Category Archives: historical fiction

#nanoprep: A Night To Remember


by Lillian Csernica on October 20, 2018

Through the generosity of my supporters, I have raised enough money in donations to attend The Night of Writing Dangerously.

This is one of the highlights of National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. I have been participating in NaNoWriMo since 2014, but never yet have I had the pleasure of attending The Night of Writing Dangerously.

This is the year I go and spend the evening with my fellow writers at the Julia Morgan Ballroom in San Francisco, CA. We will eat and drink and write and revel in the knowledge that we are among people who share our passion for the written word.

NaNoWriMo HQ has announced that this will be the last year for this event. That makes me twice as grateful to the wonderful people who have made it possible for me to attend.

The Night of Writing Dangerously is right up there on my Bucket List. I am now serving as the Municipal Liaison for Santa Cruz County. When I volunteered, I committed to the goal of raising the donations necessary to attend this magnificent event. I hope my success will inspire other members of my Region to do the same. It would be so wonderful for a big group of us to travel to San Francisco together so we can share this amazing evening and all that it includes.

If you think you’d like to give it a go, there’s still time. NaNoWriMo begins on November 1st. The Night of Writing Dangerously will be held on November 18th. Attendance is limited to the first 225 people who raise the money and RSVP, so get started right away.

I hope to see you there!

 

 

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#nanoprep: Beware the Early Burnout!


by Lillian Csernica on October 1, 2018

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This is for all you Planners out there. The ones with the notebooks and the index cards and the color-coded little arrow Post-It notes. You know who you are. You can’t wait to plow through all those research books and make a gazillion notes. You love to chase down the other books on the bibliographies, hunting for the exact name of that one piece of clothing, or why on earth those people would be willing to eat that substance under those circumstances.

I share your addictions and I feel your pain.

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I think of myself as a plantser because in October I’m in Planner Mode. Research, outlines, scene cards, character sketches, maps, coinage, ad infinitum. When I was little, everybody stressed the importance of learning how to color inside the lines. So when I start a new novel project, I have what amounts to a compulsion to create those “lines,” the clearly marked spaces that I will fill in with backstory and location data and a list of crazy potential plot twists.

Then, come November itself, I go nuts, writing all out like a true Pantser. Each day I throw myself at that word quota and write like hell, living in fear of midnight. If everything goes well, all that material I absorbed during October will mingle and blend in the depths of my imagination. The words will come gushing out into the pen or the keyboard, and the story will take shape!

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What if all does NOT go well? What if all that research and all those notes and all the brainstorming uses up all the energy you had for doing the actual writing?

This is a very real danger. I’ve heard some writing teachers warn against talking too much about new ideas. All that wonderful pressure to get the story written can dissipate if you spend too much time talking and not enough writing.

The other danger is spending so much time and energy on your idea that when it comes time for the actual writing, you’re already bored. Over it. Burned out. That’s not a fun place to be when you’ve got 30 days and 50,000 words waiting on the horizon.

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Prepping for NaNoWriMo is very important for all the obvious reasons. You need to have some idea of who you’re writing about, where the story happens, and what the stakes are. My advice is to do enough prepping so you can see the signposts but not every pothole along the way. Give your imagination enough room to consider the many different combinations of the ideas you’re mulling over.

Remember three essential guidelines:

  1. Write everything down. EVERYTHING. A piece of dialog. One character’s opinion. What kind of horse the bad guy’s sidekick dreams of owning.
  2. One day’s writing is not set in stone. You don’t like the way that scene came out? Do it again from another character’s point of view. You’re so frustrated you just want to burn down the whole super spy skyscraper? Do it! Let’s see how those fancypants S.H.I.E.L.D.–wannabes handle that scenario!
  3. Keep everything. Sure, you’ll make choices. That’s good. Just keep all the other stuff. You never know what might come in handy around Day 15 or Day 26. And who knows? All those bits and pieces might help you figure out the sequel!

 
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How To Prep for NaNoWriMo!


by Lillian Csernica on September 11, 2018

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Yes indeed, November is on the horizon. Whether you’re a planner or a pantser, it’s time to give at least some thought to how you’ll spend the 30 days of raw, unbridled, all out creativity that is NaNoWriMo!

This year my adventure takes on a new level of involvement. I am now one of two Municipal Leaders for Santa Cruz County. I’ve already been at work discussing write-in dates with the local librarians and making reservations at the restaurant where we traditionally hold our TGIO Party. And yes, there is also the Night of Writing Dangerously, NaNoWriMo‘s fantastic fundraiser!

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo three times now, and I have won every year. I admit I am a planner, but only up to a point. When it comes to making the daily word count, there’s a certain amount of leaping off the high dive and just going for it. You get some amazing stuff appearing on the page when you just go all out, especially during word sprints. Those are great fun, especially when you’re sprinting as part of a NaNo group.

These are a few ways to get a good grip on what you want to write about. They are handy to fall back on even if you start off strong then find yourself losing inspiration partway through.

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SCENE CARDS

First, write down every scene idea you have. Remember, when you change location, time, or point of view, you start a new scene. Even if you have just fragments of ideas about one incident here and one incident there, write them down. 

Second, get yourself some index cards. I prefer 4×6 so I have plenty of room to make notes. These are the important items to  list for each scene. Opinions about these items differ, so your mileage may vary. If you want to get fancy, you can even color code the cards by character, location, Part One, whatever works for you.

A basic scene card includes these elements:

POV.  Antagonist. Goal. Obstacle. Disaster. Decision.

If I seem like a Luddite because I’m talking about paper and pencil vs. Scrivener, well shucks. I work better when I can handle what I’m working with. I can make a story map with my scene cards, take a photo of it, then move scenes around as I please. This works for me. We all have our unique process.

 

IMPOSSIBLE DREAM/UNBEARABLE DISASTER

Brainstorming is your friend. Your main character wants something, right? How many completely outrageous ways can you think up for making that happen? For guaranteeing your main character total victory? No holds barred. Go as far and as crazy as you can.

Next, think up all the nasty, gruesome, heartbreaking, evil, and totally unfair ways you can stop your main character from ever getting near that goal. Again, push as far and as hard as you can. Never mind logic or reason. Blow the roof off the place! Wreck the joint! Just make sure your hero or heroine cannot possibly succeed.

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THE 20 QUESTIONS APPROACH

Think up 20 questions that will tell you facts about your character that nobody knows. Maybe not even that very character! I’m not talking about the usual getting to know you stuff. Why does the taste of chocolate make your character sick? Do they prefer snakes or spiders? What happened to their favorite childhood toy?

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GO BIG, GO BAD, GO BALLISTIC!

Come at your story from a different angle. How far is your main character willing to go to achieve that goal? Never mind what a sane, law-abiding, reasonable person would do. I’m talking all-out, eleventh hour, John Woo stuff. 

But wait, you say. You’re not looking to write the latest Jason Bourne-type blockbuster. You don’t want your hero to rank up there with the cast of The Expendables. You’re writing a nice, mellow, introspective literary story.

More power to you. Bear with me for a minute while I explain why the methods I’m suggesting will work just as well for literary fiction as they will for a story that fits into the world of genre protocols.

In one of my many efforts to combat my clinical depression, I participated in a day program. My favorite therapist would begin his “class” by explaining that the work we did with him would only be effective if we committed to it 125%. Why? Because 100% wasn’t good enough. We had to reach beyond our present ability. We had to work harder, to stretch farther, to make a greater effort. Only then would we grow. Only then would we really change.

Think beyond the obvious possibilities. Go wild. Push harder and farther. Abandon the limitations of linear thinking. You will transcend the predictable and open up new options for what happens when your main character finds themselves at the crux of unbearable pressure.

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PROWLING AROUND PINTEREST

When my brain gets jammed, I like to wander around Pinterest. It’s a largely visual site, which is what appeals to me. The writing articles might hand you the solution to your dilemma. The costume resources are wonderful. The creepy stuff is fun to explore. If your mind needs a rest, go look at something soothing like birthday cakes. Halloween is coming. Pinterest is a gold mine of decorating ideas. Sometimes we need to take a break. Pinterest is a lot of fun.

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O WorldCon, My WorldCon


by Lillian Csernica on August 26, 2018

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Oh my stars and garters! The past two weeks have been one long road trip. First, my mother had to go to the ER, and was then admitted to the hospital. It’s been two weeks today and she’s still there. In the midst of this ordeal, I had to leave town for the 76th World Science Fiction Convention, aka ConJose 2.

Here are just some of the highlights of this grand adventure:

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The Art of John Picacio

The T shirts! The Program Book! The Badges! Biiiiig badges, suitable for my ribbon whore tendencies along with plenty of room on the back for one’s participant schedule. Very considerate design, that.

Seeing Old Friends

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Kelly Buehler and Daniel Spector

Two of my favorite people, Kelly and Daniel now reside in that lovely country where Kelly will be co-chairing ConZealand in 2020! Start saving up now, kids! That will definitely be the happening spot on the planet!

The Usual Suspects from BayCon — You know who you are. All the people who came running up to me outside the entrance to the Dealers Room, seizing me in hugs so enthusiastic that some left a few bruises. Fine with me. The newer folks who introduced me to Cards Against Humanity at BayCon were there, including Karen in all her pink-tiara-and-camo glory.

David J. Peterson — Jedi Master among conlangers, creator of Dothraki for the Game of Thrones TV series, and an all-around sweet fellow. He once turned my name into a word in Dark Elvish, suitable for Malekith in Thor: The Dark World. The word? “Liljahi,” meaning to love. Not a word you’d hear very often in a warrior culture. Thanks, Dave!

Making New Friends

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Brenda Clough

 

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Joseph Malik

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Manny Frishberg

Room Parties!

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The Expanse — You have to love these fans. They really know how to throw a party. General ambience of red light. Marvelous Expanse-themed décor. In one room hung a tree that lit up from the roots to the branches. Solid color, then rainbow. Hypnotic! There was music playing and a bar and lots of people packed in there having a good time.

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Locus 50th Anniversary Party — A milestone in the industry, for sure. What stands out most in my memory is the planet cake with the fondant rockets and aliens. Way cool, excellent frosting, and high quality chocolate cake. OK, so I’m a foodie.

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Hal-Con — This event is put on by a fan group from Kawasaki. I met them in the area of the convention center devoted to fan tables. Needless to say, I was overjoyed to speak my tourist Japanese to actual Japanese people. I don’t get anywhere near enough practice. They invited me to their room party that evening. Oh wow. Lots of Japanese snacks, the great stuff you can’t get here in the States. Four Japanese ladies got me all wound up in a heavy brocade obi, the kind worn with a bridal kimono. Three different people were taking photos and video, including my usual partner in crime, Patricia H. MacEwen. I know the “obi fairies” tied at least two separate knots as demonstrations while I stood there with both hands holding my long hair piled on top of my head. I did tell the Kawasaki folks about the stories I’ve written set in Satsuma, Kyoto, and Fukushima. At the end of the evening, they did me the honor of giving me the obi.

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B-Cubed Press Table

Several of us who contributed to Alternate Theologies gathered at the table in the Dealers Room to sign copies. Bob and Phyl had badge wallets for us in purple, my favorite color! It was good to meet the other writers in the anthology, especially David Gerrold. He’s a hoot, he really is.
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The SFWA Suite

It’s good to hang out in the company of one’s colleagues. It’s even better to hang out in the company of one’s idols. Cat Rambo, Harry Turtledove, Nancy Kress, Diana Paxson, Saladin Ahmed…. At ConFrancisco, back in 1993, I made my first visit to the SFWA Suite as an Active Member. It was a thrill then, and it always will be.

There was cake. Lots of cake. The Analog party, the Clarion reunion, another author’s novel promotion.

One room of the suite was devoted to watching the Hugo Awards. I spent most of my time in what might be thought of as the conversational salon. Had a chance to really enjoy my time floating from one conversation to the next.

Next year we head to Dublin!

 

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5 Reasons Why Readers Give Up


by Lillian Csernica on July 9, 2018

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First, my apologies for the drop in the frequency of my posts. I’ve been having technical difficulties with both my laptop and daily life.

Keeping readers entertained and loyal is essential in today’s marketplace. I get a lot of free Kindle e-books thanks to BookBub. Given how much I read, I can plow through two or three novels a week depending on my schedule. Doing so has sharpened my sense of what will make me stop reading a book. Life is too short to read bad fiction. I have such a library built up on my Kindle there’s no reason to go on reading a book that can’t hold my interest.

These are the Five Storytelling Flaws that will make me give up on a story:

0f7398a5-6eed-4f57-b412-757fa49d8849Talking Heads — The dialogue might be witty. It might be well-crafted. If it doesn’t move the story forward, what’s the point? Dialogue can be a form of action, yes. If all you’ve got is characters having lengthy conversations, that’s going to try your reader’s patience and make them lose interest.

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Redshirts — These are the minor characters who take a bullet for the hero or heroine. I once read a fantasy novel where the redshirt problem was so blatant it became more and more aggravating with every predictable death. The novel was clearly meant to be the first in a series. It did not surprise me to learn the sequel never saw the light of day.

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Low Stakes — The majority of mystery novels are about murder because the stakes don’t get any higher than life or death. The higher the stakes, the more the main character has to risk in order to solve the problem. More risk means tougher choices and that creates more reader sympathy. Make sure the stakes in your story are high enough to keep the reader turning pages.

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Too Much Thinking — This is the internal narrative equivalent of Talking Heads. Yes, the reader needs to know how the main character feels and what thought process leads to the next attempt to solve the story problem. Too much thinking means too little action. The pace of the story suffers and the reader will lose interest.

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Purple Prose — If the reader can tell the writer is trying to impress, then the writer is trying too hard. This results in convoluted syntax that breaks the suspension of disbelief and makes the reader aware of the act of reading. I must confess that I do walk a fine line when I’m writing romance. Purple prose is very nearly one of the protocols of the genre. Keep it simple. Clarity and precision are your friends.

For more tips on avoiding these mistakes, I recommend reading:

How to Write A Damn Good Novel series by James N. Frey

Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress

Revision by Kit Reed

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

 

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How History Books Will Make You a Better Writer


by Lillian Csernica on June 27, 2018

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Why do I write about history?

History gives me an opportunity to get the big picture on how different countries have tried to make different strategies work. Economic strategies, military strategies, and the more cultural and artistic strategies that come under the heading of fashion.

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A good example is Scotland, which has a long history of internal clan conflicts and the border wars with England. The weather in Scotland tends toward clouds and rain. Sheep do well on the landscape of Scotland, so you see a lot of wool in their clothing styles, notably the kilt. I know a lot of people who have spent a great deal of time looking up their family tartans. The truth is, clan tartans are an invention of the Victorian period. This is one of those annoying facts that bursts the romantic bubble of many an amateur historian.

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I’ve written often about my fondness for Japan. Feudal Japan was an era of strict social classes, laws about fashion, and precise rules about social etiquette. While the tyranny of the Tokugawa Shogunate was eventually its own undoing, I must confess I would find a certain comfort in having so many matters of culture spelled out for me. Modern Japanese also enjoy the two-edged sword of knowing exactly who they are and where they stand in whatever social context they find themselves. In the time of the Tokugawa, clothing, hairstyles, personal ornamentation, and weaponry were the indicators of social position. Today we see all that grandeur reduced to the common everyday business card. That has become the crucial indicator of status and context for the Japanese. Westerners are advised to bring plenty of their own. Otherwise there are businesses available which produce cards very quickly with one side in English and the other in Japanese.

It was Eleanor who paid her son's ransom when he was captured

I write romance novels, so I get to take a close look at the techniques of wooing in various times and places. Medieval Europe had the concept of the Court of Chivalry. Eleanor of Aquitaine was largely responsible for this idea. Knights were measured against the Code of Chivalry to see if they met the beau ideal of those times. The real purpose of the Courts of Chivalry was to keep the women occupied while the men were off on Crusade or fighting battles closer to home. Bored noblewomen can be dangerous noblewomen, as Eleanor of Aquitaine herself proved on more than one occasion. In our present time the High Court of Chivalry deals with matters of heraldry.

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Novels from the Regency and Victorian periods entertain me because they’re all about clothes and money. Social position is the bottom line, and so many of the characters are looking to trade up. Finding someone you can love for the rest of your life is nowhere near as important as finding someone with a respectable income of so many hundreds or thousands of pounds per year. It’s possible that I’ve become a tad cynical regarding romance. When you’ve been married for thirty years, the starry-eyed honeymoon phase is a rather distant memory. That’s probably why I enjoy recreating it in my stories.

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Oddly enough, ancient history holds little appeal for me. The mysteries of ancient Egypt focus so much on the afterlife. I know more than I ever wanted to about the process of mummification. I find it interesting that the Egyptian gods have animal heads, which also occur in the Hindu pantheon. What does this similarity mean? What exchange of culture might have gone on that modern archaeologists have yet to discover? As with so many cultures, the most noteworthy people are the upper classes, especially the royalty. The lower classes, especially the slaves, had a hard life. 

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One of the most fascinating aspects of history is food. For the first novel I ever wrote, I had to go looking for Basque cookbooks because the novel was set in Navarre. It took quite some doing, but I finally discovered what my heroine would have for breakfast: chestnuts boiled in milk and sprinkled with nutmeg. Compare that with the necessity in Egypt of having many festal days where the upper classes distributed beer and bread to the lower classes. If not for that, many of the commoners and slaves in Egypt would have starved to death.

In Medieval Europe, bread, watered wine, ale, meats such as venison, game birds, and roast pork, and large wheels of cheese made up the main meal. You can find a number of cookbooks online that provide recipes from the Middle Ages. The key difference in culinary art between the Middles Ages and the Renaissance came down to the use of spices. The Middle Ages saw lots of spices thrown in for rich flavors. Renaissance cooking became more selective, creating unique dishes centered around particular flavor combinations. My research in this area taught me the pleasure of chicken prepared with cinnamon.

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Then there’s jewelry. I could go on and on about the delights of dressing up my heroes and heroines in the bijouterie of their particular time periods. From the hair ornaments of the geisha to the mourning rings of the Victorian period, from the jeweled inlays of the Egyptian pectoral collars to the prayer ropes of the Middles Ages called paternosters made from ivory beads or garnets or even pearls, the treasure chests of history are overflowing. I once had the pleasure of visiting the Smithsonian Institution and seeing the earrings of Marie Antoinette. Given that their total weight was more than 35 carats, it’s a wonder she didn’t end up with earlobes stretched like King Tut’s!

History is full of fascinating details. There are so many ideas out there just waiting to inspire you. Read those history books, those biographies, those memoirs! You never know when you’re going to find the one detail that opens up a world of inspiration.

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #27


by Lillian Csernica on May 27, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

Past inspirations and experiences will be helpful in your job.

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW

Ellen sat at one round marble table. It was just big enough to hold her laptop and a cup of overpriced coffee. As she surveyed the earnest faces clustered around the grouping of three little tables, she wondered if she should have ordered a double espresso. Three women in the fifty-plus range. Two men, one a retired welder and the other a skinny, twitchy fellow in his thirties. She knew better than to make assumptions, but these people looked about as exciting as the smell of boiling brussel sprouts.

The mission in St. Petersberg had been way too exciting. Two assets dead, a safe house blown up, and bad blood with the other agencies involved. Ellen came out of it with a concussion, internal bruising, and eight weeks’ mandatory leave while the investigation tried to sort out who screwed who when. Her agency’s psych team recommended she take up some quiet hobby.

Birdwatching had felt too much like surveillance work. On the plus side, Ellen had called in three drug deals, two stolen cars, and the beginnings of a home invasion.

One quilting class convinced her that she’d become a chess master before she got the hang of all the patterns and pieces.

Knitting was right out. As Ellen’s supervisor had put it, “Anybody who puts a pair of needles that long into Ellen’s hands better bring a big stack of body bags.”

So here she was, at a local writing group.

Felicia, the group’s “facilitator,” tapped her spoon against her coffee cup. She beamed a perfect PTA Mom smile. “I’d like to welcome you all to the first meeting of this session. Why don’t we start by introducing ourselves. Tell us your name and you preferred genre.”

Ellen let the names wash past her in the general noise of the coffeehouse. The ’60s rock on the PA system combined with the bean grinder to trigger the beginnings of a headache. A fine excuse for more caffeine. Her turn came.

“Ellen. Nonfiction.”

“Any particular kind?” Felicia asked.

For a moment Ellen was tempted to say forensic archaeology. At the agency she’d developed a reputation for being able to guess time of death to within half an hour on a fresh body, and to within a week on anyone they had to recover.

“Oh, you know. Household hints, Martha Stewart stuff.”

She’d looked up various women writers, hoping to work up some kind of profile she could match. Back of the book photos qualified as glamor shots among the literary intelligentsia. Ellen had found the genre writers more to her liking, especially the fantasy and mystery people. With them in mind she wore jeans, a T shirt with a Dashiell Hammet classic cover, and a gray cardigan.

“Let’s get started,” Felicia said. “Fifteen minutes for our first writing prompt.” She tapped a few keys on her laptop. “Here we are. ‘Journeys end in lovers’ meeting.'”

Everyone grabbed their pens or bent to their keyboards. Ellen stared at the blank page. Her journeys ended in meetings, all right, but not with lovers. There was no love lost between her and the people the agency sent her to “meet.”

“Ellen,” Felicia murmured. “Remember, keep the pen moving.”

The man lay there on the sidewalk, surrounded by pieces of the shattered window glass. It was almost pretty, the way the streetlights’ sodium glare reflected off all the shiny bits, giving the man a halo in death he’d surely never earned in life. Did he have a wife somewhere? Would she miss him? Time would pass. Sooner or later she’d realize he was never coming home. Would she cry? Would she miss him? Or would she heave a secret sigh of relief? So many problems solved, so many arguments that now would never happen. There were loose ends. There were always loose ends. That’s why God invented scissors. A few discreet snips here and there and everything would be nice and tidy. She’d always been an independent woman. Now she could enjoy a more complete freedom.

Ellen smiled. Maybe this writing thing would work out after all.

END

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BayCon 2018: Where to Find Me


by Lillian Csernica on May 23, 2018

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Friday 1:30 p.m. The Perfect Poison

Is it possible to create a poison that will kill only the target, no matter who else is exposed? Genetic engineering and personalized medicine may well collide in a perfect storm of individually targeted weapons rather than cures. What genetic markers would be most useful? What if you can target families or ethnic groups?

Saturday 1:00 p.m. Getting the Point

Understanding the pros and cons of the various points of view available to the storyteller.

Sunday 1:00 p.m. It Began with a Monster

200 years ago, Mary Shelley published the singular novel that set the stage for modern genre literature: Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. In the two centuries since the full-novel’s publication, Shelley’s Frankenstein has flourished as a touchstone for authors and filmmakers across the spectrum, carving out a mythos and a creative playing field to rival the legends of antiquity.

Sunday 5:30 p.m. Religion in Fantasy & Science Fiction

Where are the Gods and churches and when they exist, what purpose do they serve?

Monday 1:00 p.m. Creative Writing for Kids

Come and learn the six basic elements of a good story. Plenty of fun examples and some exercises to help new writers experience professional writing techniques.

 

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #23


by Lillian Csernica on May 23, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

A single conversation with a wise man is worth ten years of study.

 

Here are the Top Five Pieces of Advice I’ve received thus far:

“Keep the pen moving.” Andy Couturier, top notch writing teacher.

“Remember, it’s not about you.” My mental health pros explaining what motivates other people’s hurtful behaviors, especially Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Oy!

“Why is this happening NOW?” Darrell Schweitzer on the problem that starts a story.

“To combat depression, count your blessings every night by keeping a daily list in a journal, notebook, etc.” I can’t remember which of my therapists first suggested this idea. It’s advice I pass along frequently when I meet someone else struggling with depression.

“If your pain is getting in the way of your writing, maybe you need to make room in your writing for your pain.” The LCSW who was my therapist for the longest stretch, which included the worst disasters of my benighted life.

Yes, I have Major Depressive Disorder. Yes, I’ve been writing ever since I could hold a crayon. And yes, I’ve spent most of my life in cognitive behavioral therapy, starting at age 11 when my parents divorced and starting again in a big way when I was 28. I’m now 52, and frankly, there’s no end in sight.

So I follow Stephen King’s advice. “Read, read, read. Write, write, write.” Because, really, stories are what make life worth living.

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #22


by Lillian Csernica on May 22, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

It’s all right to have butterflies in your stomach.

Just get them to fly in formation.

 

And now, a little something from the True Story Archives.

Way back when I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher liked the way I gave my presentations. He had a talk with the coach of the speech and debate team. When my sophomore year started, I joined the team. This proved to be one of the smartest and most beneficial decisions of my life.

Public speaking is the number one phobia for three out of four people. Worse than spiders, worse that going to the dentist, people live in fear of getting up in front of an audience for the purpose of giving a speech. I understand this. When I first started putting together expository speeches and practicing in front of my coach and teammates, the absolute terror of doing a bad job and being laughed at for it was crippling. Knowing that everybody else who was in training shared my fear didn’t make it any easier.

If there’s one thing I can do well, it’s talk. Thanks to my coach training me and my mother, who listened to me practice over and over and over again as I memorized the ten minute speeches I gave, I got past the anxiety in my determination to remember how to use cross-focus, the precise gestures, and the right variations in tone and pitch. Giving a speech is a performance. Maybe I wasn’t doing Shakespeare, but that’s only because I didn’t spend much time in the Dramatic Interpretation event. (I did break Varsity there, but after that I concentrated on my stronger events.)

In my first year of competing at speech tournaments, I went down in flames a number of times. The competition was better, more polished, smoother in their delivery. OK. I just had to work harder. What I also had to do was find my best event. That’s when I discovered Impromptu speaking.

At the junior varsity level, we had five minutes to prepare, then five minutes total for our speech. At varsity level, we had only two minutes to prep. Talk about a strain on the nerves! What we had to base our speeches on varied widely. Most often we were given slips of paper with three famous quotations. We chose one and built our speech around it. At some tournaments, we were given fortune cookies, paper bags that held some random object such as a calculator, or even plastic Easter eggs with the Surprise Topic inside. The event required mental agility, flexibility, a vast pool of random knowledge, and a mastery of the different presentation structures one could use.

The first time I competed in Impromptu, I think I had a full blown anxiety attack. There I was, about to receive my slip of paper with the three subjects on it. With sweaty palms and my heart pounding, I almost had an asthma attack. And then I saw the two words that told me I was home free:

Horror movies.

As I’ve mentioned more than once, my grandfather helped build the set for the laboratory in the original Frankenstein movie with Boris Karloff. I’m a big fan of classic horror movies. The judge for this round was an older gentleman. When I started mentioning names such as Elsa Lanchester from Bride of Frankenstein and Lon Chaney from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, apparently I won the judge’s respect as well as his vote. His comments on the voting card I received after the tournament reflected his approval of someone my age (fifteen at the time), knowing those names.

Once I learned to get my butterflies flying in formation and overcame my fear of public speaking, I acquired a skill that has helped me in every aspect of my life.

 

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