Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How to Really Get Into Your Time and Setting

I'm working on the second book in the three-book series McKenna's Daughters.

Maggie's Journey,  book one, is set in Seattle, Washington Territory, in 1885. I knew the story of the characters, but I wanted more information about Seattle in that time period. I'd been looking for books and online sites I could trust, and I wasn't finding much. So I was feeling as though I were writing in a cave, with no sense of the setting.

I'm a real people person. I love to interact with them. When I became a professional writer, I worked at home. . .alone. So I started volunteering at the local public library. I learned about books and library services.

I hadn't thought in a while about all the wonderful things a library provides. So I looked up the Seattle Public Library on the Internet. I searched the site until I found the Research link. I sent an email asking for help. All I asked for was possible titles of books and maybe a few links. I wasn't asking the research associate to do the work for me.

I hit the jackpot!!

What I received back was a list of links and the actual text of one out-of-print book. The book covered Seattle by decade. I printed up only the pages I needed. And one of the links led me to a gold mine of pictures. The Seattle library had scanned literally thousands of historical photos, and they had them listed by decade, too. The file containing the photo also had information on everything in the picture--the buildings, the people, the streets, the date taken, and the photographer, if known.

I was able to print up as many of the pages as I needed to give me a feel for the place. I had a lot to use in my book, including the street names, what they looked like, what businesses or homes were there. And a multitude of other information.

When the book comes out, I'm going to donate a copy to the Seattle Public Library in thanks for all the help I was given by this research associate.

When Maggie's Journey releases October 4, you'll be able to walk with me on Commercial street, or go to Pinkham's variety store. You'll meet the people who live on Beacon Hill and a doctor who practices at Providence Hospital, as well as a young man who graduated from Territorial University.

In the meantime, check out Love Finds You in Golden, New Mexico, my book that released last May. You'll go from Boston to Golden, New Mexico, by way of Los Cerrillos. And you'll meet gold miners, and a preacher and his wife who run the hotel. Oh, yes, there's also a strange love triangle that needs straightening out.

What makes a historical novel most interesting to you?

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Contract: Blessing or Curse?

I was recently asked in an interview if it was more fun writing before landing that first contract or since the contract.

I didn't hesitate. Definitely before.

Before the contract I wrote for the sheer pleasure of it, I could take my time with the manuscript, work through it at my own pace, tweak it here and there. I could spend as much time as I wanted to with no pressure from deadlines or editors, no worries about finicky reviewers or unsatisfied readers. It was just me and my ideas, me and my words.

Before the contract the stories flowed easier, the creative fire burned brighter. The joy was in the process, nothing else.

After that first contract things changed. Deadlines rule the day now, schedules and marketing and interviews and social networking. It's not just about the writing anymore, not just about the story. I can't write at my own leisure; I have to write every day if I'm going to meet deadline.
And with deadlines looming and pressure to top my latest offering and sales numbers swimming in my head, the creative fires need to be stoked a bit more than before, tended more often and diligently.

Now, don't get me wrong, I still love writing, still love weaving stories and bringing to life interesting characters, but the joy isn't just in the process anymore, in fact, it's less in the process and more in the finished product and aftermath.

Being published is very satisfying in a narcissistic kind of way. There's great joy in knowing other people are reading your work and enjoying it. That they are intrigued by the thoughts in your head. Now my greatest joy is in hearing the feedback of satisfied readers, knowing the hours I pour into a book, the early mornings seven days a week, the re-writes and edits, no matter how painful they may be, are all worth it because I'm making a difference.

And that's the dichotomy of writing under contract. The result is just as important as the process and intimately dependent on it. Often, what you get out of it is proportionate to what you put into it.

And isn't that just like life?

Now how about you. If you're a published author, did you enjoy writing more before being published? If you're not-yet-published, does the prospect of being published with all it's deadlines and expectations scare you?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


I'm going to Piggy-back on Jillian's blog and share this list with you that I borrowed from my agent. The video is even better titled...29 WAYS TO STAY CREATIVE! I hope the link works for you to watch it, if not it's on Youtube.

1. Make lists
2. Carry a Notebook everywhere
3. Try free writing
4. Get away from the computer
5. Quit beating yourself up
6. Take breaks
7. Sing in the shower
8. Drink coffee
9. Listen to new music
10. Be open
11. Surround yourself with creative people
12. Get feedback
13. Collaborate
14. Don't give up
15. Practice
16. Allow yourself to make mistakes
17. Go somewhere new
18. Count your blessings
19. Get lots of rest
20. Take risks
21. Break the rules
22. Don't force it
23. Read a page of the dictionary
24. Create a framework
25. Stop trying to be someone else's perfect
26. Got an idea write it down
27. Clean your workspace
28. Have fun
29. Finish something

I like #11 and #21.

Which one is your favorite?

What would you add to the list?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Make Yourself Come True

Steve Chandler wrote a little book with a lot of great ideas. Actually, there are 100 great ideas in his book titled, 100 Ways to Motivate Yourself. Change Your Life Forever.

If you've ever had difficulty getting motivated to do anything I suggest you go out to your local library or favorite bookstore and pick up a copy of this little gem.

For instance, from pages 60-61 Steve recommends you Find Your Inner Einstein. I've never even imagined that I could have an inner Einstein. E=MC2. Do I have an inner Einstein? I don't think so.

But then I read Steve's pages. He says that Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Wait a minute! Wait just a minute. Maybe I do have an inner Einstien. I have imagination!

Steve goes on to tell us about a song for teenagers that Fred Knipe wrote so that teens could visualize themselves succeeding at what they wanted to do:
"That's you/in your wildest dreams/doing the wildest things/no one else can do. If you/just love and keep those dreams/the wildest dreams/you'll make yourself come true."

I LOVE THIS! It's motivating to me. Steve goes on to say,"But the greatest thing about active dreaming is not in the eventual reaching of the goal-- the greatest thing is what it does to the dreamer."

Are you making yourself come true? How? What are you doing? How do you stay motivated?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Writing is hard.... until it's not

Writing is hard. Until it isn't anymore. And then, for some reason, it's like breathing. You stare at the screen and every sentence is like a marathon, coming to the end with a gasp and a collapse from fatigue. Then there's the moment when it all comes together. You sit down, you stare at the screen, and without hardly touching the screen you see your word count explode.

The more books I write the more I begin to realize that a novel is usually written in about 15-20 good sittings, with about three to five times as many bad sittings in between. As writers, we pray for those days, hoping that the novel will just 'happen'. Most of the time this is wishful thinking; but on those days when the story and the characters and the tone are all right, you land in the zone. No way to stop it. Wouldn't try, even if it were possible. That's just all there is to it.

As a result I often find myself wanting to skip the bad sessions, the ones where you can't seem to stay away from Facebook, and you absolutely HAVE TO check your email every five minutes to see if something new and cool has come in. Or anything at all for that matter. Those days when suddenly you realize how badly the house needs cleaned, or how desperately you want to indulge in that pet hobby of yours.

However, I find this to be virtually identical to my walk with Christ. I don't give up the day-to-day walk just because they aren't peak days. I want to, and I often try, but it's the act of being faithful, day after day, pushing through the rough sessions where nothing is gratifying, and nothing is working, where you are able to find the magic. Only by the discipline of doing what we are called to--every day, do we find ourselves having that one day when it all seems to fall together, and it feels like a glass of ice water in the Sahara.

And that's why we write.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Strong Women and Strong Female Characters

Strong women never get any sympathy. Ever notice that? Who do strong women go to when they feel like whining? Hey, it’s tough wearing the weight of the world on our shoulders. Maybe that’s what blogs are for.  J

Seriously, I never considered myself a strong woman, and yet family members and friends tell me I possess that quality. I’m someone they don’t have to worry about – which is good and bad, I guess. Good because I’m not a burden but bad because I get ignored when I do need a shoulder to cry on. And let’s be honest; we all need a shoulder from time to time.

Personally, I constantly remind myself to run to the Lord when I feel like crumbling like an old brick. Whenever I try to carry emotional loads, whether my own or others’, they’re too heavy to bear. If I try to share them with family members or friends, they’re blown away. I believe this is one way God keeps me dependent on Him.

And so it was with this paradox in mind that I set out to create Valerie, (Unwilling Warrior), Sarah, (Uncertain Heart, Renna (Unexpected Love) and Bethany and Annetta (Undaunted Faith) I wanted to show their strength and determination while illustrating their weaknesses as well. For instance, Sarah McCabe longs to assert her independence and yet she’s completely dependent on others. The contradiction between self and her situation gets Sarah into all kinds of mishaps and forces her to bravely search her heart and become the woman God wants her to be.

Uncertain Heart contains some amusing scenes which I believe readers will enjoy and yet the book’s theme of whether to marry for love or money is always a winsome one. It’s the second book in my Seasons of Redemption series from Realms Fiction.

So what do you think? Do you like to read about strong women in novels or do you prefer characters who are meek and vulnerable?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Parental Proverbs

Many of us would like to forget our childhood. But try as we might, some things stick. In this category, are parental proverbs. You know, those sayings, quips, attitudes, and responses from our parents that tend to niggle into our disposition. So just when you think you’re not like your father, he comes falling out of your mouth.

Anyway, when my son Chris was taking a course to receive his teaching credentials, one of his assignments was to write down three sayings from his upbringing, three parental proverbs that have influenced him, positively or negatively. This piqued my interest, not just because I’m one of the parents he was quoting, but because as I get older mature, the kind of imprint I’m leaving has become increasingly important to me. What am I leaving my children with, philosophically speaking? Further compounding my interest was this: when our kids were young, I used certain sayings repeatedly, believing they were teaching tools. So what did my twenty-something, math-Mastered, boy remember?

These were the three parental proverbs Chris noted:

  • YOUR HEART IS LIKE A DONUT — A blatant rip-off from the Donut Man, a Children’s CD. Translation: Your heart has a big hole in the middle that only God can fill. Cars and friends and money and possessions — nothing! — can fill the vacancy in your soul apart from a relationship with your Maker.
  • WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE YOU ARE — A cheesy, cultural cliche with ancient roots. Translation: We can never transcend ourselves. Moving from house to house, job to job, church to church, or state to state, will not solve your problems, bucko.
  • LIFE IS NOT FAIR — A simple maxim that modern man sorely needs. True justice will not be had till the end of the age, when the Judge of all the earth does His thing. Until then, bad men win, good men suffer, and the undeserving get what they don’t deserve. Deal with it!

So what parental proverbs do you remember from your childhood, and are they good or bad? And what quips have you employed as teaching tools for your children?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

God Provides for our Needs

God is at work in all areas of our lives. He knows what we need when we need it and provides for it before we even know we need it. I had to ask for an extension on my present manuscript because of a family emergency that would keep me from getting it done on time. The extension came with no problem.
            My husband’s sister was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor after she fell and broke her wrist. The aggressive tumor affected her balance and caused her to lose her footing. By the time we made arrangements to go to New Mexico to see her, she was already in Home Hospice care. Those were a precious five days we spent with her and other members of the family.
            The wonderful thing about it is how God provided for us long before we knew we’d need the money for the trip. Because my husband has cataracts and awaiting surgery on them, we knew we couldn’t drive the long distance from Houston to Roswell. We had to fly, get a hotel room, and rent a car.

Normally we would have to put it all on a credit card, and pray we could pay it off or just not be able to go. This time we were able to pay cash for everything. Last spring I received a very nice royalty check for my first four books. I was surprised and delighted to have the extra money and put it in a savings account while we considered what we would do with it beside pay off a few bills.

This is not the first time God provided before we ever knew of a need, nor will it be the last. Still, no matter how many times it may happen, I’m always amazed by our awesome God who loves us so much and takes care of us.

I know many are struggling financially just as we have for many years since retirement, but be faithful and obedient. Trust in him and He will provide over and beyond what you can imagine. You may hit rock bottom like we did, but look up and let God lead you back. It may take longer than you or I would like, but it will come.

Has there been a time in your life when God provided for a need in a way that as you look back, you see how He was taking care of you all along?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Editors, Perfection, and the Art of Illusion

Let me say from the start that I think I have a fine relationship with my editor(s) and I, by no means, intend to give editors a bad name. But I’ve come to some startling conclusions about editors in my relatively short time as a writer that I wish someone would have told me in the beginning.

Shocking truth number one: Editors are people! Oh yes, that sounds obvious, but it’s something I’ve had to learn for myself. Before I was published, I was well aware that my manuscript was not perfect. I wasn’t quite sure what was wrong with it, but I knew that I was a newbie and had little idea what I was really doing. I would think “Oh, when I get an editor, they’ll fix it.” I think I had promoted “Editor” to some Big Brother machine that would strip away all my story’s imperfections so that what was left behind would be perfect. Then I learned that editors are people. They have families, they have heavy workloads, they have deadlines, they have sleepless nights. They make mistakes. Mistakes? No! An editor is supposed to stop me from making mistakes! But they’re human. They’re just people. My editor on The Strange Man was very encouraging and said that there were just going to be some things that slipped by to print. Some punctuation was going to be wrong, misplaced, or forgot entirely. Some sentence might not be the brightest star in the universe. While it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to be lazy, it was sort of liberating, but it forced me to realize a terrifying truth:

The book is not going to be perfect. I’m not going to be perfect. I worked on my debut novel for ten long years and there are still mistakes. There are things that now, mere months after its release, cause me to think, “D’oh! I should have changed that!” It’s not perfect. It never could be perfect.

And I have to learn to live with that.

All of that leads me to my second realization:

Shocking truth number two: When the book’s not perfect, your editor won’t get the blame :p The author takes the critical paddle to the metaphorical rear end for whatever flaws the book possesses, and that’s how it should be. What’s interesting is that we all know that, as a human race, we are imperfect creatures, yet we still demand perfection. Perhaps there’s a larger struggle of Law vs. Grace, but you certainly don’t look at your plumber after he’s done a so-so job on fixing your commode and say, “Ah, well. It’s close enough. You tried and that’s all that matters. None of us are perfect.” No, we expect perfection from those who serve us—entertainers included—though we know that we, ourselves, are not perfect. An interesting dilemma.

In the case of writers, maybe the Reader doesn’t know that we’re just human, not superbeings with magical powers. Or, perhaps storytelling is a kind of magic and, for awhile, we’re able to give others reason to believe in our power—yet when you slip out of the correct POV for a scene or use one too many adverbs, the magic is destroyed. The illusion is ruined, and the magician is alone in the spotlight, revealed to be just a man.

I learned all of these lessons from my first book. So, for my second book, I came at it with a whole new take: My editor is just a human, not the end-all, be-all of my book’s outcome, but merely a player on the team. And perhaps most importantly, I am responsible for my book. I am responsible for growing as an author, for catching the things the editor might not, and for working three times as hard as my editor at making the book as perfect as it can possibly be.

I will still make mistakes. My second novel will not be perfect, but perhaps I can fool you with my illusions for a little while and maybe, just maybe, make you believe that I can do magic :)

These are some of the “cold water to the face” moments I experienced starting out as a writer. To the writers in the audience, what things did you have to learn the hard way? To everyone I ask, how do you deal with imperfection in your life or your job?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Sometimes Life Interferes With Writing

I'm working on Mary's Blessing, book two of my McKenna's Daughters series. However, a few problems with how my heart works has interfered. My heart muscle is very strong and healthy, but the electrical impulses weren't right. Now that is all under control, but I'm back writing the story. Since I don't really have time to do much other writing, I'm going to give you a short preview of Maggie's Journey, book one, which will release in early October.
But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace.
Galatians 1:15
September 1867
On the Oregon Trail

Florence Caine huddled near the campfire outside their wagon, one of over thirty that were circled for the night. Winter rode the winds that had been blasting them for the last few days. Their destination couldn’t come soon enough to suit her.

She brushed her skirt with the palms of both hands trying to get rid of the ever-present dirt. Why did I ever agree to Joshua’s plan? If she’d known all the dangers they would face along the way, he would have had to make this journey without her … if he kept insisting on going. Her husband’s adventurous spirit had first drawn her to him, but she would have been happy to stay in Little Rock, Arkansas, until they were old and gray. Instead, she finally yielded to his fairy-tale vision—a new start in the West. The words had sounded romantic at the time, but their brilliance had dulled in her memory.

Florence rubbed her chapped hands, trying to help the warmth to go deeper. Her bones ached with the cold. After months of traveling the plains through scorching heat and choking clouds of dust, she had welcomed the cooler temperatures when they crossed the Rocky Mountains. That respite was the only thing she liked about the treacherous route they had to take. Because of the steep trail that often disappeared among the rocks and tree roots, they had dumped many items the men thought weren’t essential.

Huh. As if men understood the desires of a woman’s heart and what brought her comfort. The tinkling and crashing of her precious bone china from England breaking into a million pieces as the crate tumbled down the hill still haunted her dreams.

Florence kept many of her favorite things when they traveled from Little Rock to Independence, Missouri, where the wagon trains started their journeys. She had struggled with what to sell to lighten the load before they left. The one piece of furniture she’d been allowed to keep, her grandmother’s small rosewood secretary desk, had probably been used as wood to stoke some other traveler’s fire out there on the prairie where trees were so widely scattered. When they had to dump the treasure, a piece of her heart went with it. She’d twisted on the wagon seat and gazed at the forlorn piece until it was just a speck on the empty horizon. Joshua had promised there would be other secretaries, but that didn’t matter anymore. She squeezed her eyes tight, trying to force the pictures out of her mind. Regrets attacked her like the plague.

More than the journey sapped her strength. She doubted there would be the proverbial pot of gold at the end of their travels. No promised land for her, because what she really wanted, a child of her own, wouldn’t be found in the greener pastures of the untamed wilderness.

Clutching her arms tightly across her chest, she forced her thoughts even farther back, all the way to Arkansas. Their white house with the green shutters nestled between tall trees that sheltered them from the summer heat and kept the cold winds at bay. She remembered the times the two of them had sat before the fire—she knitting or sewing while Joshua read aloud to her from one of their favorite books. Or he might be poring over one of the many newspapers he often brought home after work. Now for so many months, they hadn’t heard any news except whatever they could glean at the infrequent stops along the Oregon Trail or from the few riders who passed the wagon train. Sometimes the men stopped to share a meal and spin yarns for the ones on the journey.

She had no idea how much of their information was even true. But the men hung on to their every word. Loneliness for family and the desire to know what was going on back East ate at her.

A shiver swept from the top of Florence’s head and didn’t miss a single part of her body on its way to her feet. Even with multiple layers of woolen hosiery, her toes felt like ice. She’d often worried that one of them would break off if she stubbed it. She yearned for the snug house where never a single cold breeze seeped inside. Would she ever feel warm again?

She glanced around the clearing, hoping Joshua would soon return to their campsite. If not, dinner would be overcooked or cold. Sick of stew that had been made from rabbits or squirrels these last two weeks, she longed for fried chicken or a good pot roast with plenty of fresh vegetables. At least the wagon master assured them they were no more than a three-days’ journey from Oregon City. Taking a deep breath, she decided she could last three more days. But not one minute more.

Strong arms slid around her waist. Florence jumped, then leaned back against her husband’s solid chest. His warmth surrounded her, and she breathed deeply of his unique musky scent mixed with the freshness of the outdoors.

“What were you thinking about?” Joshua’s breath gave her neck a delicious tickle.

“That our journey will soon be over.”

She could hardly wait to be in a real house with privacy. She had never felt comfortable knowing that people in nearby wagons could hear most of what went on in theirs, and she knew more than she ever wanted to know about some of the families on the train. She moved slightly away from him, but missed the warmth he exuded. Suddenly an inexplicable sense of oppression or impending disaster gave her more of a chill than the cold wind. This time the shivers shook her whole body.

He turned her in his arms, gently held her against his chest, then propped his chin on top of her head. “I know how hard this has been on you, Flory.”

He didn’t often use the pet name he gave her while they courted. The familiarity warmed her heart for a moment.

“You’re just skin and bones, but soon we’ll be in the promised land, and I’ll make sure you have everything you’ve ever wanted.”

I hope this little peek into the book has piqued your interest in the story.

Please leave a comment to let me know what you think.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Characters Rule!

One of the most frequent comments I get about my books is how much the reader feels he or she connects with the characters I've created. Odd considering I write suspense where it is often thought that story rules, not the characters. But for me it's all about the characters. People are what make a story interesting, what keeps readers turning pages, not the plot.

We are social beings and it is innate in us to want to connect with other people, fictional or otherwise. We want to empathize with them, share a common bond, a common enemy, join arms in a common cause or fight. That's how God made us. So the challenge is to create characters with whom the reader can relate.

When someone sits down to read a book she doesn't just want to read words on a page that, put together, tell a story. She wants to experience the story, and she wants to experience it through the characters. She wants to walk in his shoes, feel her pain, experience the love, the anger, the deep hurt or frustration or panic.

To achieve this connection I constantly draw on my own experiences, my own emotions, my own background, trials, triumphs, and screw-ups (and there have been plenty). I get real honest with myself and do some soul searching. And I take a chance that the experiences I've had and the emotions that have stemmed from them are not that much different than the experiences and emotional responses the reader has had. See, humans share the same basic struggles, the same basic emotional blueprint, we strive for basically the same things (if viewed in very broad strokes).

So here's a couple challenges:

1) Don't be afraid to be honest with yourself when creating characters. The reader will never know the pain your character felt at the loss of a loved one was really the pain you felt when your husband walked out on you and your kids.

2) Give your characters real emotions, emotions you've felt and lived through.

3) Make your characters flawed people, everyone of them. Because we're all flawed, we all have inconsistencies, annoying habits, shady pasts, prideful tendencies, fears, and self-esteem issues (some of us more than others, I'm sure).

4) Give your characters messed-up relationships to work through. We are relational people but often we're not very good at relationships.

Question for you: Do you agree that characters are what keep readers turning pages, not the plot? That if a reader cannot connect with the characters the story is just a story, and turning pages will become a chore?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I Went to a Funeral Today

Although Marlin Yoder didn’t grow up in the Amish community, his grandfather did and all of the relatives before him. His last name speaks of his Amish roots. When I first started writing Amish, he told me if I ever needed information, he had lots of stories. And he was a great story teller! I knew he was sick and planned to visit him. I also wanted to find out why his father left the Amish community. But he passed away two weeks later. I missed out on saying good-bye to one of the most admirable people I know, and hearing first hand about the true-life experiences of the characters I craft every day. Marlin would have made them real.

His Amish relatives came to the funeral. They were an Old Order group from Kansas who wore the traditional black and white clothing. It was interesting to hear them reminisce about Marlin and even more so what they chose to remember him by, it was so Amish. He had a bird call no one could quite figure out what bird it actually went with, if there was one at all. He had an incredible work ethic that is so common for the Amish, and he loved to sing! Amish are big singers, they sing for two sometimes three hours straight at services. Can you imagine? My throat’s dry already:) And he clapped his hands, which isn’t so uncommon for any of us who sing worship songs, but not for hours. He loved his students unconditionally, and prayed without ceasing. We’ve all heard comments like that, but Marlin truly lived that way.

What would my friends and family say about me? Probably not about bird calls, singing and clapping. Maybe the work ethic part. And I do pray, but still not compared to Marlin. Would something profound or really deep come to mind? I hope so, but probably not like the comments I heard about Marlin.

I tell you all of this two-fold. Because many of you are writers, and we all know how important it is to be accurate with the facts when writing. I often hesitate when there is an opportunity to interview someone, or make a connection with a person who might have some insight on what I’m writing about. But I’ve learned to seize the moment by visiting Amish/Mennonite churches and taking a trip to Lancaster. I have come to find out people are usually eager to answer questions for you, and your story will be a lot better for the effort.

But more importantly, this experience has made me think about how people will see me when it’s my time to go. I’m learning how to make my life simpler, yet memorable and perhaps little things like bird calls and singing your heart out are more important than I thought:)

Question…What is your interview style, and how do you find people to interview?
Personal Question…If you could write your obituary what would it say?