Friday’s Writing Tip

I’m happy to announce the words “the end” were typed on the first book in a new mystery series based in the 1920s entertainment industry. Switching from my comfort zone of the Phee Jefferson series to a historical mystery stretched my librarian research skills and my writing.

Today’s tip involves editing. Once you finish your first draft, walk away and DO NOT look back… at least for a week or two. Here’s why. You have marinated in your characters’ lives and your plot for months, possibly years, and they have become your children. You need some distance to recognize their flaws. Ask my grown sons. Now that they are out of the house, I can recognize them as separate entities with lives and personalities of their own. Your novel characters are the same. They need some distance. Some breathing room. Once you’ve had the break, go back and look at your manuscript with fresh eyes. Remember, you want your children (and your novel) to have a personality and life story separate from your own.

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The new normal

Ch-ch-changes are certainly happening here in the United States and around the world. I now work from home (telelibrarianing is my new made up word), and like many of us, I must define what that means.

I’m an elementary school librarian by day and author by night. This week, Governor Northam closed all Virginia schools for the remainder of the academic year. While not unexpected, the shock and grief I felt knowing I would not see my beloved students again this year was the proverbial “punch in the gut.” I can’t comprehend what this will mean for students and their families, but I am sure that the amazing teachers I work with will help ease the transition to an online learning environment.

For my writing practice, this additional time at home will eliminate the excuse of “my day job gets in the way of my writing job.” Not having a commute, not needing to gussy myself up for work, or prepare a lunch to take with me has freed up additional time in my day. It can be dedicated to my writing craft if I make that concerted effort to use it. Otherwise, binge watching Netflix or Hulu can easily suck me into the hole of laziness.

I have a stack of half-finished books, craft projects, and stories that have been making me feel guilty from the corner of my creativity room. With this newly found time, I’ll need to guard against feeling I have to complete them all. Some of those projects may continue to sit and I need to be okay with that decision.

Confession time. For months, I would start and stop working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I found writing my three morning pages daily helped clear my mind of the debris which blocked my creativity. When life got a little busy, I set the journal aside. (I’m seeing a trend. Maybe I should add perseverance as a life goal!) With no rush to leave the house in the morning, I can finish working through Cameron’s notebook and define my path for creativity.

I’m hoping that you all are taking a moment to acknowledge the small blessings in the midst of this world tragedy. Each day take a moment to be mindful of the positives in your life. Step away from your phone, your television, and your social media on occasion, so you aren’t overwhelmed with the negative.

If you’re taking this time to embrace the artistic side of life, I encourage you to read The Artist’s Way. A classic for creatives, it helps you find your purpose, as well as gives you the tools to change your creative practice.

I’d love to hear what you’re doing to practice self-care and how you are tapping into your creativity. I hope you all stay safe, stay healthy, and wash your hands!

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My hands are old. As I stick my hand in the hot water to wash the fragile wool fleece, my hands blur under the water, and for just a moment, I am young again. The illusion quickly fades when I pull my soap-covered hands from the water and dry them. Craft is aging them, but I’m glad. In a world that caters to the young, fresh, and instant, old hands earned through craft have value.

A friend commented that she doesn’t understand my love of washing, combing, and spinning fleece into beautiful yarns. “You can just go to the craft store and buy it,” she said.

She’s right, but she’s also wrong. As the fiber slips through my fingers and winds onto the bobbin, it forms a connection to the past. I create the same motions and feel the rhythm of the pedals like generations of women before me. Women who had to craft in order to clothe their families. Women who felt the mean pinch of winter on their skin when they walked out to the barn to feed their flock of sheep but knew the importance of keeping their animals alive – for food, for clothing, and for love.

So I’ll take these hands and know that while I don’t face hardships like those who crafted before me, I can honor them. I can maintain the link to the past and those artisans whose hands are old like mine.

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Writing a series

Writers may use several methods for tracking their characters and plot lines for a series. Some prefer Scrivener or spreadsheets to track their story. Others, myself included, are Luddites and stick to notebooks chock full of notes and research.

When I write a novel, I create what I affectionately call my “murder book.” I have the printed pages of the novel that need editing in the front followed by a tab for each character. With each character, I list their role, relationships with others in the novel, motive for murder (if a suspect) and other supporting details. I have a tab for the victim and how each person relates to him/her. I have a tab for the crime itself and all clues that need to be revealed throughout the novel in order for the detective (and the reader!) to solve the crime.

Chapter One of Murder at the Bijou Theater

I create a sketch of the town, or if it is a real location, I include a map of the area. For example, I’m currently working on a 1920s mystery set in Richmond. I printed out a map of the city from that time period. I also found a home in Zillow that is similar to where my main character, Evie, would have lived in as a middle class woman in 1922. I printed pictures of the interior and use that as a guide for writing scenes.

Next, I have a tab for slang, clothing, cars of the 1920s, and other relevant research so that I can easily reference the information.

Newspaper article for research

Article from 1922 Richmond Times-Dispatch

My murder takes place in a theater that is now the home of the Library of Virginia. I had a difficult time locating interior shots of the theater before it was torn down. I contacted the state archives, and an archivist found blueprints from a theater that was nearby and sent me photographs of the prints so I could understand what the interior layout might have been. Those photos are now printed and in the murder book.

My final tab is for plain college-ruled notebook paper. This is where I can scribble ideas and keep track of them for later inclusion in the novel.

I’m always fascinated by authors’ various methods of writing and compiling information and notes. I hope this gives you a small glimpse into the world of a mystery writer.

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