Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Use News Stories as Writing Prompts

Writers often find some of their best prompts when a news story catches their fancy and they begin to think about the multiple angles and outcomes involved. The story need not be breaking news with local, national or international attention. It might be a dog bites man story with an odd twist to it or the theft of jewelry in an upscale neighborhood in which everyone looks guilty.

In such cases, you might pretend you're the owner of the dog, the man who was bitten, a neighbor watching the event who knows something the victim doesn't know. You might pretend you stole the jewels, that they were your jewels or--perhaps--that they weren't really stolen. This is a great way to play with ideas, characters and plots.

The Missing Malaysian Passenger Plane

The missing, and presumed lost, passenger plane MH370 is--as I write this--still the object of one of the largest passenger aviation searches in history. At present, no debris has been found and the Navy's Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle is set for another attempt to map the ocean floor.

The prevailing theory, based on the radar, satellite, pings and other evidence at hand is that the plane's course was intentionally altered for reasons unknown so that it ended up flying until it ran out of fuel before crashing into the ocean at or near the primary search area.

Theories about what might have happened, from mechanical failure to hijacking/terrorism to abduction by aliens have run rampant through the social media and the panels of experts gathered by major news organizations to discuss the disappearance and search.

For now, without getting into the need to do a lot of research about the technologies involved with commercial aviation, radar, satellites and air traffic control systems, this mystery easily lends itself to multiple qhat if questions and story ideas.

  • If you like human interest approaches, then you put yourself in the shoes of one or more of the passengers. Or a crew member trying to save the plane.
  • If you like international thriller/spy novels, you can put yourself into the shoes of those who--let's say--could have stolen/sabotaged the plane for political reasons.
  • If you like police, private eye and other mysteries, you can use the point of view of an FBI agent or other investigator looking at the disappearance as a crime.
  • Or, perhaps you're the pilot trying to save the plane or a member of the search team trying to find the plane, or an operative of one kind or another who has classified information about the matter that hasn't been shared with the public or the search teams.
Plot Possibilities

Sooner or later, I expect somebody will write a novel or a screenplay based on one or more aspect of the disappearance and search. Perhaps it will be you. If not, the event is very good for your writing practice. For example:

  • Is it logical that a flight crew (or a hijacker) with enough savvy to alter the plane's course and avoid detection would simply fly the plane until it ran out of fuel, killing everyone on board? What motives might be behind that scenario?
  • What if the flight crew (or a hijacker) miscalculated the amount of fuel and thought it was possible to reach Perth? What motives might account for that?
  • Is it logical to presume the plane has been lost? Could the plane have, as it did, avoided detection and communication with the ground, and then successfully landed in a country that wanted the plane (you pick the reason)? What if people on the ground "played stupid" and didn't share information showing they knew all along where the plane was headed?
  • Speculate further about another plane dropping black boxes in the search area to mimic those of MH370 and/or creating the apparent satellite data that suggests the plane is where the search is being conducted? How would this be accomplished? How would it look from the point of view of the pilot, the passengers, the perpetrators and the investigators?
  • If the plane is found where searchers think it is, multiple stories exist. If we find out what happened and why, the true story may well be the most compelling. What if you are on the plane? What if you're the pilot? What if you're waiting at home for a relative or friend on the plane?
The Human Story

Ultimately, investigators will look at all of the hardware, software, and procedures involved in the disappearance of MH370 once the causes are known--or even if they're never known--to make air travel safer and search operations more efficient.

Yet, the human side of this tragedy and its expected outcome is immense. That's what haunts us, scares us, and stirs up our sympathy and compassion for the hundreds of people impacted by this event. Within that human side, there will be real triumphs and defeats, real heroes, bad guys and good guys, and dedicated investigators and searchers. If I were an aviation expert, I would love to write a non-fiction book about such a story. But since I'm not, I can see a dozen ways to ask "what if" and then to practice writing various scenes.

There is a lot to speculate and write about (for practice), especially now when none of the likely causes and outcomes has become the real one.


Friday, April 04, 2014

Time management: Getting Swept away on words

"Writing must have an element of magic to it. When that magic takes over, the writer himself loses track of time during the writing--and the reader will lose track of time during the reading. If you're happy at work and think of it as your private briar patch--a place of escape from the word in which time is your time--the clock of life becomes your clock, and even the thorns in that briar patch are of your own choosing." - Kenneth Atchity in "A Writer's Time"

We want to be swept away on words. That's one reason we read. The better the book, the farther the words will take us. Time disappears: suddenly our planned twenty minutes of reading before falling asleep at night turns into an hour of reading.

Writers love being swept away on words while they write. This happens when the story is coming together and the writer is having so much fun letting it happen, that s/he no longer keeps track of the clock or the number of words written that day, or what might be waiting on Facebook or Twitter.

Atchity presumes that writers are people who love to write and that they want to write well. The premise of his book, as Library Journal pointed out in its review, is that success in writing requires more than perfecting writing skills, but mastering one's use of time. It's strange perhaps, that the best time management will lead us to lose track of time.

It's harder than ever these days. Something--life, the Internet, the cell phone or cosmic vibes--is shortening our attention spans while drawing us away into dozens of preoccupations that compete with a writer's need for sustained periods of time for working on the short story or novel in progress.

Years ago, somebody said that a lot of people don't want to write, they want to have written. That is, they imagine what it will be like to have a successful book out there rather than imagining sitting down and doing the work. Others mistake talking or blogging about the work as doing the work. Yes, connecting with others, marketing, commenting on blogs and having an online presence are part of the work.

The thing is, sometimes all of that takes over the day. That's why it's wonderful to be so passionate about the story we're writing, we'd rather begin the day working on that than reading the blogs, Facebook news feeds, e-mails and writing newsletters we're following. Life these days gives us the impression we'll miss something important if our cell phone isn't next to the keyboard or if we go 30 minutes without looking at Facebook.

If a writer agrees with Atchity, s/he will sooner or later decide that the important thing s/he is missing by becoming preoccupied with "being connected" with everyone else is being connected to the plot, theme, and characters in the story.

Some people say we should write at the same time every day, viewing the work in the same way we view a full time or part time job. Others don't like to say "when it's time to work, then work" because then working on a novel becomes too much like work. Well, it is work, even when there's magic in it.

Others need to support our writing time and not act as though we're available to run errands, do chores, talk or anything else when we're sitting at the keyboard writing. But the first trick here is supporting ourselves in doing that work, arranging everything we can to keep the story flowing and getting so swept away by what we're writing that nothing can distract us.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Keeping readers reading

Plots that go nowhere or characters that inspire no interest are death to your stories. If nothing interesting happens in a novel, readers are likely to put it down. If characters don’t engage the readers—their minds or emotions or curiosity—you get the same result—readers tossing aside the book without reading to the end. - Beth Hill in her post "Making Readers Care"

What we care about as readers can often be swayed by what everyone else is reading or about our best friend's favorite book. After that, the author's got to keep us caring.

As I read the reader reviews on Amazon for Amy Greene's Long Man and Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, I was surprised by the number of people who panned the books for being too slow, too detailed, too lyrical or for not packing enough punch per paragraph.

I liked both books a lot. Both books made me care about what was happening enough to settle in for a leisurely read rather than something that ended before dinner.

Beth Hill says that today's readers want things to happen faster. She's probably right. I don't like the trend, but whether the story is action-packed and 80,000 words or leisurely and 150,000 words, the authors need to engage us with the characters, plots, themes and places to make us care enough to turn the page.

Most gurus suggest that emerging writers get to the point faster in their first several books. Unless you have a big publisher behind you who can get your books into bookstores and reviews of your work into major outlets like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, shorter is probably more likely to attract a small press and/or readers on Amazon.

Basically, if you're not passionate about the story you're telling, it will be difficult to make the readers passionate about it. If your story seems so real to you that you can't stop thinking about it and sometimes wonder if it might have happened somewhere, then your feelings are going to shine in the book.

Our passion for a story helps us see our characters' pros and cons and how their strengths might help them triumph in difficult situations and how their weaknesses might lead them into trouble. Maybe their lives aren't at risk, but something is--their job, marriage, friends, career. When whatever they want or want to keep is in jeopardy, readers are more likely to turn the page and keep reading. The character and his/her life and goals has to matter. That's what I look at first when deciding whether or not to buy a book.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Magic favors the prepared writer

"But of course, the whole process is a mystery, in all the arts. Creativity, in literature, painting, music. Or in performance: those rare lovely moments in the theater when an actor has the whole audience in his hands suddenly like that. You may have all the technique in the world, but you can't strike that spark without some mysterious extra blessing -- and none of us knows what that blessing really is. Not even the writers, who talk the most, can explain it at all." - Susan Cooper in Terri Windling's Myth & Moor

Clear your mind with a walk in the park.
Louis Pasteur said in an 1854 lecture, "In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind." This quote is often simplified to "Chance favors a prepared mind."

The Boy Scout motto is "Be Prepared." In fact, in almost all areas of survival and commerce and art, teachers stress preparation. We carry a knife, matches, compass, map, water and food on short hikes in case we are lost or injured and end up out there longer than expected. Soldiers prepare for multiple eventualities as do lawyers, police officers and corporate presidents.

On Navy ships, one speaks of "conditions of readiness" depending on the circumstances so that the vessel and crew can meet expected and unexpected conditions.

How About Writers?

Listen to music.
In Terri Windling's post, the focus is that as writers, we're not quite sure what makes the magic work. Some days, getting each word on the page is like pulling teeth. On other fays, the words flow almost faster than we can type them and by dinner time we end up with some of the best passages we've ever written.

If your writing process works for you, then whatever you're doing is preparing your mind for the work whether it's fiction or nonfiction. Professional writers often look askance at amateur or part-time writers who claim they must wait for inspiration before they can write. That may work if you plan to write one or two novels in your lifetime, but journalists, TV and magazine writers, script writers, and novelists who are earning a living through a steady stream of articles, plays or books can't afford to write only an hour or so a month whenever the mood finally strikes them.

Establishing a System

Trails clear the mind.
Far be it from me to ever suggest a step-by-step process for going from, say, mowing the lawn and buying groceries, to sitting down and writing or re-writing a short story, novel or feature article. Of course, if a series of steps works for you, keep on taking those steps.

Preparing for the magic of a good writing session seems to be to be more of arranging the environment and one's attitude so that that magic is most likely to happen. Some writers:
  • Require solitude
  • Need no distractions (Internet, doorbell, cell phone)
  • Listen to music that somehow matches the work--I wrote one novel while listening to "Beneath the Raven Moon," finding that ideas began coming to mind the moment I started the CD.
  • Take frequent breaks (even getting up and making a coup of coffee between scenes)
  • Keep multiple files open at once so they can flip between the story and their research note
  • Take a long walk or sitting in a park just before sitting down to write where they avoid thinking of anything other than the work
  • End the work of one day with a sentence or scene that lead obviously to where they need to start work the next day
  • Place things in the writing room that are inspiring--pictures, shelves of books, mementos from trips, art objects; conversely, other authors life a writing space that looks like the cubicle in a large office building, a virtually empty room, or a back porch overlooking a serene yard or a bustling city
  • Journalists, travel writers and parents can seemingly write in the midst of chaos; it's as though they're oblivious to the chaos or empowered by it--seek it out if it helps you, whether it's the room where the kids are playing or a busy coffee shop
  • Outlines help many people because there is comfort in the plan, each step being a reminder not only about the necessary focus of each writing session but about the scenes they might mull over (or even dream about) prior to the next writing session.
  • A lot of writers keep notebooks because they discover that while they're doing routine tasks such as taking kids to school, cooking a meal or washing the car, they come up with some of their best ideas--the pressure is off and the mind just seems to relax and come up with answers to place where the work was stuck or bits and pieces of dialogue for the next chapter
In time, almost every writer out there will develop a list of what needs to happen for his/her writing to
Some of us "need" clutter for our best work.
go well. Drink whiskey. . .get in bathtub. . .light white candle...write. Or, walk into office at the same time each day...pour coffee...look at the last scene completed...start writing the next scene. There are an infinite number of variations and, while many writers have a lot of techniques in common, the preparation with the best chance of producing a viable draft--or even a magical draft--will be a routine and a room and a schedule that has been personalized.

A writer friend of mine told me yesterday that she not only must write in solitude, but that she can't be anywhere near the Internet. I also like solitude, but rely on the Internet for quickly going out and checking facts. She wants to focus on the work and not get detailed by the online world.

Another writing friend writes in bits and pieces when she isn't sure about the transitions between scenes or has a missing fact. She likes to rush forward with the scene and not get derailed either by passages she's not yet ready to write or things she needs to look up. So, she leaves gaps in the manuscript.

I feel uncomfortable leaving gaps in the manuscript and write straight through it, looking up facts on the internet as I need them.

What's comfortable for me may sound like lunacy to you and vice versa.

We may not know exactly what makes our best writing happen. But we can set the stage so its more likely. That's something we must learn along with all the writing class information about showing and not telling, developing strong characters and having everything in the work advance the story.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sometimes your research will lead you into an exciting plot

When I woke up from a strange dream about piney woods and swamps, a single phrase stayed with me, one that sounded like the perfect title to a book.

It was a title that spoke of Southern folk magic.

I've always liked merging local legends and beliefs into my fiction, but folk magic--often referred to as hoodoo--is barely on my RADAR. I loved my title and felt certain "I was supposed to write this book," but everything about it was unknown to me. Growing up in the South, I know the landscape, the people, and a lot of the superstitions, but that was a long way from having a plot and characters.

Have you ever been in this position? You want to write a story that's as fragile as a dream, something hardly known or remembered, but you don't know what it's about?

When a story is on my mind in this way, I don't rush it. I don't sit down and try to make an outline or start thinking up the names of characters. The research guides me.

I looked up hoodoo on the web and in books. The first thing I learned is that while a lot of people mix it up with Voodoo, the two are not the same. I started learning about herbs and spells and beliefs.

As I did, characters began coming to mind that might do something with those herbs. They might run afoul of those who fear hoodoo practitioners, so there's a danger element to this.

Somebody is murdered, perhaps, and while I was wondering how my main character would find the killer, I saw a hoodoo practice involving a mirror that was a means of speaking with the dead and, let's say, asking them who did it?

Since hoodoo is primarily linked to the Southern states, at least in terms of culture and tradition, I could set the story in north Florida where I grew up. As I recalled the rivers and the terrain, a picture of my main character's house in the woods begin to take shape.

I haven't written the story yet. But since I'm still figuring it out, it seemed a good time to mention that when you keep an idea in your mind and start looking up information associated with it, you can often develop a plot "backwards," so to speak. It's like mentioning a red Ford and then suddenly seeing red Fords everywhere.

Yes, I know, we usually begin with a plot or a character. But sometimes, we can start with where they live and what they do as a way of getting (finally) to the story we want to tell.


Monday, March 03, 2014

Why are your favorite books your favorite books?

Sometimes people ask me why The Prince of Tides and The Shadow of the Wind are on my list of favorite books. As a reader, I might toss off a few bits and pieces about the novels' plots and settings. But as a writer in the process of building his own craft, I tend to look at why I liked these novels and found other books less memorable.

Each of us has our cup of tea, of course. Romance novel readers might not like crime novels. Those who like historical novels might not like fantasy. Those who like short books with Dan Brown style prose probably won't like Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch or Amy Greene's Long Man.

Yet, even though we--as readers--all swear by our own brands of tea as fervently as Ford owners and GM owners fight about which company makes the better car, there are some common demoninators about what makes for a memorable novel.

Without intending to copy authors, styles and plots, a lot of us--when wearing our writer hats--like to write stories that are somewhat similar in ambiance to our favorite kinds of novels. So, as we mull over prospective story ideas, we might start by figuring out exactly why are favorite books are our favorite books.

Tentatively, I can say that since I like to write novels that accentuate the place where the story unfolds, one reason I like The Prince of Tides and The Shadow of the Wind is the strong sense of place conveyed by the authors in both books. But, we're not talking about old fashioned fiction with descriptions that ramble on for multiple pages. In both of these books, we're talking about places that--one way or another--interact with the stories. The stories in both books could not have happened anywhere else. I like the old notion that places are in part defined by what happens there.

Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel, suggests that so-called "breakout novels" as well as the books on our own favorites list have at least four points in common:

  • Plausibility
  • Inherent Conflict
  • Originality
  • Gut Emotional Appeal
When it comes down to it, this is what makes a story a story, whether we're spinning yarns around a campfire, reading news reports that keep our attention or writing novels and short stories.  Over time, writers internalize these ideas. At the beginning, perhaps this list belongs on a Post-It note next to the computer.

If I were teaching a writing class, I'd make a list on the chalkboard of the students' favorite novels, finding as many books as possible that had multiple readers in the group. Then, we'd discuss the books in terms of plausibility, conflict, originality, and emotional appeal. The point of the discussion would be getting people thinking about how these four areas work in successful fiction.

Doing this will, I think, help us--as writers--get to the time where we can take off those training wheels and toss out the Post-It notes. We need to "feel" all of these things instinctively as we think about the next story we want to write. Then we can use the best of our art and craft to make our books as memorable as our favorites.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How I researched a Ghost Story

This post is a mini-case study demonstrating the use of online research to write a story set in a far-away town I couldn't afford to visit. It's a follow up to the previous post Using local color in your stories.

When a friend of mine told me last fall that Rocking Horse Publishing was looking for ghostly short stories set in St. Louis for a new anthology, I initially dismissed the idea out of hand because I live fifty miles north of Atlanta and know nothing about the ghosts and haunted houses in eastern Missouri. Once I said "no" to the idea, I couldn't stop thinking about it and ended up writing "Patience, I Presume" which appeared in Spirits of St. Louis: Missouri Ghost Stories.

How did it happen?

To keep this post from becoming longer than the short story, I'll show you what worked for me in a series of steps:
  1. Google search for "St. Louis ghosts." I got hits on haunted places like the Kemp Mansion, Powell Symphony Hall and Jefferson Barracks. However, it seemed impossible to write a story about a house or building that I couldn't visit. But writing a story about the spirit Patience Worth who was channeled by St. Louis housewife Pearl Lenore Curran between 1912 and 1937 seemed workable because the legend focused on the output of the channeling rather than on any subsequent appearances by Patience.
  2. The Patience Worth Wikipedia entry started filling in the background. Patience first showed up when Curran was using a Ouija board and ultimately began "speaking through" Mrs. Curran. During an era when spiritualism was all the rage, the Patience Worth sessions attracted a lot of media attention as did a series of well-accepted novels "by" a 400-year-old spirit.
  3. The Wikipedia entry ended with a long list of books, websites and other resources. I checked out each entry on the list.http://www.amazon.com/Patience-Worth-Casper-S-Yost/dp/1908733063/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1392826575&sr=1-1 I read portions of these books and snippets of Patience worth's poems (click on "songs" graphic) and novels online and purchased several used books from Amazon. The following Patience Worth poem caught my attention: "Lo, are my songs like birds/ Within a wicker hung, and thou,/ Beloved, hast loosed the latch/And let them free!"
  4. Based on that poem, my story would feature a modern-day St. Louis high school student named Prudence trying to write a book report about the Patience Worth novel Hope Trueblood on the night before it was due. It's a dark and stormy night, the power goes out, Prudence drives by the house where Pearl Curran lived when she did the channeling, encounters  Patience and subsequently meets her in the nearby Kennedy Woods.
  5. I read portions on Hope Trueblood online so Prudence could be thinking about them.
  6. I found Kennedy Woods with MapQuest as well as in the attractions listed for the spacious Forest Park on Wikipedia and the Missouri Department of Conservation site. Kennedy Woods was there during Pearl Curran's lifetime, so it could be a place for Patience to wait around until she found a new person to channel her--possibly a high school student who needed help with a book report and might strike up a deal.
  7. Google's Street View showed me what Kennedy Woods looked like as well as the historic
    One of several screen captures of Kennedy Woods.
    district where Pearl Curran's house looked like. I also used Street View and MapQuest to plot a course between the Skinker DeBaliviere Community where the house was located and the park so I could write about Prudence driving from one place to another.
  8. Using an online e-mail form attached to a Kennedy Woods site, I mentioned that I enjoyed the site, but wondered if anyone could supply additional information about the trees there. I got a wonderfully detailed response. (The man recognized the steps in my Street View picture.)
  9. The Curran House was harder to track down. Most historic districts list well-known events as "statements of significance" for the homes and other buildings included. Unfortunately, the material available online for Skinker DeBaliviere Community didn't say which house was Curran's and the response to my e-mails to the local Historic Preservation Commission showed me that none of the people on the staff knew either. Finally, I tracked down the house by sending an e-mail to the author of a recent Patience Worth book. As luck would have it, he lived near the house, knew the address and had even been in the house years ago.
  10. I used Street View to look at the house once I had the address. Since the house is a private residence rather than a tourist destination, my short story doesn't include the address or a full enough description to lead people to it. But I wanted Prudence to see it, so I felt that it was important to get a sense of how one might feel driving by it at night.
I enjoy tracking down details like this. The plot of the story came to mind while I was doing the research, not before. The keys for me here were:
  • Getting a sense of Patience and what she "sounded like" from reading excerpts from her books and transcripts of the channeling sessions.
  • The poem showing me that Patience (in my story) might be looking for a new channeler.
  • Finding the house and woods so that my protagonist could see them and drive from one to the other while she's procrastinating on her book report assignment.

Could the story have been written without the research? For me, no, because the research served as a writing prompt for the story's plot. Others, especially those who lived in St. Louis, might have approached it differently. Residents might have used more detail or a different angle. Non-residents might have had Patience appear in the bedroom of Prudence's house, removing the need to find the Curran house and the woods. This then, is one of the ways one can research a story.

And so now, the story can be told:

The power went out when Prudence Lowe began reading chapter two of Hope Trueblood.  The darkness startled her and the book fell to the floor with a thud. Her bedroom window rattled in the wind bringing St. Louis its first snowfall of the year. She knocked her hairbrush and several makeup bottles off the vanity while searching with gloved hands for the power outage candle. Frugal to a fault, her father kept the house colder than a morgue throughout the winter...


Malcolm R. Campbell is also the author of the Kindle ghost stories "The Lady of the Blue Hour," "Cora's Crossing" and "Moonlight and Ghosts. "

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