Imaginary Homesickness

Alton Baker Park in Eugene, Oregon

I’m nearing the end of a writing project, and already I miss Clara and Nick, the lovers whose story it is. I miss Book Nirvana, Clara’s imaginary bookshop–a place now so familiar that I could lead you down the aisles and help you find just the book you’re looking for. I miss Coffee Dreams, the café next door, and Arnie, its snarky barista. I miss Clara’s employees, white-haired, affable Harry and elfin, spike-haired Margot, both dispensers of wisdom as Clara struggles to keep her business and her heart open. I miss Lulu, the orange tabby whose fur carries that faint vanilla-like scent of old books. And I especially miss Jared, Clara’s late husband, who visits her in her dreams.

I miss Clara’s made-up neighborhood, and the slow green slide of the Willamette River through Alton Baker Park in Eugene, Oregon—a city I’ve only visited via Google images. (I will visit soon, though, to make sure I haven’t painted a false picture of that city.) I miss the characters’ funny banter, Clara’s angst and guilt and budding hope. I miss her resilience, too. And I miss Nick’s velvety baritone, the amber flecks that glimmer in his espresso-brown eyes.

As this one’s a romance, its end means good-bye to characters I’ve been living with and a world I’ve been living in for several months. The hero and the heroine are about to be united in matrimony and, according to the rules of the genre, their adventure is done. And I’ll miss them.

Somehow, setting a book in my real-life hometown of Tacoma, Washington seems less—I dunno—romantic? Perhaps I’ll challenge myself to set a romance novel there. That would give me an excuse to delve into neighborhoods, shops, cafes, bars, searching for the perfect settings for a love story. Hmm—that also sounds like a recipe for procrastination.

Because mysteries tend to run in series, I can revisit Lola’s imaginary, hippie-dippy town on the Northern California coast, can spend more time with that cast of characters. I wonder how many writers choose to write series simply because they can’t bear to say good-bye to their imaginary worlds.

Do. Or do not. There is no try.

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

It’s IWSG time again! The Insecure Writers Support Group is a place where writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds! Thanks to Ninja Captain Alex Cavanaugh and this month’s co-hosts,  Tonja Drecker, Diane Burton, MJ Fifield, and Rebecca Douglass!

November 1 question – Win or not, do you usually finish your NaNo project? Have any of them gone on to be published?

I’ve finished two NaNoWriMo projects, in 2015 and 2016. Neither has been published yet, but I’m working toward that goal. For me, the greatest gift from NaNo was my now firmly-established daily writing habit.

“Winning” my first NaNo was a challenge, especially because November brings family visits and travel, both of which tend to gobble up (sorry, bad pun) my writing time. The second year, finishing was a delight, and I merrily told interruptions to bugger off—in the nicest way possible. And now, I just write for at least two hours per day, often much more. It’s what I do. On days when I can’t get some writing time, I feel itchy and cranky, like an inveterate runner who can’t log her daily miles.

Offers of “book/writing coaching” continually land in my mailbox, and I wonder: Who needs this? Editing help, yes. Someone to bounce ideas off, yes indeed. (That’s why God gave us critique partners.) Marketing advice? You betcha. Writing teachers? Yes, please—though I’ll work through your craft book before I’ll sign up for your workshop or pricey webinar.

But paid encouragement just to write?

A few years back, I attended a panel discussion by four Seattle-area writers. Someone posed this very question: How do you force yourself to write on days when you just don’t feel like it? The speakers exchanged puzzled looks, and then one replied, “If you don’t feel like writing, you’re not really a writer.” At the time, I found that answer somewhat cold—now, I get it.

Sure, there are days when it just doesn’t work out, but I always feel like writing. My first NaNo helped me eliminate the stress of wanting to write but not getting around to it. And, as a pantser, I need to get that first sprawling, messy draft down on paper before I can begin to shape it up. NaNo is great for that phase; what fun to have a bunch of fellow writers urging you on. The Tacoma area NaNos offer lots of gatherings during November—not so helpful for solitary writers like me, but still fun.

Now, if I could just transfer the enthusiastic focus of NaNo to other areas. National Exercise Every Day Month, anyone?

#MeToo

This is a long one. I try to keep my blog posts shorter, but this needed to be said.

I served in the U.S. Army from 1980 to 1984. Money was tight in our family, as it is in any family getting by on the salary of one public school teacher, and the GI Bill offered me the chance to pay for college. I’m grateful for that chance, and proud to have contribute to our nation’s defense.

Basic training was the hardest thing I’ve ever done—physically, at least. Over the course of three months, our two male drills sergeants—one young and hunky, one older and fatherly—turned a bunch of whiny teenaged girls into a tight-knit, disciplined platoon of soldiers. They were marvelous, honorable men. But one of the other male drill sergeants in our company had a list of girls he intended to sleep with. The list was found. My name was on it. He was not removed from his position; we were merely warned by our drill sergeants to keep away from him.

I was very fortunate: I enlisted at a time when we were not at war, except for the Cold War, of course. I remember our first “alert,” a drill in which we prepared to move out for field maneuvers in the middle of the night. We knew it was coming, of course, and so, when the notification came at three a.m., I ran up and down the hallway of our barracks, sounding the alarm. “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” I thought I was hilarious. My first sergeant thought otherwise.

It takes a lot of people to keep the armed forces running, and a lot of jobs. Mine was 71 Delta, legal clerk. My duty assignments were at the division JAG office, first in Frankfurt, Germany, then in Hanau, Germany, and finally at Fort Stewart, Georgia. I helped the lawyers with typing, phone calls, interviews, research, courts martial, as well as helping soldiers and their spouses prepare wills, powers of attorney, and file paperwork to be reimbursed for damages to their property during moves.

I’m very grateful for the experiences that serving afforded me. I got to travel in Europe, I got tuition assistance for the college classes I took after duty hours, and I met some very fine people from across our nation. Most of them were men. Most of those were good men.

But the constant rain of sexual harassment weighed me down. It’s funny—I remember it got really ugly around 1982, when there was a public service campaign against sexual harassment. It’s as if the male soldiers were pushing back against the idea that it wasn’t okay to yell abuse at passing females. (That’s what they called us, females–or other, uglier things.)

In Hanau, where I was stationed from ’81-’83, a favorite game among the soldiers was to pop their heads out of the top floors of the office or barracks buildings and yell charming things like, “Suck my dick, bitch,” or “You’re only good for one thing, bitch,” or “How much, Baby?”. I knew my rights. I’d march up to the front desk, fuming, and tell the NCO on duty what had just transpired, and what the perpetrator looked like. Sometimes I’d get as far as the commanding officer.

Not once did they do anything about it, except to laugh in my face. Not once.

And then there was the time my NCO organized a weekend run. A bunch of us from the base Legal Center were training for a 10K race. When I got there, it was just him and me, even though he’d led me to believe there’d be several people. Stupid young girl that I was, I left with him. We ran for an hour through the German countryside—the whole time, he tried to convince me to stop by his house “for a beer.” I laughed it off and kept running. Thank God, he didn’t push it; I doubt I could have outrun him.

Things got much worse at Fort Stewart, home of the 24th Infantry Division. The whole base vibrated with machismo. We had just adopted BDUs, the loose-fitting, camouflage uniforms soldiers still wear today. I was a scrawny little person, just over a hundred pounds, and they didn’t make uniforms small enough for me. I looked like a walking shrubbery—short hair, no make-up, cap smashed down over my eyes, my oversize uniform flapping around my skinny limbs. From my barracks, I had to bicycle to work on the other side of the base, a good five miles.

How they knew I was female, I’ll never know. But they knew, and they followed me, yelled at me from their cars—really ugly things. More than once, a car would pull up alongside me, and some guy would yell, “Get in.” I ignored them, of course, but that often made it worse. “What’s wrong, bitch? You think you too good for me? I’ll show you what you good for, bitch.”

Now, mind you, I had some marvelous male friends during this time, many of them gay but hiding it—this was before “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” And if this sort of nonsense happened in front of my guy friends, they’d stand up to the bullies, challenge their ugliness.

But every day, I slunk from building to building, head down, middle finger up. Man after man greeted me with smarmy, sleazy “compliments” and offers of sexual acts. To the few nice guys who only wanted to wish me a pleasant day, I’m sorry—but the abuse was so thick and so constant that I couldn’t, wouldn’t risk talking to any strange male.

Years later, I was talking about sexual harassment with my then father-in-law, a lovely man who retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. He didn’t believe that the situation could actually be as dire as it was portrayed.

I saw red. I told him, mincing not one word, exactly what I endured for four years, exactly what those soldiers had said to me, done to me.

He was shocked.

Good. I’d had enough of protecting men I loved from the truth about that ugliness. No more pretending it’s really not so bad. It was. It is.

What feeds you?

The Japanese Garden in Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park

My husband, a wise fellow, often uses a nutrition metaphor when talking about his work: he says teaching feeds him. I tried this metaphor last week when chatting up an interesting acquaintance. That boring old question came up: “What do you do?”–meaning, how do you earn money? This question only yields interesting results for privileged, prosperous people who’ve had lots of choices in life. Most folks are just working to pay the bills, not to feed their souls.

That’s the question I asked Fred: “What feeds your soul?” He answered without hesitation: music. Turns out he’s a guitarist who’s played professionally and recorded albums in another country. For this guy, music is a vital nutrient.

Taking this metaphor a little further, there are nutrients you can gobble with abandon–say, fiber, and those that are essential but become toxic in large doses, such as niacin. Writing is my main psychic nutrient, the work I find most rewarding and most essential. But a diet of only writing leaves me as malnourished as if I tried to live on, say, cheese.

And if I neglect certain soul-vitamins, I start to crave them. One nutrient that’s been missing from my diet lately is a change of scenery. I’m quite a homebody most of the time, content with long hours spent writing in my comfortable little office. But too much sameness makes my creative motor run down. (Uh-oh, metaphor overload)

Yesterday, wise Hubs and I went for a long walk in Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park, a local beauty spot. I returned energized, cheered, and smacking my head for having neglected these important nutrients:

  • fresh air
  • movement
  • natural beauty
  • new scenery

To that list of nutrients, I’d add social time with friends and family, ditto with interesting new people, time with other writers, reading fiction, music, dancing…

None of these feel like duty, like work, like bitter medicine. They’re all delicious nutrient for my psyche, and I just have to remember–to take my vitamins.

How about you? What feeds you?

Oh, and have you seen the studies that prove cheese is good for us?http://www.eatingwell.com/article/289455/5-reasons-cheese-is-actually-good-for-your-health/?did=181228&utm_campaign=ew_nourish_101617&utm_source=etg-newsletter&utm_medium=email&cid=181228&mid=9530003697

Hallelujah and pass the Parmesan!

IWSG: Sometimes It Is All about Me!

Is it IWSG time again? Oh my—tempus sure does fugit. The Insecure Writers’ Support Group is a safe haven for writers of all kinds, where you’ll find resources for every step of the writing and publishing journey. On the first Wednesday of each month, IWSG sponsors a blog-hop. Check them out here: http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

This month’s IWSG blog-hop question – Have you ever slipped any of your personal information into your characters, either by accident or on purpose?

September was for yard renovation and family visits, not for blogging, alas.

I actually wrote on this month’s topic back in August twenty-third in Fashion and Vengeance: What I’ve Learned about Myself by Writing Fiction. Please scroll down and take a look if you’re interested.

But wait! If you order now, you also get for the low, low price of $9.99, plus shipping and handling…

Of course my stuff winds up in my characters! Is there a writer who doesn’t do this? Some resemblance shows up in surface details: though I’ve stopped dying my hair with henna (no longer flattering on my aging complexion), my female protagonists all have reddish hair, along with my green eyes and freckles. Hmm.

And then there are themes and motifs in my fiction that reveal lessons I should have learned in real life. For example, I’ve tended to jump right into romantic relationships like a kid making a cannonball dive—cowabunga! (This has not always worked out well.) But my protagonists are more cautious—they struggle with inner conflict over relationships that are moving uncomfortably fast. Hmm.

Another theme that echoes my own life is reinvention. I think it’s a universal human desire, especially in middle age, to re-evaluate the path we’re on and correct course. I lucked into the opportunity to start a new chapter, though years of hard work and saving for retirement certainly helped. My protags are also mature women who either can or must start anew.  And, like me, they believe in signs from lost loves or the Great Spirit or what have you—arrows that point us in the direction we’re meant to take. Hmm.

It looks like I need to stretch myself more as a writer and create protagonists who resemble me less—and I am, in my current WIP. Since romance novels are usually written in alternating male/female POV, I’m working on my first male protagonist. I was hesitant to do this, thinking it would be hard to create an authentic man. Any romance fan has read stories in which the male lead talks and acts and reacts like a very girly woman. Fortunately, the guys in my critique group are helpful for corralling that problem.

How about you? How closely do your protagonists resemble yourself?

 

Trying a New Genre: Romance

It’s IWSG time again! The Insecure Writers’ Support Group is a place where writers encourage each other, express their doubts, and offer help. According to their website, it’s “a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds.” They also offer oodles of resources for writers. Visit them here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

This month’s question: Have you ever surprised yourself with your writing? For example, by trying a new genre you didn’t think you’d be comfortable in?

Why yes, I did!

On social media, I happened on an article on how lucrative and fun it can be to write erotica. This got me thinking: most of my favorite stories have a strong romantic element and some spicy love scenes. My three completed novel manuscripts, two cozy mysteries and a women’s fiction story, all have a strong romantic thread. Why not try writing a schmexy story in which the romance was the main plot thread, for once?

At first, I thought I was writing a story that was mainly about a young widow’s sexual re-awakening. But you know how it goes: the characters had other plans. Sixty thousand words later, I had the first draft of a romance novel with more emphasis on hearts and minds than on loins—though the sexy scenes were great fun to write.

My goodness, there are so many flavors of romance fiction and erotica! I’ve been gobbling up romance novels like popcorn, learning about this new genre. Honestly, I’ve discarded about half of them after a few chapters. There’s a lot of trite, poorly written romance fiction out there, with silly twits for heroines. But—and this is a bit but—the ones that grab me really grab me.

And so, after feedback from three generous beta readers, I’m hard at work revising my first contemporary romance novel. I’m sure it won’t be my last.

What about you? Have you tried writing a new genre just for fun? Was it a positive experience?

 

Fashion and Vengeance: What I’ve Learned about Myself by Writing Fiction

“We’re all just working on our own stuff.” This comment from a wise women’s fiction writer has got me thinking. Lately, I’ve noticed some surprising threads in my own fiction writing: a fixation on fabulous outfits and well-deserved comeuppance. (Isn’t that a great word?)

I’m currently resting in the pause between fiction projects. My latest completed-for-now manuscript, a cozy mystery, is in the hands of beta readers, and I’m about to jump back into a romance novel that’s been marinating for a few months. In between, I revised three short stories that had been cooling on the corner of my desk for a good six months—all of them Twilight Zone-esque tales of psychological suspense.

Three different genres, but all highlight costume and karma. In fact, two of my creepy short stories feature clothing with magical properties. My female protagonists use clothing to express their inner sparkle, their complex, artistic souls.

Several male critique partners have pointed out how often I focus on what my characters are wearing. (Women readers don’t seem to mind.) And what do I wear as I write these stories? Mostly exercise gear, stuff I’d never wear outside my home unless on my way to the gym. It’s comfortable, but not creative or glamorous. Hmm—do you suppose my protagonists are trying to tell me something?

My upbringing urged me to be modest, obedient, not to call attention to myself. I thought I was done with that nonsense, having accepted my inner applause junkie long ago. But my protagonists are pointing out a bit of self-sabotage I’d do well to notice.

And while in real life I endeavor to have faith in karma and tamp down my tendency to be judgmental, in my fiction someone nasty always gets what’s coming to him or her. If I do my job well, that comeuppance arrives in unexpected ways, but arrive it does. In real life, I’m a powerless observer; on the page, I’m an avenging fury.

I’ll bet it would take years of therapy to gain this kind of insight. Okay, writing fiction is just as time-consuming, but it’s cheaper! What have you learned about yourself from your fictional creations?

What are your values?

Mount Rainier on a smoky day

“I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values—and follow my own moral compass—then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.”

–Michelle Obama, from her remarks at the Tuskegee University                                                             Commencement Address, 2015

A few months ago, I wrote about my newfound love of podcasts. Hey, I’m a late bloomer, hence the name of this blog. One of my favorites, The Minimalists, frequently discusses the importance of identifying your values so you can align your life with same. Of course, some values are more—er—valuable than others. Identifying my values is an excellent exercise, and one that bears repeating every few years or so. Otherwise, I risk getting caught up in pursuits and priorities that don’t reflect my soul’s true direction—and that’s how one gets lost.

The Minimalists offer their own hierarchy of values, but I’ve modified that a bit, organizing mine into Foundational Values (must address every day) and Aspirational Values (I haven’t reached these yet, but want to). I’m not saying that I live up to this list 100% every day, but having these goals before me helps me to live a meaningful life. Here are mine. What are yours?

Foundational Values:

  • Conscious living—thinking about the choices I make, rather than following the crowd.
  • Creativity—writing, cooking, artwork, music, dance…
  • Simplicity—A corollary of #1 above, I try to include only those things and activities that add value to my life.
  • Good health—because my spirit lives in a body.
  • Achievement—I feel best about myself when I can look at concrete accomplishments.
  • Balance—work and play, alone and together, sit and stand and walk and dance…
  • Intellectual Curiosity—because the world is so interesting!

Aspirational Values:

  • Order—Yeah, this one needs work, but life is more enjoyable if I can find stuff.
  • Discipline—I exercise discipline in my writing schedule. In other arenas, I have work to do.
  • Beauty—Beautiful surroundings, beautiful clothing, these give me great pleasure.
  • Music—I love it and want to include more in my life.
  • Connection—I need to push myself to connect with those I love more often and to meet new people, because they’re not going to come into my writing cave (except on social media).

Care to share some of your guiding values?

IWSG Question o’ the Month: Pet Peeves

The first Wednesday of the month brings another blog-hop from the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. IWSG is a valuable resource for all of us hacking our way through the jungle of writing advice. Check it out here: http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

Thanks to this month’s IWSG hosts: Christine Rains, Dolarah @ Book Lover, Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor, Yvonne Ventresca, and LG Keltner!

This month’s question: What are your pet peeves when reading/writing/editing?

Hoo boy, I can’t wait to read this month’s replies. I love a good rant. Warning: there’s strong language below.

I have learned so much from reading and critiquing the works-in-progress of other writers, both in face-to-face critique groups and in online manuscript swaps. Despite my extensive experience in written expression, a few boo-boos will always escape my notice. My readers help me catch those, along with areas where I was unclear or missed an opportunity for greater impact. I’m grateful for their help.

That said, I carefully proofread my submissions before asking anyone else to read them. The main purpose of writing is clarity, whether the writer is trying to convey a scene, a character, a theme, an emotion, or an explanation.

I wish all my critique partners would take care to proofread before asking me to read their work. (My WFWA partners do.) It’s not like we weren’t taught this stuff in school. It’s not like this information is difficult to find if we need a refresher on, say, comma usage.

I run into two scenarios:

#1: The writer shrugs. “I’m not good at punctuation. I hope you’ll help me.”

#2: “Who cares about commas? You know what I mean. Why are you being such a pedantic jerk about spelling and punctuation?”

In response to #1: Extensive line editing is time-consuming, and it’s not a service I offer for free. Sure, we’ll all miss a few errors, but when I have to wade through a jungle of superfluous punctuation, gaping holes where punctuation ought to be, tangles of vagueness, and steaming pits of confusing word choice, I get frustrated and tired before I ever reach the story.

And isn’t the story what it’s all about?

As to #2: Imagine this attitude translated to other scenarios—for example, talking to your tax accountant.

“Okay, yearly income. Let’s say 50K.”

“But your W2 form says you make $68,732.”

“Whatever! They’ll know what I mean. Precision’s not important here.”

“Actually, it is. If you enter the wrong amount, the IRS will come after you for back taxes, plus penalties—”

“I hate the IRS, and I hate picky assholes like you.” (Gathers papers and stomps off.)

Or at band practice:

“Wait, someone’s playing the wrong note. We’re in the key of D.”

“Why is it important that I play in D? I’m really feeling it in C minor. Sounds good to me.”

“That’s not how the song goes, man. It’s D minor, then B sharp, then—”

“Whatever, man. You’re always criticizing me. You’re a picky, pedantic asshole.”

“And you’re out of the band.”

Precision is vital in written communication. Words and punctuation marks are the tools we use to convey meaning. Maybe you didn’t like English class. Maybe your teacher smelled funny. Maybe she was mean, and you really wanted to be fixing your makeup or playing a computer game instead of learning how to use apostrophes.

Tough shit. Clear communication is important.

Tripping Over Tropes in Women’s Fiction

Continuing the discussion from two weeks ago, I started a post about tropes in another genre near to my heart: women’s fiction. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t seem to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t hurt the feelings of certain people whose feelings I did not want to hurt. It ultimately boiled down to my critical thoughts about a certain world view.

No, not politics—I’m talking about issues like victimhood, agency, self-advocacy, passivity, resilience. I couldn’t express my frustration with certain types of female protagonists without coming across as dismissive of women who’d suffered greatly at the hands of others, and that was not my intention—so into the trash can that post went.

Instead, as an exercise in positivity, I compiled a list of what I do want to find in a novel I read. This also serves as a checklist for my own writing.

  • For me, realism and believability are key. This doesn’t exclude magical, made-up worlds: I’ve read historical and fantasy fiction where I completely bought into the actions and motivations of the characters. Likewise, I’ve read contemporary fiction where I’ve thrown down the book in disgust, exclaiming, “No way anyone would say/do that!”
  • a protagonist who’s brave, audacious, resilient, creative, flamboyant, funny, smart
  • a protagonist I’d want to spend time with. She needs to be passionate about something other than just a guy, her kids, shopping, a corporate job. Not that family and jobs aren’t important, but I want to see substance beyond those basics.
  • a protag who thinks before she acts. If she makes an obviously bad decision, I want to see her reasons as she decides, and they’d better make sense in the moment. If later she learns something that reveals her reasons to be invalid, that’s okay. But if she allows herself to be buffeted about by strong emotions with no thought to consequences–meh.
  • sparkling, funny, biting dialogue
  • sensory description that allows me to peer over the characters’ shoulders and experience the scene as if I were there.
  • lots of scenes. Yes, narrative summary has its place, but I most enjoy stories I can experience as if I were watching a movie, but with a great sound system, vibrating seats, and Smell-o-rama.
  • Lots of riveting plot action but—and this is tricky—a minimum of obvious, formulaic manipulation. If every scene ends with a melodramatic cliffhanger, I feel like I’m watching a badly-written TV show. I like a break every now and then, a funny or reflective scene that lets me catch my breath.
  • This one is especially important for me to remember as a writer: a character who learns something about herself and/or others as a result of the plot events.
  • Of course, recipes are a plus.

How about you? Do the items above resonate with you? Care to add an essential of your own to the list?