Friday, October 30, 2009

Hands Off the Keyboard

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy; and it doesn't do much for Jill, either. I understand the dedication it takes to finish writing a book, but sometimes you just have to get away from the computer and breathe different air.

I am not one of those people that are able to sit and write and write and write until their fingers bleed. I tend to burn out at the three hour mark. My brain starts to fuzz and I can literally watch my writing disintegrate. I stop when the thought of hurling the computer across the room is sounding sane. And then...I bake.

I find baking calming, and I like that the results are often cookies. I mutter about my plot as I measure out the flour and the sugar. I try out pieces of dialogue as I'm dumping chocolate chips into the bowl. (I don't measure the chips, I dump until it 'looks right'.) Ah, you will be saying, you're not at the computer, but you're still writing. I admit this is true, which is why after the cookies comes...the walking.

I live very near a river that has shown a tendency to flood every few years. As a result, there are raised banks all along it and paths built on top of the the raised banks. It's a wonderful place to walk; there is river traffic to watch and trains (lots of trains) making their way across the train bridge. On the other side of the banks are farms. There's a riding school. There can be cows. It's quiet (when the trains aren't squealing across the bridge.) Traffic noise becomes nothing more than a low rumble. The best thing is that I do not allow myself to think about what I'm writing. I pay attention to how much (or how little) snow is on the mountains in the distance. I listen to birds and to the crunching of my footsteps. I let my mind breathe.

What do you do when it's time to step away from the computer? How do you let your mind breathe?

The picture at the top of this post is a picture of my town.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


A broken mirror signals seven years of bad luck. Don't walk under a ladder. Beware of a black cat crossing your path. Don't whistle in a graveyard. Superstitions are everywhere; most of their origins lost in the mists of time.

Theatrical people have many superstitions. "Break a leg" is what you say instead of "good luck". Never whistle or clap backstage. A bad dress rehearsal means a good opening night. Never (and I mean never) quote a line from Macbeth (always referred to as either The Scottish Play or The Scottish Tragedy) backstage. If you do, you have to go outside the theatre, turn around three times, and swear. The whole play is viewed with superstition. I have heard story after story about disasters occurring when Macbeth is performed. Sets fall down. People get injured. Believe it or not, but there's something about that play that seems to invite ill-luck.

Writers have superstitions too. Emma Thompson will only use one specific pen when she writes the first draft of her screenplays. Some won't write "The End" until all the editing, etc. is done. Many writers won't talk about their manuscript until that first draft is completed.

Back when I debated, I always wore a certain shirt and a certain pair of socks to every competition. Other people carried good luck charms in their pockets. It was silly, of course, all of us had done the necessary preparation and were good at public speaking and thinking on our feet, but I would never have gone into a tournament without those socks.

Do you have superstitions? Do you care if you spill the salt; or do you have to throw some of it over your shoulder? Is Friday the 13th just another day? Or would you tear the house apart looking for your special pen? It's almost Halloween; let's air our personal superstitions!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

That Sounds Familiar...

It happens every time. The day after watching "Mamma Mia" I have one or two of those ABBA songs running in my head. All day. It's more than slightly irritating, but there is something about those tunes that my brain seems to like. They're familiar. Familiarity breeds earworms.

Digression: Why is it impossible for me to remember someone's name who I met last week, but absolutely possible for me to sing along (word perfectly) to every song I heard on the radio while I was a teen? This strikes me as a terrible waste of brain space.

A form of earworm can pop up in writing; it's that phrase that sounds just a touch familiar. I'm not talking about cliches, I'm talking about famous phrases. No writer is able to have their character say "You can't handle the truth!" without their readers picturing and hearing Jack Nicholson. I don't recommend a character saying "To be or not to be" even if they are working out some algebraic equation. Your detective can't employ their little grey cells nor can your heroine say to her true love "You had me at hello."

These type of phrases, from both books and movies, stick with me; I blame my years as an actor and the resultant necessity of memorizing scripts. The reason, of course, is that every one of those phrases (and there are thousands) are so wonderfully written that they have become part of the lexicon. No character can ever describe their work day as "It was the best of times and the worst of times"....even if it was. When I write many of these phrases pop into my head, but my self-editor ensures they don't leak through my fingers, unless a character is actually quoting the phrase.

I keep a notebook filled with lists of words (usually verbs) I come across while reading. Words that aren't usually in my everyday vocabulary, but words I love. I also have lists of phrases that pop up in my head that I like the sound of. I want my writing to sound like me, but I want it to be me at my best. I use a thesaurus; but with discretion. I know when I've hit the right word because I can almost hear a 'ping'; it's a similar feeling to knowing when I've got the right name for one of my characters.

Do you have a problem with earworms? Do famous or familiar phrases pop into your head while writing? Or am I standing out in the field all alone?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Essential Ingredient

Why do you write? If it's to become the next JK Rowling, Steven King or Sophie Kinsella, you need to step away from the keyboard or put down the pen and paper. I'm not saying it's not possible, but writing fiction simply to become rich and famous will never produce a book with that sort of potential. In my opinion, you need to write your story because you love it.

You don't have to love everything about it, but there has to be some facet that fascinates you. Maybe it's a particular character or an incredibly complex puzzle of clues. Maybe it's the setting or the prospect of writing a story where true love really does conquer all. There has to be that one little bit that gets you coming back to your keyboard. How can you expect readers to get excited or interested in a plot or characters that leave you cold?

Back when I was directing theatre, I quickly discovered that I couldn't direct a play I didn't care about. Why would I put all that effort and time into something that I wouldn't walk across the road to see? There always had to be something; even if it was only one speech in the second act, that made me think "This is worth it."

Writing takes time. A long time. You're going to spend months with these characters as they travel through your plot. Why would you spend that much time with characters or a story you don't love? Loving my characters makes me want to write them well. I want my readers to share their sorror in tragedy or rejoice with them in triumph.

Forget 'what's hot right now' because by the time you're finished writing and editing the odds are it won't be hot any more. Write what moves you. Write what makes you laugh. Write what makes you dream of a better world. Write what you love.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Whose Eyes?

Congratulations; you've thought of your plot. You've created your characters. Next hurdle? Whose voice is going to tell your story? Whose eyes will view the events? It may seem obvious, but wait; think about it. This decision affects everything else you will write.

Many times the easiest decision is to tell the plot from the viewpoint of your protagonist; after all, he/she is your main character for a reason. Writing in the first person brings an immediacy to your story-telling that is impossible to achieve with any other method. The writer can let the reader experience your protagonist's feelings and frustrations and see the world through their eyes. This can be an added bonus for mystery writers because if the main character makes a wrong assumption the odds are the reader will accept it as the right one. It's a great way to mis-direct. However, seeing the plot through only one pair of eyes can be limiting. Can you put your protagonist everywhere they need to be? Are they truly the one driving the plot? If your answers to these questions is 'no' then another voice and another pair of eyes are called for.

The omniscient narrator's eyes are very useful; since, being omniscient means they can see and know everything. This is when you can use the phrases 'little did he know' or 'it was the last peaceful morning'. It's nice to be the puppetmaster, but I find this style somewhat distant. I like to be in among the action not watching it as a member of the audience. That said, however, many, many wonderful books are written using this method.

But what about telling the story from a secondary character's point of view? Maybe it's not the detective telling the story, but the detective's trusty sidekick; or your main character's best friend. What about several people telling the story? Different voices add texture and depth. Several people can be in several locations which is a bonus if you're writing a mystery.

Of course, there are a myriad of more ways to write a story than I've written here, but I think every writer should think about whose eyes and voice best serves the tale they are going to tell. It might not be the main character. Take a moment to think about your current work; how would it change if it was told from another point of view? You might have picked the easiest voice, but is it the right one?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Just Imagine...

It can be your best friend or your worst enemy. It allows you to gleefully create characters and plots and stories about strangers you see at the coffee shop or grocery store. It also throws terrifying scenarios at you when the phone rings in the middle of the night. What would we do without our imaginations?

I've always had an active (some might say over-active) imagination. I don't remember having an imaginary friend when I was little, but I do remember entertaining my friends with made-up stories when I was a teen. They had to be made-up because I was convinced that my life was so boring. Later on I was an actor...getting paid to pretend; not bad work if you can get it!

Are there really people out there without imaginations? People that don't imagine what it would be like to climb that mountain they see in the distance every day or who lives in that fancy house or what it would be like to fly in a private jet? I can't fathom it.

As writers we can let out imaginations fly. We can place a story anywhere and people it with who we please. The plots are up to us; we can write a tragedy, write a comedy, write about a world galaxies away. We can put our characters into terrifying situations and they can survive...or not. Write from the point of view of a cat; trust me, it's fun! Anything and everything is possible.

Spend some time dreaming today. Let your imagination lift you up and carry you to strange worlds, or just down the street. You may come up with a new plot or a new character...or you just might spend some time with a smile on your face. Whatever the end result, it will be time well-spent.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

It's a Serious Business

Comedy. It's not as easy as you would think. Back when I was acting, actors were always surprised how hard it is to pull off a comedic scene. Drama is easy; comedy is hard.

Luckily, I have always been able to do comedy, in fact my problem comes from finding comedy almost anywhere. This has led to my current dilemma with my manuscript. I'm starting to wonder: Is there too much comedy?

I'm dealing with a serious subject: murder. I'm dealing with characters who all have individual agendas. Serious business. A chance to delve into psyches and discover what makes each of my characters tick. Fascinating; well, it is to me! But I keep throwing in comedic moments. I can't seem to help myself, it's like a disease.

Here's an example: I have several of my characters sitting down to dinner. There has just been an incident. No one is looking at each other and there's that awkward silence filling the room. Then someone's stomach rumbles. I know this is funny, but is it appropriate in a murder mystery?

I've told myself and it can't be serious all the time; life isn't like that. There's comedy everywhere. I don't want to write a book full of brooding silences and squeaky doors and mysterious strangers slipping silently through secret doors. Although knowing me, I'd make the secret door the one that squeaks!

I've put comedy into my scripts and it's certainly present in my mystery games. But in my book? I'm writing a mystery in the classic setting of an English country house and I can't seem to stop my characters from having comedic moments. It's not occurring on every other page, and I don't have some hapless innocent slipping on a banana peel, (yet) (no, don't worry, even I wouldn't go that far) but every now and then, it's funny.

Is the occasional bit of comedy appropriate when writing a mystery? Surely making a reader smile would be considered a good thing? Or do I need to break the habit?

How much comedy do you incorporate; and if you do, is it on purpose or are you like me and it just seems to show up?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


They are two of the most welcome words to type (or write) for any writer: "The End". You've done it. It's finished. Cue the champagne. But, how have you done it? Is every end neatly tied into a bow or are there a couple loose threads? Evil has been vanquished, but is it coming back? Different genres call for different endings.

The Big Bow (with really nice ribbon)

These endings are the traditional "happily ever after". Every problem has been resolved, all misunderstanding are cleared up. Our hero has triumphed, our villain is in chains, our happy couple eagerly moving on into their brilliant and love-filled future. Cue the orchestra.

The Small Bow (with thin ribbon)

These endings are interesting. Right has prevailed over wrong (of course) but something nasty is still lurking out there. Not every plot has been resolved leading the reader to wonder what's going to happen next. An example of this type of ending can be found in "Silence of the Lambs"; the serial killer is apprehended and our heroine is safe, but guess who's still out there? All the Harry Potter books (except for the last one, of course) also end with a Small Bow.

No Bow (and no ribbon)

These types of endings seem to be typical in the second book of trilogies. Huge plot lines are left unresolved and the main characters are wondering how they will ever complete their journey. Personally, I find these ending highly annoying unless I can immediately start reading the third and final book.

In my writing I swing between option number one and option number two, depending on the material. When I'm writing to provide pure entertainment, I opt for the Big Bow. However, more complex characters seem to demand a more complex ending. After all, not every question is answered in real life. I am predicting my current WIP will end with a Small Bow.

What type of ending do you prefer as a writer? Is it the same type of ending you prefer as a reader?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


The beginning. It's the door to your novel and you want people to open it and make themselves at home. But how to accomplish this? Do you begin softly? With a big bang? Throw the reader into the room milling with people? I believe, in this case, that not one size fits all.

Thrillers demand you throw your reader straight into the action. Within a few sentences your protagonist is in danger or has danger creeping up behind him. The beginning must be fast-paced and (let's face it) thrilling. Character introductions are minimal, simply because this genre's characters are instantly recognizable. There will always be some form of the brave hero, the faithful sidekick (usually of the opposite sex), and the villain bent on world domination. Bring on the hungry sharks.

There are also the books that begin in the middle; in mysteries this could mean the discovery of a body before the first paragraph is finished. I have found mystery readers wait hungrily for that first body, so I either throw it at them right at the beginning or tell them in no uncertain terms who is not going to be coming to dinner. Once the body (or the hint of one) has been given, many mystery readers will sit back and happily get filled in on the action leading up to that point.

Then there are the soft beginnings in which the reader is gently introduced to the novel's world and the people that inhabit it. These beginnings work nicely in humorous novels; after all, you have to know the world right-side-up before you turn it topsy-turvy.

Another problem: What is considered to be the beginning? Is it the first sentence? The first paragraph? The first chapter? Common sense has taught me if I haven't hooked my reader by the end of the first chapter, I'm sunk. People judge quickly and harshly. Reading a book, after all, is something one does for pleasure. Bad beginnings almost always ensure a book may be started, but never finished.

Pace is also important; a fast-paced beginning can't slide into a meandering trot through the middle. However starting slowly gives an author plenty of opportunity to quicken the pace as the danger or the comic mayhem increases.

How do you approach your beginnings? With a body? Hungry sharks? Everyone sitting down to tea? Or is it with a description of a sunlit meadow and three horses grazing peacefully in the dappled shade of a large elm tree?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Slow and Steady

One of the secrets about writing a book that no one ever tells you is that it takes a long time. I admit I'd never considered this in my pre-writing days; I just read the book. Now, every time I pick up a book, I am amazed at the time that the author must have spent researching, let alone the time it would have taken to write the monster. I've been reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series and I'm on the floor in admiration. These books are tomes. Tomes, I say, and chockfull of research that must have taken years. Yet, somehow, she is able to produce a new one every two years or so. Someone, please, give this woman an award.

I never expected to sit down and have a novel flow out of me like a river; I'm not Shakespeare. But why didn't anyone tell me how long it would take before I could look at my word-count total and not want to burst into tears of frustration? I try to take comfort by remembering the fable of the tortoise and the hare, but I suspect I'm a hare by nature. Learning to be satisfied with a slow and steady pace is a real lesson in patience; and not one I'm learning with joy in my heart.

Learning to be satisfied has never been something I've been great at. I don't want to do anything just okay, I want to do it well. This leads to me re-reading portions of my manuscript and, inevitably, to me re-writing large swathes. Trust me, this is the mother of all catch-22s. I often feel as if I'm taking three steps forward and then two steps back. Growl.

I admit I've chosen to write a murder mystery with several very complex motives and a large number of characters. I do love my story, but I do wish I could write faster. (Writing better would be nice as well.) I'm writing the type of book I like to read, so there is historical research involved (of two different time periods). It would be easier (maybe) if I was interested in writing a different type of mystery, but I'm just not. 'Write what you know' is what we're told, and I'm trying to do that.


Are there any other tortoises out there? Or, are you a lucky hare? I know that finish line is waiting out there somewhere. If you see it, can you tell me what it looks like?

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Roller Coaster

Welcome, one and all to the wonderful roller coaster ride of being a writer. Please ensure the safety bar is locked and please keep your arms inside the cart at all times. Here we goooo....

The Climb:

Now you're locked into the cart and as much as you might be second-guessing your choice you've got no where to go but up. Welcome to the wonder that is trying to write that first draft. You've got the idea. You've got a number of fascinating characters. Now write it. Easier said than done, isn't it? And just when you think you've got a handle on the beast along comes...

The First Big Drop:

This is when you realize what you've written is dry and unimaginative. You note, with rising horror, the number of cliches you've employed and your fondness for re-using and re-using the same words. This the time to bless your delete key and start again because here comes...

The Next Big Climb:

Now you're cookin' with gas. The words are flowing nicely and characters are coming alive. Your word count is climbing higher. But are you prepared for...

The 360 Degree Loop:

The unexpected has occurred. Some of your characters or one of the precious creatures (you invented them, there's no one else to blame) suddenly insists on saying something or doing something you hadn't planned. It's somewhat un-nerving the first time it happens, but I've gotten used to it. I've realized that the character is right, nine times out of ten. I hold onto the safety bar and go with it. Face it, you really don't have a choice.

Speeding Down to the Finish:

Every writer can experience the wonderful feeling of re-reading their work and being amazed that they wrote it. Moments like that make you feel as if you could climb Mount Everest. If I could bottle and sell that feeling I would.

The ironic part of this roller coaster ride is that it's never-ending. There's always another climb ahead or another turn or twist. Enjoy the ride, my friends. I think it's far more fun to be on the roller coaster than standing safely on the ground.

Donna Lea Simpson of Cozy Murder Mysteries kindly asked me to write a guest post about the differences between writing murder mystery games and mystery novels. I'm over there today; please drop by !

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Such Stuff That Dreams are Made On

Thanks to a post on Elizabeth Bradley's blog, I have been reveling in Writers' Houses; a beautiful coffee table book full of wonderful photographs of the interiors and exteriors of twenty-one writers' homes around the world. I doubt I'll ever have an entire house to myself, but I did start dreaming about my perfect writing space.

Here's what I'd like: (with money being no object, of course)

A large room with at least one window and a door. My writing desk would be placed in front of the window, so I want to be looking out on something wonderful. The English countryside would do, as would a vineyard in Provence. I write on a laptop so I'm not in need of a desk with drawers. I do, however, like to spread out my stuff so that desk surface needs to be large.

Bookcases. Lots of bookcases. I write mysteries taking place somewhere in the decade of 1935-1945 in either England or one of the Channel Islands. This takes research. I have accumulated many books; some full of pictures (pictures make a larger impression on my memory than words), some are travel books written during the time period, some are biographies.

A large bulletin board. Ever since I was a teenager I have loved to put things up on walls. I put up pictures that make me happy, copies of quotations, leaves from places I've been, etc. I need my bulletin board.

My chaise lounge, a TV and DVD player. I know, it's a writing room. But I need to watch documentaries. Movies and television series in this era can be marvelous resources for fashion, music and social mores.

What would be in your ultimate writing space? Dream a little.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

One Book or Seven?

Am I writing a series, or am I writing one really long book? Don't panic, I know my answer, but it's an interesting question for those of us who have continuing characters. My detective will appear in at least three books (maybe more...) and all the books will follow one another chronologically. But it's not one big story, it's a series.

The argument could be made, for instance, with the Harry Potter series that the entire seven books is really one big story. J.K. Rowling had one enormous plot that took seven years to tell and every book is another step closer to the final denouement. Practically, however, no publisher would ever publish anything that big. And let us never forget the financial goodies that came along with seven different books and having the resultant rewards spread over many years.

Writing a series comes with its own issues. An author must pay heed to a continuing character's history. If he broke his leg in the last book, does he now have an ache in the leg when it rains? If she said she was going to Spain at the end of the last book, do you make mention of it at the beginning of the new one? Or does the new one occur in Spain? Habits have to continue, (or be broken) but the character must continue to evolve. If the new book takes place 5 years later than the last one, then did your character age 5 years as well? Do you explain what's happened in those years?

Continuing characters are wonderful gifts for both writers and readers. They give readers a chance to meet up again with familiar faces as well as getting introduced to new ones. Writers don't have to bid farewell to a character they love to write. I can only imagine the agony that Dame Agatha went through when she decided to kill off Hercule Poirot and I'm sure Ms. Rowling felt the same pain when she finished telling Harry's story. Continuing characters become the writer's familiar friend and letting them go must be a wrench to the heart.

If you have a continuing character in your writing, think about it for a minute. Are you writing a series, or could it be one big book? What is your attitude as a reader? Love continuing characters? Or do you want to hit them with a shovel?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Wisdom from the Cheshire Cat

Every writer I've ever met (whether in life or online) has their own 'go-to' books when they look for answers to tricky situations. I have them as well, but I have learned to never underestimate the intelligence of a certain familiar feline.

He's the grinning cat who appears and disappears at will. He can have different parts of his body stay visible and he is excellent at answering questions if you can decipher his code. I've decided that some of his wisdom can be applied to writing.

Quote #1:
[Alice asked]"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat. "I don't much care where--" said Alice. "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.

Here is every writers' dilemma whenever they begin a new project. Which way ought I to go? I take the cat's words to heart; I decide where I want to get to. I will know the solution to my plots long before I ever start the actual tapping on my keyboard. I will know all the major points of my myriad of plots and will outline them all from beginning to end. Certainly, things will change in the actual writing, but I know where I'm heading. If you work without an outline, you'll never know where you'll end up. If this sort of adventure appeals to you, then you will take strength from the last part of the quotation; as it truly won't matter which way you go.

Quote #2
"--so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation. "Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

The writing lesson found in this quotation is that, as writers, we must have patience. If you have a destination in mind you will eventually reach it. The rather nasty part is that there seems to be no definition of how long constitutes 'long enough'. Some writers can finish their journey in a few weeks. Some take months or years. Everyone has their own 'long enough'. Accept it.

Quote #3
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." "How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."

I don't think that writers are mad, but let's be honest, we are a little strange. We spend large amounts of time alone. We have very active imaginations that enable us to invent entire worlds and we will happily spend hours there. Most of us are not the most social of creatures and although we have a strong voice when we write we often find ourselves suffering from laryngitis in the 'real world'. But you're here aren't you? Whether by accident or by determination, you're a writer. Accept and embrace the madness which always comes with creativity.

The Cheshire Cat is a wise and wonderful creature. I hope these few words may help you negotiate your way through your own Wonderland.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Writer Giving Thanks

First, boys and girls, a small history of why Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving now and not in November like our American neighbours:

Canadian Thanksgiving is tied to European festivals giving thanks for a successful harvest not for settling safely in the New World. The actual date moved around between October and November until 1957 when Parliament formalized it as the second Monday in October. The Proclamation read (in part):

"A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed ... to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October…"

This got me thinking. Harvests from the field are wonderful, but, we writers harvest as well. What am I grateful for as a writer?

  • My characters. In both my games and my WIP. I love them all. Some drive me a little crazy and some are easier to write than others, but bless 'em with all their quirks.
  • My plots. I never have had trouble coming up with ideas. May it continue, please.
  • A thesaurus. I try not to write like I've swallowed one, but bless it for the many times when I can't come up with the right word. I go a little crazed when that happens.
  • All of you out there in blog-world. This is a lonely business. I cherish the contact with all of you and so enjoy reading all of your blogs and your comments here on mine. We are not alone!
Last but certainly not least...
I will always be thankful for all the lovely people who have bought my games and taken the time to tell me they enjoyed them. I still find it strange that my games are played all over the world. Who knew?

What are you thankful for as a writer? It's interesting to think about.

Friday, October 9, 2009

But They Don't DO Anything!

Is every moment in a book supposed to be crammed with incident? I understand the allure of car chases or teetering on rooftops or jumping out of planes, but can't these poor characters sit down for a minute?

I seem to get two diametrically opposed messages coming at me from 'how-to' books or other writers. The first message is the book must be crammed with action, action, action. If people are having a conversation then they must have it while they're driving somewhere or while they're hiding from the bad guy or a similar situation. The second message is no, let them take a breath. Exposition is good. Describe that meadow, that oak tree. Let the reader hear the birds or appreciate the cat sunning himself on the porch.

What's a writer to do?

In my current WIP I seem to be traveling on a path somewhere between the two extremes. I'm not writing a thriller so no one in my book is diving in shark-infested waters or saving the world from a nuclear attack. My story takes place in the very civilized world of dressing for dinner and afternoon walks along the river. People roll up the carpet and dance to phonograph records on the gramophone. Even after the murder occurs, my characters still live in this rather highly-polished world; although it has been somewhat knocked askew.

I like books where everyone enjoys a glass of iced tea; or Aunt Mabel's famous chicken once in a while. Real life isn't fraught with peril every minute; there is time to eat breakfast or walk the dog. You may be saving the world, but did you remember to buy milk?

Real people get hungry; so should characters. Real people can only go so long without sleep; so should characters. For me, the more real the characters, the more real the plot.

Do your characters have time to enjoy Aunt Mabel's chicken? Or are their days filled with disarming a nuclear bomb followed by a speed boat chase after drug lords?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Fun Group Blog

Stephanie Faris of Steph in the City is doing a fun group blog today about Google tags; so I thought I'd join in the merriment.

1. Your Favourite Beverage:

I love white wine. Favourite winery? Can't pick one, but many found in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley are incredible.

2. Your Hometown:

Victoria, British Columbia. This is a shot of the Provincial Legislature, which is lit up every night.

3. Your Favourite TV Show:

Okay, it ended a while ago, but I still love it. I own the entire series on DVD. Brilliant acting. Brilliant directing. Brilliant writing. 'nuff said.

4. Your Occupation:

Nothing more need be said.

But I went to school to become:

There's no business like show business...ah, well.

5. Your First Car:

It got me to University. I had a political bumper sticker which embarrassed my Dad. Let's just say we did not share the same political views.

6. Your Favourite Dish:

This is French cuisine, but it's hard to choose. If I didn't have to cook it, it's a

7. Celebrity You've Been Told You Resemble:

Emma Thompson. We've both played the role of Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing". She has my career. No, no, I'm not bitter.

8. Celebrity on your "To Do" List.

This is for fun, right? Nothing wrong with a little fantasy...

I admit that I will never quite get over:

Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp. I'm smiling looking at this picture. Trust me.

9. Favourite Childhood Toy:

My sister and I called them "Guys"; as did all my kids when they were small.

10. Random Picture:

Venice. A place I am determined to see for myself. Magical.

Back to regular business tomorrow. What are your 10? You don't have to post pictures, but share!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


It's one of the things any writer decides almost at the beginning. Where does my story take place? In a familiar location? In another country? On another planet? Is it taking place now? In the future? In the past? Some stories can take place anywhere; some can only take place in a specific location. How big a role do settings play?

In the case of my current WIP, this story could only take place at this location. I couldn't move it to another country, nor could I move it to another time in history. Some of the plots depend on it. It's just the way it is. It is frustrating sometimes that I can't get in my car and drive there, but I'm compensating with pictures from internet sites, period travel literature and my own memories of being in that general part of the country. I wish I could write books that could happily be placed in my own backyard (so to speak) and in my own time. Ah, well; I shall put it down to one of life's little jests.

In some books, settings are background and nothing else. The same story could be picked up and placed (for instance) in any large city or any small town. A tale of a young woman finding the love of her life (and really good shoes) doesn't have to take place in New York or London. Breathlessly paced political thrillers don't have to be set in national capitols, but it certainly helps up the ante. Let's face it, the ramifications of trouble at the White House or Whitehall are more dire than the spectre of trouble at City Hall.

Then there are the settings that lend themselves to certain types of characters. There's not a large number of moonshine-brewin', tobacco spittin' types walking around Wall Street (or if there are, they're very well disguised). Granny isn't going to be sitting on the porch, sipping a mint julip, in Paris. If you need these characters then you have to give them their setting, whether you actually can get there or not.

Did your plot dictate your setting, or did your setting dictate your plot? Do you have a character that only works in one type of setting? Is your setting simply the background for your story or is it a character by itself?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Questions and Certainties

I've written many, many mysteries over my lifetime. I've killed characters because they were cruel, because they got wrongly-promoted, because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's fiction. But what about real life's biggest mysteries? Calling all detectives! Can you please explain to me why:

1. Housework. It's never done. I don't care if you live in a bachelor suite or a 40 room mansion; there's always something not completed. Even as you sink down on the couch with a well-deserved cup of tea dust is resettling on every one of your bookcases and the cat just coughed up something interesting on the stairs.

2. Socks. Where in the universe does that other sock go? I have a pile of sock orphans in my bedroom waiting hopefully to be reunited with their twin. I know for certain the minute I give up and toss them is the minute that the twin will be found. So they sit in their sock limbo.

3. Food. How is it possible that I spend a small fortune at the grocery store, stock my fridge and cupboards and get informed within minutes by my teenagers (while staring at the bounty) there's nothing to eat? Contrariwise; I can spend the day baking and the results of my labors will have disappeared before sundown. I've had to resort to freezing half and hiding it in a dark corner of the basement freezer. And speaking of which;

4. Freezers. How did that mystery package make its way into my freezer? It has an indiscernible shape and is covered in frost. What is it? How old is it? What will happen when it gets thrown out? Could it be something important that I 'hid'? Oh dear...

However, I have learned several inalienable facts through the years:

1. The back of the fridge. This is where food goes to die. If it has made its way to the back of the fridge it cannot be saved. Release it into the garbage or the compost. It's done.

2. I will never live in a magazine home. Okay, who are these people? Never in my life have I lived in a space that was magazine-worthy. I look at those magazines and suffer acutely from house envy.

3. Weeds are easier to grow than flowers. Nothing more needs to be said.

What great mysteries have you encountered? Were you able to solve them? Share. For fun!

Monday, October 5, 2009


I wrote murder mysteries for theatre companies for many years. I came up with a plot and characters and the actors would improvise the dialogue. Good fun for all, and I got paid. Nice! Then I was commissioned to write a mystery play and panic struck. I would have to write the dialogue! I made my way through it and now, four years later, I find writing dialogue for my characters the least of my problems. Along the way I have learned a few things to keep in mind:

  • Vocabulary. Every character has his/her own way of speaking. A university professor will express a thought very differently than a teenager. A forensic investigator's vocabulary will be peppered with medical terms that an amateur detective would never use.
  • Colloquialisms. Know your location to give your dialogue the ring of authenticity. But beware; too many colloquialisms will alienate readers from other parts of the world.
  • Rhythm. Every character has their own rhythm of speaking. Some are staccato, some are sustained notes, some use long pauses for emphasis. Find each character's rhythm. It's there if you listen.
  • Humor. Never underestimate the power of humor. Characters who are capable of making a small joke or a clever pun are more multi-dimensional.
Creating realistic dialogue is easier for some writers than for others. I have learned it is a valuable tool in fleshing out my characters. There is often a large difference between what my characters say and what they do. Some just lie. Some are incapable of lying. Dialogue is what makes characters come alive for both the author and the reader.

Have fun discovering your characters' voices. If you listen, they will come!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Which Comes First?

Inspiration can come in the strangest guises. It could be something you read in a newspaper or magazine. It could be a painting, or a wonderful photograph. It could be that odd-looking person walking down the street or that neighbour who insists on having arguments with their spouse outside so that the whole street can hear their issues. Every writer has a different answer, but which comes first; the character or the plot?

My first question is always 'why did whatever happen?' which means I have the beginnings of the plot and the beginnings of a character at almost exactly the same time. The first character I focus on is my victim. Why did he/she die? I don't write locked-room puzzles, the method is always very straight forward. It's the people that fascinate me. Why was murder the result? Was it for revenge? For money? For love? A combination? What was the situation that made somebody realize that murder was the only solution? This question will lead me to my plot...and of course, many more characters.

Peter Shaffer's play "Equus" was inspired by him reading a newspaper article about a similar crime. He never read anything else about that particular case, that one small article was enough to get his creative juices flowing. I've overhead snippets of conversations in the library or having coffee with a friend that have started my writer's brain bubbling. I love to watch people's body language. You can tell if someone is uncomfortable with a conversation by watching their reactions. See their weight start to shift back and forth from foot to foot? Did they just cross their arms? Are they looking at the other person or are they unable to make eye contact? And then when I get home the questions start: Why.....why....why?

Where do you start? Is it with a plot? An ending? A particular character? A setting?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Frankly, My Dear...

It's one of those days. It's raining. It's grey. The laundry hasn't disappeared and the dishes haven't put themselves away. My two cats are sleeping in the dining room and each of them open an eye to give me a withering stare if I dare to walk past. I know I should shake off this mood and dig back into my manuscript, but on days like today it's hard. Really hard.

There is no deadline hanging over me like a scythe. No ominous footsteps can be heard approaching. It's just me and my writing and my brain saying "Frankly, my dear...". A better soul would have been able to motivate themselves and would, by now, be typing furiously away; the staccato of the keyboard lending a rhythm to the bright and cheery humming leaking from their lips. I feel sure small chubby bluebirds would be circling around the yard as evidence of the magic happening within the house.

Not here. Here, it's raining. Here, it's grey.

These are the days when all of those thoughts come slithering back into my brain. Those thoughts. We all have them from time to time and I have learned to shut them out but at the moment they are so numerous that they're leaking out my ears.

Writing can be glorious. Writing lets you explore new lands and create new characters and experience adventures through their eyes. It can teach you things about other people and certainly about yourself. I enjoy being a writer...most days. But today?

Today, it's raining. Today, it's grey. And the cats continue to glare.