#NaNoWriMo2022 is coming. 50,000 words in just thirty days. I am an eight year veteran of NaNoWriMo, and I still find the prospect of writing 1,667 words a day quite intimidating. I have number of works-in-progress underway, but this year I choose to start a new novel project. Where do I start?
For me it’s all about the characters. I have written plot-driven stories. (As a matter of fact, I found out just yesterday my latest plot-driven short story has been accepted by an anthology!) When I start a story, I tend to start in the middle of an argument between one main character and the antagonist or a minor character who gets chewed up and spat out. Open with conflict. Show the reader why the main character’s life has just been drastically complicated by the problem situation.
“The only good writing is intuitive writing. It would be a big bore if you knew where it was going. It has to be exciting, instantaneous and it has to be a surprise. Then it all comes blurting out and it’s beautiful. I’ve had a sign by my typewriter for 25 years now which reads, ‘DON’T THINK!’” Ray Bradbury
They key to writing from the heart of your character is to know what that character wants. Sometimes it’s more useful to know what the character does not want. People tend to make more of an effort to avoid something that will cause them pain, whether physical or emotional.
What’s ironic about this is how struggle makes a good story. The survival instinct might compel your main character to avoid what hurts. That’s sensible, but it makes boring reading. Throw your characters into the deep end and make them figure out how to swim. Characters have to learn something in the course of their character arcs. They have to change. If the main character is still the same person at the end of the story, that can be done to good effect, but most readers want to see that character fight hard, fight smart, risk everything, and win. That creates a satisfying reading experience.
Think of your character as a piece of iron hot from the forge. You put that red hot iron on the anvil and you beat on it until it takes on the shape of the tool you need. A wrought iron candle holder. A horseshoe. A sword. Beat on that character. Raise the stakes. Make it hurt. Heat and pressure will turn a lump of molten metal into a work of art.
When I was fourteen years old, my father got married for the third time. My mother had been wife number two. My parents divorced when I was eleven, so I guess you could say Daddy had observed an appropriate period of mourning for that failed marriage before he decided to take the plunge once again.
One of the many strange things about my father’s third marriage was the fact that I and my soon-to-be stepsister already knew each other. We were on the same volleyball team in high school. My stepsister had the unlikely name of America. People mostly called her Amy. She had long dark hair, big blue eyes, full lips, and a perfect figure. Amy reminded me of how Snow White might have turned out if she’d ended up on the beach in Santa Monica. She was gorgeous and she knew it. The third member of the package deal was my stepbrother Joseph, twenty-one and the black sheep of his family. Daddy put up with Joseph until the day he discovered Joseph had been growing marijuana in a garden shed out back. In 1979 people were a lot less tolerant of marijuana than they are now. Daddy kicked Joseph out. I was fine with that.
Preparations for the wedding included fittings for bridesmaid dresses made of yellow polyester. Sleeveless yellow polyester. In the heat of summer. Over the upper half of these sunny creations draped chiffon circles with a pattern of daisies and greenery. We also had to wear yellow garden hats with bands of similar chiffon. Somebody tall and willowy might have made that outfit look good. All I know is, I wasn’t tall enough and nowhere near willowy. These were the colors my stepmother-elect had chosen, so I did my best. Amy made the outfit look great.
Being a teenager who’d grown up in one dysfunctional family and knew she was about to join another, I had mixed feelings about this whole process. For one thing, my stepmother’s name was Amber. I had a thing for geology at the time. All I could think of was tree sap with bugs caught in it. Ancient bugs at that. Not the most maternal image. Also, Amber was short. That in itself wouldn’t have been a problem, but next to my father, she looked more like his daughter than his wife. Amber and I got along well enough, but then, I only saw her when I stayed at my father’s house on visitation weekends. I recall one day close to the wedding when I was sulking at my father’s house, having a serious internal hissy about refusing to call Amber “Mom.” I don’t know what I was so upset about. It’s not like anybody ever expected me to do that. I suppose we can chalk that one up to adolescence.
The wedding day itself was memorable for moments that have stayed with me like snapshots on my mental coffee table. All of us bridesmaids suiting up and trying to get those chiffon drape things to hang right. All the other women offering to do my makeup. They were all nice people, but in honor of the occasion they went a bit overboard. Makeup and I have never had a close relationship. I’ve worn it for the Prom, for my own wedding, and for a few other important occasions. Watching Amy go at it with enough palettes and brushes to fill a museum made me decline all offers. At that point in my life my father had never seen me wear makeup. Having overheard a few of Daddy’s comments about how trashy Amy looked when she went out on dates, I figured it would be a good idea to cause him one less shock on his wedding day.
The wedding took place in the Methodist chapel on a nearby military base. The guests were mostly people from my father’s workplace, where he’d met Amber. No family was present other than us kids due to Daddy’s people all being in Ohio. (As for Amber’s people, God only knows. I never have heard the definitive truth about her origins.) My father looked quite distinguished in his gray three-piece suit, yellow shirt, and yellow-striped tie. Amber wore a white wedding gown. I was still young enough to find that funny, but I was smart enough to keep my amusement to myself. I don’t know how they managed to find a wedding gown short enough for her. She had almost no waist. High heels and a long skirt that included a train can be a precarious combination. She did make it to the altar without tripping or falling. Amber’s bouquet was impressive, all red roses with babies’-breath and ferns. It made a rather dramatic contrast against her white gown. I had to wonder what possessed her to make us bridesmaids wear yellow and green. We looked like we’d wandered in from somebody else’s wedding.
I don’t remember a whole lot about the service itself, but I do recall wondering if my father was going to keel over. I’d never seen him look so nervous or emotional. At one point I thought Daddy might be in tears. This was really weird. My father had a temper, but he also had a sense of humor. To see this side of him came close to freaking me out. If this was the effect Amber had on him, was this marriage such a good idea after all? We all got through the service more or less intact. There were one or two people among the attendees who couldn’t help crying at weddings.
The reception gave me a perfect opportunity to observe all these people I’d never met before and would probably never see again. My father had been in AA for a good three years by then, but there was a no-host bar for the guests. The punch was that frequent concoction of ice cubes, tonic water and rainbow sherbet. Who came up with that? Why do people think it’s a good idea? It makes you burp and you end up with a frothy mustache. Not exactly the most chic way to party at an event as formal as a wedding.
After the speeches and cutting the cake, people settled down to socializing. I didn’t know what else to do with myself, so I kept busy getting people more coffee or cake and tidying up here and there. I noticed my newly official stepsister Amy didn’t care for the rainbow punch either. She was only eighteen, so she got my new stepbrother Joseph to buy her drinks. It soon became obvious Amy couldn’t hold her liquor. That she was holding any came as an unpleasant surprise to my father. Joseph had enough sense to stop buying her drinks, but by then she’d already been laughing too loudly and sitting slumped against him like some tart from a Victorian gin joint.
What really put the icing on this particular cake was the fact that other people in the wedding party started to notice Amy’s behavior. One of the older bridesmaids, a co-worker of Amber’s, called me over to where she sat at the head table. This lady announced in ringing tones that I was a real lady, behaving myself and helping out like a good hostess should. I suppose I ought to have been embarrassed, but I understood perfectly that she meant to point out Amy’s behavior by complimenting mine. Amy must have caught hell later for getting smashed at the wedding. One would think she’d have had a little more class given that her new stepfather was a recovering alcoholic.
At the end of the day, Daddy seemed to be happy, so that was what really mattered to me. That, and knowing that never again would I be forced to wear yellow polyester.
“When you nitpick, you focus on small, specific mistakes.” — Vocabulary.com
Writing about 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. There is one particular occupational hazard to becoming an historical writer. One can develop an obsession with historical accuracy that appears to people outside one’s own head as relentless nitpicking.
A good example is Scotland. Not the wealthiest of countries, Scotland 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, especially the kilt. I know a lot of people who have spent a great deal of time looking up their family tartans. When in the company of such people, I’ve learned to keep my knowledge of history to myself. The truth is, clan tartans are an invention of the Victorian period. This is one of those nasty facts that bursts the romantic bubble of many an amateur historian.
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 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. I find it one of history’s most humorous moments to see all that grandeur reduced to the 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 business available to produce cards very quickly with one side in English and the other in Japanese. Context is everything, and Japan is a high-context society.
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 Chilvary 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 more than once.
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. Love might be a nice side effect of marriage. Nobody expected it to be the whole point.
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, also found 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. Not a lot of romance there for me. I’m not fond of desert climates.
One of the most fascinating aspects of history is food. For the first romance novel I ever wrote, I had to go looking for Basque cookbooks because that novel is set in Navarre. I finally discovered what my heroine would have for breakfast: chestnuts boiled in milk and sprinkled with nutmeg. In Egypt the custom of having many festal days where the upper classes distributed beer and bread to the lower classes was based as much on pragmatism as piety. If not for that custom, many members of the lower classes in Egypt would have starved to death. 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 delights of chicken prepared with cinnamon.
Then there’s jewelry. I could go on and on about 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 carnelian combs of early Russia 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 with splendor and detail. I once had the pleasure of visiting the Smithsonian Institution and seeing the earrings of Marie Antoinette. I had to wonder how she avoided ending up with earlobes stretched like King Tut’s.
History is full of little questions like this, alongside the larger mysteries. And so with every novel I go exploring!
This was the first Inspector Alleyn novel I read. While clearly upper crust and possessed of impeccable manners, Alleyn brings a very pragmatic approach to his investigations. By that I mean he lets the suspects think he’s playing along with their nonsense while he seizes the available opportunities to gather the information he needs. Among the artists involved in this crime is Agatha Troy, a famous painter who captures Alleyn’s heart while he’s trying to figure out if she’s the one he has to arrest for murder. As the sixth case in the series, this story presents Alleyn in a new light with a depth of characterization that compelled me to read all thirty-two of his adventures.
The first of the Miss Marple novels, in this story I discovered the world of the quaint little English village and what a fierce combination of deceit, resentment, and violence seethes just below its proper public face. A cranky, abrasive churchwarden is shot in his office at the vicarage. A total of twenty-one characters dilute the main story a bit with subplots, but the red herrings do keep you guessing. The characters are so realistic and well-drawn I can read this book again and again.
Nordic Noir is quite a reading experience. Scandinavian landscapes, brooding police protagonists, and crimes of dark and twisted violence. I admit I wasn’t prepared for that last one. Even so, the brilliance of the writing and the intensity of the characters make for a thrilling read. Harry Hole is the Norwegian detective in Jo Nesbo’s series.
There’s trouble brewing in Uberwald, a dark, spooky country where power is split between the vampires, the werewolves, and the Low King of the Dwarves. A new Low King is about to take charge in a turn of events that will affect the reins of power all over the Disc. Lord Ventinari intends to protect the interests of Ankh-Morpork and its allies by sending Commander Sam Vimes of the City Watch. Vimes also happens to be a Duke, which makes him the perfect copper for the diplomatic mission. Vimes is anything but diplomatic, guaranteeing a bumpy time will be had by all. The plot concerns a theft that leads to murder surrounded by lies, lies, and more lies. Great stuff!
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Philip Marlowe’s first novel-length case takes him from blackmail and a gambling den to drugs, murder, and madness. General Sternwood hires him to solve the problem plaguing his younger daughter Carmen. The cynical way way General Sternwood talks about both Carmen and his elder daughter Vivian as corrupt and “having all the usual vices” signals just how far down such high class socialites can fall. The movie version starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is excellent, directed by John Huston with William Faulkner himself working on the script. Hollywood did sanitize the story a bit. For the complete story with every sordid detail, read the book!
The older I get, the more I realize how much I don’t know. Take love, for example. I don’t know much more about what love really is than I did when I was in elementary school. For me, love started out being this big exalted dream of perfect happiness, perfect harmony, and total devotion to each other. I think I got that from reading fairy tales. (Disney movies also have a lot to answer for.) Then I listened to what older girls said about their boyfriends. I got the impression that having a boyfriend was one of those Rules for Living that showed everybody else you knew what you were doing.
One night when I was nineteen years old, it was so bitterly cold my body heat wasn’t enough to warm up the sheets and blankets. I lay there alone, shivering and miserable, thinking if only I had boyfriend. If only I could find a boyfriend to keep me warm, inside and out. The intense desire to avoid another night like that one prompted me to do some pretty stupid things. As I look back at that cold night from the perspective of fifty-plus years, I can see that I could have saved myself all kinds of trouble if I’d just bought an electric blanket.
Ever since I met my first crush when I was in the grade, I thought the right guy was the solution to all my needs and problems. I don’t know how I got this idea. It must have been all those fairy tales, because I certainly didn’t learn it from my family. My grandparents got divorced twice and married three times. (It’s true. I have photos of two of the weddings.) My parents divorced when I was eleven. My older sister never has married. My brother had to divorce his first wife. Why on earth did I think attaching myself to some boy who probably had even less of a clue than I did would somehow result in that magical state called “true love”?
When I was on the debate team in college, the first rule was “Define your terms.” That way both the Affirmative and the Negative teams knew exactly what the Affirmative team meant by the resolution being debated. When it comes to the search for love, I think the same rule should apply. After all, the statement “I love you” can have several different meanings and those meanings often depend on context. Matchmakers, dating services, and our best friends all ask the same question, “What are you looking for in a partner?” This is where it starts to get really complicated. Does the resulting list of characteristics represent the idealized image of the person whom you want to fall in love with? Or does it represent the person whom you want to fall in love with you? Are you really looking for a healthy relationship based on mutual give and take, or are you looking for a human transitional object that will soothe your insecurities and pay for your evening entertainment?
At this point in my life, I can see that wanting this perfect person to fall in love with me meant more than just having a boyfriend so I could go out on dates. It meant proving to the world that I had achieved the ultimate validation, the concrete emotional evidence that I wasn’t a loser, I wasn’t the last person chosen during schoolyard games. I wasn’t cold, alone, and miserable anymore. That’s what I hoped. Life hasn’t worked out that way.
Right now there’s all that Easter candy out there on the shelves. Most of it is chocolate. As adults, we know which brands are better than others. We know how to compare them and get the most value for our money. This skill comes from time, maturity, and a lot of taste-testing. Kids are different. When it comes to chocolate, kids don’t care. In the Dollar Tree you can find the phrase “chocolate-flavored” on many of the Easter items. There’s no actual cacao, just a lot of artificial colors and flavors. Unfortunately, the same can be said of some people. In the quest for love, some of us who crave True Love, the Real Thing, can become so desperate they will settle for the off-brands that are cheap, flashy, and artificial. It’s so hard to resist the temptation for a quick fix that will silence those nagging cravings and insecurities. It took me a while to learn the importance of patience, of saving up for the quality chocolate and the quality people.
My mother had her opinions about my boyfriends. When I was in middle school and awash in all kinds of hormonal angst over whether or not I’d ever get a boyfriend, Mom said I was “boy crazy.” Accurate, if not all that flattering or sympathetic. Years later, after I’d graduated high school and had spent some adventurous years working the Renaissance Faires, Mom managed to sum up both the quality and the quantity of my efforts to find love: “Well, at least you won’t wonder what you might have missed out on.” Once again, neither flattering nor all that sympathetic. Thanks, Mom.
So now that I’m a woman of a certain age, do I really know any more about love than when I first started dating boys? I’ve been married for thirty-four years come July, but that’s less of a testament to romantic love than to maintaining a stable home life for my sons. In a world of uncertainties, I know three things for sure: I love my sons, I love my cats, and I love really good dark chocolate.
On Valentine’s Day I stopped at Safeway. The eleventh hour romance shopping was in full swing. On the big flower-giving holidays I tend to loiter around the bouquets and potted plants. There’s always somebody standing there looking perplexed. Thanks to writing in the Victorian period, I know a bit about the language of flowers. Now and then I offer a helpful suggestion.
I was about to take a shortcut down the beer aisle. There stood a husky fellow in shorts and a T shirt, contemplating the six-packs. In one hand he held a sad bunch of four red carnations. No fern, no babies-breath. Oh no. I was looking at a train wreck just waiting to happen.
Right about then the guy noticed me standing there. I apologized for staring, then flat out said my fairy godmother alarm was going off. The guy laughed. I told him I didn’t want to be rude or anything. I was just concerned because most people associate carnations with funerals.
The guy’s whole vibe changed. He turned pale. I was afraid I had offended him, so I started to apologize. He made a shushing gesture, thanking me up one side and down the other. His lady had lost her father recently. When he said that, I could see him remembering the flowers at that funeral.
About 20 minutes later I headed out to my car. Oddly enough, I crossed paths with the same guy again. Now he held one of the fancy mixed bouquets. He thanked me again, saying he “really thought this must have been a God thing.” The relief in his voice made me feel the same relief.
Writing is lonely work. We sit there and spend a big chunk of time with no company other than our imaginary friends. National Novel Writing Month is 30 solid days of writing, roughly 7 pages a day, all the way to 200 pages or 50,000 words.
That’s a long haul, even longer when you’re all by yourself.
I have written four novels during my years participating in NaNoWriMo. Believe me when I tell you more than once my Writing Buddies were the reason I made it all the way to the daily quota. I know how hard this is. Nobody understands a writer as well as other writers do.
On the NaNoWriMo site you can have official Writing Buddies. This is a great way to make new friends, meet new writers, and expand your network or, if you prefer, your tribe. It’s a wonderful feeling to log on, update my word total and seeing messages from my Writing Buddies in my NaNo mail. I cheer them on, they cheer me on, and we all race together toward the finish line.
A key element of #nanoprep is finding yourself some Writing Buddies. Here’s why:
Accountability — Stern word, right? It’s been proven that we will work harder to live up to other people’s expectations than we will just for our own good. When I know my Writing Buddies are waiting to see me post my daily word count, I can push past the excuses and avoidance behavior and the other self-defeating behaviors. That’s because having Writing Buddies creates a strong sense of community.
Comfort — Knowing that we are not alone does a lot to improve morale and keep us going in stressful circumstances. During NaNoWriMo I encourage the participants in my region to remember we’re all here to lift each other up and keep our writing spirits strong. During NaNoWriMo we strive to achieve our own goals, challenging ourselves to stretch a little bit farther each day.
Feedback — Comments from our fellow writers don’t have to come in the form of a critique. Some days we might get stuck. Other days we might get overrun by a herd of plot bunnies. In the forums on the NaNoWriMo site, writers of like mind and similar genres can look for the help they need. We can reach out to our Writing Buddies for comments and support.
Play — Writing 50,000 words in just 30 days sounds like hard work. It most certainly is. It can also be a whole lot of fun. Go to the Kick-Off Party. Go to the write-ins. Go to the Thank God It’s Over Party. Being part of an online community is great. Meeting fellow writers brought together by the courage to take on NaNoWriMo is even better. The joy of shared laughter will do a lot to recharge your writing batteries.
When all else fails, remember, caffeine is always there for you.
Hi there. I had to take a small break from blogging to keep up with some other writing commitments. An article for SEARCH Magazine, the latest critiques for my writers group, and a vigorous session at the coffeehouse with my personal journal. If I don’t write in the personal journal with reasonable frequency, internal pressures build up and I get way too stressed out.
Those of you who are in my general age range will recall those commercials that came on late at night during the really bad horror movies that showed on Channel 13 (I grew up in Southern California). The fast-talking salesman doing the voice-over would tell you all about the wonders of the chef’s knives for one low, low price.
But wait! There’s more!
The voice-over would throw in some amazing device that could peel carrots, slice spuds into French fries, and turn those radishes into roses. All for another rock bottom price!
But wait! There’s more!
Now and then you’d get the third tier offer which usually had to do with jewelry, sterling silver or 18k gold. You just dipped the item into the secret polish and out it came gleaming like the prize treasure from a dragon’s hoard.
I have completed the April 2019 A to Z Blog Challenge. So here I am looking for a May Blog Challenge. Any suggestions?
I could go with an official challenge, or I could devote this month to a subject that you wonderful people would like to see me discuss. I can cover anything in the subject areas I’m known for, or you can send me off on a new adventure.
What new & improved thrills would you like to see me provide here?
You are some mighty clever people. Can’t wait to see what you throw at me!
Writers spend a lot of their time thinking about their characters’ deepest yearnings.
Sure, the protagonist wants to solve the problem that sets the story in motion. What else is going on down in the deeper layers of the protagonist’s psyche? What unmet need drives that character onward?
There’s a school of thought in psychodynamics that says we marry a person who represents our parent of the opposite gender. Men marry their mothers, women marry their fathers. As we know, the gender spectrum is not binary, so this thinking is clearly behind the times. Still, take a good look at the spouse and children of a close friend, somebody you know well enough to know about their nuclear family and its dynamics.
See any patterns there? Any repetition of childhood scripts?
At this point in my life I read a lot less romance and a lot more murder mystery. What does that say about the kind of escapism I’m yearning for? I’ve lived too long to get caught up in the romance paradigm. These days I’m a lot more interested in knowing that by the end of the book, the mystery will be solved and the killer will meet some kind of justice.
I yearn for solutions. I yearn for the power to stop arrogant maladjusted people from getting away with murder. I yearn for an orderly, well-mannered, peaceful world.
I'm a professional writer living in Northern California with my husband and two sons. Fantasy in various forms is my reading and writing pleasure. I'm a history buff, a Japanophile, and I love to learn about language(s). I enjoy making jewelry, using natural materials such as wood, bone, semiprecious stones, and seashells. I collect bookmarks and wind chimes.