Monday, July 28, 2014

Gathering the Threads of a Story

I have been posting on Mondays, but didn't get a chance to do so last week because I was visiting friends and we had no electricity, no telephone, etc. I explain below.

Readers ask writers a variety of questions but most of them are standard and expected. The most common is, Where do you get your ideas? This is never easy to answer because the answer is, Life. But during a recent vacation in Washington State, I watched an incident that I suspect will be part of a story in the future.

During a visit with friends in Mazama (pop. 200), in Okanogan County, Washington, we watched a column of deer, young bucks we first thought, trot and gambol across the open lawn, heading to the highway where they crossed almost every day. They had come from a woodland, crossed a river, and scaled the bank, a regular route. They were quickly gone but just as quickly one returned, diving into the garden and falling behind a bush. It was obvious from the gait that this one was injured, apparently nicked by a passing car or truck. Traffic moves fast coming down Washington Pass onto the first straightaway despite signs warning of wildlife crossing.

The other deer came back and nosed what we now thought was an injured doe, since we didn't
see the knobs of the young buck. The healthy animals lingered, grazing and dancing closer and then away. One seemed to nuzzle the doe. After a short while they left, again crossing the road. The doe tried to get up, failed, and fell again. Some time passed before she tried again, but she did, and when she got to her feet and moved into open ground, the damage to her leg was obvious and painful to see. The left foreleg dangled, bloody and torn. She took a moment to steady herself, then limped to the riverbank and somehow made it
down to the water. The river was still deep and the current strong, but after being carried perhaps thirty feet she managed to get a footing and clamber onto a small beach. She disappeared into the woods.

My friends and I commented sadly on the doe's fate. She couldn't live long with that much damage to her foreleg. Getting to her feet had been a struggle, and without agility she had little defense against predators. We knew a lynx lived in the area; my friends had seen it in their yard.

Late that evening the other deer returned, nosing along the garden in search of their missing
friend. After a while, finding nothing, they crossed the river to the woodlands. Watching deer cross the river to their nighttime haunt had always been a pleasant end to the evening. Every year we spotted the deer as we sat on the deck and stared up at Goat Peak, watched clouds float over the Cascades, and enjoyed the evening breeze. But this evening we thought about the diminishing herd. A neighbor had counted seven crossing her property recently, and today we had seen five, learned one was a doe, and that one would no longer be traveling with the others. The herd was down to four.

Mazama and Okanogan County was fighting the worst wildfires in its history, and that held
most of our attention. The fire had meant the shut-down of power, so without electricity and water we needed supplies. We drove south, counted clouds of smoke over ridges, and found any number of other people trying to learn what was going on. We knew towns farther south had been evacuated and others had suffered terrible losses. The firefighters were doing everything humanly possible but fire is relentless and unpredictable.

The following morning, while filling buckets with river water, we spotted the doe. She had
come down to the sandy beach to drink from the river. To my surprise her leg was clean of blood, and though her foreleg still seemed useless, she managed to get through the brush to the river. I did not expect to see the animal alive again, but there she was. The minute she saw us she fled with alacrity into the brush. I tried to get a photograph of her, but captured a mere flicker as she disappeared.

This is not the story I will write. It is a thread in that story, a contrasting strand that will highlight one aspect, or perhaps a filament to shimmer on its own.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Images and Reality

The newest issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine features one of my stories, "Francetta Repays Her Debt to Society," as well as several other great tales of life on the edge. The image on the cover made me cringe--a woman walks the edge of a razor, to let us know that Joseph D'Agnese's story "Harm and Hammer" will take us to the edge.

I have been mulling over the idea of imagery, and images we use to represent what we do. As a writer I sit at my desk every morning, turn on my MacAir, and begin typing. I don't print anything until I have a complete text to edit on hard copy. If I'm working on a short story I want the entire story, which I will review once or twice on the computer before I print it out. If I'm working on a novel, again I want the entire story in the computer before I begin printing. So why should I mention this?

Image courtesy of Simon Howden/ 
Whenever I come across an article on writing I never blanch or blink at the images used to alert the reader to the topic. The image could just as easily be a quill pen sitting on a sheet of parchment as an old typewriter. I'm less likely to see a computer keyboard or a CPU. Since I only work on a laptop, I don't even see a CPU on most days. The towers that used to sit under my desk, and on which I stubbed my toes every day at least once, don't seem to be iconic enough to tag a story on writing.
Image courtesy of Zoelavie/
Dreamstime Stock Photos
This is pretty peculiar if you think about it. I have yet to notice an article on photography that relies on old cameras of any sort to alert the reader about what is to come. The image is most likely one of the newest models, perhaps one promoted by an advertiser of the site. Another expected image is a photographer with a very fancy lens, the Holy Grail of amateurs and the required equipment for the professional.

Image courtesy of Editorial/
Dreamstime Stock Photos
I don't know why there is this difference between the two art forms. Perhaps taking up a tool to begin writing seems more romantic than other activities, less tied to technological advancement than other artistic endeavors. But then why writing and not painting? If I ran across the image of a man in a beret and smock holding a palette and brush I'd think the designer of the site was mocking artists.

Perhaps the answer lies in the way writers use technology. We have programs to help us plot, and to identify misspellings and grammatical goofs, files to hold research notes located on line, but none of this creates the story. I don't know the answer, but I admit that I love old typewriters and I never mind the images that pop up on the screen to tell the reader, This is about writing!

Monday, July 7, 2014

How to Begin

Every writer faces the blank page. If we have managed to finish at least one story or essay, we have learned one or two ways to begin the work. I recently had coffee with another writer who had worked primarily in the publicity/marketing side of the business, letting her own writing sit neglected in a file while she did other things. During our recent chat, she asked the big question. “How do I begin?” She knew what she wanted to write—the many stories she had collected over the years—but she couldn’t find a way into the mountain.

After a writer has written and published a number of stories, novels, articles, reviews, and more, we begin each project often without even thinking about it. But if I stop to consider the question, how to begin, I know I have several techniques that I use implicitly. Each project is different, fiction or nonfiction, short or long, humorous or serious, scholarly or more popular. Each characteristic will affect to some degree the beginning, but several techniques are applicable for almost every situation.

First, when I open to the first blank page I already have an idea of what I’m going to write. If it’s a
short story, I have been carrying around in my head the idea of the characters for perhaps a few days. I’ve been toying with an opening sentence, or a phrase that has stuck in my head. I sometimes write the opening sentence with pen and paper, to get a sense of the rhythm of the line and the story. I might tinker with it a bit, editing, rewriting, but I soon type it and go on from there. In the third Anita Ray, I knew I wanted the story to open with a scene about the monsoon and the threat to a particular person. I edited this opening several times but the original scene remained.

Second, the beginning of the work on subsequent days is also a challenge. I reread what I have written the day before, do light editing, and continue on. Some writers leave the final sentence of the day unfinished and use that to force (or inspire) themselves to continue. I haven’t used this technique and admit that it doesn’t appeal to me.

Third, if I am pushing myself to get started on something, usually nonfiction with a deadline, and I can’t come up with an opening line, I make a list of the ideas I want to cover, using short phrases or single words. I organize these and out of this process usually comes what I think of as the strongest aspect of what I want to say. Once I have discovered the idea of the sentence, I begin composing.

Fourth, fiction is a journey for both reader and writer. If I’m not confident how to begin, I pick a scene anywhere in the story and start writing that. I describe where the character is, what the setting looks like, who’s there and who’s talking or doing something. Out of this I find the first sentence.

Fifth, I keep a notebook of ideas and phrases or sentences I like, even if I have no idea what I’m going to do with them. I will never use most of them, but I can go to that material and comb it for something that sparks my imagination and can serve as a first sentence.

Sixth, this suggestion comes after every other one has been tried. Every writer wants her opening to be as strong as she can make it. We edit and rewrite and polish the opening probably more than any other passage in the story. Sometimes the best opening is discovered halfway down the first or second page, when we’ve used the already chosen first sentence to get our brain turned on and start a flow of creativity.

In my first Mellingham mystery I struggled with the opening, and in the end wrote three opening chapters. When I realized what I’d done, I read until I found a sentence that seemed to shift and move forward. I amputated the mss at that point, deleting three and a half chapters and making the entire story tighter and tidier.

Seventh, if the story feels strong but the opening won't come, I pick up a book by a favorite writer and read the opening of several chapters. This gets me into a better frame of mind, I don't feel so stuck, and I'm relaxed reading the work of writers I love. In the end I will probably delete whatever I come up with, but the point is to start moving forward.

These and other suggestions will help writers get down the first words of their writing project, but no one should spend more time worrying about how to begin than beginning. Whatever we write for an opening can be reviewed and deleted or improved. The point is to begin and let the characters in the story live their lives on the page.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Free Books

The publishing world continues to get stranger and stranger. On LinkedIn, one thread is devoted to writers arguing about whether or not they should give away their books for free, as a teaser for a series, to get readers interested in their work overall, or just as a way to get their name out there. This debate can get rather heated. On some days, as the emails come pouring into my computer, I wonder if the posters are getting any other writing done. Pricing e-books at $0.00 on Amazon as a sales gimmick is a hot topic, and will remain so for quite a while.

The debate on LinkedIn fades in comparison to the story of the Concord Free Press. Founded by Stona Fitch, the press has published perhaps a dozen books in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The press is supported by donations and grants, and all books are given free to those who request them. Each requestor is asked to make a donation to the charity of his or her choice, and let the press know what that is. The website includes a page listing the donations. In total, the press has prompted charitable giving of over $409,250. Fitch has succeeded in his goal: “we’re publishing books that connect reading and giving like never before. And that’s enough for us.”

I decided to give this a try and placed an order for Zig Zag Wanderer, a story collection by Madison Smartt Bell. The order page came up and I was asked to check off three questions about whether or not I would make a donation to a charity I believed in or help a person in need, and then pass along the book. I checked off all three boxes. I have chosen the charity, The Gloucester Writers Center, and will also give them the book when I’ve finished reading it.

I have mixed feelings about the business plan of the Concord Free Press. As a reader and a socially conscious citizen, I love the idea of linking books, charity, and raising awareness or initiating discussion, but as a writer I cringe. Few of us in this world (and the numbers dwindle as I write) can afford to work for free. What does it mean for a professional writer, someone who takes the time to learn the craft, and work her or his way up the ladder of the profession of writer (small magazines, teaching, a first book, reviews and reviewing, and the rest of it) to give away a book that may have taken two or three years to write?

For decades, if not centuries, the lament of the writer has been that she is the last one to be paid. The publisher gets the money and divvies it out. The printer always gets paid, for obvious reasons, and so does the designer. The publisher gets paid because he controls the money, and the editors and proofreaders usually get paid. Anyone outside the office, and thus not in the publisher’s face every day, has a much diminished chance of seeing any money. I know because as a freelance editor I often had to make uncomfortable phone calls to a publisher insisting on payment. In the 1980s several small publishing houses in the Boston area went bankrupt, and the publisher walked away with what was left—the writers, freelancers, and staff got nothing. And now, it seems, we begin at that stage of nothingness. (I'm feeling very Buddhist today.)

I admit to deep ambivalence here. I admire what the Concord Free Press is doing, and I understand the passion behind the debate on LinkedIn. But I wonder what all this means for writers who have something to say, the skill to say it, and the determination to do so.

If someone else has insight into this new world, I hope you will share it.

To learn more about the Concord Free Press, go to

To learn more about the debate on LinkedIn go to LinkedIn, Books and Writers, For the sake of writers everywhere, please STOP this!

To learn more about the Gloucester Writers Center, go to

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Writer as Spy

Last week I spent an entire day walking up and down the streets of a seaside town on a garden tour. The gardens, were to say the least, gorgeous, various, and photogenic. But the absolute best shots were the people visiting the town or working there. 
As an amateur photographer, I know the rules against taking intrusive photos. As a writer, I know how to use what I see in whatever I’m writing. The rules of behavior are different for writers and photographers, and I have yet to learn how to use a camera to spy on people on the street without getting caught, though I can easily do so as a writer. This has come to the fore after seeing a terrific film documentary about an unknown photographer, truly one of the almost-lost great artists of her generation. Finding Vivian Maier begins when a young man, looking for images of old Chicago, buys a trunk full of negatives at auction.
Vivian emerges as a very odd creature who sought out the marginal, outcast, and rejected of society. Her images are startling, arresting, striking, moving. She saw what most people choose not to see, and are even trained not to see. Years ago a colleague wondered aloud how a good friend born into a high caste in India could go about every day and not see or be moved by the suffering all around her. The same certainly can be said of many in the States. But Vivian was different. She never turned away from the suffering; instead she sought them out. She left behind over 100,000 negatives and dozens of rolls of undeveloped color film. It appears, by the end of the movie, that the only reason she didn't present her work to the world at large was because she probably didn't know how to go about it. That and her tendency to hoarding would have derailed her efforts to become established as a photographer. She was very peculiar.

Vivian didn't care what people thought of her. Most artists in any medium or genre feel much the same. But we usually acknowledge the boundaries of mainstream society and honor them. Vivian tripped over them and kept going, most of the time. She used a Rolleiflex, which gives the photographer a distinct advantage. She can hold the camera at waist level, focus and shoot, without the object of her attentions appreciating that a photograph is being taken. The current popular cameras (Canon, Nikon, Pentax, etc.) are held up to the eye, which gives away what we're doing. I use a Pentax, and even when looking through a window, anyone can tell what I'm up to. You can see the problem. It's easier for a writer. 

I may not be able to photograph strangers on the street without first getting permission and overcoming my innate reluctance to invade another's privacy, but I can write down everything I see to use in a story or a novel without regard to its origins. Whenever anyone asks if I write about real people, my answer is always no. But I often encounter an image that is so memorable, so vivid, that I have to use it. The image is a springboard to something else; it is not a record of real life.

Vivian's life teaches something else. She became a nanny so she could be outdoors more, which for her meant the opportunity to photograph. She led her charges into the parts of town other people tried to avoid. To get the photographs she wanted, she had to be fearless. For any artist or writer, to get the result we want we have to drive forward, crush any doubts, and focus strictly on the work. We have to be fearless in another way.
Any good work of art (or craft) brings to the viewer the opportunity to see something as if for the first time. The creator records the experience, lives it and preserves it for another. And the reader or viewer is given a new set of eyes, a new experience of the mundane, after which it is no longer mundane. Artists like Vivian Maier remind us of this, and thereby enrich our work. As peculiar as she was, she could see beyond the veils of society and left behind for us a little of what she saw.

My series character Anita Ray uses her camera all the time, for her work and for her
investigations. She doesn't have to worry when someone challenges her because she is an established photographer, with a gallery of her own. I'm not planning on getting her a Rolleiflex to make it even easier. They cost about $5,000. But I may give her a few things to worry about when someone sees her photographing a private home or a dead body. Why would she be doing that?

Anita's newest adventure is For the Love of Parvati, where she does photograph a corpse.

To learn more about Vivian Maier and see her photographs, go to

To learn more about the documentary film, go to