Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Writers of October. Or the Truth About the Writers’ Colony

For many years I sought a brief respite every fall. A retreat from slogging away at the day job as a reporter in Washington, D.C., and writing books and plays at night and on weekends. So every October I attended a picturesque little writers’ colony in Vermont with my husband Bob, who is also a writer and editor.  We traveled there to take advantage not only of the creative promise but also the intoxicating mad splash of peak autumnal color and the peaceful Vermont landscape. (No, I’m not identifying the place any further than this. It doesn’t exist anymore, and I’ll just call it the Colony.)

Despite the place being somewhat down at the heels—and more and more as time went by—the Colony House was a grand old mansion located in a magnificent setting just off the village green. We writers occupied private rooms (or shared them with a significant other), shared the bathrooms, fixed meals in the communal kitchen, hung out in front of the fireplace in the library, and held forth our writerly opinions in the dining room. Occasionally Bob would carve a pumpkin or two, and we’d all tell tales, swap ghost stories, grumble about or celebrate our writing careers, and visit the local cemeteries and collect epitaphs from the headstones, sometimes bizarre and sometimes hilarious. The Colony was a charming place where a core group of writers gathered every year, year after year, and every year a few new writers joined the mix. It was usually a blend of old friends and new faces. 

A Fantasy World 

Basically, a writers’ retreat is a tiny fantasy world. Writers all want to find that magical place where our characters instantly come alive, our dialogue clicks, our plot hits hyperspace, and well, magic happens. (In addition to all of our usual magical thinking.)
But one thing always struck me as strange: Some of these writers never wrote outside of the Colony. They saved up all their energy and creativity for the one or two or three weeks they would spend there. Their lives were too busy to eek out precious minutes for writing. This was their only time to write. Their jobs were too stressful, their lives too full. Outsiders could never understand.

One writer whose path I crossed for years was working on a musical based on Alice in Wonderland. You’re probably thinking: That’s never been done. Yeah, Alice has been done before and she will be again. Taking up a corner of the library on a round wooden table near a baby grand piano someone had donated, he’d set up his command center. He would take turns tinkling on the piano keys and click-clacking on his laptop keyboard. He was creating. He explained he could only work on the play during those precious few weeks each year. He’d been working on this play for years. It never seemed to be approaching the finish line. One year he stopped coming. I don’t know what happened to him or his play. (Alice still pops out of her rabbit hole from time to time.)

Another writer one October had traveled to the Colony across the country by bus, toting a big, bulky desktop computer in a cardboard box. Once there, she found she was blocked the entire time and blamed the other writers: We were noisy, inconsiderate, inspiration-sucking fiends. Or perhaps we were vampires. Still another—allegedly a poet—frightened me. The poet, who seemed to be desperately broke, would startle people by suddenly appearing silently out of nowhere.  At your elbow in the kitchen, asking if you were going to finish your meal. At your side in the library, throwing raw potatoes into the fireplace to bake.  She said she lived in a burned-out house in another state without heat or electricity. We were a little afraid she’d burn down the Colony House over our heads. But she was theoretically working on her poems at the Colony.

Writing Despite Everything Else

My opinion is that a writer is writing all the time, not just in the rarefied air of the writers’ retreat. You have to be able to write when you don’t feel like it. When it’s hard. When life interferes. Even when you’re not putting words on paper, your mind is still building stories. That is also writing.

Let’s face it, some writers are like machines, computers that never come unplugged and are always churning out pages. They produce two and three and four books a year. Whether those are good books, who knows? Others keep at it for years before producing any work. I don’t fall into either camp. I lack the energy of the former group and the superiority of the latter.

Still, I found that I couldn’t work like some of the other Colony House writers. In a lather in a corner of the library. Willing the muse to sit on my head and pour in inspiration. By the time we made it from Virginia to Vermont, dragged our luggage up the stairs, collected our sheets and made the bed, I was already fried. After reporting on government regulations during my days and creating fictional worlds at night the entire rest of the year, I could barely walk and talk. Forget chewing gum. I slept. A lot. Copiously. Deliciously. Fabulously. In fact, I observed that many of the writers at the Colony routinely spent the first two or three days of their stay zonked out in their rooms, only rousing for food.

The Magic of Recuperation

I needed that retreat as much, if not more, than those writers who hoarded their creative juices all year in anticipation of their annual two-week flood of inspiration. Many an October at the Colony I simply could not write more than a page or two. Depleted resources created a black hole inside of me. So instead of staying in my room pretending to write, I walked and talked with Bob and let the healing power of rest (and the fall colors) take over.  In my experience, creative rest periods are highly underrated. Many a plot twist and character nuance were worked out as we ambled under the flaming maples, past the green fields and the harvest-ready corn, and paused to consider those lazy but contented Vermont cows.

Many of my characters emerged out of that fallow time every fall. It was at the Colony House where I came up with the opening lines of my first Crime of Fashion mystery novel, Killer Hair. (Now there are ten books in the series. More to come.) It was there that I first sketched out the beginnings of my new thriller, The Dollhouse in the Crawlspace. I remember returning to the Colony one fall with my very first published novel under my belt (and in my hands), more exhausted than ever, to find the seasonal creative geniuses of October suffering over their never-finished prose and casting dark looks my way whenever I would leave the house to wander the woods and ponder future stories and projects. The October-only writers didn’t understand my writing process. I was writing! I was just not physically putting that many words down on paper that October. That would come later, after I returned to Washington and felt revived and ready to tackle new words, and worlds.

Though they hadn’t finished a book or a play, the Writers of October took the moral high ground. I suffer therefore I am—a writer. By heaven, you were supposed to stay in your room, ignore the autumnal glory, and bleed sweat onto the paper. Or the computer keyboard. Weeping in the throes of creativity was not looked down upon, but enjoying yourself out in the world certainly was.

I couldn't let this attitude stop me from enjoying my time at the Colony. It was the deep rest, the sigh, the exhale I needed in order to continue writing. I required that fallow time, and I still do. 

I will always be grateful for that shabby white mansion near the village green. The hot cider I drank, the sweaters I wore, the blazing autumn leaves I crunched through, the crisp intoxicating air I breathed. Without it all, I could never have been as productive in the rest of my writing year. And that is the truth (my truth, anyway) about the writers’ colony, and the writers of October.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Last Goodbye of Harris Turner, A Spooky Giveaway

Today is the first of September, which I like to think of as the beginning of the spooky season. Nights are crisper, the moon is clearer, the trees more ominous. Soon we'll be wearing sweaters and sipping cider and swapping terrifying tales around the fire. Oh, we're not?  Well, we can imagine that we are. 

In order to celebrate the idea, if not the reality, of the September spooky season, which culminates in Halloween, I am offering my ghost story, The Last Goodbye of Harris Turner, for free for five (5) days on Kindle .

Cover art by Robert Williams
A word about the cover design by Robert Williams. The photo was taken of a recent blue moon, and a blue moon figures in this ghost story, which introduces the character of Cassidy James. 

Harris Turner is a little funny, a little sad, a little frightening, and inspired by a slight incident from my days as a young reporter on a small town newspaper. I was assigned to write a Halloween article on local ghosts in that small town and I met with several people who owned allegedly haunted homes. The most interesting tales involved a pair of brother and sister specters, Kingston and Grace.

Shortly after the piece appeared, an elderly gentleman came to my office wanting to know who had written the story. He had something to add. We had a nice chat and he told me he knew one of the ghosts. Rather, he'd known one of the people who had become a ghost. In fact, he and “King” had been old friends. He told me of the young man’s fatal illness and the days they would sneak away for a ride in the hills. He wondered if I thought he could get in touch with the deceased. “It sure would be nice to see King again,” he said. He seemed to think I was the one who could get them back together.

I don’t know if he ever made contact with King. In this lifetime anyway. But that conversation always stayed with me. It was the starting point of The Last Goodbye of Harris Turner. I hope you enjoy it. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Grace Metalious Bobblehead

Is it wrong to give yourself an award? 
    I hope not. Because I have just awarded myself with what I like to call the Grace Metalious You Can Do It! Award.
    I'm pretty sure that people give themselves awards all the time. For example, the I Can't Believe I Made it Through This Awful Day Without Slapping Anyone Award. Or the My Manuscript Is Finished and It Didn't Kill Me Award. Or the My Book Is Finally Published and I Deserve a Prize Award. 
    I awarded the attractive bobblehead pictured here to its worthy recipient (ME) for finally finishing the thriller I've been working on for years in between other books: The Dollhouse in the Crawlspace. It is now available as an ebook and will soon be available as a trade paperback.
Grace Metalious Bobblehead.

    My major award, the Grace Metalious "Pandora in Blue Jeans” Bobblehead, is available through the New Hampshire Historical Society. This is deliciously ironic: Grace still embarrasses some people in her home state because of the scandalous notoriety of her bestseller, Peyton Place. According to the Historical Society, the pose is taken from a photo of the writer at her typewriter.

    Why the Grace M. Bobblehead? Because it’s funny. Just look at the picture. It makes me laugh. Grace's head bobbles thoughtfully every time she has an inspiration, staring intently at her empty typewriter. And by the time I finish a book, my head has bobbled a thousand times. Sometimes it bobbles right down onto my keyboard.

   Why Grace Metalious, the author of Peyton Place? Because she was pretty much the writer who would be voted Least Likely to Succeed. And yet she did. The odds were stacked against her. She was a housewife and a mother who came from poverty and obscurity, but she was driven to write. She succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. Granted, those dreams turned into nightmares and she essentially drank herself to death at a young age. But before all that, she made the improbable happen. She emerged from nowhere and wrote a bestseller that rocked the established literary order.
   I first glimpsed parts of Peyton Place in an old and tattered paperback copy during my high school babysitting jobs. (My gigs weren't stocked with libraries full of impressive leather-bound volumes.) But when I later saw the movie version of Peyton Place, what struck me most was its depiction of women. Women who worked hard, who were passionate and ambitious, and who did what they had to do to survive in their superficially buttoned-down (but secretly sordid) small town. Just like Grace M., who was said to lock herself in the bathroom to find the time and space (and peace and quiet) to write.
   You can do it. These words have been my mantra for years. I had to say them to myself, because I wasn't hearing it from the peanut gallery. Walking to the Metro Station on my way to work, exhausted, one foot in front of another: You can do it. While holding a full-time job and writing at night: You can do it. Stopping after work at the library or bookstore or coffee shop to write because if I went home, I'd go to sleep: You can do it. 
   So I'm either a fool or I deserve this award. Maybe both.
   Now, as the proud winner of the first Grace Metalious You Can Do It Award, I have another Grace M. bobblehead waiting in reserve, to award to some other deserving writer who might need a word or two (or a nod of the head) of encouragement. How about you? Any awards you've given yourself? Or wish someone else would? I'd love to hear about it.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Dollhouse. The Crawlspace. The Cover.

This is a time for new beginnings for me, so I'd like to welcome you to my new, reinvigorated blog. I don't know how often I'll post, but I plan to write from time to time and I have a new book to talk about.  As a mystery writer, I have transitioned from my usual series to publishing my first suspense thriller, The Dollhouse in the Crawlspace. At times, it's been a difficult-yet-fascinating journey, from the first draft to creating and finishing the cover. 
The finished cover.
     To be quite honest, Dollhouse has been my White Whale, the book in my head, the book I have wanted to write for a very long time. It remained elusive because there always seemed to be another book due in my Crime of Fashion series, and much of that time I had a full-time job (besides my book writing, another full-time job as a journalist).
      I would no more start on Dollhouse than I would have to interrupt the flow and return to Lacey Smithsonian and finish another book in my series. (Never fear, I love Lacey and will be continuing that series.) Despite the delays, I could not get Dollhouse out of my mind. 

The Title Always Comes First

     When I start writing a book, I always know certain things. For instance, I can’t start writing without knowing the title or the key characters' names. And I knew The Dollhouse in the Crawlspace was the title for this new book years before I finished writing it.
The Dollhouse under construction.
 The original dollhouse came from the home of my aunt and uncle and cousins. When they moved in, they discovered a dollhouse, full of exquisite miniature furniture, left behind in their crawlspace by the previous owners. It seemed like a very strange thing to leave behind. I was a teenager at the time, and the image stayed with me. It suggested so much to me: hidden spaces, secrets, discoveries, a lost childhood. It became a key image in this story.

     Over the years I've tried other titles, softer, harder, edgier or more “thrillery,” but it's the title that stuck. When it came time for The Cover, I didn’t want anything frilly or soft, or the Addams Family dollhouse. Perhaps I could get away without a dollhouse, or with the mere suggestion of one? But no matter what I tried, this cover needed a dollhouse. In a crawlspace! Not only that, the dollhouse had to suggest a "real" house in the story.
     My cover designer for Dollhouse is the talented Robert Williams, who edits my manuscripts and masters my website. He's also my husband and partner in Lethal Black Dress Press, our publishing endeavor, and he designed the covers for The Children Didn’t See Anything and The Last Goodbye of Harris Turner. We already had a dark, creepy crawlspace in our own house, so all we needed was just the right dollhouse. No problem! Right? 
Setting up the photo shoot in our crawlspace.

     Stock photos of generic dollhouses didn't work for us; neither did a real dollhouse via eBay. Our best find on Craigslist was too big to fit in our car, which the dollhouse owner proceeded to insult. (“Is that your ONLY car?!”) Only one option left: Build the #$%!&! dollhouse ourselves! It tested our patience, our dining room table, and the very fiber of our beings for three solid weeks, leaving in its wake sawdust, hot glue glop, paint smears, and frayed nerves. 
Donning hard hat and suffering for my art.

     But that was just the beginning. Donning hard hats and our new dollhouse, and grabbing lights, cameras, dolls, and tripods, we crawled into our gloomy crawlspace to set the scene, dress and light the dollhouse, cover ourselves in cobwebs, and take hundreds of pictures in the dirt and dust. Then all Bob had to do was choose the right frame out of 998 (or so), perform some digital image magic, and match it to the right composition, fonts, and color palette to create just the right look: Cool but hot, shadowy but eye-popping, gloomy yet glowing, as if lit from within.
     All things considered, it was easy! No, not really, but we think it was worth it. 
     The Dollhouse in the Crawlspace is available as an ebook now, and will be in trade paperback by the end of August.