“Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.” ~ Swedish Proverb

I’m a worrier. I guess I always have been but I don’t think I realized it until a few years ago.

On a visit to Wisconsin, my siblings and I sat talking around the kitchen table one evening when I said something, although just now I can’t quite recall what.  I do remember that, after the chuckles subsided, my older brother said “Well, Deb always has been a worry-wart.”

A hundred-watt bulb lit up over my head. He was right, of course.  (Big brother is nearly always right.) So strange that I never realized the truth of his words until then.  I guess I figured everyone worried about their kids staying out late, and about loved ones driving in bad weather.  Didn’t everyone wonder if they’d turned off the stove before leaving home?  Didn’t everyone fret whether they’d locked the door, and shut the upstairs window?  In the mall parking lot, did I lock the car, or not?  Did I remember to charge my cell phone before I left on a road trip?  Did I bring the car charger?

I’ve generally kept my worry-wart nature hidden.  Few people know about it, except those closest to me.  Oh, and maybe the neighbors who observe my frequent returns to re-check the front door.  And now, those of you who are reading this post.

In her book, HEROES & HEROINES: Sixteen Master Archetypes, author Tami Cowden describes sixteen basic characteristics for heroes and heroines.  There isn’t a worrier among them.  None of my heroines have been worriers either.  I guess worry just isn’t a very heroic quality.

Still, I think it is a trait that might work well with a Nurturer – a mother who worries unduly.  Or a Waif who might worry about how she will find her next meal, even after she wins the lottery.  Or a Crusader who might worry over whether the greedy nuclear plant builders have built in enough safeguards.

Our heroes and heroines must be heroic but they must be real, too. Perfection creates boredom.  Heroes and heroines are more real when they have some inborn less-than-desirable quality to overcome.  Jealous, intolerant, greedy, vengeful, or lacking faith.  And one who, occasionally, worries.

I believe the reverse is true for villains.  Even Hannibal Lecter, among the most chillingly evil of villains, cared for and, in his own way, looked after Clarice.  I’d love to read about a villain who, in addition to his despicable nature, is also honest, caring, generous, or tolerant.  And yes, even one who worries. 

Cooking Trout

When I first dreamed of writing a novel, in those early days before I understood the enormity of the task, I attended a small writers’ conference.   My first.  It was an all-day event at a local university.  The focus of workshops ran the spectrum from literary writing to genre, from non-fiction to poetry.  Topics, too, varied broadly but I only remember one with any degree of detail.

Our speaker on editing was a freelance writer who mainly sold articles to a highly popular food magazine.  troutAfter a brief introduction, she placed a transparency on the glass plate of the overhead and projected it on to the screen.  The typewritten article, one she had sold for a nice sum, was about cooking trout.

We sat in a large, sunny room in seats too far from the blurry screen.  Timidly, I sat in the last row, so far back that I couldn’t see the words.  But I saw the format.  It was the closest I’d been to a behind-the-scenes look at an article for publication and my blood raced.

The writer read a few lines aloud then talked about her opening.  I can still hear her jittery voice.  Obviously, she was more comfortable at her desk tapping typewriter keys than in front of fifty or so aspiring writers.  Still, with a great deal of grit, she guided us through the article.

She wasn’t happy with her preliminary opening, she said.  It didn’t have the strength, the power she wanted.  She put up another transparency.  I squinted.  Dark lines slashed through many of the words of her original version. “Weak words,’ she said, and replaced them.

Over the next hour, she dissected the first then the second draft of her article, showing just how she edited, explaining every change made, and why.

Perhaps, with all that article dissection, I should have learned how to cook trout. Instead, I learned to cook words and to understand the meaning of edit.

A well-written story, fiction or non, isn’t just written.  Words must often be hand-picked and their placement well-planned.  The writer must carefully craft the story so that it leads the reader on a journey.  The journey may lead to a place of happily ever after, or to a plate of succulent trout.

It was a strong realization for one aspiring writer.

Writing Tight

“Substitute ‘damn’ everytime you’re inclined to write ‘very.’  Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” ~ Mark Twainmark-twain1

I love Mark Twain’s wisdom, and his wit.  With the narrowed eyes and steady arm of a master archer, his advice still strikes like arrows at the heart of writing craft.  Twain understood the inherent energy that results in choosing the right word for the task.  Of writing tight.

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter,” Twain wrote in a letter in 1888. “It’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Think about it…the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening.  The first time I heard those words I was blown away with their depth.   How often in my writing do I use a bland, generic word when the story needs a specific noun, or an active verb?

strunk-and-whiteOne of my favorite writing references is, quite literally, a little book – Strunk and White’s THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE.   Aside from understandable advice about grammar and punctuation, the book discusses the simple essense of good writing.  Use active voice.  Omit needless words.  Keep related words together. There are chapters on often misused words, and on words commonly misspelled.

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE is a fun volume to keep on your desk, or bedside table.  To pick up and peruse at odd moments.  It is clear and concise.  I’ve no doubt Mark Twain would have appreciated its simplicity.

→ Who do you look to for sage advice on the craft of writing?  Do you have a favorite quote, author, or reference book?  Please share.

Food History

Sometimes a reference source comes along that is just so helpful you want to shout about it to the world.  Yesterday that happened to me.

As a writer of historical fiction, discovering The Food Timelinefood-timeline1 was a godsend.  Incredibly organized, using a simple timeline with links to a huge collection of other websites, it presents food’s history.  It includes recipes, literary quotes, and lists of resources.  You can learn when popcorn first came on the scene, a recipe for haggis, and tips on how to find an old family recipe.

Of course, the website just had to be designed by a librarian.  Lynne Olver, the site’s creator, is a New Jersey reference librarian with a passion for food history.   Ms. Olver and The Food Timeline have received multiple honors and awards.

Keep in mind — the site is copyrighted.  There’s a paragraph on citations here.

The Food Timeline is free with no subscription, no ads.  Why?  It was conceived and created by a public librarian, a profession that is “devoted to providing fair and equitable access to information regardless of ability to pay.”  What a wonderful statement.  Thanks to Lynne Olver, and all who contributed.

And, in case you haven’t already thought of it, you’ll want to bookmark this one!

→ Have you ever found a site or other reference source so useful that you wanted to shout about it?  Please share!

Nannies, Servants & Such

Recently, through the wonder of Netflix, we discovered a captivating program that first aired on BBC in 1998. berkeley-square Set during the time of King Edward VII’s coronation, London 1902, Berkeley Square tells of three nannies and the wealthy families they served.  As we watched the first few episodes, we were reminded of the Masterpiece Theater classic Upstairs, Downstairs and its revelations of the British upper class and their servants’ lifestyles.

Although nannies were among the more privileged of servants, their lives were wholly dependent on their employers. Berkeley Square touches on some social issues not often seen in popular film – child neglect, the use of laudanum and baby-farming.  The depiction of children and their caretakers was both thought-provoking and sad.  The movie shows strong visual images in the costumes and settings.

As a writer of historical romance, I’ve long been fascinated with newport-ri-0171servants during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Two years ago, my husband and I toured a few of the summer mansions in Newport, Rhode Island.  We especially enjoyed seeing The ElmsThe tours – both of the main house and the special behind-the-scenes servants tour – revealed two different worlds.  The contrasting tours were like entering the kitchen of an exclusive restaurant; we saw both the glamorous facade and where the potatoes were peeled.

Studying how people lived – cultural history – helps to better rwa-national-2008-sf-0114 create and shape our characters.   That’s what I find most valuable in my writing research, discovering what folks wore (both day and night), what they ate, how they dressed, and what they valued.  Last year’s History Conference at RWA National included workshops on dressing our characters, a Regency period Soiree, and samplings of foods from different time periods.

Movies.  Books.  Websites. Conferences.  Old house tours.  Civil War re-enactments.  They all reveal needed details that breathe life into our characters.

→ Have you seen Berkeley Square?   What movies, books, or other events have helped you to enrich your knowledge of cultural history?

…In the Dead of Winter

Two of my sons came home for a visit the weekend after my birthday. One carried a florist’s bouquet. As I pulled back the delicate tissue paper and lavender satin Flowersribbon, I seemed to hear Patricia Neal’s smoky voice. “Flowers,” she whispered. “In the dead of winter!”

Amid smiles, hugs, and centering the fragrant blooms on our coffee table, Neal’s words lingered in my thoughts.  The movie was The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, a pilot for the old television show, The Waltons.  You remember — the Great Depression, a large family.  John-Boy.  When Olivia Walton (Neal’s character) receives the flowers, her sense of awe is tangible.  “Flowers,” she says.  “In the dead of winter.”

With those few words we understand Olivia.  Her rural poverty.  Her warmth and love of beauty.  Her wonder at the miracle of flowers growing in winter.   The words anchor her in a different time and place, a time when folks couldn’t easily pick-up fresh floral bouquets year-round.

Other than a few blogs and articles, mostly I write historical fiction.   Reading it has taught me the need to ground my heroine in the time she lives.  I must make her era come alive through her thoughts, deeds, and dialogue.  What does she find wondrous?   What might she fear?   What does she believe?  How does all of that influence her words and actions?

It takes a light hand to do this.  No long rambling diatribes.  Just something simple.  Something like “Flowers. In the dead of winter.”

→If you write historical fiction, or any fiction set outside your own norm, what have you found helpful when creating your characters?  How do you sculpt them to make them appropriate for the time or place in which they live?

KOD Retreat – Day 2

Author Mary Buckham started Saturday’s workshops with a session titled Conflict, Driving the Plot. “True conflict,” she said, “cannot be resolved by conversation.” A well-crafted template provided the questions needed to determine if our characters have the true conflict needed to move the story forward. Details from the movie Finding Nemo provided great examples.

In a gripping, and sometimes hysterical, two and a half hour presentation, retired Atlanta Police Lieutenant Danny J. Agan discussed police procedures then guided attendees through the important details of a murder investigation. Kiss of Death members stepped into the various roles of two emotional witnesses, the first officer on the scene, and a police detective, complete with a deerstalker hat.Beanie” (at right, on the floor) played the part of a stabbed and strangled victim.

After a delicious buffet luncheon in the hotel’s Regency Room, we gathered for another session. NY Times Bestselling Author Lisa Gardner spoke on Winning Tips for Romantic Suspense. Here are some of recently contracted author Casey Clifford’s comments on Ms. Gardner’s presentation.

“Saturday afternoon, Portland, ME., I sat listening to Lisa Gardner discuss Romantic Suspense writing. What an informative and interesting speaker! Each moment she spoke I found myself thinking, had I done that, or had I thought about that point in my recent writing project. She gave me so much to mull over on my return flight home.

Perhaps, the most significant point she made was the element of keeping hope alive in your characters, and therefore in your readers, as you ramp up their danger. She hammered home how necessary it is to make our heroes and heroines “not perfect” so readers can relate to them. On the flip side of that Ms. Gardner reminded the audience that memorable villains have a soft human spot and we, as writers, must reflect that in some way to our readers.

This conference has been a creative spark for me. I’m sure the others in attendance have felt the same way. Each speaker brought special expertise to us. I’ve been very fortunate to be here.” ~ Casey Clifford

Thank you, Casey!

At 3:30PM, authors assembled for a booksigning. I enjoyed chatting with all, including authors Hank Phillipi Ryan and Susan Vaughan (on right).

In another room, both published and aspiring authors pitched their books to Literary Agent Meg Ruley of Jane Rotrosen Agency and to Publisher/Managing Editor Raelene Gorlinsky of Ellora’s Cave Publishing, Inc.

Dinner was on our own. Some of us gathered in The Armory, the Regency’s lounge, for dinner and more conversation.

Tomorrow morning we will meet for a buffet breakfast and final workshops. Check back Monday for a final wrap-up to the 2008 Kiss of Death Retreat.

RWA National in San Francisco – August 1 & 2

Friday and Saturday posts slipped away in a flurry of conference bustle. After the sensational awards ceremony (see August 3rd), this wrap-up summary may be anti-climatic, but I wanted to post before the memories slip away.

Both days opened with continental breakfasts outside the Yerba Buena Ballroom. Tables of pastries, juice, fruit, coffee and tea helped jump-start our day. We sat at the ballroom tables with our plates and cups, planning, chatting, or just zoning out.

At some point early on Friday, I discovered that the Marriott had a rooftop garden on the 5th floor, a haven of rest amid the bustle of the conference. Multi-published Regency Author (and fellow WisRWA member) Victoria Hinshaw wandered out there as I was contemplating the palms and the sky. We had a very nice chat. Part of the pure joy of RWA National is the unexpected conversations with other writers.

There were some incredible workshops this year, held over the three day conference. Somewhere I saw there were over 100 to choose from. Here are a few of my favorites:

Brenda Hiatt gave an update on her popular presentation called Show Me the Money, compiled from anonymous surveys, showing how much publishers really pay for romance novels. In addition to dollar amounts, she gave advice on what to do when you get the call, about rights, contract clauses and a myriad of other helpful facts. Her updated Show Me the Money survey is available on her website (click her name, above).

Integrated Marketing was a panel presentation by Saturday night’s RITA winner Madeline Hunter, marketing specialist Shannon Aviles, and media specialist Trish Claussen. They discussed the importance of using media to create an integrated marketing plan and create buzz for your name, thereby increasing your sales. Since I first heard her speak several years ago, I’ve been wowed by Ms. Hunter’s professional knowledge and business savvy. This workshop was no exception.

Stephanie Bond gave another practical, down-to-earth presentation – How to Make a Living Writing Romance. She talked about forming strategies to make a business plan and determining your writing goals. Writing five new pages a day for 350 days a year, she said, will generate 1,750 pages – the equivalent of two single titles, 3 categories, and 2 novellas. FYI – Ms. Bond has a link to her writing articles on her website.

Multi-RITA finalist Virginia Kantra gave another helpful workshop – Voice: What are they Talking About? By using examples from best-selling authors she talked about factors influencing voice and how to define and refine your own voice. Very helpful.

Most of the workshops will be available on CD at Bill Stephen’s Productions, within a few weeks. Currently only 2006 and 2007 are listed. The first ones I mentioned (Money, Marketing, and Making a Living) weren’t recorded but I urge you to seek out the speakers/topics at future conferences.

My compliments to whoever came up with the small, wire-bound RWA Conference Journal. The size and design made it an easy fit into any handbag. The front held a Schedule at a Glance, and the many lined blank pages were more than sufficient for my conference notes. Good, functional design, and well-used!

Throughout the last day, writers lined up for the free books at the publisher sponsored book signings. The Marriott established a special Shipping Center near the Golden Gate Suites to ship books home. In this age of limited allowed luggage on airlines, this shipping center made for a much appreciated convenience.

Later this week I will post about things learned at this year’s conference. Please check back!

Scribbles and Images

I changed my laptop wallpaper a few days ago. In the process I made a small discovery.

Last year we drove up to Rhode Island to see the Newport Mansions. On our second day there, my husband suggested a sail on the Narragansett Bay. That’s where I shot this picture, the one I placed on my wallpaper.

…..a sunset cruise, a small sailboat…sky graying with impending rain. The boat’s motor pulls us from the wharf. Beyond the Tall Ships, the Captain unfurls sails and his boat skims the water. Mist touches our cheeks and our lips taste of salt. We do not speak as his craggy New England voice spins stories. As we near the ocean the distant sky darkens. Thunder booms from afar. The Captain frowns…checks the radar once, twice. Lightening flashes, a spectacular sight that will remain forever distant as we turn about….

I hoard pictures, more so now that we’ve gone digital. I also collect scribblings. Buried somewhere in my files are notes about a creepy laugh overheard at a restaurant, and the feel of the air just before a tornado touched down mere blocks from our home. So many images. So many scribbles.

So what is my discovery? Mainly that these images are more vivid and enduring because they are preserved. They prompt otherwise lost memories and let them slip into our stories. Such tiny details help to enrich, to make our books come alive.

Many writers collect such scribblings and images. Do you find yourself using them in your writing? And, how do you keep them organized?

I hear voices

For me, it all starts with a voice. Soon others chime in. Before I can bring my characters to life, I must hear them speak and think.

HEARTS IN WINTER, my current wip, was conceived at three o’clock on an early winter’s morn. A woman’s thoughts stepped into my dreams and nudged me awake. From my husband’s side in our warm bed, I arose and stumbled barefoot across the cold floor to my work place. There, bathed in the artificial blue glow of my computer screen, I began to type.

She’d been dead nearly a year now.

Through all my edits that voice, Clarissa’s sad musing as she sat in her dusky sewing room, has never changed.

I hear Clarissa’s voice as soft as funeral satin. Jebediah, her former lover and the father of her child, speaks in a warm Virginia drawl. Karl sounds like a gravel road, rocky and rough.

Whether my readers will eventually hear my characters as I do does not really matter, as long as they hear them clearly. Through their accents, tone, and words, voices give life to the people in our stories. They help shape them, and push them from the page.

Do you hear voices, too? How do they sound to you?