Tuesday, October 27, 2009
It looked like rain. The radio said rain. But I had so many things I wanted to see, I decided to try positive thinking. I don’t know if it worked, but it didn’t do anything all day but spit, and be cold.
Today was to start at the Payton Randolph house. I had talked to the Food-ways director who said I could stay as long as I wanted in the kitchen and ask as many questions as I could think of. I started off, across the green, pushing my wheel chair and carrying my question list. Wheel chairs come in handy for more than sitting. They can carry your purse, your tote, and your jacket. They also are good when there is no bench free.
Payton Randolph was a very wealthy man and his house showed it. It’s beautiful, and except for the lack of indoor plumbing and a gas stove, I could move right in. Oh. And I’d need a vacuum cleaner. After the tour of the house, I headed for the outbuildings, mainly the kitchen. It is attached to the laundry, not a common thing, but it makes sense. In between loads of laundry, it could accommodate loads of dirty dishes and pots. It took days to do laundry, washing, scrubbing, boiling, rinsing, and then, drying. Everything had to be ironed. And they heated the iron on the fire. It probably didn’t stay hot very long so it wasn’t a fast process. I think I’ll add my washer and dryer to my list of things I’m keeping.
The woman in the kitchen was great. She was making what we would call French toast. She took slices of day old bread, and back then day old bread was pretty dry, dipped them into a bowl that contained white wine and then into beaten eggs, and fried them in melted lard. They smelled delicious. I asked where she got the lard, afraid I already knew the answer. Yep. She’d made it. If you really want, I’ll send you directions, but I’m not going to try it. She was also cooking a fish on a plank in front of the fire. Butter was the only thing she used to baste it with, which, of course, she’d churned. I don’t think she milked the cow, but probably most women did. I have. I’m not doing it again. All of the food turned out in that kitchen looked and smelled wonderful, even the baked goods. But how they knew when the cake was done is beyond me. Then she pulled some coals out of the fire onto the brick hearth, put a trivet over them, and a pot on top of it, and started another dish. I’ll never complain again about how much work Thanksgiving is.
The afternoon was spent in the barn. The horses are spectacular and so beautifully taken care of, and the carriages are awesome. They have old breeds of chickens, sheep and cattle. They have quit breeding the horses, mainly due to lack of pasture area, but we had a great time talking about them, and I learned a lot.
Benedict Arnold arrived at the capitol building in the late afternoon and raised the British flag to the boo’s of the towns people, helped out by the rest of us, and George Washington road into the armory right behind him and retook the town. We all cheered like crazy and the fife and drum corps played and the muskets were fired in salute. By that time it had started to drizzle, and it was getting cold. It was time for a glass of wine.
I finished the day by dining in the Regency Room in the Williamsburg Inn. The epitome of understated elegance. No wonder Queen Elizabeth elected to stay there.
The weather report was for rain. Lots of it. And I planed on leaving in the morning for Mt Vernon.
I was afraid my positive thinking had just run out.
Monday, October 26, 2009
On Friday evening, a friend of mine asked me some questions about mystery writing while I was at the Brownie Scout sleepover. Naturally, since this is my favorite thing to talk about, I was happily prattling off all kinds of info when it occurred to me that my non-writing friends aren’t ordinarily that interested in the process of writing. They’re incredibly supportive, but not usually asking the kinds of questions that my friend was asking.
I’m slow on the uptake, I’ll admit it. Especially in conversations. “Oh! You’re interested in writing.” Which was wonderful. Because if I could convert everyone into becoming a writer, I’d do it. The world would be a happier, if odder, place.
My friend wanted some ‘starting out’ information about writing. My mind really boggled. There’s such an incredible amount of information out there. Where do you start? What’s useful?
I think it’s good to do some research ahead of time. Some. Not enough to stifle the creativity. Not enough to feel like the process is too daunting. But enough so your first attempt isn’t way off course.
What genre do you want to write? What do you read? What do you like to read? Is it different from what you feel like you should be reading? You might even want to focus in on a particular subgenre—a paranormal mystery. An apocalyptic sci-fi. It would definitely make it easier to query later on because agents and editors want to know what kind of book you’ve got.
In that genre, what is the usual word count range? For a ballpark idea on what you should think about shooting for, try this article. Why is this useful? You need to think about whether your idea is sustainable for 75,000—95,000 words (which is likely the range of most adult books.) And you want to stop yourself before you write too much material. More usually isn’t better, as far as agents and editors are concerned.
Where do I start? At the beginning….or not. There’s no rule that you have to start at the beginning if that’s the part that’s tripping you up. Skip the beginning and move on to the next scene. You could even write the ending first.
Set a small, attainable goal. Otherwise, it’s like a New Year’s Resolution that ends up getting ditched. Even 10 minutes a day is good, as long as you’re looking at your manuscript and writing.
Don’t worry about agents and editors until your book is done—unless you’re writing nonfiction and want to send out a proposal for your project before writing it.
Aspiring mystery writers—and other genre-writers (since some of the info isn’t genre-specific)—here are some links I’ve thought were helpful in the past. Most of them I would only use if you get stuck. If you try to read a whole bunch of information before writing, it can really mess with your mind (at least, it does with mine.) Obviously, take what you need and ignore the rest. There is a formulaic aspect to writing mysteries, but we all infuse the process with our own personalities on paper.
Tripod.com's Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula This can give you an idea of what plotting a mystery is like if you’re not really sure where different elements come in. It’s by no means a Bible…and the word count is usually higher than 60,000 words.
Write That Novel , which has useful, printable sheets for characterization, plotting, storyboards, etc.
Book Crossroads , which has links to online mystery writing groups, hardboiled slang dictionaries, forensic information, and legal overviews.
Twenty Mystery Writing Rules
Writing Clues: Help for mystery writers
Don't Drop Clues: Plant them Carefully! by Stephen Rogers does a great job covering the types of clues, how to misdirect your reader, and mistakes to avoid.
Suite 101 covers planting clues in different ways: tucking them in a paragraph, heightening the drama, clues of omission, missing weapons, and clues from real life.
Author Sandra Parshall's website explains how "Clues Drive the Mystery Plot."
The Christie Mystery website demonstrates how Agatha Christie used clues and other plot devices.
Stephen Rogers writes a different article on red herrings and how to use them effectively.
Hope these help and good luck with your writing journey!
Elizabeth Spann Craig
Pretty is as Pretty Dies—August 2009, Midnight Ink
Delicious and Suspicious—May 2010, Berkley Prime Crime
Thursday, October 22, 2009
It’s been ten months since the removal of my left leg, so its been that long since I’ve gone anywhere but the grocery store by myself. It was time.
I have an idea for a new series and wanted to do some research. The best place for it was Williamsburg. That I just happened to love going there had absolutely nothing to do with my decision. And, since I was going to be in Virginia, I thought I might as well go to Mt. Vernon and Monticello, places I somehow had never managed to see. So I started planning. It takes more, I’ve discovered, when you only have one leg. It also takes more guts. I almost backed out a couple of times, but I didn’t.
It is not easy to find wheelchair accessible rooms. That’s what they call them nowadays. Handicapped is out, accessible is in. I don’t know why, but it turns out to be confusing. Sometimes that just means you can get the wheelchair from the door to the bed, other times it means you have a roll-in shower and that you can reach the hairdryer. Booking on line doesn’t tell you, so you’d better ask someone, and hope to get someone who sort of speaks English. The person I got was very kind and helpful but had no idea where or what Virginia was. We both got an education during that conversation.
I started off Tue morning bright and early, prepared to enjoy the early fall drive north. Going alone has several advantages, one of which is there is more room to bring stuff. And to bring even more stuff home. And, there is room for the wheelchair, which takes up lots of room. The directions I had pulled off the Internet were, at best, confusing. I had no trouble as long as I kept on 85, but the closer I got to Williamsburg, the more I was convinced I was going the wrong, or possibly just the long, way. Why would I want to go through Richmond? I needed gas anyway, and the other comforts gas stations provide, so got off on Hwy 40. What a blessing that turned out to be. Just keep on 40, the woman said, and you’ll end up at the ferry that takes you across to York and Colonial Williamsburg.
I love ferries. It started when I was young and had cousins who lived in Coronado, just across from San Diego in California. That was before they built the bridge. Going on the ferry was the best part of visiting them. So, when she said ‘ferry’ there was no chance I was going back to the interstate. The road was two lanes and sort of meandered through fields and small towns. Wonderful. I passed cotton whose pods had split, the white fibers bursting out, ready for plucking. Other fields were stubble, freshly harvested of what I had no idea. There were fields of plants about three-four feet high whose leaves were turning all of the lush fall colors whose identity I never discovered, and then there was the swamp. Black stubs of trees sticking out of a huge field of equally black, and very still, water lent a surreal feel to the drive. Disney couldn’t have done it better. But then the clear cutting started. Field after field of nothing. You could see where trees had once stood, and some places where they were trying to grow back with little success. Pines of some kind were growing vigorously, along with lots of scrub of various kinds, but the big, beautiful old trees were gone. Not all, there are still long stretches of woods, but they seem to be slipping away. I soon drove into what I think is the reason. The welcoming sign on the small town proclaims it to be a company town, and right in the middle of it is the factory. They make particle board. I’m sure not all of the huge old trees I saw being trucked out go into that factory, but I bet some do. I’m hoping they can use the scrub growing so enthusiastically and leave what remains of the old trees to guard the forest.
Just a little further up the road I rounded a bend and there was the bay. And there sat the ferry. Going across was great, as usual, and it was free. That was not usual, but hooray for Virginia.
My room was in the historic part of Colonial Williamsburg and looked out on market square. It was great, and I was able to do several things before dark. I can walk on this artificial leg pretty well, but not long distances and not on cobblestones. Turns out rolling a wheelchair down a cobblestone street is a definite challenge as well. I ended that day with dinner at Shields. What fun and a great dinner. Our waiter regaled us with funny customs from the eighteenth century such as the fact that most people didn’t have spoons. Instead they scooped out the last of their soup or stew with a piece of dried bread called a sippett. I’ll keep my spoon. Met Mrs. Shields and she says her cornbread is the best in the town. If that be so---. Only disappointment is they no longer serve Syllabub. However, they do have a punch---.
A great day, and tomorrow the real reason I came begins.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
I’m one of those people who usually likes to go with the flow. I think that’s because I’m in a writing fog half the day. But once I come down off my happy imaginary high, reality hits. And once I get my hackles up, watch out.
I’ve unfortunately been on a roll the past week of problems that needed to be addressed. The tipping point for each thing, the bit that spurred me into action? My children, each time.
It started with a group my son volunteers for. It was a school night, the day before a test. Pouring down rain, very chilly. He was with some other middle school boys, removing a barbeque pit that they’d help set up the week before for their yearly barbeque sale to raise funds for the group.
He had a nasty cold. Two hours into the mandatory volunteer work in the cold rain, I called his cell phone. “I’m on my way to get you.”
“Mom—they said I’m not allowed to go.”
“Well, I think you’ve done well to work for two hours. I’m going to pick you up and you can work on studying for your test tomorrow.”
“Mom—he says I’m not excused. We have another hour to go.”
“Tell this gentleman your Mama wants to talk to him.”
A moment and a quick conversation later, “He says it’s okay, Mom. See you in a minute.”
Ohhh, I hate to act ugly. Why is it that the squeaky wheel gets the grease?
Confrontations or getting ready for a confrontation is stressful to me. I’m a very different person when I’m stressed out or angry.
My characters reach their tipping points, too. Everybody has something that’s going to set them off. In a mystery, that straw that broke the camel’s back could result in a murder.
As I’ve mentioned before, our characters are stressed out. Their lives are completely upside-down. I wrote about the way the confusion they might feel a few posts ago. Yes, they would feel very taken aback at the way their lives were running completely off track.
But what about stress? What kinds of things might a character do under stress?
- They could say something they shouldn’t have said. This could cause a ripple effect in many ways but could especially create a rift between characters during an argument.
- Stress could cause them to briefly act out of character. Have you got a well-controlled, polite character? Reacting to a stressful situation could make their temper flare up and open up some plot possibilities.
- A character might drink too much under stress. This could create a whole host of other problems and conflicts in our plots. They might start a bad habit, like smoking, again.
- They could react in a very wholesome way—increasing the amount of exercise they’re getting, watching what they eat, and trying to work in more sleep. (But really, what fun is that to write with? :) )
In my murder mysteries, stress causes my murderer to kill again. Naturally, the killer wants to remain unknown and will eliminate anyone who knows his identity.
Stress causes my suspects to point the finger at other suspects—who had been their friends prior to the murder investigation.
Character stress causes arguments and conflicts in my small town settings and old grievances bubble up to the surface again.
Friday, October 16, 2009
I like being interviewed! Maybe I'm a ham. I know we're supposed to demure and lament the horrors of it, but that's not me.
It's fun to talk about your work and your life. You get to decide how intimate you want to be, after all. It's not like you have to tell your deep dark secrets, if you have any. I have three children and five grandchildren who all live within, five minutes of me. I don't have any deep or dark secrets.
If it's any consolation for my lack of modesty about this, I enjoy interviewing other people for the newspaper and magazines too. Listening to their stories about their lives is very motivating sometimes. Or a caution about how to live your life. Either way, it's fun. I really like when people get excited about it too! No one ever told them they weren't supposed to like it.
So here's a new interview with me and Jim. Nothing deep or dark but it was fun! Thanks, Don McCauley for a good time! I hope to interview you right back someday!
Thursday, October 15, 2009
How do you know when it's time to do something else? How can you tell when what you're doing isn't working for you anymore?
My week has been full of these questions.
It connects to writing but also to every other phase of our lives. When do you give up on a relationship? When do you decide you've tried as hard as you can to make a job work for you?
Sometimes you don't have any choice. Sometimes whatever it is comes up and kicks YOU out the door. The job you were thinking about leaving suddenly lays you off. The person you were beginning to think you could live without decides to leave you.
No matter what, when you leave something behind, there is a certain melancholy, even when it's something good for you. We too often look at the end rather than the beginning.
We are creatures of habit and want to continue doing what we're used to doing. But sometimes, we have to move out, move forward.
As writers, we sometimes find ourselves feeling trapped in what we're writing. An agent wants us to write mysteries but we yearn to write fantasy. We seem to be very good at writing nonfiction, but we want to write romance.
It is a trap of our own making, especially if you are successful, even moderately successful. What if we do something different and no one wants to read what we've written? What if we are dumped by our publisher or agent and left to manage alone?
Sometimes, we just have to let go and let ourselves move forward. We might be afraid. Maybe we'd rather keep things the same despite our yearnings. But if we want to grow, we have to step forward. We have to be willing to take chances.
Am I willing to take those chances?
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
For the first time ever, my son asked to go shopping with me on Sunday. This was a real jaw-dropper, since our usual modus operandi has involved my going to the store, buying clothes, and forcing him to try them on later at home. Then I’d return what didn’t fit or what he didn’t like. And this was worth it to me because he was such an unhappy shopper and made the experience miserable for both of us.
But this time he was raring to go. He wanted a new pair of jeans, some new shorts (we’re entering a cold streak, but it’s still pretty warm on normal days), a sweatshirt, and some other things.
That day, he got hungry at 2:00 in the afternoon (two hours after eating a filling lunch of a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, yogurt, chips, and a plum). He ate a barbeque sandwich, edamame, and grapes. Two hours later, he ate a huge plate of alfredo pasta.
He’s thin as a rail.
I’m guessing he’s growing.
This influenced where we were going to shop. He wanted cool clothes. I figured he would outgrow them very, very soon. Old Navy was my pick…no Hollister or Abercrombie and Fitch on this shopping trip.
When I was shopping for a publisher for Pretty is as Pretty Dies (necessary, because my first book from five years ago was with a small publisher that has—as many small publishers have lately—unfortunately gone under), I had a shopping plan, too. I needed a larger publisher with a more substantial print run. I needed to approach a publisher that wouldn’t require me to have an agent--which, at the time, I didn’t have. I needed someone that was currently open to admissions. I needed a publisher that published humorous cozies. I looked to ensure the publisher published regional mysteries, too. I found Midnight Ink and they were a perfect match for my manuscript.
All the writers I’ve ever spoken to have had similar shopping trips. You increase your chances substantially by not sending your YA book to a romance publisher. Or by not sending your 120,000 word mystery to a cozy publisher (who will be looking in the 75,000 word range.)
Publishers are shopping too, of course. Some of the things they’re looking for: conflict, hooks, riveting beginnings, original characters, and a strong voice.
They’re also looking for basic things like correct spelling, good grammar, active voice, showing-not-telling (some of the time, anyway), and some indication you’ve done your homework (their name is on the query, you’ve spelled their name correctly, you know the type of books the house publishes, your manuscript isn’t extremely long or extremely short, your query doesn’t state that your neighbor/child/cat loved your manuscript, etc.)
If I’d been looking for a suit for my son, we wouldn’t have gone to Old Navy.
If a publisher is looking for non-fiction, they’re not going to come to me. If I’m looking for a cozy mystery publisher, I’m not going to submit to Forge.
But if we do our research and have the merchandise publishers are looking for, both sides will get what they want.
Online searches--Have a publisher you're interested in? Google the publisher's name + submission guidelines. Then, look at the publisher's website and see what their most recent releases are. Check those books out from the library or look for them in a bookstore and compare them to your own.
Elizabeth Spann Craig
Pretty is as Pretty Dies—Aug. 2009
Memphis BBQ series—May 2010
Saturday, October 10, 2009
We have done workshops where it was almost SRO (there were 75 at the Gastonia Library) to 5 at Waldenbooks at the mall in Concord, to a captive audience of 1 at the Mint Hill Library. No matter the size of the group everyone is there to hear what each of the conspirators has to say about different aspects of writing.
I am really looking forward to doing a Novello Writers Workshop on Oct. 25th at the Hickory Library. A group of about 40 writers have accepted the library's challenge to write a novel in 30 days! The library has asked the Conspiracy group to do a round table discussion with them on our writing experiences.
Well that is all for now. I am getting ready for a vacation in Atlanta from 10/16-10/24. Keep fighting the good fight! Doug The Executioner Walker
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Clichés. Her piece was filled with them.
Now, I probably wouldn’t have been so struck with them if I hadn’t attended all those writing classes. Don’t use clichés, we were told. Go through your manuscript and take them all out. They are the lazy person’s way to express themselves and an editor will immediately reject you if you use them. Besides, they mark you as uneducated, uninformed, not willing to go the extra mile to properly express yourself. So, for a long time I have had a horror of those innocent little expressions.
Only, are they really so awful? Didn’t they come into being because they were a good shortcut to express a very real sentiment?
I’ve known as many people with college degrees whose speech is littered with clichés as those who still are struggling to get their GED. Maybe more. And, when writing dialog, they can come in handy when you are drawing the profile of a character. And that character doesn’t have to come across as lazy, ignorant, or anything other than that’s the way they talk.
It’s the way we all talk. If we didn’t use them so often, they wouldn’t be clichés. Of course, if you are going to use them, it’s a good idea to use them appropriately. I knew someone who kept referring to a relative as “my shirttail relative.” That usually means someone who hangs onto your shirttail while you drag them along behind. It’s a faintly disparaging term. Only, in this case, the relative was pretty rich and handed out possessions and money to the rest of the family.
So, if we are going to use phrases that are termed clichés, it might be a good idea to at least know what they mean.