It Doesn’t Have to be Real


I have a confession to make and some of you may find this impossible to believe, but I have never read the Harry Potter series.  I’ve seen bits of the movies as there seems to be a Harry Potter marathon every other weekend, but I’ve never watched one all the way through.  I promise to read the books soon.  Really.

I finally caught the beginning of the first movie yesterday.  The scene in which Harry is finally rescued from his horrible aunt and uncle opens with a long shot of a lighthouse on a very lonely and empty piece of earth.  My first thought was, “That’s ridiculous.  Who has access to an isolated lighthouse when they want to escape the mail?”

The writer part of my brain, which occasionally gives me the silent treatment for weeks on end, spoke up and said, “It doesn’t have to be real.”

Hmmm.  No, it doesn’t.

My WIP, the sequel to Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (Amazon and Kindle), isn’t set in a fantasy world.  It involves actual children in the real world.  No magic, no super powers.  Reality is something I try to avoid, but it’s necessary for this particular series.  I have other stories, some finished and some in various stages of creation, that are decidedly not set in reality.  Those that are unfinished got bogged down somewhere along the line and I couldn’t figure out where until I saw that lighthouse yesterday.

Most of what I write, the stories that are not yet published, exist in the realm of tall tales and fairy tales.  Animals talk.  Magic exists.  The impossible happens.  Winthrop Risk is improbable.  Most children aren’t detectives who sound like Humphrey Bogart, but everything about Winthrop is possible.  A talking bull, a wombat who tries to fly, and a man buying a spell that will make his neighbor unhappy, are all impossible.  Nothing can drag those characters into the realm of fact.

The lighthouse scene in Harry Potter reminded me, because I needed to be reminded, that the worlds and situations I create don’t have to be real.  I don’t have to worry that my young reader simply won’t believe it.  That’s what they want–make believe.  I can go anywhere I want to go and people impossible places with impossible beings.  I can unhook the sleeper car from my brain’s locomotive and let it roll along the tracks until it finds a place to rest.  And once there, who knows what will come out of the forest to greet it.

It doesn’t have to be real.


Images vs. Descriptions

I just read this quote about writing character descriptions:

“Learning someone’s age, eye color, or height, in inches or centimeters, is not compelling, which is why we don’t consider drivers’ licenses literature.”  Harley Jane Kozak in Now Write! Mysteries, edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson.

Likewise, our character descriptions shouldn’t sound like a crime victim describing their attacker to a police sketch artist.

In Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (available on Amazon and Kindle), the main character (a boy of about 9 or 10 years old) offers his descriptions of people and situations this way:

“Roger, the class bully.  Ran the playground at Chandler Elementary like a shark in a fishbowl.  Even picked on the little guys in kindergarten.  A bad egg.”

Or, speaking of his teacher, Mrs. Obermeyer:

I clapped the erasers together right next to Mrs. Obermeyer’s desk.  She started to sneeze–squeaky little sneezes that squeezed their way out of a nose that matched her size 12 feet.

We know Winthrop is smaller than the other kids in his class when his friend, Dash, rescues him from Roger.  And we learn that Dash is a strong, confident girl.

“Let him go, Roger!”  It was Dash, and boy, was her nose out of joint.

“You gonna let a girl fight your battles, Risk?”

“A kid my size can’t be too picky, Roger.  Thanks for saving my neck, Dash.”

What does the school playground look like just before the bell rings?

The playground was covered with kids–like ants on a dropped lollipop.

You get the idea.  These are images we’re creating, not mug shots.  And maybe that’s what we should keep in mind.  The old adage that we should show, not tell, can be tough to apply.  We don’t want to give the reader a point by point description that doesn’t serve the plot.  A classic example I’ve noted in the past (see “It’s That Time of Year Again” from 2014) is Washington Irving’s rich description of Ichabod Crane, which not only tells us a lot about his physical appearance but serves to make the Headless Horseman chase scene that much more vivid.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an atmospheric piece that was written at a time when stories were told at a more leisurely pace, and Irving’s little gem is a wonderful example that broke our modern rules for description and  was spot on in having done so.

So, in painting your word picture, broad brush strokes are OK and coloring within the lines isn’t always necessary.

We’re All Still Writing

I just read a wonderful book about writing, “Still Writing–The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life,” (Grove Press) by Dani Shapiro @danijshapiro, so let me start by saying I give it very high marks and strongly recommend it.  This isn’t a book about the fastest way to get an agent or the latest marketing gimmicks.  It’s about writing and being a writer.

What a relief.

I’ve read several books about writing over the years. They serve as a sort of creative boost for me when I can’t seem to get the words out. I feel, in some way, that these books give me permission to want to write.  I wish I could explain that.  I guess I sometimes feel like I’ve walked into the lobby of a private club and I don’t have an ID card to show to the guy at the desk.  I keep expecting the bouncer to show up and tell me I have no business being there.

When I read an interview with a writer, the thing I most want to hear about isn’t how they got their agent or how they got published–I want to hear about their process.  What is their day like?  Do they write at home or in a café?  In pajamas in bed, or dressed and in an office?  Are they outliners or do they write as they go along?  It’s not that I can’t figure out my own writing process (I know very well how my brain works), but I continue to be fascinated by how other writers get the job done.

Other writers.  Did I just include myself in that category?

Confession:  For those who don’t know me, I am a newly self-published children’s author (Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster available on Amazon and Kindle).  Check it out.

I remember years ago when the idea of self-publishing was considered something to be embarrassed about, as if people were sitting in their basements writing porn.  “Vanity publishing” they called it back then, because obviously anyone who thought they knew better than the publishing world had to possess a monstrous ego.  Picture a would-be author spending a small fortune to have their book printed, only to be left with boxes of unsold books stuffed in an attic someplace.  There was no Amazon back then, no Kindle.   It was risky, and I don’t know if anyone was actually successful at it.

The simple truth is that if you can’t get agents or publishers to consider your work (or you just want to bypass them altogether and maintain creative control) and you decide to self-publish, you had better be sure the publishing gatekeepers are wrong.  Very wrong.

The ease of self-publishing has, I understand, cluttered the literary landscape with a lot of badly written or badly edited books.  I guess for some people the desire to be published races past their desire to write and edit well and the result is…unfortunate.  I think I’ve avoided that particular pitfall.  I hope you will, too.

Trying to Prime the Pump

With the first book in the Winthrop Risk Mysteries out, I’ve been trying to get back to writing the second book. I love the main character, Winthrop.  I didn’t want to create a character who starts out afraid of his own shadow and grows to realize how great he really is at the end of the story.  No.  That would make him a pansy and I don’t like pansies.  I wanted a character who, though smaller than the other kids and considered a loser, had great self-confidence and knew exactly who he was from the very first sentence.

Carrying that character forward is really the easy part.  His Chandleresque dialogue is a blast to write and I actually came up with most of that before I had the plot in place for the first book.  There will be a couple of recurring characters.  The difficulty is that while writing a child’s version of a mystery, one can’t introduce any dead bodies, drug dealers, or torrid affairs.  It has to be clean and not too scary.  Some form of theft is OK, as long as the bad guys don’t carry weapons.  I’m working on making the setting creepy by focusing on Winthrop’s school and how it looks at dusk.  My young characters aren’t allowed out to roam the streets after dark on a school night.  The exact nature of the mystery and the motive continue to elude me, though I’ve jotted down several possibilities.

I’m not one to read mysteries.  I will watch the occasional “cozy” mystery on TV and I’m a rabid fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.  I spent a good part of yesterday watching a few cozy mysteries and the formula is pretty much the same in all of them.  Not a great deal of violence, but a lot of dead bodies.  They all seem to involve someone (usually a woman) who isn’t a detective but always manages to outwit the local police department and solve the mystery before they do.  I picked up another Raymond Chandler book in the Philip Marlowe series for inspiration, and a book about writing mysteries.  Letting the analytical portion of my brain work on one thing allowed the creative portion to spit out the occasional idea, and I kept my pen and notebook handy to catch them before they were forgotten.

I’ve heard it said that some people want to be writers and others want to have written.  Having written, I find myself luxuriating in the feeling of getting back to the blank page, the random notes, and thinking about what comes next.  It’s good to have written, but being a writer is where the fun really is.

The Suckiness of the Situation Notwithstanding…

…I did manage to make a small but important step forward in the story. I had an idea of how I wanted a piece of the mystery to look (no footprints where there should have been footprints), but until today I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen. I think I have a solution, which should move the story forward a bit.

I hate being stuck on a small detail.

Well, I lost my best buddy last week (Gandalf the cat), my husband’s layoff continues, my son was injured at work and is still waiting for his worker’s compensation claim to go through, my primary transcription customer is a deadbeat, and our financial situation has gone from tough to crushing in the last two weeks, but the writing must go on.

Calm your brain for just a few minutes. Read a little bit about writing. Dabble. The muse will drop by, even if it doesn’t stay long.

How I Got My Writing Groove Back

That nasty cold that’s been going around finally found me. Since I’m unlikely to come up with a new post this week, I’m reblogging this one from last February. It was the second one I posted, so most of you will have missed it the first time around.


I was always supposed to be a writer, at least that’s what my teachers said.  I was pretty good at it.  Report, essay, poem?  No problem.  Character sketch?  Boy, do I know some characters.  But college was out of the question for me.  It wasn’t just the money; I needed to get away from home.  Things there were difficult.  So, I joined the Army instead (bad idea-I made a lousy soldier), married John six weeks after our first date (great idea for more than thirty years now), and had two boys.  Over the years, I helped write or edit reports for the military, a couple of private investigators (arson, mostly), and have spent the last ten years transcribing and editing medical reports.  Dry, boring, soul-crushing work.  If you’re looking to scrape the creativity off a storyteller’s tongue, technical writing is the tool to use.  The rules can be a little crazy.  One…

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The Happiness Question

“In happiness you must create.”

from For Writer’s Only, by Sophy Burnham

Writing is easiest for me during those times when I’m not faced with a major personal crisis. The “write-no-matter-what” crowd always made me feel guilty about putting my pen down when my emotions were pulled elsewhere by financial worries, illness, or family problems. I’m not talking about the everyday stuff. We all have that. I’m talking about the gut-wrenching stuff that keeps you awake at night and invades what little sleep you get. I’ve had a lot of that over the last few years. But there have been periods of relative calm that have allowed me to unhook the logical half of my brain and get some writing done. Sometimes that has meant letting go of my grasp on someone else’s problem and realizing it isn’t mine to solve. As a mother, that’s a tough thing to do.

Happiness is something that always seems to be off in the distance, something just out of reach. Maybe happiness isn’t the right word. Peace. Calm. During those times, as Ms. Burnham says, we create. We write, paint, and dance. It isn’t just that the process is easier then; it’s necessary. Singing a happy song when you’re down is the psychological equivalent of whistling past a graveyard. It lacks authenticity.  When we’re sad, if we sing at all, we sing the blues. But good news or a beautiful day demands creative outlet, like those moments when you can feel God standing next to you and all you can do is worship.

In the dark, icy grasp of winter, in the midst of troubles present and those looming on the horizon, happiness and creativity behave as fugitives. Weary of the chase, we drop our weapons for a while. Spring will come and fresh tracks will appear in the wet earth. Happiness will grow careless about its disguise and we will pick up the trail once again.

A Much-Needed Walk


As I’ve told you before, I really hate my day job as a medical transcriptionist. The worst part about it is the lousy pay. In fact, lousy is too light a word. Insulting is more appropriate. My employer had the audacity to call me on Saturday. Now, I don’t work on Saturday, being a Sabbath-keeping Christian, and she has known this for 12 years. Nonetheless, she rang my phone off the hook Saturday morning; and when I didn’t answer, she started on my cell phone, finally leaving a voice message and an email.

I responded to her email, reminding her that it was the Sabbath, and asked why taking care of the issue that was so important to her that it warranted (in her mind) violating my religious convictions. The fact that I work the other six days of the week just didn’t matter to her.  She had lost the files I sent over a couple of weeks ago. Mind you, the files were for a doctor she has repeatedly told me is not important and does not pay his bills on time. I sort of lost my cool at that point and let her know what I thought about the situation.

Of course I still have a job. I’m extraordinarily good at it. It’s just that every time I say I want better pay, I get a list of excuses, usually centering on the doctors’ unwillingness to pay more. One day soon, maybe by this time next year, I hope to be able to say, “I quit,” and turn to writing full time.

Well, by Sunday I was pretty much stuck in a rather deep funk. It was a beautiful day, so I cut my workday short and my husband and I went to the park for a nice long walk. During our walk, I took the photo you see at the top of this post. Autumn is in all it’s glory right now.  I know I’ve been terribly cooped up lately, working extra hours to make ends meet (my husband lost his job last month); but I didn’t realize how bad it was until we got home from the park and I had to step inside the house again. I didn’t think this tiny house could feel even smaller, but it did.

I have slipped back into that pit of not being able to write. I know my currently untreated depression is largely responsible, coupled with the financial stress we’re under. On the other hand, my brain comes up with story ideas every now and then. I dutifully jot them down on one of the color-coded index cards in the purple box on my desk.

Right now, I can’t break loose from the circumstances surrounding me. I can’t work on those ideas in the purple box today, but I can keep putting ideas in the purple box.


Too Much of This Story Sucks

I’ve been working on a story off and on for months now. The basic story is finished, but there’s one problem.

I don’t like it.

There are a few pieces that I think are great, but there are too many weak spots where the story sort of drags. My process for fixing something like this is to isolate those sections from the rest of my notes and toss around the old “what if” questions. I really like the part about the alligator because it’s fun and unexpected, but the two predicaments my main character is in prior to that are lifeless. I might be able to improve the second one, but the first should probably hit the circular file.

When writing a picture book, the basic rule is that the story happens in a series of three.  For instance, in my story When the Poor Man Danced, the bad guy goes to a wizard three times to obtain a spell that he hopes will enable him to stop his poor neighbor from being so happy all the time.  Each attempt fails; and in the end, the bad guy gets his comeuppance in a strange way.  In Wombat Wings, a kookaburra convinces a young wombat that he should be able to fly.  The wombat makes three different attempts and fails, finally realizing, “I’ve never heard of a sillier thing than a wombat who needs wombat wings.” 

You can see my Stories category for more, but you get the idea. 

So I have to rework the first two obstacles my character faces, building on the difficulty with each one.  I seem to have fallen into the much-hated trap of just putting the main character into a series of situations instead of having her live in a story. I have a great deal of work ahead of me on this, but I’m not the type of writer who dreads the rewrite.  I do have a story premise, a character I like, and a potentially good ending that still needs a little punch.  Something to work with. 

If you’ve been following this blog, you know I’ve been struggling with this story for a while.  There were times when I thought I had made great progress and nearly nailed it, but rereading it a few days later made its weaknesses obvious.  Writing for children means the story is shorter, but the struggles to get it right are pretty much the same as for any other writer in any other genre. 

I do love this stuff.

I’m On A Roll!

Day two of my new writing schedule went very well. Worked out some of the rhyming dialogue for the main character (required some rewriting and new lines) and managed to find a place for that alligator.

Funny how you can do so well with the same routine for so long and suddenly find yourself in a rut. I’ve just shifted my writing time to weekday mornings and set my clock for 5 am instead of 6 am. Pretty simple fix. Nothing wrong with my creativity at all. Just needed a change.

FYI, I changed the sidebar on my blog so the categories are listed at the top. Rhymes for Children is self-explanatory (more to come in that category). Stories are some of the picture book stories I’ve written, as well as a couple of true stories from my childhood (The Riot on 17th Street and I’ll Only Ride a Blue Bike). Uncategorized posts are just regular blog posts like this one. Hope that makes it easier to sample the writing goods, as it were.

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