Hang on to What You’ve Got…and Keep on Going

I’ve shared this story many times in the past, so maybe you’ve heard it before.  It’s the story of a very old woman I knew as “Great Aunt Becky.” No, she was not my aunt, great or otherwise. We were not related.

Becky was related to a good friend, although I’m not sure exactly how. Maybe she was his great aunt, or maybe she was his mother’s great aunt. A long time has passed since the day I met Great Aunt Becky.

She lived in a tiny little country town, hundreds of miles from the city. She was truly a woman from another world in many ways, a woman of another generation, another lifetime. When I met Great Aunt Becky, she had recently celebrated her 105th birthday.

Blind, barely able to hear, hardly able to speak, and wholly unable to move about on her own, she lived with two daughters and a houseful of cats. Literally. Dozens of cats roamed the little house, jumping on furniture, getting underfoot, and yes, making cat messes everywhere.

Have you ever seen Hoarders? That’s what Great Aunt Becky’s house was like. Filled with junk, broken furniture, discarded clothes, books, newspapers…and the cats. Yes, the cats. She loved her cats.  Oh, the stink! I’ve never seen such a filthy mess before. It didn’t bother Great Aunt Becky, of course. I suspect that along with her eyesight and her hearing, she’d long before lost any sense of smell.

Despite her physical limitations, she was keenly aware that visitors had come calling that summer day. She didn’t know me; she didn’t remember my friend and wouldn’t have recalled how they were related if she had remembered. But she knew we were there, and she was curious — about me. Maybe in some way, she recognized something familiar in my friend, but I was a stranger, a complete “unknown” in her life.

Rocking chairTruthfully, I was hesitant when she indicated that I should approach. Much like a regal queen (seated on a rocking chair with a bedpan beneath her) she motioned me forward. It took a bit of a nudge from my friend, but I pushed my reluctance aside and went to greet Great Aunt Becky.

 

I had no idea what to say to her. After all, she couldn’t hear me, couldn’t see me. What was I supposed to do?

As soon as I drew near, she sensed my presence. Great Aunt Becky reached out and grabbed my hands. She held on to me with surprising strength, and I knew that she had something important she wanted to share.  When her lips began to move, I bent forward, straining to hear the mumbled words. I’ve never forgotten them.

 

“Hang on to what you’ve got, and keep on going.”

 

Was it a message for me? A motto to remember? An old adage? All of these, and more? It was much like opening a Chinese fortune cookie and wondering if the little scrap of paper inside somehow had meaning in your life.

In the years since that one brief encounter with Great Aunt Becky, I’ve often pondered those words. I’ve found they do have meaning for me.  Especially at times when writing seems to be a challenge, or on days when nothing seems to go quite right, I often look back at Great Aunt Becky and recall her words of wisdom.

If you’re struggling with a writing project, if you’re feeling disappointed in what you’ve accomplished, or if you’re looking for ways to cope with the demands of writing, family responsibilities, and perhaps a full-time day job as well, maybe Great Aunt Becky’s words can inspire you, too.

You’ve been given talent and a desire to use it. Sure, life’s going to throw a few curve balls at you.  Don’t give up. Hang on to that talent and that desire. Hold on to the stories in your head, the thoughts in your heart. Do your best with what you’ve got…and above all, keep on going.

Great Aunt Becky would be proud of you.

Camp NaNo — Who’s Going?

Writers know about NaNoWriMo — National Novel-Writing Month. Most of us have probably participated in the event at least once, maybe twice, or maybe we have the month permanently marked in red on our calendars. But what about Camp NaNo?

CampfireIt seems a little odd that it’s Camp NaNo, not Camp Write-a-novel-in-July, but I guess that would be a bit confusing. We’re comfortable with NaNo, and we all know what it means, right? Right.

Camp NaNo is a little different from the original 50,000 word writing challenge that happens every year in November. At Camp NaNo, things are a bit looser, a bit more relaxed. It’s a fun, make-your-own rules writing event.

Don’t feel up to doing a complete novel? Set your own word count goal.

Want to use the time to work on a draft you’ve already begun? Sure. No problem.

I love Camp NaNo because it’s exciting to meet new authors, get a few stirring pep talks, and read the posts in the forum. I love the creative atmosphere that surrounds Camp NaNo.

I hope you’ll sign up and join me.

 

CHRISTINA COLE – CAMP NANO

 

CAMP NANO

 

CAMP NANO – FACEBOOK

 

History, Heritage, and the Stories We Tell

On Monday, we celebrated the Memorial Day holiday, a day set aside to honor those who have served in the military and to remember those who gave their life for our nation.  My thoughts went quickly to my grandfather, a WWI veteran who filled my head with stories of his wartime exploits in France.

WWIYes, in many ways, I had a rather odd childhood. Along with “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, I heard tales of Ypres and the fighting in France.

Both my grandfather and his brother served in the first World War. My grandfather, in fact, saved his brother’s life — although that was one story he never told. I learned of it only after his death. In looking back, I can recall occasional references to it, but I didn’t know the details.

My grandfather was a rather brash, bold gentleman, the sort of fellow who saw what needed to be done…and did it.

I don’t know the name of the battlefield on which my great-uncle nearly lost his life, but as the medics walked about the dead and wounded after the battle ended, they marked those who could be saved. Ones with little or no chance of survival were passed by.

The medics walked past Michael Zungs, shook their heads, and moved on.

“He’s not going to make it,” they said.

Yes, he was going to make it, and my grandfather made certain of it. He slipped into the medic’s tent, stole a white coat, and slipped it over his uniform. He then made the rounds again, marking his brother as one to save.


 

Missouri WarSeveral years ago, I began exploring family history in a bit more depth. I found fascinating stories of experiences during the War Between the States. Digging deeper still, I came to appreciate not just my family stories but my cultural heritage. I learned a great deal about “The German Experience” during the Civil War era here in the hotly-divided “border state” of Missouri.

It was a place of terror.  Confederates roamed the countryside calling out Union supporters and executing them in cold blood.

Yes, I could tell you the tale of how my great-great-grandfather’s life was spared because of his son’s poor English, but that’s another story for another time.


My point here is that we all have stories. We have a family heritage that has played a role in history. We each have a culture filled with traditions, beliefs, stories, and ways of looking at the world around us.  It’s important for us to explore that heritage, be it Jewish, Russian, Latin American, Irish…or whatever.

It’s important for us as authors. It’s also important for us, I think, as human beings.  It helps to know the past, and to see ways in which it’s shaped us.  The more we know about who we are and where we’ve come from, the richer our writing will be, the more depth our stories and characters will have, and the stronger the connections will become between the words we write and the people who read them.

I Am What I Am

It was cartoon-character Popeye who uttered those words…more or less. Actually, what he said was slightly different:

Yam

Let’s not quibble about a word or two. In return, I promise not to go on at great lengths about spinach, about Alma, Arkansas — known as “The Spinach Capital of the World”– or about the body’s need for vegetables. All good topics, truly, but not what we’re here to talk about today.

Today, the topic is POV — or, for those who don’t care for acronyms, point of view. Specifically, first person point of view. You know, where you write from a personal perspective, where you talk about yourself, and share your thoughts and feelings.

Right now, I’m using first-person point of view as I write this. Notice that all-important letter?

Letter I

It might not look like much, but it’s a powerful word in the English language, a word that gives voice to our thoughts, a word that defines who we are, a word that captures our life experience so that we may share it with others.

Beginning writers are often encouraged to write stories from the first person point of view. There are advantages, indeed.

  • Writing in first person is a natural extension of our thought process. We’re always sharing thoughts with friends, talking about events in our lives. Quite simply, we spend a lot of time talking about ourselves.
  • Every writer possesses a unique voice. Writing first-person pieces may lead us toward a greater understanding of our own voice, allowing us to further refine it and develop it.
  • The first-person POV can be a powerful one because it creates such a strong bond between reader and narrator.  Everything — sights, sounds, emotions, thoughts — becomes real as the reader experiences the events “first-hand”.
  • It’s often easier to include backstory when using a first-person narrative. The information shared is seen as an integral part of the story, not as something “dumped-in” to benefit the reader.
  • Using the first-person point of view can help writers avoid “POV violations” or “head-hopping”. Obviously, the narrator can only report what he or she has witnessed or thought. If I’m writing about what’s going on at my dinner table, for instance, I can’t suddenly jump to a scene across town in your kitchen.  I can speculate about what you’re serving — spinach, maybe? — but I can do that only from my own first-person point of view.

There are disadvantages, too, in this point-of-view. Perhaps the most significant is the last point mentioned above. Yes, first-person helps avoid POV violations, but it does so because of the restrictions it places upon the author. Many stories require knowledge of different events occurring in different places. Multiple points of view — when correctly used — allow the author far greater freedom in storytelling, resulting in a richer and more complex story for the reader.

Another problem in using the first person point of view is that it’s often hard to truly break away from who we are. When we write a story, we’re not really writing about ourselves, even when we use first person. We’re telling the story from the character’s perspective. In other words, we must become the narrator, not the other way around.

There are many pitfalls involved here. When we’re writing in first person, it can be too easy to be “too nice”. We’re apt to emphasize all the good points of the narrator rather than highlight the faults and foibles — those things that contribute to character growth, dramatic conflict, and meaningful storytelling.  Carried to an extreme, the result can be a boastful, braggart of a character that no reader will like.  At best, a “nice” narrator can quickly get tiresome and boring.

If you’re going to write from a first-person point of view, be willing to dig deep emotionally. Express who you are — the character you’re portraying — in an honest fashion. That means showing the warts and all. 

All of which brings up another point to consider. Do you really want to get inside the mind of your character?  What if you’re writing the tale of a maniacal serial killer? Telling a tragic story of sexual abuse? Sharing a story about depression or mental illness? Do you really want to be that narrator? Can you do it convincingly? A lot of good writers can, but it’s not easy. Sometimes slipping into the mind and body of a character is painful, indeed.

One final consideration, of course, is the conventional standards of the genre in which you write. For me, as a romance writer, the question of POV has always been simple. The convention has been to use third-person points of view for both the hero and the heroine of the story. In the past, it was a rare romance novel that broke that rule and dared use first-person.

On the other hand, some storytelling formats demand first-person. The “true confession” market — a very lucrative market, by the way — requires that all stories be told by a first-person narrator. Makes sense, really. It’s not much of a “confession” if it comes second-hand.

Today, of course, the standards aren’t so strict. With more authors publishing their own work, rules are being cast aside in favor of creative design and author preference. Keep in mind, though, that many readers of genre fiction do still want the traditional styles. Romance readers might be willing to accept a first-person story, but given a choice, they might opt for the more familiar style of storytelling.

Whether or not you use first-person point of view in novel-writing or in creating short stories is your decision, of course. Even if you choose not to write from the first-person perspective, the ability to do so is a useful skill to have.

To help develop your first-person point of view, you might make regular entries in a journal, jotting down your thoughts, your impressions, your emotions.

Another good exercise is to sit quietly for a moment or two, and then write down your sensory experiences. What did you hear during that time? What did you see? What was the temperature? The lighting? Learning to capture details like this will improve your writing no matter what point of view you use, of course.

Play around with first-person word prompts. Even a simple sentence starter will get you going. Try these:

I am

I want

I hate

I used to be

I am going to

First person POV can be insightful, entertaining, and attention-getting. It can also be dull, disastrous, and disappointing. Give it a try, recognize it as a good tool to keep in your writer’s kit, and know when to pull it out and use it.

Point A to Point B

My thoughts are jumping all over the place today. I’ve been thinking a bit about the Oscars, about film-making, about the NPR series on movie-set jobs, and about the recent death of Maria von Trapp, one of the daughters of the famous family of singers whose story was told in The Sound of Music.

These thoughts led me on to new places…like this admittedly bad joke — which happens to be one of my favorites:

AcornWhat did the little acorn say when it grew up?

“Geometry!”

Uh, yeah, for the humor-challenged, that’s “Gee, I’m a tree.”

Are you seeing any patterns here? No? Good. You’re not supposed to see any patterns. There are none.

From geometry, my mind skipped ahead to Arthur Zulu, an ambitious fellow from Nigeria whose creative mind allowed him to bypass the usual letter-scam routine and promise millions to be made from writing best-sellers. He’ll tell you precisely how to do it in an amusing little book, How to Write a Bestseller.

Yes, I read it. Hey, it was free! And I do enjoy a good laugh, otherwise why would I appreciate silly riddles about acorns?

What? You’ve never heard of best-selling author, Arthur Zulu? Don’t feel bad. Nobody else has either, so apparently he’s failed to follow his own advice.

qm

Question: Is it wrong for me to poke a bit of fun at this enterprising fellow? Probably so. But, he’s the one who stuck his neck out and claimed to have the answers. 

The process, Zulu tells us, is simple, indeed. A best-seller needs a good title, so choose one wisely. Next, consider the beginning of the story. Something to “hook” the reader would be good. Write that down. Now, think of the ending. Great! You’re making excellent progress. All you must do now is fill in the rest of the story. It’s that easy.

In fairness to Arthur Zulu, he does include some information about the publishing industry, biographies of many best-selling authors, and a staggering array of facts and figures that made my eyes glaze over. He’s thrown in some motivational words, as well. You can do it, he says, if you really believe in yourself.

By now, you can probably see how my mind tends to skip around, bouncing from one thought to another, ping-ponging between seemingly unrelated ideas, and wandering far off-course at any point from A to B.

That’s what this is really all about, you see. Point A. Point B. The distance between them, and most of all, how to get from one to the other.

Back to, yes, geometry.

Geometry

Oh, by the way, I just read a fascinating article in Discover magazine about art and mathematics, and maybe you’d like to check it out.

Mathematical Masterpieces

All right. Back to writing. Point A. Point B.

Storytelling truly is a simple process of getting from one point to another. Most writers, I think, believe the best way to get from beginning to end is a straight-forward, linear course with each scene written in a logical sequence according to its chronology within the story.

In other words, you can’t write a love scene between Bob and Mary until they’ve met. You can’t write about the hero locating the hidden treasure before he’s given the map. You most assuredly can’t write that fateful scene where your heroine renounces love and swears to run away to the convent before you’ve done that crucial scene where she sees the man she loves in the arms of that awful other woman…can you?

Sure, you can. I do it all the time.  Especially at the start of a new project, when I have thousands of uncharted words to explore. All possibilities are open, and my imagination is free to wander.

Much like a film director who shoots scenes at one location — regardless of where they fit in the story — then moves to another, I jump around in my scene-writing.

Of course, I have a general outline to guide me. I know who my characters are and the problems they’ll face. I have an understanding of how they will grow and change at each stage of the story.

Armed with a list of potential scenes, I’ll sit down and start writing — in no particular order. I’ll grab a scene from the middle of the story, take a deep breath, and plunge in. No, I don’t know exactly what’s gone before. I have no idea what will go into the scene directly before it, but at the first-draft stage, I don’t need to know.

Or, more to the point, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to place any restrictions upon my thoughts. I don’t want my imagination to be confined to what seems logical. Instead, I want freedom. I want to throw in whatever ideas come into my head. I want to pull out all the stops and wring out every last drop of drama without some nagging voice inside my head saying, “Wait, that’s not going to work. That doesn’t fit. That doesn’t make sense.”

When I’m free to write as I please, my characters are free, as well. They can unleash whatever emotions are churning inside of them. They can speak their minds. They can do whatever they must.

Later, of course, comes the task of assembling it all, putting it into order, and making sense of the jumbled mess.  As crazy as it all sounds, it’s really not so difficult. The huge, dramatic points I’ve created serve as guideposts, showing me the proper direction the story should take. I arrange and re-arrange, I shuffle, I tweak. It comes together with a depth of emotion that I don’t believe would have ever been possible had I simply written the story is a logical, one-scene-after-another method.

In truth, yes, I sometimes find myself with great scenes that don’t fit anywhere in the story. When writing Summertime, set during the early days of World War I, I had a heart-wrenching scene where the hero, Ed Ferguson, learns of his brother’s death. Good scene. But it didn’t work on a number of levels. I threw it out. It happens.

The emotions, however, remained with me as I wrote these lines in the “final draft” process:

He kept staring after Johnny, kept waiting for him to stop, but his brother walked on, splashing through the rainy morning, his bulky figure getting smaller as each step put more distance between him and Ed. Finally, he stepped beyond the horizon into the clouded gray day.

Ed swallowed, hard. No man could ever know the future with any certainty, but something in his gut told him he’d never see his brother again.

People are often aghast when I describe my “hit and miss, here and there” writing style.  I’ll admit, I once thought all stories had to be written one scene after another in logical, linear fashion. How could it be otherwise?

But, thank goodness I trusted the workings of my muse and allowed my imagination to wander. Getting from Point A to Point B isn’t always about following a single, straight line. Sometimes the creative power we seek lies in the little detours along the way.

Get off the well-walked road from time to time. Shake up your writing routines. Give yourself the freedom to write your story in any order you want. After all, maybe that logical, straight-forward story you’re trying to tell isn’t meant to be quite so logical and straight-forward. Maybe when you shuffle it all around inside your head, you’ll see new ideas emerging that will make your story fresh and new.

Have fun…and happy writing!

Writing Prompts…and Why I Love Them

I love, love, love writing prompts. Any size, any shape, any source. To me, anything that sparks creativity is something to be cherished — even if it comes about in an accidental sort of way.

That was what happened to me as a child one day when I took part in a “Nosebag Dramatics” game. If you’re not familiar with “Nosebag Dramatics”, this is how it works. Someone gathers an assortment of items from around the house, throws them all into a bag, then passes the bag to the performer. In this case, it was “performers” (plural) and the skits were part of our Girl Scouts “Dramatics” badge.

Our group eagerly rummaged through the bag we’d been given. I don’t recall every item, but overall, the contents had to do with personal appearance. We had a hairbrush, lipstick, a mirror, mascara. Lots of little things. We also had a store receipt at the bottom of the paper bag we’d been given. That single item — when viewed in conjunction with the others — set my imagination spinning.

“Suppose we used all of these items for a make-over,” I suggested. “And then at the end, when our customer gets the bill, she decides being beautiful isn’t worth the cost.” My troopmates loved it. With little need to practice, we performed a truly memorable skit. At the end, the bill was presented, the customer threw a fit and did an Oscar-worthy performance of messing up her hair and scrubbing the make-up from her face. We were all in stitches.

Well, all except the troop leader. “That receipt,” she informed us, “wasn’t part of the items. It was just left-over.” So? We weren’t supposed to use it, we were told — in no uncertain terms.  We were only supposed to use what we’d been given. We had somehow broken some rule we hadn’t even known existed!

But, we’d come up with a mighty fine show, the one voted as “Best Skit” of the day.

Creativity is like that. It often means breaking — or at least bending — rules and expectations. It means staying open, being willing to make last-minute changes, and above all, leaving room for lots of fun surprises.  People who insist on rigid rules and structures can easily destroy the creative spirit.

Many of my novels have had “receipts” thrown in — in other words, something that maybe wasn’t supposed to be there, but which sparked my imagination and became an integral part of the story.

When I first began making notes for Summertimethe story of a young woman coming home to the small town where she’d been born and raised, I visited one of my favorite “prompt” sites and grabbed the first random idea that appeared.

Write about an opera singer.

I changed it a bit. Instead of grand opera, Linn Sparks became a celebrity singer and star of the stage at the fictitious “Crown Theater” in San Francisco.

CatskillsWhen I began putting ideas together for Irresistible, the story of a young woman with a gloomy outlook on life, my attention was caught by a beautiful picture as I browsed “Webshots” looking for inspiration and ideas. At once the story took on a new dimension. The central character would be an aspiring artist, a woman who had lost the ability to see beauty in the world. Her dreams had been taken from her. Could the beauty of the Hudson River Valley inspire her to paint again?

I especially love “people” prompts.

Write about a Native American healer, said one prompt. That came on a day when I was a little stuck for ideas on my own. The result: Eagle Feather, who appears as a minor character in The Wrong Woman. 

I love “first sentence” prompts.

She stood behind the counter giving him this root-beer float kind of smile. That was the prompt I drew one day from “The Writer’s Toolbox“. Just playing around. Just having fun. The result? Toots, a fun little story you’ll find at “Postcard Shorts”.

I love brainstorming prompts.

“Think of a character who would be the last person you’d expect to find in your story.” That was a suggestion from one brainstorming program I found. At the time, I was writing a children’s story called Herbert and the Bully. Who suddenly popped into my head? An adorable little ballerina in a pink tutu. Gracie added many new insights to the story. Without her, it wouldn’t have been the same.

And dialogue prompts? I adore them.

“I’m not a quitter.” That was a line of dialogue that inspired Love in Any LanguageI didn’t use it as the opening line of the story. There are no rules, remember, for when, where or how we use a prompt.

I could go on and on. Breaking Up is Hard to Do, another short story, was inspired by a prompt suggesting “write about the role of technology in our lives today”. Granny’s Promise came from another dialogue prompt: “You’re next.”  I have an entire collection of short stories that were inspired by single-word prompts. 

That’s all it takes, really. A single word. A picture. A simple sentence. All can spark the imagination.

Any time I begin to feel too sure of where I’m going in my writing, I run the risk of predictability. A quick writing prompt can turn a story in an unexpected direction, open my eyes to possibilities I’d never considered before, and give a scene a fresh, new quality.

You can find writing prompts everywhere.  You can get “story-starters”, character prompts, plot generators, and other assorted goodies with only a quick search online.  A Google search for “writing prompts” produced over 17 million results — in less than one second.  You can buy prompts, you can find them for free, or you can make your own.

Grab a dictionary. Open it at random. Or grab any book. Open it and let the first three words you see spark your imagination.

Want a prompt of your own to play with? I have my “Writer’s Toolkit” close at hand.

“My brother did this weird thing with turtles.”

Turtle

OK, that’s your starting point. 

Where will you go? Who knows? But have fun getting there. That’s what writing prompts are really all about, I think. It’s about letting go of rules, forgetting logic for the moment, and heading off to a place we’ve never been before.

I’ve love to read any stories you come up with from the prompt!

Getting Comfortable

I’ve shared thoughts before about the importance of being true to ourselves in our writing, so perhaps I won’t be saying anything new in this post. The idea, however, is an important one, and I believe it bears repeating. We can’t be someone we’re not, and we can’t write something we don’t enjoy.

Comfort ZoneI think each of us has a “comfort zone” in writing, and personally, I consider that a good thing. If I browse around on the internet a bit, though, I find constant references to the need to get out of our comfort zones.

The magic, it’s said, can’t happen until we step away from the comfortable, until we’re willing to take risks.

Nope. I don’t agree. That may well be true in many fields of endeavor, but writing is an exception, at least, in my ever-so-humble opinion.

On more than one occasion, I’ve started a new story only to find myself uncomfortable with the writing. When that happens, I don’t enjoy the time I spend writing. I don’t look forward to sitting down and getting busy with the story. I soon realize I don’t care all that much for my characters. Quite simply, writing becomes a chore. A job. A task.

That’s not how I want to approach my stories. For me, writing needs to be enjoyable. If it’s not, I don’t want to do it.  There are enough obligations and “things I must do” in my life. Writing shouldn’t be one of them. Writing is what I love.

Whenever I find myself dreading the writing process, it’s because I’ve strayed away from who I truly am as I writer. I’ve left my “comfort zone” — which, for me, is another way of saying “who I am.”  I quickly change course and head back to where I belong, back to my comfort zone.

I’ll be honest. I sometimes look at authors who’ve published dozens of books in a variety of genres, and I question the authenticity of their stories.  As a reader, I’m skeptical. I’m not sure I trust authors who attempt too many different things.  I want to read stories written by authors who love what they write. I want to read mysteries by story-tellers who thrive on who-dun-its, and fantasies by imaginative authors who would never be “at home” in the mundane world. I want to read love stories by writers who would never want to write anything but love stories.

A couple old adages come to mind.

  • Stay with what works.
  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

You might disagree. Probably a lot of you will tell me I’m wrong, I’m crazy, or I’m stuck in a rut. That’s fine. My rut feels good, and I’m happily writing stories I love.

There’s a lot to be said for comfort. We crave “comfort foods”, and we’re always looking for those “creature comforts” that make life more enjoyable.

Sure, there are times when it’s probably good to shake things up and venture away from our comfort zones in life, but when it comes to writing, I’m going to make myself comfortable and tell stories that make me feel good.  If I do that, and do it well, my readers will probably feel good, too.

This I Believe — About Love and Other Things

nprlogo_138x46My car radio is tuned to one of our nearby National Public Radio stations — either KANU 95.1 broadcast from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, or KCUR 89.3 from the University of Missouri. I enjoy the programming, especially the on-going features such as “Story Corps”.

From time to time over the last four years, NPR stations have presented short essays in a series called “This I Believe.”  These short essays lay out the core beliefs, the basic philosophies that guide the lives of their authors.

For more information on the NPR series, visit their site:

Celebrating Four Years of ‘This I Believe’

Until very recently, I was not aware that “This I Believe’ originated in the 1950s as a radio program hosted by Edward R. Murrow.  Thousands of essays have been written over the years. Although NPR ended its series last year, you can still hear essays through weekly podcasts at the international organization, This I Believe. Many of these inspiring essays have also been collected and organized in book form.

One of these books, What I Believe: On Love, caught my attention recently. What a beautiful Valentine’s gift this would be.

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and you want to find something meaningful for your sweetie, right? This I Believe: On Love is a collection of 60 heartwarming essays that illustrate the many facets of this most fundamental human emotion—from finding comfort in love that never dies, to learning from the love that others model for us, to discovering how to love ourselves. Buy This I Believe: On Love for those you love!

– From This I Believe

I’ve always been a believer — ah! there’s that word — in hands-on experiences. I want to do more than read what others believe. It’s important for me, both as a writer and as a human being, to have an understanding of what my values are. What are the guiding principles by which I live? Where do I find meaning in life? What do I truly believe?

Whenever we sit down and begin a new story, perhaps we should re-visit our core values and beliefs. Like it or not, much of what we believe is going to show through in our work. The essential theme in all our stories will come not so much from who our characters are as from who we are.

Several years ago, I was challenged to answer the question: Why do I write romance? I no longer have the essay I wrote, but my answer was based upon my beliefs about love.  I write romance novels because I do believe in love. I believe it is a powerful force for good, a power that can heal, inspire, strengthen, and guide us toward becoming better individuals and toward living richer, fuller, more meaningful lives.

With each story I write, I hope to inspire others to believe in love — love for others, love for the world around us, love for ourselves. They all go hand in hand. I don’t believe we can truly have one without the others.

A Heart

As the Valentine’s Day holiday approaches, and thoughts of love fill the air, I hope you’ll take a moment to think of what love really means to you. What do you believe about love?

Taking Notes

Yesterday morning I ordered a new notebook for myself. I’ve always liked notebooks with their neatly-lined pages, their clever spiral bindings and solid backs. I’m going to be especially fond of the one I bought today.

NotebookIt’s designed with the cover art from my latest historical romance novel, Not the Marrying Kind.  The cover was designed by Dawne Dominique, and as always, she did an awesome job of translating my garbled “author cover notes” and the pictures locked away inside my brain to the actual book cover. For those who might be interested in a steamy historical romance, Not the Marrying Kind, Book 1 of “The Sunset Series” is now available as an ebook, and will be released later this year in paperback from Secret Cravings Publishing. 

Now that I’ve put in a shameless plug for my latest book, let’s move on and get back to today’s topic.

Notebooks

Specifically, writer’s notebooks. Not necessarily ones with your cover art, but ones you use as a writer. You do use a notebook, don’t you?

Writers tend to come up with odd thoughts at inconvenient times. Some authors keep notepads at their bedside in order to scribble down those random ideas — or dreams — that pop into their heads as they drift off to sleep. Other authors I’ve known have given up on the old-fashioned pen and paper methods and now record thoughts and impressions — as well as images — with cell phones.

Technology definitely offers us new possibilities as writers! At least, as long as we can figure out how to use it.

I remember how excited I was when I first got Microsoft Word 2010 and discovered the “Notes” feature. What an idea!  I loved the ability to quickly and easily makes notes while I was working on-line…or, that is, I probably would have loved it if I’d ever truly understood how to utilize the feature. I tried. It was confusing, complicated, and for me, far more trouble than it was worth. I made notes but could never find them again. I’ll go back to the old-fashioned, tried-and-true method of putting pen or pencil to paper in my old-fashioned spiral-bound notebook.

What about YOU?

This post — despite my brazen attempt to show off my new story — isn’t about me and my writing notebooks. I know what I keep in mine, and before you ask, yes, I know what a confused, disorganized mess my writing notebooks usually become. I’m not sure there’s an easy, orderly way of compiling random bursts of inspiration or the sudden shoutings of the voices in my head. Might be nice, but it hasn’t happened in all the years I’ve been writing. I don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

I scribble down lots of sentences. Random thoughts that slip into my head.  Things my characters might think or say.

I put down descriptions now and then, thoughts and impressions about places I go, such as that delightful candle shop with all its fragrant, waxy scents rushing at me when I open the door and step inside. Sometimes I paint “word pictures” of the morning skies in hopes of remembering the streaks of gold that herald the arrival of the new day.

What about YOU? What do you capture in your writing notebooks? Do you keep separate tabs? Have you found a way to organize it all?

  • Dialogue
  • Character profiles
  • Names
  • Descriptions
  • Scene sketches
  • Ideas
  • Titles
  • Themes

What’s in your notebook? What methods do you use to record your ideas? Do you include photos? Drawings? Doodles?

An Experiment

I recently read a writer’s challenge: Capture an entire day in a notebook.

What? Are you out of your mind? A whole day? From waking to sleeping? I suppose it would be a good experience, and it would surely result in much fodder for fiction. Still, it seems a bit daunting to think of recording an entire day of personal experiences — every conversation, every activity, every morsel of food eaten, every place visited. Nice idea, but I think I’ll pass, thank you.

Of course, much of that information could be included in a personal journal. Maybe not every moment of every day, but the highlights. Those unforgettable moments, those well-spoken words, those special people who’ve touched our lives on that particular day.

So, I’m asking you again. What’s in your writing notebook? Is it “fiction only”? Or do you use it as a personal journal? Do you save  your journals? Forever? What stories or poems have you created from the ideas in your journal?

I hope you’ll leave a comment on this post and share a few thoughts about your writing notebooks or your journals.  I intend to make good use of my new notebook, not just as an advertising tool, but as a reminder of my own creative dreams. Yes, those wild and crazy ideas that come into our heads can turn into stories that can become books for others to read and enjoy.

Writing always begins with a thought…so capturing our thoughts and saving them might just be a good thing to do.

Now…your thoughts, please?

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IF YOU ARE A NOTEBOOK LOVER LIKE ME, PLEASE CHECK OUT “NOTEBOOK STORIES”. IT’S A FRIENDLY BLOG YOU’LL WANT TO VISIT OFTEN.

Mindfulness and Creative Pursuits

Recently on Facebook I was “tagged” by a friend for the little game of “Random Facts”. I was asked to share fourteen things about myself.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to share them here…except for one item on the list.

9. I’m weird — I love to iron.

Yep.  Many years ago, ironing was a necessity. You did it whether you liked it or not. Not so, today, of course. With all the fancy wrinkle-free fabrics and permanent press washer/dryer cycles, who needs to iron? Not too many people, to tell the truth.

Ironing

If you’re the observant type — more on that later — you’ll notice that this illustration shows a very old-fashioned flat iron. 

Growing up, I used an iron like this. By choice. Being left-handed, and this being back in the day when irons had cords that were rigidly attached to one side, I was always getting tangled up in the cord and burning myself. It was painful.

But still, I ironed. Then, however, I discovered the old flat-iron tucked away in my grandfather’s cabinet. I’d heat it up on the stove, iron, and smile.

So what it is about ironing that has such appeal for me? Is it the warmth? The smooth, finished, wrinkle-free results of my work? The tickling sensation that comes from spray starch?

None of the above. Oh, all right, maybe all  of the above have some appeal, but mostly what I love about ironing is that it takes me off into a creative space. My mind is free to wander while I stand ironing. Even as my hands perform a mundane task, my imagination is off pursuing glorious adventures. It’s a time of mind-less-ness. Conscious thought doesn’t stop altogether, but the rational takes a backseat to the fantastical. To put it simply: ironing is creative.

So, too, is dishwashing and floor scrubbing. Any routine, repetitive, mundane chore that allows me to remain relatively still as I work gives me the opportunity to retreat inward, to climb inside my head and visit with all the characters who reside there. It’s a quiet time when I can listen to their stories, hear their voices, and return to my world refreshed, energized, and filled with ideas.

I think these times of mind-less-ness are important to writers, to artists, to musicians.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, is mind-ful-ness, a state of hyper-awareness and sensitivity to our surroundings. A Zen master might describe it as attaining oneness or being in the moment.

Part of developing creativity does involve mind-ful-ness. It is important for us to use our senses fully as writers. To do so requires first that we use our senses fully in our own lives. How can we accurately describe the texture of a thick, woolen sweater if we’ve never taken time to notice it? How can we share with readers the subtle changes in light and color as the sun rises each day unless we’ve experienced it ourselves?

Stop right where you are now.

Can you feel the back of your chair? Is it hot or cold in the room? Are you aware of your own breathing? Is there a taste in your mouth? What sounds do you hear?

Mindfulness means paying attention. It means being observant. It means taking notes — mental or otherwise — about our experiences. Creativity requires mindfulness as much as it thrives on mind-less-ness. Both are important.

I know I too often lean toward the mind-less end of the spectrum. My task is to remind myself to pay attention, to become more aware of my surroundings, to sometimes get out of my head and back  into the real world.

How about you?