1. FINDING THE STORY: RESEARCHING YOUR IDEA
The best stories come from something you hear, read or see. Every story you publish starts with a question – a question you want answered. If the question piques your interest, chances are others also will want to know more. In answering your question, you bring a newly directed and entertaining perspective to the feature. The exception would be writing an Opinion Editorial, in which case you assume you know the answer, or put the question out there in the hopes of getting the answer.
My article Buffalo Hits the Big Time, came after asking about the poster of a rodeo champ on a restaurant wall. The Man Behind the Ho ho ho was inspired by conversations (several years apart) with two men who had played Santa Claus. Growing In Faith came from my own experience of life, and Revenge of the Orphaned was a follow-up piece requested by the Editor who published my article The Real Motive Is Sadism. The latter was the result of listening to a news item on TV regarding the growing number of home invasions.
Your basic source for ideas then is word of mouth, followed closely by other media stories that trigger a question. Then you let your imagination take over. An ad for razors might trigger an article ‘do women really want to shave?’ A news article on teens coating a school in graffiti, might tease you to query “why this form of expression?” If you want to sell, you must be open to what is happening around you, and constantly listening and looking for the snippet that yells, “story”.
I’m on holiday, after five weeks of writing to complete High Ground, interspersed with the demands of Christmas. So, yesterday I finally enjoyed my first day of downhill skiing this year. I haven’t even been out on my cross-countries yet, and it’s January. Why? Because I let my writing suck-up the majority of my energy each day, leaving only drips and drops for the other aspects of my life. Too often, I told myself, “I’ll do it when the book is finished.”
A writer, developing a plot line, uses pacing to provide contrast. Descriptive narrative gives the reader time to slow down, sink into the character, scenery, or emotions. It encourages them to invest. A fast-paced action scene stimulates the reader, increases heartbeat, hurries breathing. Anticipation grows, as the reader’s mind rushes ahead seeking solutions. If action is missing, descriptive narrative becomes a bore. If we don’t slow the pace, occasionally, action becomes an unpleasant rush. Fast/slow, speedy/sedate contrasting rates are co-dependents, needing each other to create the best effect.
Just as a skier shortens her fall line to increase speed, or carves long, lazy curves down the slope to slow her pace, a writer uses sentence length to pace her story. Short and choppy speeds the action, encourages the reader to race for the bottom. Multi clause sentences force the reader to snowplow, decreasing speed in order to absorb detail.
Pacing is just as important to plotting my life. Writing gives me purpose. For marked times of the year I make it a priority. But if I let the long hours at the keyboard consume my energy to the point where, fitting a cross-country ski into my day sounds just too hard, then my writing becomes a detriment to living fully.
I realized this when I came off the ski slope invigorated but tired late afternoon. I crashed into a heavy sleep at 7 pm and slept for twelve hours straight. Reviewing the situation this morning, I conclude pacing and the balance it creates in my life has been nonexistent these past 3 weeks. I’ve allowed hours of sitting, immersed in my storyline, to prey on the time and energy needed to do the things that keep me healthy. A quick review shows me I haven’t moved through the stretches of my Tai Chi, enjoyed a walk or done my floor exercises in weeks. No wonder a day of skiing squeezed me drier than the needles on a pine tree and left me just as prickly. When I reach a state of exhaustion, where I become an irritant to anyone who comes close, I know it’s time to change my pacing.
A new year snuck up on me, bringing the excitement of new projects and change. As I write my stories and my life for 2014, I know I will focus on moderation and balance – you can’t go wrong when you include these elements in all you do. I draw from the contrasts. I anticipate the unexpected. I combat them with built in de-stressors, ‘me time’ and a positive attitude. In this way I keep my readers content, by finding my ideal pace.
The Pros and Cons of Writing a Trilogy
I love to read a series, where characters I learn about in the first book, show up in a second, third, fifth. Nothing pleases me more than discovering a sibling, or friend, introduced in one book as a secondary character, has come to life in his or her own story later. I’m invested in this character and want to see how his life unfolds.
This is why I chose to make my first publication with The Wild Rose Press part of a trilogy. My series, The Three Wise Men, tells the stories of three men who meet, as students at Harvard. Their love of computers brings them together. Their common goals and principles bond them.
The Pros of writing a trilogy are obvious. If I do a good job in the first book, not only enticing my readers to invest in my male protagonist, but interesting them in his two friends, I have readers eager to read two more of my stories. I also have a beginning for book two and much of the groundwork around my protagonist in my second and third book in place.
To hold my readers’ interest I have the opportunity in books two and three to let them peek into the ongoing life of my protagonist from the first book, seen as a secondary character in the second book. This resurrection also illustrates the passing of time and the changes in the lives of the three friends, as story one progresses to story three. It creates the continuity many readers seek.
The cons? Well, just try to keep those characters contained. You give them enough of a story line to make them interesting in the first book, then suddenly they want to race away on their own adventure. While you’re trying to plot out book two, the friend in book three is demanding attention. He knows just what he’ll do in a certain circumstance and wants you to write about it immediately.
You end up like a remote controlled vacuum, bouncing off one idea and knocking up against another. Soon you have small piles of detritus accumulating around the original task. Your clean manuscript disappears, while your mind attempts to head in all directions at once.
A trilogy can prove a detriment by forcing tight writing windows and deadlines on you. Readers wait to buy the next book in the series, anxious to find out if Josh is saved, if Sam finds his life mate. With the promise out there, you no longer have the luxury to doddle.
Writing the second book interferes with the need to publicize the first book. Anyone plugged into social media knows this has the potential to take great chunks of time out of a writer’s day.
I’ve come up with a few practices that aid me to keep focused on my priority piece. I set specific writing times for the story. I select one day a week when I don’t work on the book, but instead do all the publicity, social media, and office work accumulating through the week – yes, one of those piles of dirt my mental vacuum created rather than cleaned up. When the other characters and their stories intrude – generally in the middle of the night, or driving down a highway, I listen and take notes. I might rise and write the scene out as it unfolds at 3:00 am, or I might speak it into my tape recorder as I make the long drive between one prairie city and the next. Often I just grab a scrap of paper, jot down the most important points to keep my brain from shredding valuable content. This scribbled note sits by my laptop till my clean-up day comes around. I don’t so much as look at it again, on a day scheduled to work on my priority piece.
Using this method, I have completed Josh’s story, book two, High Ground. Sam’s story, High Seas, is scheduled, with several scenes written, and many snippets noted to stimulate another scene or add richness to the story.
Finding balance in life is important, and so having focused intently on writing High Ground for five weeks, I am now taking a week to see some new country, loll about in a spa and spend time with my husband (financial adviser, manager, techie and sounding board). This reprieve provides the distance needed to bring objectivity to the roll of editor.
Yes, High Ground waits to have its cliché’s sheared away. It begs me to carve in clarity, chemistry and conflict. “Mold distinctive metaphors,” the form calls to the master, “and for goodness sake, soften the shape of their sensual attraction.” All this takes as much time, and work than writing the first draft. But there is an excitement in addressing each issue, and in challenging yourself to create something uniquely your own.
With a promise to myself flaming brightly in my mind, I wrote my way through December 31, determined to complete my first draft of High Ground before the clock struck midnight. At 8:05 I wrote word 69,682 – the last word. I didn’t even realize a new year waited in the wings to make her grand entrance. Elation pillow fought exhaustion. I called it a draw and prepared to flop onto my bed and let the siren call of sleep seduce me.
My husband walked into the room and commented on the New Year’s Eve entertainment. In disbelief, I realized I’d not only lost track of the day, but the date. Determined to celebrate the new year ahead, I resorted to watching fireworks from Niagara Falls on TV. While, I waited through those last hours, I reviewed all I’d accomplished in 2013, despite setbacks outside my control. I set off my own firework display, bright explosions of publishing two new books, Climbing High and I Am That I am ; and the colorful burst of my next romantic suspense, High Ground. Elated I had ended my year so successfully, I dived into Morpheus’ arms.
A new year unfurls, undulating in anticipation’s breeze. I plot my story like I would any of my books. I Etch in the scenes I plan to live out, include some fascinating characters, make room for the unexpected and those things I can’t control. Balance is a priority, moderation a must. I look forward to living it out moment by moment, fully alive. It will happen.
Elkwater Lake, AB
Fall 2011, my Smart Women co-author, Barbara Thrasher, joined me for a weekend kayaking at Elkwater Lake, in the Cypress Hills Provincial Park, Alberta side. We chose the hump season in the fall, wanting solitude, and got it. We met up with one other woman kayaker, and two men fishing the entire two days we were on the water.
We launched from a marina on the south side, where a cement breakwater and ramp allowed for a dry, easy entry. We packed lunches and planned to be out for the day. A brisk wind, kept us to the west side of the lake. If you could saunter in a kayak, that’s the pace we chose. Surrounded by prairie hills, created by the till of a glacier pushing by, the small lake is melt water, spring fed, clear and in the early fall, cold. There is little in the ways of trees or bushes along the shore to cut off the wind, but the occasional spruce hung over the water, seduced by its moist embrace.
The second day, feeling more ambitious we paddled hard, determined to circumnavigate the lake. Again we fought wind.
Three long arms stretch out from the north and west side of the lake, making it a lot bigger than it appears at first sight. One of the arms birthed tall stands of Wild Rice and Bulrushes, causing us to weave around miniature islands of green. Cattle fed along the shoreline in several places, kept from the water by high cut-offs gouged out by wind and waves. Small pockets of sand formed miniature beaches along the way, but mostly grasslands met water and an unending view of green hills and prairie sky pleased our eyes.
We picknicked in our kayaks at the north end of the lake, found a small beach to explore and photographed gulls milling on fishy smelling peninsulas. The sun kept us company for the day, combatting the wind’s desire to chill the air.
A great experience I repeated the next spring with my husband. Well worth the 35 km drive in from #1 Highway.