Why?

Today instead of sharing a lot of my own thoughts about writing, I’m going to step back and invite  you to think of your own writing.

Why do you write? Image

More specifically, why do you write the stories you do?

It wasn’t until I sat down and gave this question some serious thought that I truly began to understand myself as a writer. In today’s marketing-crazed publishing environment, knowing who we are is crucial.

Yes, I know why I write historical romance novels. But this isn’t about me today. It’s about you.

 

Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens

Every year as Christmas draws nigh, I begin hearing that old stand-by, “My Favorite Things”. Maybe you don’t recognize the title, but I’m sure you know the words:

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings…

favorite-things

Yes, these were a few of the “favorite things” included in the Rogers and Hammerstein song from The Sound of Music.  Even though the musical isn’t really about Christmas, the song has become irrevocably associated with the winter holiday and has been included on dozens of Christmas albums.

It’s also about this time each year that I begin compiling my own list of “favorite things” — related to writing. I do it as part of my annual routine for National Novel-Writing Month.

Why? Or, more to the point, why bother? After all, I know what I like and don’t like…don’t I?

Well, yes. And, no.

More than once, in the flurry of writing excitement, I’ve been tempted to throw in ideas, events, or characters who don’t really fit with who I am as a writer. That’s what it’s really all about, you see. It’s not just a list of likes and dislikes, but a way of stepping back and taking an objective look at who I am as a writer. What I’ve discovered as I make my lists  — there are actually two of them — has helped me define myself and my particular little “niche” in the romance-writing world.

Knowing who I am as a writer has helped me develop a clearer understanding of what I’m striving to accomplish, a greater awareness of why I write historical romance, and a better focus on how to connect with readers.

It also keeps me on track in my stories. Even though I may wander a bit off the path, I know if I go too far astray, I’ll become uncomfortable. Writing will cease to be a pleasure and will feel instead like a dreaded chore.

Because I know my “favorite things”, I no longer waste time developing plot lines that I won’t enjoy writing, or creating characters who won’t hold my interest for the time required to tell their stories. Knowing what I like and don’t like makes me a better writer, I think. It certainly makes my writing time more effective.

Here’s a sample of things I like:

  • I like “fish out of water” stories where characters are thrust into unfamiliar situations.
  • I like stories of mistaken identity or misunderstood intentions
  • I like stories set in rural areas with a “down-home” feeling

A few of the things I don’t like include:

  • Heroines who are so perfect they’ve never made a mistake in their lives.
  • Heroines who are total victims, suffering one calamity after another.
  • Excessive violence.

I could go on and on with these two lists, but my likes and dislikes aren’t important here. What’s important is that you, as a writer, develop your own awareness of your favorite things…and your not-so-favorite things.

Maybe you like raindrops on roses and maybe whiskers on kittens really do tickle your fancy. Sounds like sweet romance to me.

Maybe you’re more inclined to follow those wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings. If so, maybe you’re more into adventure than love.

Maybe it’s that brown paper package tied up with string that appeals to you. And maybe it’s because your like the mystery of it and can’t wait to unwrap it to see what’s inside.

Our favorite things — both in real life and in the world of writing — do provide clues to who we are as authors, and the sooner we realize who we are and what we most love to do and write, the sooner we find the true joy and satisfaction that comes in telling out stories.

So, what do you like to read about? What do you like to write? What turns your off while reading? What don’t you want to include in your stories?

The more we know… well, you know the adage.

Magic Carpets

Whenever I think of books, I think at once of flying magic carpets. It’s an image that was first put into my head many years ago by the old Girl Scouts USA handbook.  One of the proficiency badges girls could earn was called “Magic Carpet”. To earn it required reading a number of different books, making “book reports” to troop members, or even organizing a troop “book party” where all girls could share their favorites.

Jasmine on Carpet

Books are very much like magic carpets. They do have the power to lift us up, to carry us away, to send us off on grand adventures. s. The “magic carpets” of my childhood took me to many different places.  The characters I met became as dear to me as the friends and family I saw each day. My love of reading quickly led to a love of writing, and I was telling stories of my own from a very young age. I was fascinated by words and their ability to create an experience on the page that would become real for the reader.

Even now, I can quickly recall many of my favorite short stories, even if I can’t remember their titles. My favorite was a tale of a Russian village with a broken bell. The men of the village were sent to buy a new bell, and, of course, met with numerous disasters along the way, finally returning home with a bell much too large for the little tower.

As an older child, I loved the story of “The Countess and the Impossible“, also known as “The Tale of the Five Dollar Lawn”.

I remember reading “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson for the first time and being shocked to realize what was happening.

Wonderful memories, indeed. I read short stories, I read books, I read poetry, and I read plays. I began a love affair with words that has never ended.

Today, as an author, I’m frequently asked what my favorite books are and what books have most influenced me in my writing.  In either case, I always go back to those “magic carpet rides” of my youth. Even though I don’t write children’s stories, I still feel that the books I treasured as a child are the ones that played the greatest role in shaping my writing. I learned something from each story I read, and I like to think I apply those lessons to my own fiction.

Recently while browsing through the “author guidelines” at Goodreads, I came across the suggestion of starting a bookshelf for “Influences”. In other words, a virtual collection which would answer these two frequent questions:

  • What were your favorite books as a child?
  • What books have most influenced you?

I’m in the process of gathering up my virtual books and filling my shelves, and as I select each book, I’m taking a moment to explore its personal meaning in my life and how it’s affected my stories. Some of the books are ones you’d likely find on any little girl’s bookshelf; others, maybe not.

Here are a few of the many books that have influenced me:

Heidi by Johanna  Spyri taught me that not all people are kind. It also taught me the importance of hope.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain helped me realize the value of knowledge. It also opened my eyes to fun possibilities in writing. We don’t have to deal strictly with the here-and-now. We can invent improbable things and make them believable.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell showed me that good stories don’t have to follow traditional rules. Through the power of words, we can share experiences not only with other human beings, but with other creatures, as well.

Lad, A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune topped my “favorites” list for a very long time. Reading it made me realize that words could touch a reader’s heart and soul. I cried when I read the book. Were I to read it today, I’d probably cry again.

Treasure Island by  Robert Louis Stevenson is the book I credit most whenever I’m asked about stories that have inspired me. I can’t say how many times I’ve read this book. I try to read it again at least once each year. No matter how many times I pick it up, it never grows old. As I curl up and begin to read, I’m caught up at once in the story, listening for those frightening sounds of the blind beggar, and imagining how exciting it would be to sail on a pirate ship. From this classic, I learned that good stories contain action — and lots of it.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens was another favorite. Dickens was a master at characterization. His writing always dares me to let my own characters be outrageous.

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe taught me that many good ideas can come from the lives of real people and actual events.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville made me realize how important the opening lines of a story can be. It showed that the words we write can linger in a reader’s mind for a long, long time to come. Call me Ishmael is one of the most-recognized opening lines of any work of fiction.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas rounds out my list of “Top 10” influential books. This classic tale helped me understand the importance of back story and motivation. Things happen for a reason in fiction.

There are many classics I’ve yet to read — such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Each year I promise myself I’ll do it, but although I once made a start on it, I’ve yet to finish it. Too many other things going on in life.

There are also classics I didn’t like. Dracula by Bram Stoker was an interesting read, but not one I truly enjoyed. Nor did I care much for Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift or A Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne. I suppose this is reflected in the fact that I don’t read or write paranormal stories, nor am I a fan of fantasy or science fiction.

What I find most rewarding in looking back over these titles is the fact that each of these wonderful classics is available through Project Gutenberg. If you’re not familiar with the site, do yourself a favor and visit. You’ll find over 42,000 books available free of charge. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Now that I’ve shared my favorites as well as a few not-so-favorites, I’d love to hear from  you. I’ll leave you with those same questions I hear so often:

  • What were your favorite books as a child?
  • What books have most influenced you?

I’ll leave you, too, with this thought:

We’re never too old to ride magic carpets. Happy traveling!

 

On the Street Where You Live

Yes, I’m hearing the unforgettable words and music of Lerner and Loewe’s song from My Fair Lady. 

“I have often walked down this street before…”

Dunbar Avenue

And here’s an old post-card picture of a street that I have, indeed, often walked down. It’s Dunbar Avenue in the little town of Excelsior Springs, Missouri. I lived on Dunbar Avenue for the first eighteen years of my life, and even though this photograph was taken long before I was born, the scene is still familiar enough to spark a few nostalgic feelings.

During my childhood days, Excelsior Springs boasted a population of 5,000. It’s much larger today, and over the years, the town has undergone tremendous changes.

As a writer, I sometimes think I have an advantage because of where I grew up. Unlike so many other small towns, Excelsior Springs always had a unique quality about it. It had its own story.

I won’t go into all the details of the town and its history, but it does make for interesting reading. If you’re curious, you’ll find a lot of information about the town here:

Excelsior Springs, Missouri

Essentially, the town grew up around its mineral-rich springs. It was a place of clinics and doctors, a spa where visitors from around the world came to “take the waters”.

What I learned from growing up in this little town, was how a place had a meaning of its own, how where we live affects our lives, our decisions, our own personal stories. I experienced the changes taking place in the city as it grew and flourished in the 1950s, then sank into disrepute in the 1960s as the waters were declared a hoax. I understood first-hand how closely-connected our own thoughts and feelings can be with the events taking place around us.

Today, Excelsior Springs is experiencing a rebirth. Its story continues, and maybe it will, in time, triumph over the hardships it’s suffered. But though it may triumph, it will never be the same. Transformation may bring renewed hope and even happiness, but at its heart, it signifies life-altering change.

Excelsior Springs is very much a character in my life story, complete with its own “arc” of growth and development, it’s own “black moment”, it’s own desperate struggles and its valiant “leap of faith” into the future. To understand what story form and character development are, I have only to go back to my roots, to look at an old picture post card and remember my childhood.

Most writers aren’t so fortunate, especially younger writers. Today’s towns are woefully “homogenized”. No matter where we travel, we can enjoy the same fast-food restaurants, shop at the same chains of stores, and sleep in the comfort of roadside inns whose names, slogans, and logos are familiar to us all.

When it comes time to write, setting is important. It isn’t enough to simply choose a locale, throw in a few geographical facts, and reference a landmark or two.

If we’re creating a fictional town of our own, the challenge is even greater. And what if we’re setting out to create an entire new world? What can we draw upon then?

I think the key to using setting in our stories comes from understanding its mood and meaning. I can clearly state what Excelsior Springs symbolized for me at various stages. In my earliest childhood, it represented old-fashioned hospitality, glorious beauty, a celebration of life. In later years, it came to represent falsehood, misguided beliefs, emptiness, and despair. Now, it’s come around to stand for hope, renewal, dedication, and perserverance.

What about your town, your place, the street where you live? What does it mean to you? What story does it have to tell?

What about your fictional towns and cities? Can you find the mood and meaning that brings them to life? Can you tell their stories, their histories, their struggles?

Today, I invite each of you to take a walk down the street where you live. Wander, too, down streets of your childhood. What makes each place different? How can you capture these essential differences and put them into your story? How can you build a setting so real that it will truly become a part of your characters’ lives?

Details are important, but what matters even more, I think, are the larger issues that shape our settings and define their role.

I leave you now with a few more pictures of scenes from my childhood.

REFLECTIONS OF A SUMMER CAMP LONG AGO...

REFLECTIONS OF A SUMMER CAMP LONG AGO… (Photo credit: roberthuffstutter)

English: Elms Hotel in Excelsior Springs, Missouri

English: Elms Hotel in Excelsior Springs, Missouri (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A side view of the water bar at the Hall of Wa...

Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time…

My first novel began with those words. Of course, I was only eight  years old, and as far as I knew, that’s how stories were supposed to begin.

For many of us, those words served as an entry way to the faraway times and places of our favorite fairy tales and children’s stories. Those words were magic, leading us to castles and cottages, enchanted gardens, babbling brooks, and mysterious forests.

Because of those words we could leave behind our mundane world and its everyday people, and venture off into the unknown, meeting knights and dragons, witches and ogres, soaring eagles, talking animals, princes, princesses, kings, queens, and the occasional knave.

 

brownfae

With those words, we sailed upon the seven seas, rode magic carpets through cloud-filled skies, and dug deep down into the center of the earth.

We traveled to lands filled with giants, dwarves, elves, and beautiful winged-faeries.

Mystical creatures lived within those words.  They lifted us up and carried us off to wondrous, magical places.

For me, those words can still transport me to different times and places. Even now, I can close my eyes, recite those powerful words, and feel the same sense of awe and joy I knew as a child.

Was it any wonder then that when I sat down to write my first “grown-up” novel, I turned to “Once upon a time”?

Actually, I didn’t. At least, not at first. After all, I wasn’t a child, and I certainly wasn’t telling a children’s story.  I was no longer eight years old and writing silly drivel about a little girl who loved horses as much as I did.

No, not at all. I was writing the stuff of great fiction, or so I hoped. I was spinning a story of love and betrayal. My pages would soon be filled with incredible bursts of emotion ranging from the most violent anger — yes, I even had a dead body to throw in — to the sweetest, tenderest, most intimate feelings between a man and a woman.

I would write of lies and deception, joy, bliss, despair, fear…and on and on. Oh, yes, I would do so much with my story. If and when I ever figured out how to do it.

I tried.

I started here, I started there. I wrote an opening scene then rewrote it from another point of view. I threw out a chapter or two, started again, and wondered if maybe I needed another dead body. Or three.

Obviously, something wasn’t working.

Finally, in desperation, I reached for a notebook and pen. I curled up, closed my eyes, and tried to think of the best way to tell my story. Not to the reader. I needed to tell my story to myself.

Then I began to write. Neat, cursive script upon clean, narrow-ruled pages.

Once upon a time…

I smiled and kept writing. Soon, I had nearly a dozen hand-written pages filled with characters, dialogue, scenes, settings, and descriptions. My story had been there all along inside my head, but I couldn’t get it out until I used those magic words.

Once upon a time…

Of course, those words faded from the story in time. Once I had the story out of my head and onto the page, it was a fairly simple process to see where and how to begin, what to include, where to put those dead bodies.

It worked. So the next time I sat down to write a love story, I simply closed my eyes and repeated the magic words again.

Once upon a time…

Happy storytelling to all!