process any easier.
As I create the story, I will spend as much time staring into space as putting words down at the computer. But as a dear friend of mine knows, “staring time” is essential for writers, teachers and anyone who is trying to get through the day with their sanity intact.
Try taking a “staring break” today. You will feel better for it.
Now that the frenzy of Christmas shopping, cooking, and eating has died down to eating leftovers, making returns and wondering how I could possibly have eaten so much the last few weeks, the end of the year turns into a “pause and reflect” time for me.
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. That seems like an artificial endeavor to me. But I do take time to think about the person I am, and what changes I want to make in the coming year. I think it has more to do with the winter solstice than the the holidays that are celebrated this time of year, and the end of the Gregorian calendar. It isn’t noticeable just yet, but little by little, we will see more sunlight every day. We are on our way toward spring.
My coming year is already filled up with plans. I will travel to Costa Rica the end of January, a commitment I made to myself last year to escape some of the Pennsylvania winter. I can’t see that my character is improved at all by scraping ice off the windshield at 7 a.m. to go substitute teach. Our son is getting married in June, so that will mean a trip to Los Angeles and a big family reunion. And I am hoping to go to Spain on a writing retreat in July. Did you guess that I love to travel?
And oh, yes! I have more writing projects than I can handle! But then, I have also been a multi-tasker. I like to have several projects in various stages of development. No linear thinking for me. I have a rough draft of a historical fantasy novel that needs to be taken to the next level, and I am brainstorming plot ideas for a new “Nara” novel.
It’s beginning to sound like a fun year! I’m sure I will be thrown off track more than once, and there will be surprises of all kinds along the way, but that is what makes life interesting.
On a recent trip to Israel, my husband and I had an opportunity to stroll through the Turkish market in Akka, or Akkó. After running into a falafal restaurant to escape a rainstorm, we found fellow travelers from Peru, and enjoyed our lunch with a Spanish conversation. We parted ways and headed into the market to explore. The sights, sounds and smells drew us deeper into the ancient narrow streets.
Stalls were piled high with fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, spices and more.
exploring is thirsty work, and we soon stopped for fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. What a thrill to see he vendor slice off the top of the fruit, place it in a press and produce cups of the dark purple juice. Healthy — yes. Tasty — definitely. But you can’t beat the sense of adventure and fun.
On returning home, I delved into Emile Zola’s novel, The Belly of Paris. Zola tells the story of a man newly returned to Paris from a penal colony to the gastronomical riches of the Parisian market Les Halles.
Both our meandering a through the market in Akka and The Belly of Paris demonstrate the richness of beautiful food, and an appreciation of the bounty.
What is the most beautiful food you have eaten lately? Think of all the senses of beauty — visual taste, and the wholesome of its production. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to eat and drink food that is real, and not from a can, package or bottle?
The following is the review I wrote for Suspense Magazine:
Damaged Goods opens as Robert Cleghorn is chopping a tree in his brother Alan’s front yard. While he muses on the degradation he feels doing manual labor for his sibling, he watches helplessly as the tree falls through the front picture window of his brother’s dream home near Lake Kissimmee in Florida. From that point on, the action never stops. Set in Florida and England, this latest novel from the writing team of Jack Everett and David Coles is a roller coaster of a ride, a search for a serial killer who is not who the police think it is, but someone even more frightening.
Robert takes on his brother’s identity after killing him in a fit of rage, employing his brute strength and techniques learned while fighting in an elite military unit in Iraq. Using his brother’s airline ticket, passport, and credit cards, he travels to England seeking the one person he thinks he loves, his brother’s wife, Stephanie.
Police from the Leeds Serious Crimes squad follow the trail of a string of brutal murders that seem to have no connection, but the sheer number of them, as well as information shared by a local sheriff in Florida, soon narrow down their search.
The point of view shifts easily from that of Stewart White, who is just settling into his job as Detective Inspector in Leeds, and the bloody path of the murderer.
Everett and Coles do a masterful job portraying the fearless but possibly brain-damaged killer, and his obsession with Stephanie. Set in Yorkshire in the winter, the cold, bleak landscape intensifies the horror as one murder follow another. There is enough complexity in the plot to be intriguing but not too much to be confusing. Damaged Goods is the first of a trilogy, and I will be first in line to read the next book as soon as it becomes available.
Here is a link to read a few sample pages. It will get you hooked!
A young woman rises from the sea and steps out of the waves with seaweed twined in her long hair. Although it sounds like the resurrection of a goddess, it is actually the opening scene for a mysterious tale.
Two young boys collecting shells on the seashore tell the people on the stunning island paradise that they actually witnessed a mermaid come out of the sea, and ever since that silly, playful moment, the beautiful girl, Nara Blake, becomes something of an oddity.
Unfortunately, her life is not that of a mermaid. Nara is twenty-two years old, and a native of the islands who has been offered a job at the Hotel Saint Clare, which is an exclusive hotel located in the Caribbean. Thanks to her wealthy father, Nara has grown up with everything she could possibly want and has, for the most part, succeeded in making friends with the workers in the house she grew up in. But Nara wants more than anything to be her own woman, and immediately accepts the hotel job in order to work her way up the ladder of success on her own steam, and not on her daddy’s dollars.
Extremely intelligent, Nara becomes an excellent businesswoman and makes herself known all over the island. Then…the realm of island magic, the power of voodoo, and the essence of suspense takes over. Just when it seems that Nara’s world is absolutely perfect, the false sense of security explodes, and shocking events put Nara in harm’s way.
Fast-paced, this is one tale filled with twists that will keep readers interested in discovering what the real Nara is all about. The author has written a unique leading lady, creating a true ‘beach read’ for anyone lucky enough to be sitting on the sand in the Caribbean just waiting for a mermaid to appear from the sea.
Reviewed by Mary Lignor, Professional Librarian and Co-Owner of The Write Companion for Suspense Magazine
Readers often ask where writers find their ideas. I don’t think I am alone in saying I do not come up with ideas when sitting in front of a computer. Creativity does not come from a busy place. It comes from a quiet place. Finding a quiet place in a busy twenty-first century life can be a challenge, but it is essential for any creative person. In fact, quiet time is essential for anyone.
For me, quiet time does not mean sitting alone staring out the window, although that can be relaxing at times. It means turning off the input from the outside world.
Sometimes a repetitive activity, something that keeps the hands busy, can serve as a mind quieter. I realized this recently when I was attending a knitting class. In a room of about a dozen women, there was silence as we followed the pattern for cable knitting. As I concentrated, my mind shifted to a story I am working on, and the stitches and the motion of my hands helped me with the pattern of the plot in my story.
I found discovered a few other strategies to achieve quiet in a busy day. Some of them are: no radio in the car in the morning, walks around my neighborhood (no earphones!), cooking, playing the piano, and yoga. And a shower or a soak in the tub relaxes the body and the mind.
So take some time out and stare at the sky. It really is an amazing shade of blue here today! And you never know what useful and fun ideas will pop into your brain!