Writing Wednesday — brainstorming for fiction writers

“Writers depend on ideas. Whether we’re planners or pantsers, every sentence, paragraph, and scene embodies an idea. It’s inevitable that at some point, you simply will not know what happens next. You’ll be stuck and forced to brainstorm.”

That’s the opening paragraph of my article, “What Happens Next? 9 tried-and-true brainstorming strategies for fiction writers” in the February 2022 issue of The Writer, available now. I hope you’ll take a look and try some of my suggestions, worked out through my own experience, research into creativity, and conversations with other writers.

(And lest you think the subtitle a bit cliched, I promise you, I didn’t write it!)

On another topic, are you Team Prologue or Team Just Start the First Chapter? In this blog post, To Prologue or Not to Prologue, at Suite T, the Southern Writers blog, I discuss the uses and abuses of the prologue and give examples from crime fiction and other novels.

Writing Wednesday — reading like a reader

Many writers take a break from writing in the last week or two of the year. Quite a few of us spend that time reading — essentially filling the creative well and helping recover some of the spark and energy that can be lost in the shuffle of sentences, edits, promotion, and all the other aspects of being a professional writer. I’m a big proponent of reading like a writer, that is, honing the ability to identify what another author is doing on the page, whether it works for you or not, and what lessons you can learn. And I often urge writers to “read up,” choosing as your next read the latest by an author your admire or a book by a writer who gets a lot of accolades but whom you’ve somehow missed.

Sometimes, though, we should all read just for fun. If you learn something, great. If the author gives you an idea for how to handle a tricky subplot, make a note. But maybe the best gift you can give yourself these last few days of yet another particularly trying year is to read like a reader. Get caught up in the story, the poetry, the setting. Reread a favorite or pull something frivolous off the shelf. Get in touch with your inner ten-year-old, the one who read Harriet the Spy by the glow of the street light or snuck a flashlight into bed. Because a writer must first be a reader.

So grab a blankie — my gnome friend is keeping them warm for you — and curl up with a book. And I’ll see you back here next year.

Writing Wednesday — Blueprint for a Book by Jennie Nash

Can you stand me talking about one more book? I hope so! Blueprint for a Book: Build Your Novel from the Inside Out by Jennie Nash didn’t make my list of 10 Essential Books on Writing, posted a month ago, because I had just discovered it and wasn’t sure how “essential” it would turn out to be. I took an evening webinar from Nash, sponsored by Free Expressions Seminars & Literary Services (check them out — fabulous classes!), and was surprised how impressed I was. I’d first heard about her “Inside Outline” a while back, and looked into taking her self-directed course on the topic, but decided I didn’t need another way to outline — at the time, I needed ways to brainstorm more ideas about what to put IN the outline! (More on that to come.)

I was right, and I was wrong. When I saw Nash’s course offered by a source I trust, I was in. The focus of the Inside Outline is identifying your main character’s internal motivations and using those to outline your book in chunks or events. The MC’s internal needs — what Nash calls “the point” — are shaped a bit by events, then lead directly to the next chunk of events, and so on. The result is not a play-by-play forecast of the book, but a roadmap. You’ll have a plan for getting from Tacoma to Tampa. You’ll decide on the way where to stop for lunch, but you’ll have the hotels booked and the sights you don’t want to miss identified, and you’ll significantly reduce your chances of ending up in Tucson or Toronto. Which is the point, for most of us who outline to any degree.

The book walks through all that in 14 steps, starting with asking why you want to write this book, figuring out “the point” of it, writing a simple version, then a working title, and so on, leading to a three-page Inside Outline, followed by tips on using it to write the book, revise, and write the dreaded synopsis.

I already had a partial outline when I started Nash’s book, and I have always tried to incorporate the MC’s internal motivations and stakes. But this book helped me clarify my thinking tremendously. Is it working as I write? So far, so good!

Admittedly, this book is for those who outline or who maybe don’t but want to try it, to get more clarity before they start. But even committed pantsers could benefit from the early steps or even, as Nash suggests, writing the short Inside Outline after the first draft, to help you understand what you’ve created and give the next draft more narrative drive. It’s a short book — under 150 pages — so give it a try!

Writing Wednesday — Ten Essential Reference Books

Leslie’s bookshelves

After three top ten lists – 10 Common Mistakes Writers Make About the Law, 10 Favorite Novels About the Law, and 10 Essential Books on Writing – I thought I’d list some of my trustiest reference books that aren’t about craft. I already included my own Books, Crooks and Counselors in the list of writing essentials, so I won’t list it here, but it certainly would fit.

In no particular order:

The Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating, by Steven Kerry Brown (2003) – A terrific guide to finding information from knocking on doors to skip tracing and beyond. Technology has advanced since this book was published, but it’s still very useful.

Murder and Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensics Questions for Mystery Writers, by D.P. Lyle, M.D. (2003) – Lyle’s written several other useful books in the same vein. And yes, his Q&A format inspired mine in Books, Crooks.

Police Procedure & Investigation: A Guide for Writers, by Lee Lofland (2007) – The name says it all. By the force behind The Writers’ Police Academy, also a short story writer.

The Writer’s Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior, by Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D. – Not just a useful book; an article by the author in a writing magazine led me to submit my proposal to her publisher, Quill Driver Books, which then took on Books, Crooks.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, aka the DSM – The professional reference, loaded with detail about specific conditions; surprisingly readable. A therapist friend gave me her copy of the DSM III when an update was published; you can find older versions in used bookstores.

Body Trauma: A Writer’s Guide to Wounds & Injuries, by David W. Page, M.D. (1996) – An older book, but still useful, especially if you don’t have a doctor in the house!

You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, by Deborah Tannen, Ph.D. (1990) – I devoured this book, long before I started writing, but have found it and Tannen’s other books terrific explanations of how people really talk, useful in creating realistic dialogue laden with subtext.

The Writer’s Legal Guide: An Authors Guild Desk Reference, by Tad Crawford & Kay Murray – I’ve got the 4th edition, published in 2013, and hope there’s an update in the works. If not, look for a similar book from a reputable source, to guide you on issues such as copyright, defamation, taxes, and much more. If you’re self-publishing, there are references to guide you with contracts and other legal issues, as well.

The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System, from Nolo Press, updated regularly

And the Constitution of the United States, 1787, Madison, Jefferson, et al. Many libraries and courts and the ACLU provide free pamphlet-sized copies.

What subject-matter resources would you add?

Writing Wednesday — All Beginnings Are Hard

Leslie’s desk

“All beginnings are hard.”

That’s the first line of In the Beginning by Chaim Potok, whose novels I have long adored. (I heard him speak at the Sophomore Literary Festival at Notre Dame in the early 1980s, and he was as compelling on stage as on the page.)

I can only imagine how many times Potok rewrote that line. Maybe he wrote the entire book, realized what it was about, and only then knew how it started. Or maybe he knew it right from (sorry) the beginning.

I’m writing this as I start a new novel. Whether you’re a planner or a pantser, getting started can be scary. What if this isn’t where the story starts? What if you guess wrong and have to redo, revise, cut?

There’s no “what if” about it. It’s a given. To some degree or another, you will do just that.

So I want to say this: All beginnings are hard. Don’t feel yours needs to be perfect. All it has to do is get you going and propel you to the next scene. Jane Smiley says all first drafts are perfect because they give you something to work with. I feel the same about beginnings. They get you in gear. I can just about guarantee that even if you keep the same basic opening, as I have for most of my books, you will revise those first few pages more than almost any others. There is always something to change, to reflect the way the story or a character evolved. To set the right tone. To foreshadow the future danger or connect with the ending. Sometimes we start with what we the writer need to know, and only later discover that’s not where the reader needs to start.

It’s okay to poke your opening a bit, to write it then reread it the next day, sharpening the imagery and brightening the voice, to give yourself the confidence that you really do have something to work with.

Then move on.

As David, the main character in Potok’s novel says, beginnings are hard because you are learning a new way of understanding. That’s true of writing a novel, isn’t it? You are meeting new characters, learning their problems and personalities, their joys and sorrows. You are figuring out what to say and how to say it. As David says, “Especially a beginning that you make by yourself. That’s the hardest beginning of all.”

You are writing a book that never existed before. You are making something new. No wonder it’s hard. But it’s exciting, too. Let your enthusiasm carry you. Let the joy guide your hand. Let the beginning be what it needs to be right now; you can always change it. That’s the advantage you have, when you are a novelist making the beginning by yourself.

Writing Wednesday — Location Scouting

Leslie’s desk

Nothing like boots – or sandals or tennies – on the ground.

I’m a very placed writer, and walking possible story locations, in person or in my mind, helps spark ideas. I’m at that point in the beginnings of a new novel, and fortunately, a good chunk of it is set close by, so I can check out locations I think might be important to the story. I can see what my character sees and begin to think “if he parked his RV in this campground, he’d want to be way at the end, away from other people.” That thought helps me flesh out what I know about him and his worldview and worries. Then I look out at the patch of river and begin to imagine ways it could be part of the story. I can see where a divorced dad might meet his teenage daughter for breakfast on Saturday mornings, and get a feel for their relationship. In a book where the conflict between the haves and have-nots is an important part of the back story, I can see how the grand historic home of one man, with its views of the river and the mountains, might grate on another man, who feels he can never get ahead no matter how hard he tries. Their sons go to the same school but go home to very different worlds. How will that play out?

I say a specific spot “might be important to the story,” because I don’t know. It’s early. The characters will tell me, as we take our journey together, whether they do in fact live in this house or another one. But by taking a look at the possibilities, I’m feeding my subconscious, the key to any kind of creative work.

Grab a friend if you can. My husband scouted an RV park with me. When my BFF visited, I dragged her to a town thirty miles away for breakfast (no serious hardship), then we prowled through a historic building together, walked a city park I’d never visited, and explored an old cemetery. Her questions about the town and neighborhoods prompted me to think about my characters in new ways. She saw things I might not have seen—how the trees would have grown and changed a view from when thirty years ago when the story conflict began, for example.

We’ll talk another time about using Google Maps, Facebook photos, and other online tools to ground-truth a story. Meanwhile, lace up your walking shoes, grab your phone or camera, and walk the mean streets with your story people.

Writing Wednesday — eavesdropping on our characters

Leslie’s desk

So there I was, sitting at the keyboard, making a few notes about the secondary protagonist in my fledgling WIP, a man in his late 50s, a wildlife biologist whose father was murdered when he was in college. And all of a sudden, I found myself transcribing a conversation only I could hear, between the man and his therapist. I didn’t know he had one — now that I’m further into the planning process, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t, and my subconscious invented one on the spot, to give me an ear on the man’s innermost thoughts. And in those few minutes, the character got a name and a broken marriage and a daughter and a lot of history I would not have discovered, or would have needed a lot more time and work to unearth, if I hadn’t been willing to listen to those voices.

Try it. Take your character out for coffee and scribble in your notebook what she might say, how the conversation would go, if she were sitting across the table from you instead of in your mind. What is she wearing? Did she dress with care or throw on her stained gardening clothes? Is she calm or fidgety? Talking slowly and deliberately or a mile a minute? How does she take her coffee and does she cradle the cup for warmth or let it grow cold? Does she care what you think? Is she sweet to the server or rude?

Maybe you and your character think by moving. Take a walk and speak your conversation into the recorder on your phone. And no, no one will care — they probably won’t notice, assuming you’re on the phone for real.

Imaginary friends. They truly are the heart of fiction.

Writing Wednesday — “There’s a video for that”

You may know this already — or not. People will post YouTube videos about almost anything. I just finished the 2022 Spice Shop mystery and when I wanted to know how the pandemic (“the P word,” as one character calls it, or “the time that must not be named”) affected Seattle’s Pike Place Market, I spent a Sunday morning watching YouTube videos. A vlogger (video blogger) who is rather boring so I won’t name him posts a video of himself walking through the Market the last Saturday of every month. Seeing the differences from February 2021 to June 2021 was really useful. Another vlogger focuses on downtown Seattle, including Pioneer Square, the CID — Chinatown International District, and South Lake Union. Yet another focuses on downtown coffee shops. Just go to YouTube and use the search function and you’ll be amazed — you name it, there’s a video for that!

Writing Wednesday — “Read What You Like”

In mid July, I participated in the “More Than Malice” online literary festival, created by the organizers of the annual Malice Domestic convention celebrating the traditional mystery as a way to bring readers together with authors for a conversation. Some of the authors usually attend “Malice,” as I do, while others don’t, because they write other types of mystery or crime fiction. My panel was moderated by BOLO blogger and reviewer Kristopher Zgorski and featured Carol Goodman, Rachel Howzell Hall, Wm. Kent Krueger, PJ Vernon, and me. What we have in common is that each of us writes in multiple subgenres — the list Kris read off was amazing, and amusing!

The conversation kicked off with a question about what we read — and alphabetical order put me first! Writers, I pointed out, don’t read like readers who don’t write. We’re always studying, noticing what an author does, how well it works, whether it fails and why and how could the problem have been solved or avoided. “Reading forensically,” Rachel called it. When we first start writing, this can take some of the joy out of reading. “Ruined for reading,” as Carol said.

But now, after thirteen published books, I realize that for me, the noticing has become part of the joy. I can both relish what I read and notice what insights it prompts for me, for my own work.

My co-panelists all agreed. There can be moments of jealousy — “premise envy,” as its sometimes called. (I felt that when I read Kent’s This Tender Land — oh, what a terrific story and lead character!) Envy of a fluidity with language, a comfort with metaphor and description, an ability to make a setting pop or set a mood that keeps us glued to the page long after we should turn out the light. Rachel glowed when she described a rare afternoon home alone, her day job work done, when she simply sat and read. And PJ talked about the importance of “cross-pollenization,” when you read, for example, a literary mystery like Kent’s and see a few things you can borrow for your suspense novel, or how an approach to portraying one underrepresented community can influence writing about another.

I also quoted a piece of advice from Elizabeth George, who is as great a teacher as she is a writer. She says “read up.” That is, read writers who are working at a level or in a style or genre you aspire to. While I try to follow that bit of wisdom, I’ve also discovered I can learn something from almost anything I read. And learning is part of the joy.

(The More Than Malice panel discussions were recorded and are available at the Malice website to conference registrants.)

Writing Wednesday — writing about different generations

A while back, I attended a video webinar sponsored by the Washington State Bar Association on bridging generational differences in the workplace. The theory was that boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z approach work differently, have different expectations about the work environment, and take a different approach to leadership.

While working on the next Spice Shop mystery, I pulled up the handout — and because I’m a Boomer, albeit a late one, I printed it out. :) Pepper’s employees range from 22 to past 60; she’s 43. Her friends in the Market are equally spread across the age categories. A major new character was 24. I wanted to understand the differences. Obviously, comfort with technology is one — Sandra and Vinny aren’t going to be 24/7 with their cell phones the way Reed and Jamie are. What else? Generally speaking, Boomers want to be recognized for their experience, want to be motivated to make a difference, and want to be part of a team — perfect for retail. Gen Xers prefer a casual atmosphere and a hands-off manager — works for me, as it gives Pepper lots of freedom to leave her shop on investigations! Milennials want a fun workplace, a positive contribution to the world, and both a challenge and flexibility. All those are easy traits to work with in creating, or discovering, our characters.

Then I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post by a sociologist challenging the use of these terms. Generational labels have “no basis in social reality,” Philip Cohen writes, and should be retired; they lead to stereotypes and caricatures. Donald Trump (born 1946) and Michelle Obama (born 1964) are both Boomers — and two more different people you could not find. That they were both born in a post-WW II population boom is pretty much coincidental. Sociologists and demographers recently sent a plea to the Pew Research Center, responsible for much of the generational labeling and research, to use alternative categories, and Cohen says the response has been encouraging. Cohen stresses that there are other ways to describe groups of people that are more useful, such as decades, or issues, like “2020 school kids.” There are so many more influences than simple generations, such as race, gender, home access to technology, and immigrant status. I’d add a urban/suburban/rural background, parental education, growing up in a religious or nonreligious family, and more.

We’re writing characters who can be characterized in specific ways, but must always remain individuals. Stereotypes are bad for fiction! In the WIP, for example, a brother and sister were raised apart — and oh, the differences! Calling one a Millennial and the other Gen X may be a good way to start, but that’s all it is.

BOTTOM LINE: Use categories like generational labels to start your character analysis, but go beyond them. Make your characters individuals, who may share common experiences with others their age, but are always influenced by so much more than when they were born.