One of the things you learn in any fiction writing class is the importance of setting–a reader needs to be able to “see” where you’ve located your story. Sometimes writers can focus on the plot and the characters to the exclusion of setting. Sometimes setting can be just as important as memorable characters or a finely detailed plot.

When your work is a novel, unless it stays in one place for the length of it–like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians or Murder on the Orient Express–you have to do some research if you’ve never been there. That’s a key component of the writing, because a reader might have been there and can spot the errors.

When John Updike got the idea for The Witches of Eastwick he had the perfect small town in mind–Wickford, RI. However, when he went to the town to research and people got wind of the plot–three witches in the 1970’s who take petty, and not so petty, revenge on neighbors–they threatened law suits if he used the name of the town. Updike let them think they won. The book’s title is The Witches of Eastwick, but if you read the description of Eastwick in the first few pages you recognize Wickford right away. And it was the perfect setting for this quirky novel about the devil coming to earth. (What would have been the difference had the Wickfordians not been such typical New England prigs? Maybe it would have been a tourist destination–it’s a quintessential New England town–instead of a town you drive through to get to the Newport beaches.)

I grew up in a rural area near a small town, so those are settings I’m comfortable with. I can tell from a story if someone has only seen a picture of a farm or gone to one. I spent a lot of my life in a large urban area and worked in the Nation’s Capital for the most part. I’ve spent a great deal of time in New York City, so I get the urban setting and am also comfortable setting a story in busy cities. I also like the juxtaposition of city and country–it’s something that’s never quite been overcome by urbanization.

I’ve done some world travel–a modest amount–to England, Scotland, and other places in Europe. I can insert any place I’ve visited in a story with ease. Some of my work is based in Eastern Europe, and that’s an issue. I’ve never been there, and, frankly, unless you’re a high-paid, commercial novelist, extensive travel to research your settings can be beyond the budget.

Atlases can give you maps and facts and figures–all good, of course–but Google Earth can put you there. Its “Street Views” options can put you in the city or town or countryside you want to write about. It’s still not as good as being there, but it can give you a starting point. The next point is finding someone familiar with the area to give you the personal touch or cultural memes for a setting. I had a friend who had traveled extensively with USAID, and he was always able to give me a good read-over for settings.

Some writers overcome the setting issues by creating completely fictional ones. Whether in fantasy, other genre, or literary fiction, that can eliminate any setting errors or hard feelings from the locals. For his collection of linked short stories, In an Uncharted Country, Clifford Garstang created Rugglesville, VA. For her first book of linked short stories, Thrown Out,  and an upcoming series of novels, Jennie Coughlin created Exeter, MA. Both constructs are real; you can “see” yourself in either place. They feel real. Even in fantasy or science fiction, if you create your own world, people still have to be able to “walk” through it. It’s not enough to say “we’re on a spaceship” or “we’re in a fairy land.” The writer has to give the setting depth.

Which do you prefer–setting your work in known locales, or do you create your own world?

Friday Flash Fiction–and Good News!

Writing can be the strangest occupation ever, especially when you’re dealing with a prompt–a word or a picture
–someone else provides. Since I’ve been participating in Madison Woods’ Friday Fictioneers’ 100-word flash fiction, I’ve been amazed how one picture can evoke so many different responses. One person always goes for the romantic, another fantasy, and I’m the quirky one. That’s a nice word for it.

Many times I get the Friday Flash Fiction inspiration picture on Wednesday and think, how will I ever come up with something for this? Then, it just comes to me. I’ve always been more of a seat-of-the-pants writer–whatever pops into my head goes down on paper (or on the screen). I’m not a methodical outliner or plotter. I get an idea and ride it to whatever conclusion comes to mind. That’s the way I write. I don’t recommend it for the faint-hearted because sometimes even I don’t know where the story’s going. Like today.

Here’s the inspiration photo:

And here’s my 100-word story:

The Mess

The inspector thought, How could this happen? There are procedures in place. I’ve talked myself blue in the face about the importance of following procedures. One little slip and look what you have. A mess. This isn’t going on my record. I’ll make sure of that.

The security guard thought, Man, why now? A completely dull day, then fifteen minutes away from shift end, this happens. Everybody else will be at the bar, watching the game and the babes, and where am I? Cleaning up this mess.

The boy thought, I really didn’t mean to do that. Please let me go.


To read other Friday Fictioneers’ stories, take a look at Madison Woods’ blog.

And some really great news. My short story, “Trophies,” about a marriage saved by a near suicide and an unexpected death, will appear in the February Romance Issue of eFiction Magazine. I got the acceptance yesterday, and I’ve been giddy ever since. A great start to the new year!
This story was the first one I wrote using a creativity prompt called Rory’s Story Cubes. Check them out.

Politics Wednesday 4

This is probably going to come off as a movie review, but I’ll try to bring it around to politics.

I go to movies to escape reality, not to ponder the vagaries of life. The occasional thought-provoking indie movie is great, but most of the time I’m interested in action–car chases, shoot-outs, and a good looking actor who takes his shirt, or more, off. Hey, I may be old, but I’m not dead.

Anyone who’s gone to a movie with me knows if there’s anything aviation-related in the movie and it’s not correct, I’ll bitch and moan throughout the showing. It’s like listening to physicists’ complaining about how Star Trek gets it wrong.

And if the movie is about an era in history I’m familiar with, that’s just another possible nit for me to pick.

So, the George Lucas film “Red Tails” is about the human condition, about aviators, and about World War II. A potential strike-out, right?

I left this movie feeling so up-lifted after all the snide, coded racial baiting done by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum for the past few weeks. Here was a positive story about the Tuskegee Airmen–African American men who flew bomber cover in an all-African American aviation unit and how they did it so well, despite the prejudice of the Army and their opponents. Yes, the movie is hokey in places, and I didn’t see the need for the love story, except to add a little pathos at the end.

A lot of the flying sequences are computer-generated because there are just not that many WWII vintage airplanes available to portray a large bomber group and its fighter escort accurately. But the CG is seamless in its integration with real flying scenes. All the maneuvers are doable, i.e., airplanes aren’t made to do things they can’t do without pulling the wings off. This is not to say a little dramatic license hasn’t been taken, because it has, but the important thing is the story of these men. That is correct.

I had the honor and the privilege of working with several of the Tuskegee Airmen, as they ended their careers in the Federal Aviation Administration and I began mine. It was a rare event for them to call attention to themselves. As one of them told me when I interviewed him for a story for the magazine I worked on, “We just did our job.” Another told me, “Being in America at that time meant we weren’t the freest of the free, but it would have been a lot worse under the Nazis, so there was no question but that we would fight for our country.”

They always had a good snippet of career advice for me since they had navigated being black men in an agency of mostly white men. I was a woman in a then mostly male agency. Work hard, do your best, and no one can deny your skill. That echoed exactly what my own father had told me, and I owe my career to him and them.

I remember in particular Mr. Weathers, who would stop in the hallway or in the cafeteria to ask me how it was going or if I needed anything from him for an article I was writing. I wonder how he would react to hearing Gingrich’s comments about food stamps and welfare. Mr. Weathers was actually Lt. Col. Luke Weathers, Jr., and he probably would have fixed an officer’s no-nonsense glare on the 4F reject from Georgia, and that’s all he’d need to do.

But that won’t happen. Mr. Weathers, like so many WWII veterans black or white, was buried last week in Arlington National Cemetery, with the dwindling number of Tuskegee Airmen in attendance. Mr. Weathers was the epitome of someone who was judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin. Someone like Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum will never understand that. Never.

“Red Tails” was a movie the Tuskegee Airmen had long waited to see made. Yes, if you go see it, you’ll get George Lucas’ Hollywood-ized version of history. In this case, that’s not a bad thing.

Why Bother?


The picture has nothing to do with today’s topic. Rather, this is the fourth day in a row of drizzle, freezing or otherwise, and overcast skies here in the Valley, so I needed a reminder that the sun is out there. Somewhere.

I ran into a member of my writers group at lunch over the weekend. He was deep into reading a book on ancient history as research for what he writes. He was so engrossed in the book, I stopped by his table to ask if the book were good.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “It’s so good, I wonder why I bother to write.”

I’ve had those moments, and you have, too. You know it. You come across a line or a passage in a book, or you close a book upon completion, and your shake your head and murmur, “Why do I bother?” Somehow, those rare occasions weigh on your writing psyche more than all the common occurrences of reading something trite or mundane and knowing you can do better. Well, we know good writing when we see it, and, as writers, we have to stop and appreciate the good, even while acknowledging the bad.

When I’m in the process of editing or revising, I’ll come across something I’ve written that’s so good, I actually wonder if I wrote it. Of course I did, but it resonates with me the same way as a passage from Faulkner or King or Vonnegut or Atwood or some other famous author I admire.

Now, I’m not saying my words are gold because, believe me, I’ve come across some real stinkers in my own work–including a story that won the competition to be included in the college literary magazine. When I do, I cringe, but I immediately start to see how I can make it better.

Like any other organism or system in our bodies, our writing grows and evolves. In five more years I’ll be a much improved writer than I am now–and I’m far improved over the writer I was ten or even five years ago. The only way to improve is to write–and write some more. And listen to the feedback without being defensive. That’s hard, I know, but it’s all part of that growth.

Even then, I’m sure I’ll come across a passage in something by King or Vonnegut or Faulkner or Atwood, and I’ll think to myself, “Why do I bother?” But it won’t stop me.

Who’s the author who makes you want to close the laptop forever?

Politics Wednesday 3

Several years ago I was mentoring a new manager in my division. Her secretary was my former secretary, and where I had no issues with the secretary’s work ethic or performance, this new manager did. So, I got them both in my office one morning to do some mediation.

Normally, I wouldn’t mention gender and/or race, but in this instance it was important. The new manager was a white female, born and raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan who admitted she didn’t see a person of color until she went to college. The secretary was an African-American woman, born and raised in the District of Columbia. She was the mother of two boys, both of whom had the same father, the man to whom she was married.

We started off with the typical mediation scenario, and we were making some progress toward improved communication. Then, the new manager decided she’d make an attempt to find common ground with the secretary.

“My family was on welfare and got food stamps, too,” she said, “and my sister has children out of wedlock.”

It truly wasn’t said with malice, but it was ill-spoken. After figuratively peeling the secretary off the ceiling–from which she had loudly proclaimed, “My family has never been on welfare, I’ve never had food stamps, and I’m married, and my mother and grandmother were married!”–I dismissed the secretary and tried to explain to the new manager what she had said was inappropriate. I asked her why she said it.

“Well,” she said, “I just assumed…” And we all know “assume” makes an ass of you and me.

This event was in the 1990’s, a decade past the welfare-queen lies of Ronald Reagan, but this woman, much like Newt Gingrich today, didn’t bother to check the facts.

Most of the people on welfare and food stamps are white because, well, more people in America are white. (Not for long, but that’s another story.) That’s the same reason most out-of-wedlock births are by white women. Yet, the Republicans have perpetuated the myth that black people are only interested in lining up for handouts from the government–your taxpayer dollars–that they don’t know how to work and don’t want to work, that they have no concept of a traditional family. The saddest thing is, some people still believe that.

Because of the ruined economy given us by the Republicans and their pro-rich people policies, we have a high unemployment rate and, as a result, more people than ever on food stamps. When you have a family to feed, you get over what everyone has told you is a stigma, and you’re grateful for the means to put food on the table.

Yet, Gingrich turns that statistic around to say, “Obama has put more people on food stamps than any other President in American History.” Wink, wink. You know what he means–black president, increase in food stamp recipients… Wink, wink. The South Carolinians in the debate audience Monday night got it. Gingrich received a standing ovation for his blatant racism. And he did it on purpose. He knew his audience. He knew he could get away with it, and he did.

The manager I was mentoring I can excuse–she was ignorant. Gingrich’s cynical play to the people who refuse to acknowledge the Civil War is over is unforgivable. Without ever resorting to typical racist language, Gingrich has shown us his true color–and it’s lily white.

Gingrich sees himself as a focal point in history–his words, not mine. He has done nothing to earn that distinction. Like the crass racism he exploits, he needs to be but a footnote to history. And a small one, at that.

Deciding Not to Review

Because I’ve given the author of a book I was supposed to review the option of my not reviewing it, I won’t be mentioning the book or the author in this post.

I’ve always been a bit quixotic–I voted for George McGovern in 1972, after all. Lately, I feel as if I’m single-handedly tilting at the windmill of “not self-publishing before you proofread.” I don’t want to be like some writers and disdain other writers who have “indie published,” or self-published, if you will. If a writer comes to the decision that self-publishing is for him or her, I respect that decision, and I try not to be judgemental about it. My collection of short stories, Rarely Well-Behaved, technically, was self-published. I won the contract in a short story contest, so I like to think that the merit of the story got the contract. Even up against a submission deadline, I read each story over and over, trying to make the manuscript as perfect as possible. Of course, after the book came out, I found typos.

In a post earlier this month–“Put That First Draft Aside“–I wrote about what I think is the major pitfall of self-publishing, that you can write something and publish it almost immediately. Some indie writers want to skip the editor for fear that will change their work too much. The least you could do, then, as an indie author is not skip the proofreading. If you do it yourself, you have to put the work aside so it’s not so fresh you don’t spot obvious errors. The best proofreading is done by someone who has never seen the work before.

The book I was to review, requested by the author as a result of a guest blog-post I did, is a perfect example of lack of proofreading. The mistakes are all what I call elementary school grammar goofs, i.e., they are diversions from basic, not advanced, grammatical norms. Enclosing dialogue in quotation marks, comma usage, and subject-verb agreement are examples. In the first two paragraphs of this book, I found eleven punctuation, grammar, and usage errors, including using the word “hallow” when it was supposed to be “hollow.” Throughout the work, quotation marks are missing, as are dialogue tags, commas, and contractions, among others. When I read a sentence about a bodily function that was anatomically impossible, I gave up and e-mailed the author to explain why I couldn’t finish the book and didn’t want to review it.

Sounds like a cop-out, I know, but I was pretty frank, and detailed, in the e-mail; merely, I didn’t want to blast the book in a review, which, as an honest reviewer, I would have had to do. I could have done that, and the author would have received a nasty surprise. I’d rather explain, privately, why I couldn’t do the review, and treat the book as if I’d never read it.

All of which is a shame, because I could see glimmers of a thoughtful story. It’s too bad the barbed wire tangle of basic, grammatical goofs hid it.

Indie authors, I cannot say this enough: You can’t do a brain dump and immediately slap it up on Amazon or Smashwords and call yourself a professional writer. Writing is writing and rewriting and revising and rewriting and proofreading, then rewriting and revising all over again. Tedious, yes. Instant gratification, no, but with writing, that’s a good thing.

Second Post of the Day! That’s a Record!

You didn’t think I’d forget Friday Fictioneers, did you?

Here’s the inspiration photo. I’ll admit nothing came to me right away, then, duh, it was obvious.

And here’s the story.

Nut Case

Perfect disguise, they told me. No one will ever notice you, they said.

And I bought it. I put the cynicism aside and went along with our astro-geeks’ plan for observing the bipedal, indigenous life on the exo-planet they found. Their arguments were convincing, I’ll admit, but I should have listened to the little voice in my head that said, “What? Are they nuts?” Uh, no pun intended.

I mean, I understand you can’t land the mothership in someone’s backyard and do the “Take me to your leader” thing. I get that.

But why didn’t they notice the damned squirrels?

Want more 100-word fiction? Go to Madison Woods‘ blog and have fun reading them.

I ♥ My Writers Group!

I’ve written before about my great writers group–SWAG, Staunton/Waynesboro/Augusta Group of Writers–about how supportive everyone is, and how I’ve made lifelong friends from being a part of it. Wednesday evening was our monthly social hour and open mic night. This was also the first meeting after we got a nice spread in the Living section of our local Sunday paper. We had a full house of readers and listeners–and lots of first-time-at-SWAG readers. It was probably the best night we’ve had with lots of thoughtful work and lots of laughs.

Why are open mic nights important? I’ll admit when SWAG’s founder, Cliff Garstang, suggested last year that we start doing readings–out loud, in front of people–I was nervous. That’s a tough thing to do, to stand up amid acquaintances and a few strangers and read what you’ve written. And that first time last April, my knees were shaking, and my throat was dry. Afterwards, I remember wishing I’d had a writers group ten years ago when my collection of short stories came out. I did three readings and book signings back then, without a clue as to what I was supposed to do, and the feedback I got was that I read too fast for people to understand what I was saying. At SWAG, I’ve learned to slow down and get across what it is I’m trying to say, and that’s an experience I wouldn’t have had without SWAG.

So, doing open mic readings among friends can help build your confidence for when you’re on that book tour you dream about being on one day.

The other good thing about open mic is you pay a good deal of attention to the exact piece you’re going to read. We get five minutes, so the passage has to be tight, succinct, which means, beforehand, you’ll do some needed editing and revising you might not normally do. That’s always a good thing.

And here’s the best part–it’s great when open mic is over and someone in the audience comes up to you and tells you he or she enjoyed what you read and begins to ask questions about your work. You feel like an honest-to-God writer when that happens. It’s great.

Building confidence, honing your editing skills, and boosting your writer ego–that’s what you get from a writers group. Find one. Join one.

Politics Wednesday 2

Yet another serendipitous day for political blogging–the morning after New Hampshire.

This “first in the nation” primary has always had a dampening effect on the momentum of a presumed front-runner–Johnson in 1968, Muskie in 1972, and, most recently–until yesterday, that is–Barack Obama in 2008. In the days before the primary, Obama had what appeared to be a solid lead; then, Hillary Clinton showed the rest of the world what I knew all along–she’s a human being. I’ll disclaim here and tell you I was a Clinton supporter right up until Obama won the nomination, and then I was an Obama supporter, and you won’t find a more stolid one than I. I fully understood what Obama’s election meant to African Americans: It was how I would have felt about Hillary Clinton’s election.

But I digress.

Last night’s NH primary seemed like a step closer to a coronation–the Republicans like those, I think because they haven’t given up visions of empires and emperors. In fact, I can see Romney as Napoleon, impatiently snatching the crown from the cardinal and placing it on his own head. Actually, he’s done it already. He’s been running for President for the best part of eight years, and he figures he deserves the nomination. He’s earned it with that square jaw and photogenic family, not one of whom has served his or her country in any way except as campaign props.

That Ron Paul polled in the 20th Percentile in the “Live Free or Die” state shouldn’t surprise anyone.

The tiny ray of hope for the Republican Party was Jon Huntsman, who surged to a decent third-place showing. I thought his put-down of Romney’s sneering disrespect of Huntsman’s service as Ambassador to China was perfect–“I will always put my country first.” What a breath of fresh air in a party whose “leaders” put their wallets or their presumed social and political status first.

Santorum and Perry are off the radar, unless the uber-conservative South Carolinian and Floridian voters can give them a little altitude. Gingrich is in limbo, teetering between falling off the radar and presenting a serious challenge to Romney in the South. Wherever he ends up, I’m sure Callista will be standing there, hair and make-up perfect, that eerie smile fixed on her face.

The predominant thread among pundits–and in the exit poll results from NH–is that Romney is the “most electable,” the one who can beat President Obama. But here’s a photo I found yesterday on that tells me the President may be harder to beat than the Repubs think. Can you imagine Mitt Romney in this picture?

Dr. Frankenstein, I Presume

Yesterday, I had a long talk about writing–its joys and frustrations–with another local writer friend of mine. She was talking about a character she created and a certain aspect of his life and how she didn’t set out to write him that way, that it was just “there.”

“He told you who he was,” I said. (No, I’m not usually that profound.)

I’ve had this conversation with other writers or heard or read other writers who say the same thing–a character you create somehow becomes his or her own entity and proceeds to tell you, “I’d really do it this way. No, no, no, I’d never say/do/believe/want that.” That character leads you down plot paths you never anticipated, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Merely, our constipated brains need the liberation provided by creating a fictional character who is our alter ego.

My main character–an Englishwoman who is a spy–gets to say things I’d never say, and I’m known for being outspoken. When your character can let loose with something society and propriety require you to keep quiet about, that alleviates a lot of pent-up frustration and keeps it from exploding at an inappropriate time. See, having your characters talk to you can be a good thing.

How do you know they’re speaking to you? When you’ve written something you think is the way you want the story to go, but then you’re pulled back to the keyboard and end up rewriting or revising or tossing out words until that story has set off in a different direction, and it’s for the good–that’s when your characters tapped you on the shoulder and said, “I think you need to reconsider.”

I struggled for a long time to find the ending for my trilogy about a domestic terrorism event, and it just didn’t come. Oh, the various attempts were good endings, but none of them was The Ending, the way the series was supposed to conclude. Then, the death of the person on whom one of the characters in the trilogy is based gave me that ending. It was as if the fictional character finally got through to me and said, “You’ve been avoiding the reality that this was the only way it could end.” And he was right.

We think we create our characters from whole cloth, but the truth is we take pieces–the good and the bad–from every person we’ve ever known or loved or disliked. We stitch them together and give them our own life-force, and they are as real to us as any flesh and blood person. They have to be. Otherwise, a reader would never be interested. They come from within us. They’re our “children.” We speak to other writers of them as if they were real and sitting around the table with us. We defend them and their actions to members of our critique groups/agents/editors. We think of them at odd times. We anticipate getting back to the story so we can see them again. We see something happen and know how our characters would react to it. They are our waking and sleeping companions, often our best friends and harshest writing critics. We are the ones who shout in triumph, as they rise from the laboratory tables in our minds, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

How about it? Do your characters speak to you? If so, leave a comment and tell me about a time when they did.


Writing Work Schedule Update:

Things are actually still going according to schedule, even with having had a nasty cold last week. On “Submission Friday” I send in two book reviews and two author interviews to a fiction magazine. This week, on the Editing/Revising days, I’ll concentrate on proofreading and finalizing the re-typed (and edited) manuscript of my collection of short stories, Rarely Well Behaved, which I’m re-releasing as an
e-book this spring–or earlier.