The Secrets We Keep

There are hundreds of books about writing on the market today. Most of them offer the same advice — develop interesting characters, create strong conflicts, provide sensory details, use realistic dialogue, and above all, show, don’t tell.

Someone once remarked that these writing instructors were just wrapping up the same dead fish in different newspapers. “Do we really need hundreds of different books saying the same thing?” he asked.

I gave it a little thought. At first, I was inclined to agree. As my friend put it, dead fish do start to stink after a while. True, but we’re not really talking about aquatic species — dead or alive. We’re talking about writing, and yes, maybe we do need all those instructors selling all those books.

Here’s why.

We learn in different ways. Teachers also teach with various methods. Sometimes a student and a teacher “click” — and learning happens easily. At other times, a teacher using a different method can pound away at our brains and not make a dent in our thinking process.

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of books on writing. Some good. Some probably just as good, but not as effective for me and my learning style. Once in a great while, I find one of those books written by one of those teachers whose style is a perfect fit for mine. Even though he or she might be serving up the same fish, it’s got a different smell about it. I can cook it, and enjoy the taste.

All of this is a long, roundabout way of introducing David Baboulene and The Story Book. I haven’t read it all, but in browsing through it, I came across one of the most significant pieces of writing instruction I’ve found in all the many, many, too many to mention the number, years that have passed since I wrote my first story.

It’s a concept he refers to as knowledge gaps.  These are, he says,

Differences in knowledge held by the different participants in the story.

I found this an interesting, but logical, concept. The more I thought of knowledge gaps, the more value I saw in understanding the concept and in putting it to use in my stories.

Of course, the idea of “keeping secrets” — which is how many people look at these knowledge gaps — certainly isn’t a new technique. Writers have been keeping secrets from their readers for as long as the written word has existed. It’s a fundamental part of storytelling.

Sometimes, though, I question the way in which writers approach the whole business of keeping information “under their hat”, so to speak. There are some situations, I believe, in which the reader needs to know that something is about to happen.

Consider this scenario:

Dark Garden

The young, innocent heroine in a romance novel can’t sleep one night, so she slips outside and strolls through the garden. Suddenly, without warning, the nasty villain who’s been stalking her jumps out from behind the hedge. How does the reader feel? Surprised? Yes, certainly. But is surprise all we have to deliver to our reader? 

Try this scenario now:

The young, innocent heroine in a romance novel can’t sleep one night, so she slips outside and strolls through the garden. Earlier, we were in the head of that nasty stalker when he found out where the heroine was living.  We have to reason to believe he might be lurking behind that hedge. Now, how do we feel when the heroine steps outside? Even before the attack occurs — which still has an element of surprise for the unsuspecting heroine — we’re biting our nails, worrying about when, where, and how he’s going to make his vicious attack. Much more satisfying to the reader, in my opinion.

Too often, writers seem to focus too much on keeping secrets from the reader, relying on this element of surprise to deliver satisfaction when the truth is finally revealed. Sure, some surprises work this way, but many of them don’t. In too many instances, in my opinion, the writer cheats the reader out of a great deal of enjoyment by keeping too many facts hidden. Sometimes, in fact, a writer keeps so many secrets that the storyline barely makes sense from the reader’s point of view. In doing critiques, I’ve often pointed this out only to be summarily dismissed by the writer with curt remarks that “I’m withholding the backstory. I don’t want to reveal everything yet.”

Sure, there are things we should withhold, but the reader needs enough information to understand the story, enough information to worry about what’s going to happen, enough information to have a strong emotional connection to the characters.

Here’s a principle I try to keep in mind. If the POV character knows something, the reader should (a) know it, too, or (b) be aware that there’s something the character doesn’t want to talk about.  If our lovely romance heroine keeps all her secrets to herself and the author tells us nothing about her tragic childhood or the problems she’s suffered in recent years, we’ve got no reason to feel sorry for her, do we? We’ve got no way to understand why she acts as she does — because, quite simply, those experiences most definitely are going to affect the character’s behavior. At least, they should. If they don’t, the story has got a few more problems to deal with. The character’s actions probably aren’t going to make much sense, and, as a reader, if I’m left shaking my head over seemingly unmotivated actions and decisions, I’m going to put down the book.

Back to knowledge gaps. They don’t have to be secrets withheld from the reader. The concept of knowledge gaps applies to any of the “different participants” in the story. That means the hero, the heroine, the villain or any other character, as well as the reader.

If we know he’s planning to leave town the next day, but she doesn’t have a clue, that’s a knowledge gap. He’s keeping a secret from her, even though we’re aware of it. We keep turning pages, wondering when he’s going to tell her and what will happen when she finds out.

If she knows she’s innocent of a crime, and he believes otherwise, that’s a knowledge gap. How will she convince him of the truth? Will he listen to her? Or will he demand justice?

Fiction is filled with delightful opportunities for knowledge gaps. Yes, sometimes the gap will be a little secret the writer is holding back, but when the truth is revealed, the reader should be able to look back and find clues along the way, hints about the truth. A careful, observant reader may even be able to guess the secret long before it’s revealed. That’s one of the things that makes reading so much fun. Especially with mysteries. Can we figure out “whodunit” before the end?

Please, writers, don’t keep too many secrets from readers. Let your characters keep secrets from one another,  but let readers in on those secrets. Play fair with your readers, and you’ll win their trust.

Real People – Real Stories

Disclaimer: No, I don’t use “real people” in my stories. At least, not intentionally. OK, so maybe bits and pieces of real life — including people — do show up in my stories. Consider it a compliment that your life is exciting enough to be part of a story.

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REAL PEOPLE – REAL STORIES

 

All joking aside, I don’t really use “real people” in the stories I tell. I’m not talking about friends or family members — many of whom actually plead, “Put me in a book, please!” Maybe they think life will be be richer, fuller, or more exciting as a fictional character. Yeah, that can be arranged, I suppose.

The “real people” I’m talking about are mostly historical figures. I write historical romance, you know. From time to time, a real person gets a mention as part of the story’s narrative.

  • In “Happily Ever After”, for instance, I mention William Rockhill Nelson and Charles Gleed, both newspaper men from the early days of Kansas City journalism.
  • In “Summertime”, set in 1914, I mention Woodrow Wilson and his intention of keeping America out of the war in Europe.

TeddyRoosevelt006

Other than brief mentions, I hesitate to use “real people” — historical figures — in my fiction. Many times, though, authors do write stories that include well-known characters. A favorite romance novel, Texas Viscount, by Shirl Henke, calls upon the larger-than-life persona of President Theodore Roosevelt to add excitement and intrigue to the pages. In her story, Roosevelt works.

Another use of “real people” from history is in speculative fiction, the fascinating “What if…” variety of novel. One example of this “alternative” history is The Secret Daughter of the Tsar by Jennifer Laam, who looks at Russia’s Romanov family from a new perspective.

Honestly, I don’t have imagination enough to pull off such a feat. It’s enough for my brain to keep history straight as it is, although I’m fascinated by many of these “it-could-have-happened-this-way” stories.

Real people of the lesser known variety often find their way into fiction, as well. Books have been written about Narcissa Whitman and her husband, Marcus, sharing their tragic story as missionaries in the Pacific Northwest. Maggie Osborne’s best-selling Brides of Prairie Gold was inspired by the real-life experiences of a group of women. 

So, what about “real people” who aren’t famous historical figures? What of those whose lives weren’t filled with danger or excitement? Is there a place for them?

Sometimes we find fascinating stories of very ordinary people. Quite often we find them in our own family histories, and when we do, those ordinary people suddenly aren’t so ordinary any more.

I recall reading the story of my great-great-grandfather, a German immigrant who lived here in Missouri during the War Between the States. For those who aren’t familiar with midwest history, the border between Kansas and Missouri was a frightful place to live. Guerrilla raids were frequent, towns were terrorized, and citizens were often shot.

One day, a group of Confederate “bushwhackers” came calling at my ancestor’s farmhouse.  They’d been roaming the countryside, searching for Union supporters, and shooting them.

My great-great-grandfather, Louis Grotjan, quickly hid in the attic. His family spoke little English, and when the bushwhackers questioned one of the sons about his father’s whereabouts, the boy — too frightened to lie and too confused to speak — pointed upward.  As the Confederates tried to get more information, the child could only mumble a few words in German. When he began to cry, the raiders concluded that the boy’s words and actions were an indication that his father had died and gone up to heaven. They left the farmhouse without a search.

A few years later, my great-grandfather was born. Had his older brother’s poor English not saved his father’s life that day, Oscar Grotjan would never have lived. He wouldn’t have married and raised the daughter who became my maternal grandmother. Quite simply, had a little boy spoken better English, I wouldn’t be writing this post today.

There are other memorable stories I’ve found on the family tree. Some are love stories, some are exciting dramas, and one, in particular, is a bit of a mystery.

When my great-uncle, Frank Zungs, died, he left behind a suitcase filled with personal treasures. Letters. Old photographs. Clippings. This. That. Bits and pieces of a life that ended too soon. He was only in his 50’s when he passed away. Among those treasures was a beautiful portrait of a singing star with words of love on the back…addressed to him, signed by her.

Who was she? Why did they never marry? What became of her? I’ll never know the answers to those questions, but the memory of that beautiful picture has remained in my mind from the moment I saw it. It served as a bit of inspiration when I wrote Summertime, the story of a young man born and raised in a little farming community — much like my great-uncle Frank — and who fell in love with a singing star who went on to have a career on the stage in San Francisco.

No, I don’t use “real people” in my stories. At least, not intentionally. But, yes, life does offer inspiration and ideas, and if we look, we’ll find fascinating stories worth telling over and over again.

Sometimes You’ve Got to Get Mad!

Mad Woman

 

 

 

I don’t usually get angry, and I’m certainly not one to advocate violence, but… sometimes, folks, you’ve got to get mad. 

I was thinking earlier about the holiday we’ll be celebrating here in the US on Monday. We will be honoring the life and remembering the tragic death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

So, what does the holiday have to do with anger? It has to do with one of the most memorable quotes from Dr. King:

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t want to be part of an appalling silence.  It’s true, though. Too many times, people choose to remain silent rather than speak up about a troubling situation.

As a writer, I understand the role that emotions play in fiction. Every emotion is good; every emotion serves a purpose. Without emotion life is flat and meaningless. Anger can be a valuable source of motivation. It can spur characters to action. It can do the same for readers, too.

I’m not suggesting that every story we tell must be designed to right great wrongs or to call attention to social injustices and painful conditions, although many of the greatest books in history have done exactly that. Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, and Ralph Ellison are three authors who quickly come to mind.

It is important, however, that our stories  have a strong moral base, a compass of sorts that defines goodness and points out the evils which lurk around us.  Good stories require conflict, and the source of that conflict is ultmately the struggle between right and wrong.

Here is where our own personal beliefs, our own values, and our own moral positions come into play in our writing. Our beliefs represent our passions, and passion is what infuses our writing with life, with energy, with the power to draw readers in and keep them turning pages.

We each have important things to say — if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be writing. Although we don’t need to turn our stories into “sermons” or lengthy treatises on human weaknesses, we can — we should — speak out about things that matter to us. Our characters provide us with opportunities to share our thoughts with others. We use their voices. We use their experiences. We make examples of them.  We reward them for “good behavior” or punish them when they break the rules we’ve established.

Yes, we make the rules in our fiction-writing. We decide what’s good, what’s bad, what’s right, and what’s worth fighting for. That’s how it should be, otherwise, we’re just telling stories. We can do so much more with our writing.

The next time you sit down to write, get mad! Think of the problems your characters are facing — and most likely you’ll discover problems that affect your readers, too.

Give thought to the injustice you see, the hypocrisy that exists, the pain, the prejudice, the awful greed and corruption that goes on every day. Give your characters something worth fighting for. Don’t let them be part of an appalling silence. Instead, let them speak up and inspire others.

Falling in Love

Although I usually keep my thoughts and remarks somewhat “genre-free”, today I’m making an exception. I’m a romance writer, and today, I’m going to write about romance. Or, more precisely, about the romance genre in fiction.

Of course, there are many, many different “sub-genres” within the world of romance novels. Yet, at their heart, all romance novels are about love, about people who meet, discover an attraction to one another, and whose lives are changed by that wondrous phenomenon we call “falling in love”. falling-in-love

How does it happen? What does “falling in love” really mean? How do we know when love is real?

For most of us, I think, love is simply something that happens somewhere along the way as we go through life. We meet someone. Something “clicks”. We smile a lot. We laugh a little more. We enjoy spending time with that someone special who’s brought joy and happiness into our heart.

Sometimes love lingers quietly in the background for years before exploding into passionate sparks. At other times, with just one look, or a single spoken word, flames of love might burst forth at once. More often, love is slow, but steady. We see. We like. We pursue.

But that’s the real world. What about the fictional world in which our heroes and heroines live? Romance novels don’t often cover lengthy time spans — although, of course, there are exceptions.  The men and women of our romance novels (and yes, I’m going to go the traditional route here and speak of men and women falling in love) meet on Page 1 or thereabouts, and within the space of 200 pages, or thereabouts, they’re married folks, perhaps parents, and already living their happily-ever-after ending.

How does it happen?

Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense, to be honest. As writers, we all understand the importance of conflict and complications, so we have to throw obstacles in the way of our handsome hero and lovely heroine.

Unfortunately, too many authors misunderstand conflict, I think. They give readers characters who are totally opposite, characters who have absolutely nothing in common, characters who do nothing but bicker, argue, and go out of their way to make each other miserable.

Then, mid-way through the book, these authors suddenly bring hero and heroine together, throw in a few sultry looks, and yep…next thing you know, they’re romping in the sheets and declaring their undying love.

I’ve read books where hero and heroine meet one morning, and by late afternoon he’s so madly in love with her, he’ll do anything — even risk his own life — to save her from danger. Maybe. Maybe not. I’m sure he’s a heck of a nice guy, and maybe he would jump in and swim with sharks for her, but I still question the depth of his love after knowing the heroine for no more than a few hours.

Or consider the story of one loving couple from a historical romance I read years ago. They met once. Yes, once. They were children. They both felt something special. After that one meeting, they were separated. Over the years, their paths crossed a few times. Once, she was attending a lecture. She suddenly got chills of excitement running up and down her spine, but then it was gone. What had happened was that he had passed by the lecture hall on his way to an appointment. Yeah. He had those shivers and quivers, too. This happened several times. No meeting between the two of them. Just near-misses, and lots of quivers, shivers, tingles, and heart palpitations. Finally, in the last few pages of the book, they were reunited! Must I say it? Yes, dear readers, they declared their love and lived happily ever after. At least, that’s what the author expected readers to believe.

This reader said “Huh?”

Point #1: Falling in love usually requires spending a little time together.

My next concern involves those conflicts I mentioned before. Good romantic conflict doesn’t lead to argument. Heroes and heroines don’t have to hate each other. Quite the opposite. Good conflict occurs when hero and heroine are drawn to one another; they want to fall in love, they want romance to happen — but there are reasons why they can’t allow it. And those reasons had better be good ones!

I recall a story built around a seemingly good premise: Hero was quickly falling in love with the heroine, but she was married. Or so he thought. It was, of course, a misunderstanding. That man she talked about all the time was really her brother, not her husband.

Excuse me, folks, but didn’t these two characters ever talk to each other? Don’t you think, logically, a few conversations might have resolved the whole “I-can’t-love-her-because-she-has-a-husband” problem?

Point #2: If your couples are truly falling in love, they should be on speaking terms.

Yes, they may have secrets, but simple misunderstandings are’t enough to create believable conflicts. Real conflicts come from issues of mistrust, from past experiences that have affected the characters, and from external problems that prevent the couple from having the relationship they want.

Another problem I’ve encountered with couples falling in love is what I call “the believability factor”. This is a situation that creeps into stories in different ways — like in the story of the dashing sea captain who picked up a doxy on the pier. Of course, she really wasn’t, but he didn’t bother to inquire about particulars. He took her immediately to his bed. They had sex. They had more sex. They had even more sex. He was insatiable. He simply couldn’t get enough of her. (By the way, since she was his captive, she didn’t figure she should resist all this physical affection.)

And then…he discovered the truth. She wasn’t a working girl at all. She was a decent woman who was running away from a bad situation. He realized, too, he loved her, but to make up for his bad behavior, he wouldn’t have sex with her again until she forgave him and agreed to marry him. Or some such nonsense. The exact details have escaped my mind, but after several chapters of sex, sex, sex, the author then expected me — the reader — to believe that this hot-blooded sea captain would steadfastly resist the heroine (and any other woman) for nearly a year no matter how much she yearned for his touch. Sorry. Disconnect there. His sudden change from lusty lover to passionless gentleman wasn’t believable.

It’s the same with all those die-hard, confirmed bachelor rakes who’ve sworn never to marry, and who then, with no apparent motivation decide they must propose to the lovely heroine. Maybe it’s the only way she’ll give in to him…but wouldn’t such a devil-may-care playboy be more apt to simply move on to the next, more-willing woman?

Point #3: Maybe we can’t always find reasons for why we fall in love, but we do need reasonable explanations for changes in our behavior.

Of course, there’s the other side of this quick-change coin, as well. The shy, inexperienced heroine who intends to save herself for marriage needs good motivation for suddenly turning into a wanton, sex-craving paramour. Maybe she’s doing it because it’s the only way she can save her life. I’d buy that. If it’s mere curiosity that’s prompting her actions or if her only motivation is winning a silly bet with a friend…I’m not so sure that would be enough to get past my “believability factor”.

Everyone loves a good love story. As romance writers, let’s give our readers stories that have passion, conflict, honesty, and believability. Most of all, let’s give our heroes and heroines a chance to truly fall in love.

Comments, please?

Setting Goals for Writing? Nope. Not Me.

Yes, a new year is here, and everywhere you look, you’ll probably find posts and articles and messages about goals and the importance of setting them.

It’s true. Goals are important, but truthfully, I’ve never been very good at writing down specific objectives, making lists of steps to take, or assigning dates and deadlines to goals I hope to achieve.

Maybe that’s my problem — I hope to achieve certain goals. I suppose a better attitude would be to speak of the goals I plan to achieve in 2014. 

Goal Quote

For me, the whole goal-setting process seems complicated and fraught with pitfalls.

Goals should be specific, but what does that really mean? Goals should also be reasonable. Goals should include a definite way to measure progress. Goals should do this, and that, and be this, and you really ought to… on, and on, and on.

I’ve watched motivational films about goal-setting. I’ve attended goal-setting workshops. I’ve read countless books about the process. Nothing has helped me.

And yet, somehow, I’ve managed to do a reasonably good job of accomplishing things I’ve set out to do. In 2013, for instance, I hoped to have three books published. I did have a slight head-start on things since one of my historical romance novels, Happily Ever After, was already under contract with my publisher, scheduled for release in early January.

I didn’t spend a lot of time agonizing over goal-setting at that point. I just sat down and stayed busy writing, knowing I wanted to have two more stories published before year’s end. Even without a written “plan of action”, a signed “contract with myself” or any of the other motivational aides so often suggested by the “goal gurus”, I managed to achieve my desires and see two more of my stories published, both by Secret Cravings Publishing.

I’ve come to believe that persistence and perseverance are probably far more important that having a neatly-written sheet of goals, objectives, and plans. At least, that’s how it is for me.

If you are a dedicated goal-setter, far be it from me to discourage you. That’s not my point in writing this. You don’t need any advice about goals. My intention here is to speak to those who — like me — find it difficult, if not downright impossible — to make those tidy little lists, to outline a plan of action step-by-step, or to stay on a strict “to-do” schedule.

There’s hope for us. We, too, can accomplish things. We can dream of the future, envision things we’d like to achieve, and even without making a formal declaration, choosing a specific target date, or any of the rest of the goal-setting rigamarole — gotta love that word — we can get where we want to go.

So, I’m here to say “No.” No, I’m not setting any goals for 2014. I’m just going to spend the year doing what I love — writing romance novels. Instead of worrying about whether or not I’m “on schedule” or “on track” or whatever the latest lingo is, I’m just going to come into MLWR (my little writing room) every day, sit down, and write.

Writer’s write. I am a writer, therefore, I write. Or maybe the syllogism is that writer’s write, and I write, therefore I am a writer. I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters. What I do know, and what does matter, is that I show up here every day, put my fingers on the keyboard, and start typing.

 

I’m a writer. Not a goal-setter. It works for me.

 

 

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What do others have to say about goal-setting?

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!