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Reading Outside the Box

26 Oct

I read mostly mysteries and suspense novels, because that is what I write and because I review books for Suspense Magazine. But occasionally I read something outside of those genres. I find that a different type of book and writing style can spark my own writing and stretch my creativity.

Last night I downloaded The Book Thief to my Kindle, as a borrowed book from my library. I have only read a few chapters, but I was struck by the originality of the writing. The first person narrator is Death. He (or she?) tells the story of a young girl, the book thief, who manages to cheat Death more than once.

The story is set in Nazi Germany, so it is clear in what direction this book is headed. But I know that although the story may have been told before, it has not been told in this way.

As a reader or a writer, it is good to move out of the familiar and try something new. I would never have thought of writing from the point of view of Death, but it would be a good writing exercise to write from the point of view of an inanimate object — the cave where the body was found, or the diaries that held the words of Lydia, the main character in my book Lydia’s Story.

As a reader or a writer, what do you do to climb out of the box of familiarity and try something new?


Giving Birth to “Lydia’s Story”

25 Sep

My newest novel, Lydia’s Story, is now available all the major book sellers.

If you are a writer, you know what a wonderful rush comes along with writing those words. If you are not a writer, just think of any major project you have embarked on in your life — giving birth to a child, completing a college degree, running a marathon. And as with any major project, the work isn’t done yet. I want people to read my book!

I describe Lydia’s Story as a sequel/prequel to my first novel, The Gate House. I took the main character, Nara Blake, and moved her forward in time by about a year, but then I gave her a challenge. I placed a stack of her great-grandmother’s diaries in her hands, and posed a dilemma. The family has always held that Lydia and Allan Roberts died in the London Blitz in 1940 or 1941, but the diaries go up to 1942. As Nara reads and learns more about her ancestors, she finds that she is on a collision course with a brother and sister from France who are also looking for their lost heritage, but theirs are valuable works of art that were lost during World War II.

I loved the research into how the British worked to preserve their precious art works and cultural heritage as well as protect their island from invasion by the Germans. I loved putting the pieces of the novel together, melding past with present, and tying the sections together with Lydia’s diary entries.

My “baby” is out in the world now. I wish her the best. I will support her as best I can, and at the same time, I am ready to start something new.


My Dream Headlines

14 Aug

Just for fun, and to give my creativity a little boost, I decided to create some “dream” headlines. I dislike reading the newspaper or watching TV news because almost every story is bad news or a negative take on an event or some new study.

Here are a few of the headlines I would like to see:

Presidential candidates agree to limit their campaign budgets to $1,000,000 each and use any additional donations to pay off student loans.

Auto companies to sell solar powered cars; price within reach for most of us.

Citizens in small Pennsylvania town spontaneously begin to pick up litter; practice spreading throughout the country.

Run on library! Children flock for more reading, allowing teachers to give less homework.

Militants in  — Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran (pick one or all of them) — agree that killing is not the best way to solve problems and lay down their arms to talk honestly to each other.

OK. I am a bit of a dreamer, but it was a fun exercise. And I do feel more optimistic just have written my headlines.

Try it! You might come up with an idea for a story or a project, but I guarantee you will feel better.

My Boring Neighborhood

11 Jun

My neighborhood is boring. I live in a suburb of a major east coast city. We have an excellent school system, low crime, residential streets with nicely manicured lawns, and it’s boring. Our homeowner’s association requires certain standards to keep the appearances uniform — and it’s boring.

I didn’t know the area when we moved here, didn’t realize I would feel frustrated and out of place, but we are stuck here until my husband finds a job in a state about seven hours south of here, where we want to live.

But I am a writer, and I live for creativity and imagination. I have always been very good at pretending. I make it a priority to look for the unusual when I am out. Today when I was out walking I found tiger lilies in bloom, which reminded me of rural southern Illinois where I grew up. We often found tiger lilies in bloom along the roadside where an old farmhouse had once stood. The house was long gone, but the tiger lilies came up year after year in a riot of orange color. I may write a story about tiger lilies.

Anyone can bring creativity and color into their life with a little effort and awareness. I have a friend who is an artist at baking cookies, and makes them for any occasion with her own special touch. Another friend is a librarian and brings her sense of humor and imagination to her job. A third friend was forced to quit her government job for health reasons, and has just created a web site for the new business she is launching.

One of my favorite quotes is from the movie Dead Poets Society with Robin Williams. He tells he students, “Make your lives extraordinary.” I challenge other writers, readers and myself to do just that. Don’t settle for a boring neighborhood.




Time to Write; What to Write

1 May

If you haven’t got an idea, start a story anyway. You can always throw it away, and maybe by the time you get to the fourth page you will have an idea, and you’ll only have to throw away the first three pages.- William Campbell Gault

There have been probably thousands of blog posts, articles and even books written on how to find the time to write. And it is a true challenge for those of us who are not to the point in our writing careers where we can devote the majority of our day to uninterrupted time in front of the computer. Most of us have demanding families, day jobs, and all the chores and errands that go along with life in the modern world.

But still we want to write. Well-meaning writing coaches coaches advise us to get up early, stay up late, write on our lunch hours, go out to a coffee shop or the library for an hour or two. All of these suggestions work — sometimes — for some people. But what if you are just too darn tired to get up early or stay up late? Or you have to run to the drug store on your lunch hour? Or you need to be home with children or waiting for a plumber, so the coffee shop is out?

The solution I have found is two-fold. One — I write all the time. Early, late, at home, at work, occasionally in a coffee shop. I have my spiral notebook or my net book computer with me. Whether it is a few minutes or a nice solid hour, I write. I work as a substitute teacher, and I actually wrote the better part of a novel while walking around the classroom supervising high school students. And they thought I was making notes about their behavior!

The second part of my solution is to write what means something to me. I am in the position right now where I am finishing up a few projects, and looking for something new to work on. I had a couple of ideas for follow-ups to things I had written, but they weren’t calling to me. I couldn’t get started. I have also been toying around with the idea of writing about my parents and how they met at the beginning of World War II. I have letters, scrapbooks and a short memoir that my dad wrote, so I have the basis of their story. I sat down yesterday and today and wrote a sizable chunk of the beginning of their story. Each day, I couldn’t stop until I finished what I wanted to say.

How do you create time to write? Does what your are writing influence how much time you spend?

Where Do I Set My Story?

25 Apr

“There is no happiness in love, except at the endof an English novel.” (Anthony Trollope in Barchester Towers)

The passage through Dover Castle at the right just can’t help sparking my imagination.

How Does an Author Choose a Setting

Why did I set The Gate House in England?

The simple answer to that question is — because that’s where the story is. But obviously there is more to it than that.

Setting is one of the crucial elements of fiction, but it is not arbitrary. A writer cannot pick up the plot and characters of a story from one location and drop them down unchanged in another. Even though the characters are what make readers care and keep turning the page, setting shapes the characters as much as the other influences in their lives.

I think my fascination with setting comes from my love of travel. I often “see stories” when I visit a location away from home. Different locations evoke ideas of different kinds of emotions and plot ideas. Washington, DC, where I spent a recent week-end, is a setting full of enormous political power and history. A story set there must somehow touch on those elements. A trip to Lincolnshire, England, where my husband’s family originated, inspired The Gate House, when we spent an unplanned couple of nights in a bed and breakfast of that name. This setting called me to create a story of mystery and the layers of history that are so present in England.

Setting can almost be considered another character, as the time and place of the story interact with the other elements. Literary themes and human emotions may not change over time, but how the pieces fall together can create unique and compelling stories.

Do you every choose a novel based on the setting? Are there certain setting you prefer?

Bed and Breakfast Food

13 Mar

This post was set up to publish when I was traveling last week, but somehow it didn’t happen. But it is happening now, and I hope everyone enjoys the recipe and thoughts of a delicious breakfast!

My novel The Gate House takes place in a bed and breakfast in Lincolnshire, England. I have stayed in a few bed and breakfasts in  the US, Ireland and the UK, and they all have one thing in common — wonderful food! In the UK it was the full English breakfast, complete with mushrooms, tomatoes and baked beans next to the eggs. In Ireland the breakfast was similar, but there was always wonderful brown bread to go with it. In the US  it can be anything, but there is usually some sort of egg dish as the star of the meal.  Breakfasts also often include something sweet — a pastry, coffee cake, or sweet roll.

Here is a recipe for my grandmother’s coffee that is simple and delicious. Make it and pretend you are staying at a bed and breakfast in England. Or have a slice in the afternoon with a cup of coffee or tea.

Grandma Kate’s Sour Cream Coffee Cake

2 c. sifted flour, 1 tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp. baking powder, ½ tsp. salt

½ c. butter or margarine, 1 c. sugar, 2 eggs, 1 c. sour cream (yogurt works just as well),1tsp. vanilla

Topping: Combine 1/3 c. brown sugar, packed, ¼ c. sugar, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1 c. finely chopped nuts (optional)

Sift dry ingredients together. Cream butter and sugar; add eggs one at a time, beating well. Add dry ingredients to creamed mixture alternately with sour cream. Pour ½ batter into pan, cover with ½ of topping, pour remaining batter over filling and top with rest of topping mixture.

Bake at 350˚ for 40 min. Use tube pan or oblong pan. If you use a tube pan, put a layer of topping in first because you will turn it upside down when you take it out.

Being an Editor

27 Feb

Besides writing, I do a fair amount of editing and have found that I enjoy it almost as much as I do writing.

There is something about clarifying a piece of writing, while still retaining the writer’s voice and intent, that is enormously satisfying. I know from experience that a writer can read over a piece a hundred times, and still miss small errors. Even though as writers we know what we are saying, it takes a pair of new eyes to bring the piece into the beauty of the language. And a well-constructed sentence or paragraph is a thing of beauty.

I am a former English teacher, and have read through more student papers than I can count! At least now as an editor, the writers I work with are usually eager to see their writing at its best, and are not just looking for a good grade.

I have also taught many students whose first language was not English, and this is a great help with my editing. Two of my current clients are non-native English speakers. The first language of one is Farsi and the other Icelandic. I feel somewhat like a teacher as I read what they have written, and clarify the pieces into standard English.

If anyone is interested in having me edit your work, please contact me. My prices are reasonable!

Where do characters come from?

22 Feb

My characters are frequently based on real people, but as the story develops, they take on a life of their own and bear little more than a superficial resemblance to the person on whom it is based.

In the case of Nara, the main character in The Gate House, she is based on the daughter-in-law of a friend from my days in Costa Rica. Her name is Nara, a unique name, and she is petite with dark hair and grew up in a Caribbean island nation. But that is where the similarity ends.

From that basic description, I created Nara Blake, who lives in the Gate House with her father and aunt, and whose interest in art along with her innate curiosity leads her into trouble.

Elaine, the cathedral tour guide who becomes involved with Nara and her adventures, is based on a real guide I met at Lincoln Cathedral. But of course I know nothing about the real woman’s personal life. I created one for the character in my novel.

Next time you are in a public place, look around and imagine a character from someone you see. From that person, you can create a story, or invite him or her into a story you are writing.

Here are a couple of websites I like for help in creating characters:

How to Create Characters

Fiction Factor

Isla Tortuga, Costa Rica

Back to Lincolnshire

11 Feb

Since my novel The Gate House is due out in May, I am thinking about the trip to England that inspired the novel. My husband and I stayed in a bed in breakfast in the market town of Spalding in Lincolnshire. We traveled to that part of England because his ancestors had come from their in the 1800s. The bed and breakfast where we stayed was, in fact, an old railroad gate house. In the early days of railroads, a gatekeeper would live in a cottage next to the crossing, and go out to raise and lower the gate as required when people needed to cross the track.

The building where we stayed had been added to and renovated over the years until it became the family home with two or three extra bedrooms upstairs for guests. Our host prepared a delicious full Scottish breakfast for us, and even took us out in his car to a nearby town to visit the church where my husband’s great-great-grandparents were married.

While he was learning about his family history, I was imagining the story that became The Gate House. After all, an old house like that must have a hidden staircase, a secret room or maybe even a ghost.

Check out the “real” Gate House, and maybe book a room on your next trip to England.

A full Scottish breakfast. That black lump is black pudding, a type of sausage made from pork blood and oatmeal.