We all know that showing up on the page, or the sketchbook, or the keyboard, is the only way to get the work done. But novelist and teacher Julianna Baggott points out that regular practice doesn’t just give you more pages or paintings or songs; it improves your skills and flow, and helps create the supportive community we all need.
“While creating pages at an ambitious rate, you’re also practicing strategies that help you block out distraction and get you to the page. You’re figuring out how to carve out time, to refresh and recharge, and then returning to the page. Perhaps you’re also learning how to move between projects. Maybe you’re teaching the people in your life that this discipline is important to you and that it will require some understanding and support on their part. In this way, you’re hopefully working toward a sustainable practice.” – Julianna Baggott, Writer Unboxed 12/3/20
Once upon a time, we put on real clothes and went out into the world. Now a good chunk of us work from home in our torn jeans (and not fashionably torn), sweats, or yoga pants. Our characters, though, are still going about their business, running a Spice Shop in Seattle or a local foods grocer in Montana, and going all kinds of places. Which means that while I can grab the nearest thing on my closet shelf, I actually have to think about what they wear.
And because I live in a small town in western Montana, I don’t get to see the full range of clothing styles I could glimpse in just an hour sitting in the window of Starbucks on 5th Avenue in Seattle or nursing a cappuccino in a hip Missoula coffee house. When I do get out of town, I’m always looking, looking, looking. Turns out city lawyers don’t dress as formally as when I was a downtown Seattle lawyer—except when they do. There’s a lot wider range of styles and outfits these days.
Both physical magazines and catalogs and websites are a great source. Of course, if you have to look beyond the companies you shop from. For Erin, my 32-year-old Montana girl, I browse Title 9, Athleta, Sahalie, REI, and other companies with an outdoor or “activewear” style. Her mother, Francesca, dresses from the pages of Soft Surroundings. For a special event, I’ve dressed characters from J. Peterman — take a look; the catalog copy itself is pretty wild. Pepper, who runs the Spice Shop in Pike Place Market, wears black yoga pants and T-shirts with her shop apron on workdays, but I let her go bright, bright, bright away from work, and on dry days, she loves to wear a pair of petal pink Mary Janes she splurged on in Assault & Pepper.
For Bitterroot Lake (coming April 13, written as Alicia Beckman), I thought about how different the four friends who are the focus of the story are. Sarah’s quite aware that her upscale Nordstrom look is right on par in her toney Seattle neighborhood, but a little out of place in Deer Park. Janine is a baker who’s showed up in town with only her work clothes. Sarah lends her clothes, but because of the tensions in their relationship, she’s self-conscious about it. Besides, everything’s too long. Nicole — Nic — is a lawyer whose workday wardrobe isn’t too different from the casual pants and fleece jackets she wears on her spur-of-the-moment, long-distance drive to Deer Park.
Dressing the men is even trickier. Around here, for men of a certain age — like the age of the man I’m married to — dressing up means a sport coat over Levi 501s and popping the dried mud off the cowboy boots. (Wear the ones with the nonskid soles this time of year.) Daily wear for the younger men tends toward cargo pants and T-shirts, although the “active wear” influence of the ski slopes and hiking trails is strong, too.
Think carefully about how your characters dress and what their clothing conveys about them. And do tell me some of your favorite tricks and sources for dressing your story people!
Writing, like a lot of other creative work, is often described as a solo activity. But there’s a strong case to be made for collaboration, as Joshua Wolf Shenk contends in the book Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity (2014; the original hardcover was titled Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs). Shenk looks at artists and scientists working together — Lennon and McCartney, Marie and Pierre Curie — but also at artist and inspiration — Vincent and Theo Van Gogh — and scientists who worked and reworked their ideas in conversations with spouses, co-workers, even rivals, typically uncredited.
“So much of the creative exchange gets hidden. It happens offstage, and isn’t a part of history. Sometimes that’s due to prejudice, or ignorance, and sometimes it’s because, if things go well, you just don’t hear about the second person,” Shenk said in an interview in Vox.
For writers, think of the brainstorming sessions with a writing pal, email exchanges with an editor, even conversations with your S.O. about how to kill a character or how one character might behave in a particular situation.
Then take those ideas, spurred by an exchange, to your writing room and write them!
“The first draft is for being brave. Try to save your restraint, and your caution, for the second and third drafts. … [quoting an unnamed screenwriter neighbor] ‘Caution is a thief. It robs the future of possibilities.’”
– Lauren Sancken, associate professor, University of Washington School of Law, Washington State Bar News, Jan 2020
Missing travel? Love a good mystery? Join me Monday evening, March 15, at 7 pm Mtn/ 9 pm Eastern for The Mystery Hour, sponsored by Authors Live Online. I’ll be reading “With My Eyes,” a 2019 Derringer Award winning short story originally published in Suspense Magazine. Inspired by a little woman my husband and I spotted at the Acropolis on our honeymoon trip more than 20 years ago, it features a lovesick man who sees what he wants to see.
My good friend Daryl Wood Gerber will be reading “No Final Act,” originally published in Mystery Most Theatrical, the 2020 Malice Domestic Anthology.
Once upon a time, I wrote a book called Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver Books, 2011), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. One section discussed medical examiners and coroners, the two types of death investigation in the U.S. Since I had to look up a few details of Washington State’s system recently, I thought you might need a refresher, too.
Remember that terms and laws vary state by state. Whether your state uses a coroner, an ME, or a mix of the two, as Washington does, the role is the same: to investigate deaths as required by state law. As the Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners says: “Coroners and medical examiners use the same forensic death scene investigation process, forensic autopsies, toxicological testing and decedent histories to determine the cause and manner of death, resulting in consistent, professional and high quality death investigations.“
Cause and manner. That’s their focus. In other words, what was the medical cause of death, and was it natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, undetermined, or pending. This summary from Washington’s Snohomish County website gives more detail on the five manners of death and specific considerations for each. Remember that particulars in your story state may vary. Coroners and ME’s don’t investigate the who and why—that’s up to law enforcement, whether it’s local police, a sheriff’s department, or a federal agency.
Coroners may be elected or appointed. In some states, they are independent, while in others, they are part of the country sheriff’s department. Medical examiners are typically medical doctors appointed to the position. Autopsies may be done within the department or done by forensic pathologists employed by a local hospital. Some states, like Montana, have a combined system where the sheriff is also the coroner, although a deputy may take on the primary responsibility, while autopsies and forensic examination are done by pathologists and forensics examiners at the state Crime Lab. How can you find out more about your story state’s system? Start here, with the CDC’s summary of Coroner/Medical Examiner Systems, by State; it also provides links to info for each state. The site also provides additional info that will intrigue crime writers. You might also glean useful details from the National Association of Medical Examiners website, including how to become a medical examiner, the violent death reporting system, and more.
“If you are an artist, it is work that fulfills and makes you come into wholeness, and that goes on through a lifetime. Whatever the wounds that have to heal, the moment of creation assures that all is well, that one is still in tune with the universe, that the inner chaos can be proved and distilled into order and beauty.”
— May Sarton, Belgian-born American poet (1912-95)
Join me and my partners in crime, Debbie Burke and Christine Carbo, at 3 pm Mtn time this Wednesday, Feb 24, for a lively Zoom discussion about our mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels, the writing process, and more. Our gathering is sponsored by the Buffalo Hill Terrace senior living community in Kalispell; open to the public. Zoom link
I hope you can join us for fun, secrets, and laughter with Debbie, Christine and me.
(The downside of Zoom? You’ll have to bring your own snacks. But check the back of my books for recipes!)