The Places We Write

This past weekend I spent a brief time in a place where I used to spend a lot of time–eastern Connecticut. My ex, before he was my ex, and I spent as many weekends and holidays as we could on a small lake that spanned the Connecticut/Rhode Island border. The lake is called Beach Pond, and up until a few years ago it had a small beach on the Rhode Island side; hence, the name. Our lake house on the Connecticut side had a small lakeside yard and dock, a large deck, and a great view, which looked across the lake onto the Acadia State Park in Rhode Island.

On the drive from Providence Airport to Preston, CT, where I stayed at my ex in-laws, I have to pass by Beach Pond. I’ve only done this three times since I was last there in 2005 before the ex became the ex. For some reason, last Friday on the third time, I recalled that I wrote most of the rough draft of what’s now a four-book series at the little gray house on the lake.

Now, I’m not much of a water person. I’m a pool swimmer, and bodies of water with fauna in it make me a bit nervous, but sitting beneath some good-sized oak trees with a beer at hand, and notebook or laptop with me, I was in writer heaven. On the weekends, the place was very active in the afternoons–water skiers, JetSki-ers, canoers, kayakers–but in the mornings, the place was quiet and still.

My ex had, as one of his many good qualities, an ability to understand what writing meant to me. He knew it went far beyond the fact I did technical writing for a living. He knew what I wanted to do with my writing, and he encouraged it. He never once complained about the fact a notebook accompanied every vacation we went on and that some part of the day had to have writing in it.

At Beach Pond, he would hop into a small row boat and explore all the various nooks and crannies of Beach Pond, and I would write–pages and pages, sometimes by hand, sometimes on a monstrosity of a laptop (This started in the late nineties.) After two years of these getaways, I had a complete rough (very, very rough) draft of a novel.

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that until last Friday as I passed by Beach Pond and felt nostalgia for the happy times I’d had there, but the feeling was something like remembering where you had your first kiss or the first time you made love to someone. The place has an unending significance. This is where I wrote my first, real novel. This is the place whose quiet beauty helped inspire me to do that.

Now, inextricably, that place will always be associated with that particular manuscript. Someday, I’ll turn the pages of the books it has become, and I’ll hear the lap of wavelets against the bulkhead, the rhythmic splash of the oars on the row boat as my ex explored a place he’d known since he was a child all to give me the time to create.

Place, or setting, within a novel is often crucial to its plot, but don’t forget the place where you wrote it. That could be just as crucial–and special.

September Friday Fictioneers

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh so mellow.

Some lyrics from one of my favorite songs, “Try to Remember,” from the great musical The Fantasticks. Except that life has been anything but slow and mellow because, hey, it’s September already. How did that happen?

However, fall is my favorite time of year, with the colors changing and the air cooling. From my deck the mountains are crisp and clear, and you can see why they’re named the “Blue Ridge.” Fall is a great time of year for writing, for creativity in general. It must be the colors or the change in the angle of light or the unrelenting march of the need to do holiday shopping. I shift from writing in my office to writing on my screened-in porch or my deck. The air is fresh, the ragweed is annoying, but there’s just something about change in the air which makes for great writing.

A little progress report on the novel draft I sent out to beta readers: I’ve got three sets of comments back, and there are no major gaps and gaffes, just some great line-edit suggestions and some plot-enhancement comments. I’ll get started on that next week, and then I’ll have a decent third draft to send to my workshop instructor for his opinion. Exciting stuff, and I have a really good feeling about this manuscript.

Friday Fictioneers LogoAs inspiring as the change of seasons can be, the photo prompt for Friday Fictioneers is downright rousing. One look and a lot of memories came back–packing up my grandmother’s knick-knacks from her apartment after she died. Because I lived in an apartment then a small townhouse, they stayed packed for almost forty years. When I moved into my new house, I had room for a curio cabinet, so I unwrapped them (great to read newspapers from 1973!), and they’re now on display in my guest room.

Each one has a story behind it–some were gifts from her husband, my stepgrandfather. Some she bought for herself. Some of them my brother and I gave her for birthdays or Christmas. I suspect the same is true of the tchotchkes in today’s photo prompt, which inspired me to write “Memory Lane.”

If you can’t see the link in the title in the paragraph above, scroll to the top of this page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

June Friday Fictioneers is Busting Out All Over!

Friday Fictioneers LogoThis week’s photo was quite the poser. I looked, walked away from the computer, then looked again. Yep, it was the same both times. It spawned the whine, “How will I ever come up with something for this?”

Then for some reason I thought about a time in my life when my parents were separated and my time with my father, who was in the Army, became less and less. Whenever I did see him, it was as if he tried to outdo the previous present he brought me. All I wanted was the time with him, but how does a five year old communicate that?

So, today’s photo made me think about what part-time dads would do to keep their daughters their little girls, and “Young at Heart” came to me. I seem to be on a sentimental kick lately, but I’m certain the dark will return. It better.

As usual, if you can’t see the link on the story title, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

Time for Friday Fictioneers

So, I opted to enter a story in the New Letters Literary Awards contest after all. “Unconquered” is actually the epilogue of a novel I’ve been working on for some time; however, with a few minor edits, it worked as a stand-alone story. On the same day, I polished a story I’ve submitted a couple of times to other journals (and had rejected) and submitted it to the Blue Ridge Writers Annual Contest. That story is “Meeting the Enemy.” And we’ll see. I just repeat my mantra: “You won’t get published if you don’t submit; rejection is part of the process; acceptance awaits.”

Mantras aside, I’m crossing my fingers, toes, legs for a little luck.

Friday Fictioneers LogoOne of the best things about Friday Fictioneers is seeing how other writers interpret the photo prompt. A single photo can inspire romance, horror, speculative fiction, historical fiction, genre mash-ups, and much more. It just reinforces that as writers our imaginations hold sway over all we do. A fascinating process which we sometimes can’t see in ourselves but can see in other writers. I always think that what I come up with is obvious; yet, when I read other Friday Fictioneer stories I’m amazed at the breadth of the creativity–and sometimes our lunacy.

Perhaps I’ve been too inundated by trailers for the new adaptation of The Great Gadsby in the past week or so. At least it seemed that way when I looked at today’s Friday Fictioneers inspiration photo. The excesses of the Jazz Age were echoed by the “Summer of Love” in 1967, which, being a teenager stuck on a farm, I only participated in vicariously. The parties in the two eras may have involved different stimulants, but the debauchery was just as, well, debauched. That’s what came to my mind, immediately followed by what it might be like for a hard-partier decades later, perhaps someone who didn’t put the party days behind her.

That led to “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.” As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

Friday Fictioneers – How the Week Flies By

To call this a slow writing week for me would be an understatement. As a recent Facebook meme states, this was my week: “Writer’s Block–when your imaginary friends stop talking to you.” That’s exactly the way it felt, and I’m not really sure what I did to piss them off so they’d spend the week sulking in silence. I guess it’s like marriage–you’re expected to read minds and know what’s bothering the other person.

In reality, spring cleaning–indoors and out–was the culprit. Unlike many writer friends, gardening is not a chore I like. It doesn’t free my mind to be creative. It just makes me mutter about how much I hate it, but I figure the neighbors would get upset if I allow the flowerbeds to go au naturale. I did get a certain amount of satisfaction from reorganizing my household filing system so that, next year, when I take everything to my accountant he won’t quirk an eyebrow at the pile of paper I hand over.

Bottom line: Not much writing or revising done, and two blog posts missed (including one on the Tom Wolfe Seminar I attended and will write about). It’s been a while since that happened (probably the same time last year). Though all was not lost. I did manage to come up with some decent ad copy for a radio spot to promote the SWAG Writers Book Fair later this month. (See the first item in the column to the right). Somehow, thirty seconds worth of words is little compensation for a week’s worth of missing creativity.

On Wednesday I look a brief look at the photo prompt for this week’s Friday Fictioneers and literally said, “WTF?” (Well, I didn’t use an abbreviation.) As this week’s pattern Friday Fictioneers Logoplayed out, I sat down yesterday to write something, and, even though I had a concept, I couldn’t force the words onto the screen. I even switched to pen and paper because sometimes that gets the creative juices flowing, but zilch, nada, nothing.

I must have fallen asleep last night with the concept in mind because, boom, I woke early this morning with the story in my head. I got up immediately and got it into a Word file, and, whoa, 121 words. On first glance, I figured there was no way to cut twenty-one words, but I did; and the concept is intact. This is what I love about Friday Fictioneers–I’ve reached the point where not doing a Friday Fictioneers story would mean letting myself down, and that’s great inspiration.

Today’s story is “Siblings,” and you’ll see a dedication at the beginning of the story. I didn’t lose my only brother in Vietnam, like the story’s protagonist, but I did lose him in another war–one called Type One Diabetes. As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the Friday Fictioneers tab above and select it from the drop-down list.

Quashing the Inner Editor – For a While

This past Saturday I went to a National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) write-in in Harrisonburg, VA. Seven of us made it and commandeered a corner of Panera to have some writing fun–word sprints, where you write as many words as possible in a set amount of time, and the “no backspace” game.

The “no-backspace” exercise really suppresses your inner editor, and the exercise consists of writing and not backspacing or deleting anything, not even a typo. The person who can go the longest without backspacing is the winner. In the first go-round, I lasted six words; I made it to about 200 words the second time around, but, oy, what a mess!

The concept of NaNoWriMo is to write without editing yourself in the moment. That comes later. By not editing as you write, NaNoWriMo-ers believe you tap into creativity that pausing to edit disrupts. Writing purists may cringe at such seat of the pants writing, which does sacrifice structure to a certain extent, but I find it particularly liberating.

A few weeks ago at the James River Writers Conference I heard Tim Robbins explain his writing process. The reason years pass between his works is because he literally perfects one sentence at a time and doesn’t go back to revise when the book is done. When he finishes a book, he considers it edited and revised because of this rigid method.

I’m not dissing that sort of structure; in fact, I admire it, and, obviously, it works for him. I’ve always been the type of writer to get what’s in my head down on the page, then I go back and “fix” it–rather a middle ground between a seat-of-the-pantser and the dedicated structuralist.

When I’m not doing NaNoWriMo writing, which, by the way, is eleven months out of twelve, I typically start the next day’s writing with a review and rework of what I wrote the day before. That refines it for me and gives me a basis to begin the next part. It’s true I rarely work from a written outline, but I usually have the structure in my head. I’ve always jotted down notes and ideas for anything I’ve written, but I, personally, find a detailed outline confining. I haven’t adhered to one yet.

The free-wheeling aspect of NaNoWriMo is what appeals to me, to just sit down and write without second guessing a sentence or what a character says or whether this is the direction the story should go. I know I’ll go back and fix that later, and the very act of putting the editing and revising off for a period of time, unleashes my brain.

For example, I had a fairly detailed list of scenes I’d foreseen for this year’s project, but somewhere about a third of the way through getting those scenes fleshed out, a new direction emerged. Frankly, you can’t ignore that. You can’t limit yourself to an outline or a list of scenes and not be flexible. At least I can’t. If the idea pops up that I need to go over here and explore something, I have to go do it. I may end up tossing it out in editing and revising, but I have to write it when it manifests itself.

The NaNoWriMo project from 2009 wound up in an entirely different way than I ever intended. The idea came to me that I should kill off one of the two main characters I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words about, so I did. It was an amazing writing experience to explore the thoughts and feelings of the person left behind (and a great outlet for those same feelings after the break-up of my long-term relationship).

When I got to the revision stage, though, I knew it was wrong. I’ve joked the character tapped me on the shoulder and said, “It’s not my time, yet.” Purists scoff at the idea that characters speak to you or direct a story, but I know what I know. The character was right; I knew I wouldn’t be able to write more stories in the genre I’d chosen if he weren’t around.

That’s not a wasted manuscript though; I’m incorporating large portions of it into another plot. Another NaNoWriMo MS I’ve mined for short stories. Yet another, after editing and revising, just completed a trip through my critique group, and after another set of revisions, will be ready to see if someone is interested in publishing it. I haven’t touched the MS from last year (2011), but that’s on my list for projects in 2013.

This year’s? I’m so pleased about the direction it’s headed and the fact I decided to strengthen my literary fiction skill set, that it will be a 2013 revision project as well, probably toward the end of the year to get time and space between the writing and the revising.

NaNoWriMo is neither futile nor frivolous. It is, however, what you make of it. If you treat it as a creative way to develop a first draft, it can be very fulfilling. And great fun.

NaNoWriMo Update

This weekend, eleven days into the adventure, I hit the 30,000-word threshold. At the NaNoWriMo average of 1,667 words per day, by day eleven 18,337 words would have put me on track to finish with 50,000 on day thirty. Well, I’ve always been an overachiever.

The point is, without that artificial stimulus, that “imposed” deadline, I would never have written an average of 2,700 words a day. That’s worth it to me.


Thanks, Mom

The project I’m working on for this year’s NaNoWriMo is based on a Friday Fictioneers, 100-word story from several months ago. This was the photo prompt:

And here is the story:


“That wallpaper’s stuck to the wood,” the contractor said. “If you want it gone, you’re gonna have to take the wood down then drywall.”

We’d hoped to save the old walls. They lent such a rustic feel to the place, but the ancient wallpaper wouldn’t budge. Drywall wouldn’t be the same, but what can you do?

To save money we did the demolition ourselves. With pry-bars we had fun, imagining we ripped away annoying people.

It was all great fun until the last corner, when the boards came away and we saw the tiny bones wrapped in a baby blanket.

I had a lot of positive comments on the piece (and, yes, someone did mention I used the word “fun” twice within a couple of lines), and several people suggested I expand it into a longer story or even a novel. I appreciated the confidence in me, but I put it out of mind until I was on a train trip to New York. The story kept coming back to me, and I started jotting notes. It wasn’t long before I had four pages of them, some snippets of dialogue, and a concept for what was obviously a novel.

However, I had a couple of writing/editing/revising projects I was deep into and didn’t want to start anything new back in the spring, but I kept the notes close by, added to them over the months, did a little research (part of the story takes place during World War II), and decided this was perfect for NaNoWriMo. So, I’m off and running–just over 12,000 words in four days.

As an historian, I love researching other times, but this project has another significance for me. Many who know me well know my relationship with my mother was problematic at best, traumatic at worst. She was a teenager to young adult during World War II, worked in a uniform factory, and wrote to a lot of soldiers whose convoys passed through her home town. She would talk about the homefront of World War II as if it were her personal playground, and she often referred to it as the best time of her life. (Yep, Mom wasn’t particularly thoughtful of others; it was always about her.) Her stories, though, have given me a lot of background detail that I can include in this project. So, in a big way she can contribute to my writing other than as a model for a nutcase character.

It’s probably good that she’s gone, though, because she’d be pissed as hell to recognize any of her life stories in anything I wrote. You see, no one was allowed to talk about her except her, but thanks anyway, Mom.

And something a little off-topic here: Tomorrow is Election Day, and it is the civic duty of every eligible voter to vote. Find a way to do it. It’s important to our democracy.

Spy Flash – Week 23

Wednesday is the day I get two prompts: the photo for Friday Fictioneers and the roll of the Rory’s Story Cubes, which I’ve been using for the Spy Flash stories. The inspiration for Friday Fictioneers usually comes pretty quickly, and I have it at least drafted by Thursday so I can let it rest for a day then refine it before putting the story on my blog then posting the link on Friday on Madison Woods’ page.

It’s Spy Flash that’s been giving me some trouble lately, and quite often I’ve posted the Spy Flash story for the previous week a few hours before the next week’s prompt shows up. Meh, what’s a week, you say? Skip one and let it go.

Yes, I could do that, but that would defeat the purpose of writing more, so I’ve kept at it, sometimes giving a Spy Flash story two or three false starts before I had something I was pleased with. And, yes, that’s part of the writing process as well.

So, today was a big surprise. The Friday Fictioneers’ story came to be within moments of seeing the picture–not such a surprise–but so did the Spy Flash idea. Maybe the “reboot” I blogged about a couple of weeks ago finally kicked in. It was another “write like a fool” day–two stories and a blog post (for Politics Wednesday, my political blog). Yay, me!

Here’s this week’s roll of the cubes:

And here’s what I saw: l. to r. – keyhole; bee/sting; digging/filling a hole; listening/hearing; globe/world/earth; reading; tent/teepee; counting money; light bulb/idea.

This week’s story is “Footsteps” and harkens back to how Mai Fisher decided to become a spy. True to the profession, she got blackmailed into it.

If you’d like to give the Rory’s Story Cubes challenge a try, write a story of any length based on the objects and actions in the photo above; then, post a link to your story on Jennie Coughlin’s blog.

If you don’t see the link on the title, “Footsteps,” above, then click on the Spy Flash tab at the top of the page and select the story from the drop-down menu.

More Inspiration–Plus Spy Flash 21

I’ve written before about what writers can use as inspiration–a photo, an overheard snippet of conversation, an idea that’s rolled around in your head for years. Some writers are inspired by television programs or popular books and write fan fiction (which some writers then turn into popular, though ill-written, books and make tons of money). Other writers, myself included, get inspiration from actual events and put a fictional twist on them.

This past weekend my Unitarian Universalist fellowship held a used-book sale, and I promised myself I’d be good and not buy any more denizens for my groaning book shelves. Best-laid plans, and all that. A few seconds into browsing, something caught my eye: Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to Al-Qaeda by Thomas Powers. Powers’ book is a collection of essays he wrote for various publications on America’s history of spying. At $2.00 for a hardback, how could I, the spy writer, pass that up?

The Table of Contents is a veritable mine of story prompts: “The Conspiracy that Failed,” “Phantom Spies at Los Alamos,” “The Mind of the Assassin,” “Marilyn was the Least of It,” and “The Trouble with the CIA” are just a few examples. Even more than inspiration, this is an excellent reference for delving into the history of the world of intelligence.

However, it wasn’t my new acquisition that inspired me this weekend. Rather, it was a combination of the prompt for Week 21 of the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge and the ghost of executed Romanian Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. For quite some time now, the ghost of Romania past has bugged me to write about his timely end. I’m not going into length here about Ceausescu and his equally ambitious wife, Elena. You can Google them and get a number of reputable references about Romania under their rule (remember the news stories on Romanian orphans) and how the Eastern European anti-Communist uprisings in 1989 had their bloody culmination in Romania.

And don’t get me wrong. If Ceausescu were still around, he wouldn’t like my portrayal of him or his wife in my story, “Judas Goat.” That just goes to show, you can haunt someone to write about you, but payback’s a bitch.

Here is the roll of the cubes for Week 21:

And here is what I saw: l. to r. – knocking on a door; evil; shouting in anger/angry; eating; thought/thinking; magic/magic wand; flower; sheep; sadness/dismay.

The object that stood out for me was the sheep, and you’ll get the connection to the title, when you read the story, of course.

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title above, hover your cursor over the Spy Flash tab at the top of the page and select it from the drop-down menu. If you’d like to give the Story Cubes Challenge a try, write a story of any length based on the picture above, then post a link to it here.

A More Challenging than Usual Friday Fictioneers?

This week’s photo was quite the challenge–as you’ll see when you read the story.

I grew up on a farm which had a lot of forest throughout it, and a walk through the woods revealed some very interesting, natural works of art: two different types of trees whose trunks had fused, trees that grew around or through abandoned farm equipment, a forgotten scythe, rusted almost away, which had been imbedded in a tree branch but which had been “carried” up as the tree grew. Many a bovine skeleton fired my imagination–and followed me in my dreams–back then.

So, this week’s picture made me smile before it stumped me, and then an idea came to me. Some might consider the story, “Thus Endeth the Lesson” blasphemy. Just relax. It’s fiction. Or is it the future?

If you don’t see the link in the story title in the paragraph above, hover your cursor over the Friday Fictioneers tab at the top of the page and select it from the drop-down menu.

To read other offerings (that’s foreshadowing my story, by the way) from Friday Fictioneers, click on the frog-like icon at the bottom of my story and enjoy the fruits of our fecund imaginations.