The one question every writer must ask (channeling your inner Columbo)

Paula’s Post #102

If you’ve been following this blog for some time, you’ll know by now that we 5writers have covered a lot of ground since the inception of our blog. Mostly about writing fiction and the various sub-topics encompassed within that general heading. In other words, not only about the process of writing itself, but also about the many obstacles and distractions that keep us from writing as often or as prolifically as we may wish.

When this blog ‘debuted’ back in September 2012, our original challenge was for the 5writers to simply ‘commit’ to trying to write a novel in just 5 months while blogging about the experience. One blog post for each 5writer, published on successive days of the week.

My day is Tuesday.

By the time our original challenge ended, however, we discovered that we’d become so heavily invested in this blog in terms of time and effort, we knew we wanted to keep it alive, even if the immediate focus (our writing challenge) had concluded.

Now, this has not always been easy. If you’re a blogger yourself, you’ll also know what we’ve all discovered: the beast must be fed.

Without the underlying suspense of our initial challenge, we discovered that our enthusiasm (and I suspect the interest and curiosity of many of our readers) occasionally began to wane. We suspect some of our original followers lost interest (those who were more interested the ‘drama’ of the challenge rather than our efforts to become better writers), but we gained others who, like us, were students of the craft of writing, trying to hone our skills.

Without a central focus, our post topics have started to diverge wildly. Sometimes, we’d manage to riff off a common theme. More often than not, we just tried to think up something ‘interesting’ to blog about, often at the 11th hour.

Which is why this past Christmas season saw me conjure up my personal list of the “Top 10 gifts for writers“:

1. The Gift of a Writers Group;

2. The Gift of Books;

3.The Gift of Travel;

4. The Gift of Experiential Activities…


What the heck?

Did I lose you at number 4?

When I wrote this list a few months ago, I wanted to make the point that aspiring writers shouldn’t just hole up in some dark and dingy writer’s garret, but instead ought to get out there and experience some of life’s crazier moments. My suggestion: why ‘make things up’ if you are able to interview some experts and gain genuine knowledge necessary to write convincingly about the fictional world you are creating. Back in December, I put it this way:

4. The Gift of Experiential Activities.

We are writers. We ‘imagine’ things. But our craft demands that no matter what our imagination envisions, it must be compelling and believable. This is especially true for crime writers. So what are you waiting for? Get off your duff and get out there, don’t just sit in your office playing solitaire or doing the NY Times crossword puzzle every day. If your hero drives a twin turbo, supercharged Bentley Continental GTS, don’t just look at a pic of it on the internet. Head out to the dealership and take a look for yourself. Maybe they won’t let you actually test drive it, but you’ll at least get to explore the touch and smell of the buttery leather seats and maybe sit in the driver’s seat and check out the instrumentation. Or maybe you need to try skeet shooting, or downhill skiing, or bungee jumping (hey, this is your book, not mine). My point is that, to be a better writer, don’t just make it up. Try it out! Not only will your writing be more authentic, the thrill of the ‘experience’ may also inspire fresh enthusiasm to make the scene the very best it can be.

Believe it or not, when I wrote this, I was not just ‘making stuff up’ in order to find something to write about in the blog. To the contrary, I believed then as I do now (and am sure my 5writer colleagues agree) we all need to leave the garret once in awhile and get out there in the real world.

Which is why we’ve blogged about:

i) the need to actually experience things for ourselves, such as the the look and feel of firearms (Karalee’s post #6 ‘Shoot ’em up‘ posted after a trip to Las Vegas);

ii) the need to find inspiration in real life ‘characters’ that have informed and inspired our writing (see Helga’s post #29, Quirkey to the Max, a loving homage to her father, on the anniversary of his passing);

iii) the need to develop ‘people skills’. More specifically, the skill of interviewing people in order to acquire much needed information that will enrich our writing and story (see my post #77- Just Ask).

Which gets me in a round about way to the title of this blog post and the need to channel your inner Lt. Columbo and get up the nerve to ask “Can I ask you something?” as that wily detective managed to do in almost every episode.

Yesterday, in the midst of negotiations for the sale of one of my listings here in California, while also caught up in a whirlwind of post-moving chaos… my new puppy… my tennis practice, upcoming parties, and impending houseguests, I decided to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time.

I asked a friend if I might interview them for this blog.

My friend, you see, is a retired Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff.

Cool, huh?

Just imagine the reaction of 5writer colleague Joe (his novel Desert Rains is set in the high desert of California and involves the adventures of P.I. Lou Rains and a most capable and beautiful Deputy Sheriff).

Yes Joe. This is gonna be good!

And guess what?

My friend said yes!

The interview is on!

But where to start? So many things a writer would want to know:

What was training at the Academy like?

Can you tell me about your class?

Do you read detective fiction and, if so, what do you think of the way cops are portrayed?

Does your back ache from the weight of a fully loaded utility belt at the end of a 12 hour shift?

Did it get lonely out there? Alone in your unit. Were you scared sometimes?

If so, how did you deal with those emotions?

I had my questions planned out, baby! And man, did this interview rock!

…. but, you’ll have to stay tuned until next week to learn more about ‘the interview’ with the Sheriff and some pretty surprising revelations about building characters.

And character.

The tech-savvy writer

2013_4$largeimg229_Apr_2013_114340717Helga’s Post # 108 —

As I prepared to write this post, I had a quick look at where our blog followers are located. As it happens, we are spread out across the continents. While the majority of our followers live in the US and Canada, a good number are in the UK and Australia, and a sprinkling in some other EU countries and Asia.

Geography, or distance, as it happens, becomes less important every year, even month. Our global community grows and gets closer and tighter with each improvement of social media and new applications. It’s an awesome concept to realize it only takes nano-seconds to link us across countries and continents to share what’s happening on our beautiful planet.

I was reminded of this two days ago, at the Indian Wells tennis tournament of all places. We were waiting with great anticipation for Serena Williams to start playing the semi-final with Simone Halep from Rumania. Suddenly, 43,000 shocked visitors watched as Serena appeared courtside, dressed not in her tennis outfit but a tracksuit to announce she has withdrawn due to a knee injury. I immediately texted family 2,000 miles away in Vancouver, only to hear back that they already knew. Even my son, who works on a boat that was somewhere in the Pacific with only satellite connection, knew the moment it happened.

This is how things have changed, even from a couple of years ago. Kids now grow up knowing how to text before they learn how to tie their own shoelaces. Not only texting. Applications abound to send pictures and sound clips without incurring a single penny of charges. Not so terribly long ago (in our techno world) we welcomed Skype as the manna from heaven to meet our communication need forever after. Still nice to have, but already overtaken by others.

I remember, years, no a few decades ago by now, how I communicated with my parents. I had immigrated to Canada from Austria and started a family a couple of years later. That was before computers and Internet. My contact with my parents in Vienna was limited to handwritten letters sent by post, occasionally augmented with grainy black-and-white Polaroid photos. Years later, our first phone call. The next one a year after. Only one call per year, at Christmas, as the cost was prohibitive. For comparison, one call, chatting for about ten minutes, cost about half a month’s salary.

Then our communication moved to a higher level: I recorded tapes on a Dictaphone and sent them by mail. Shortly after, my parents were able to visit as air travel to Vancouver became less cumbersome. Flight time was now about 15 hours compared to 27 that necessitated a stopover in Iceland!

More visits followed. Computers, Internet, Skype, Face Time, all came into play. Sadly though, my parents never did progress to high-tech, relying on other family members to physically print out my emails and photos. Though my dad tried his best and bought a computer, only to play Solitaire and a few other simple games. He did not connect to Internet because he worried about hackers! The best I was able to do for them was put hundreds of photos on memory sticks and mail them in bubble envelopes.

And the link to writing is?

We live in a state of flux and it affects every aspect of our lives, whether we wish it to be so or not. It also affects how we write and more importantly, how we make sure what we write is true to the technology for the time it was written.

This is a tricky beast. You finish the first draft of a novel, then a second and perhaps third, and finally you have a polished, marketable product. Your manuscript is ready to meet the world. If you decide to submit the traditional way it may take a long, long time. More likely, given statistics, the time never comes and your treasured manuscript gathers dust beneath your bed. So you might decide on self-publishing. Even that takes time. Tons of time. (I wrote a post about it a while back ‘Is trying to get published a time waster?’) The multitude of tasks you are suddenly saddled with until your book gets out to the world could be considerable.

And then your book finally sits on shelves, or more accurately, on Amazon’s or similar virtual shelves. Your book that you thought was the absolute trendsetter, whose writer was totally familiar with cutting edge technology. Time to break out the Veuve Clicquot (or lesser bubbles, depending on budget).

But that cutting-edge technology that was part of your plot is already passé. It’s suddenly boring.

What’s a writer to do in this fast-spinning techno world?

It’s not a problem for some genres. Romance novel readers are more interested in consummation than technical accuracy. Historical novels need to have their facts straight though, as do suspense, mystery and literary fiction writers. Nothing sinks a book faster than having their characters use a technology that didn’t exist at the time, or vice versa, NOT using it when it was already in wide use. Readers become ever more techno-savvy. They WILL notice.

So this is just one more aspect of writing we need to pay attention to. We know that character development takes center stage. We focus on it sometimes so much so that we neglect or don’t give other aspects the attention and respect they deserve. But a novel is multi-dimensional. Like an orchestra playing a symphony, it needs many parts. A soloist without the other players to back him up hardly makes for interesting listening (to my ears at least; music experts may disagree).

You, the writer, are the conductor of your orchestra. You make your characters dance to your tune. Like a conductor who chooses the music that is to be played at a concert and decides how it should be played – loud or soft, fast or slow, you do the same thing – deciding on voice of your characters and tempo of the plot.

So while we have control over this part of our writing, keeping up with trends in our fast-paced world is a challenge we can’t afford to ignore. It needs research and perhaps a keen outside eye if you’re not savvy enough yourself.

As for me, I’ll try to walk the middle line after a mistake I made not so long ago. I unwisely chose a topic for a historical novel that took an inordinate time for research. How about a story around the limited nuclear test ban treaty of the late Fifties between Eisenhower and Khrushchev?

Ah, the errors of a novice. But I can tell you all about the secret Soviet nuclear cities. How is that for a sexy topic?

Internet, your writing friend and foe

Karalee’s Post #108

I’m back from holidays, energized and full of new ideas and ways of looking at my characters. For me a holiday is a change of routine, a gift of time to explore.

And exploring can be anything you want it to be, from bungee jumping to simply sleeping in and reading a new book or rereading a favorite book only to discover something new about it.

My husband and I chose to have a holiday on land on Martinique for a few days before joining friends on their catamaran for the rest of our time away.

The choice was great. On land we were happy campers, driving to see the sights and having the luxury of a somewhat consistent internet connection when back in our hotel room. We could keep up with email and Facebook, etc. Writing was still an option without resorting to pen and paper.

We were away, but not getting away from it all!

Then, when we stepped onto the boat, all our internet connection was pay-as-you-go through my husband’s phone. In effect I was cut off cold-turkey.

At first it didn’t bother me. A couple of days went by with me catching up on sleep, visiting with our friends, playing board games, eating/drinking, and reading real books. Oh, I got the pen and paper out too, and jotted down some ideas.

In effect, I was okay being disconnected from the www.

Then some withdrawal signs crept in. My routine was disrupted. I was used to checking my email and seeing what was up on Facebook. I was used to looking up stuff on the internet.

I wanted access.

And with access denied, my desire was compounded. It made me realize how much time I spend on the internet on a regular basis. Time that used to be spent reading, visiting and interacting with real people, and even doing stuff like cleaning my house and working in the garden. Or writing!

Yeah, writing!

Every day still has 24 hours, so no time to spend on the internet meant I had to do other stuff. It’s refreshing not to be “interrupted” from reading. I read different books, like What Would a Buddha Do? and Living in Gratitude. Guidebooks were pulled out and books on the birds and fauna. I took more time to meditate and roll on my ball to help my back pain (not because I was bored, rather it’s something I normally avoid).

My time was spent visiting, playing games, swimming, cooking and eating, and cleaning up. And reading before sleeping and again when waking.

What pleasure!

I had forgotten how awesome it is to have an old-fashioned holiday!

I wonder how many of us really disconnect from the pull of the internet when we take time off?


Writing Progress: I have had a personal breakthrough in flushing out theme in my writing and I’m looking forward to paying attention to this aspect not only regarding my protagonist’s story, but how my secondary characters’ stories fit in too. Back to writing routine too!

Fun stuff happening: Our middle son is graduating from UBC next month. We’re planning a big party before he takes off traveling May until August. To be young again…

Treats eaten: too many on holidays. Back to less of everything!

Perspective Photos:

boat and nets















Happy writing.


Looting your life

Joe’s Post #134

timmiesSo there I was, sitting at my computer, drinking a Timmies double-double, trying to add a few characteristics to my character (to, you know, flesh him out a bit), when three things occurred to me.

1) Timmies coffee is brain food. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

2) Creating amazing fictional characters is hard. It may not seem like it, but avoiding shallow, cliched characters takes time, some thinking and a lot of work.

3) Why create fictional characters at all when you can draw from people in your own life (or even other fictional ones, but that’s another blog entirely.)

It was the #3 that really got me thinking. Since I have lived a life of utter normality, I had to look farther afield. But if you lived an amazing life, use that. I know some of our 5/5/5 have had extraordinary lives that they could easily draw upon. Just not me.

So, I looked back to someone in my life who I really admired, someone who I dearly wish was still alive today. My dad.

battling dragonsI was pretty young when he passed so I never got a chance to really hear about his life from him. Sadly, at 13, you just don’t care that much about what your parents did or didn’t do. They exist only as your parents. They never had sex. They never had their hearts broken. They never went on adventures or committed crimes or battled dragons.

Now my dad never battled dragons, at least that I know about, but he did have a life, and it’s sometimes not the large things that make up a life, but the small. My dad had lost his sense of smell after working in a slaughter house for 2 years. He could only smell a few things and those things he could smell, he loved. Like the smell of hot tar.

Who loves the smell of hot tar?

I looked back at what foods he loved, at what he did as a young man (he played the bass in big bands), at who he hated and why. I looked at the mementos he kept and the pictures that were taken of him.

london burningSure, his experience in WWII shaped a lot of who he became, but there were so many other little things that made up who he was as a person. He took in homeless boarders, lost souls who needed guidance, young men who just needed someone to believe in them. He felt he was repaying a debt to someone who had taken him in when he’d come to Canada, penniless and desperate. He’d write ‘Grandma Ag’ (Agnes) every week like he wrote his mom.

Such things great characters are made of. The debts, the loves, the hates, the small joys, the big laughs, the things he would keep in a cluttered desk drawer.

So, I’ll mine a few things from my dad’s life, as much to honor him as to make a really good character. When you read about Kurt Yager, or any of my male protagonists, know that there is a little bit of my dad in them.


Best show last week – Went and saw a movie with the Prettiest-girl-in-the-world –  Something we haven’t done for a long while. We saw the Kingsmen. Wow. I mean, wow. Imagine if Quentin Jerome Tarantino made a Bond movie. Violent. Funny. Massively engaging.

Book that I’m reading at the moment –  Shadow’s Edge. Brent Weeks. About half way through. The stakes are rising, but as a writer, the interesting thing is that he’s now spending about 1/2-1/3 of the book on other POV characters. Not a bad move, but interesting. I mean, why get tied down to just one?

Pages written on new book  Worked on my main character. Hence the blog. From character flows plot, right?

Social media update – Still blogging on my step-dad site about my experience as a chaperone on a grade 7 camping trip.  I have to blog about something terrifying today.

Health  Functionally deaf at the moment due to another ear infection. F*ing hell.

Best thing last week  Date night and movie with the Prettiest-girl-in-the-world.

Worst thing  My laptop being fixed. Damn you Word. Why won’t you work properly?

Links to other writers and bloggers to check out….

marieMarie Lavander – A very well done site, and only 1 of 3 she has running!


jodiJodie Llewellynwho really doesn’t need my help with promotion as she has an amazing 75,000 page views, 8,000 comments, and 6,000 followers!!!!! Wow!!!



The tricky art of mixing fact and fiction

Silk’s Post #124 — What do writers of historical novels and writers of modern, ripped-from-the-headlines stories have in common? Not much, you might think. But, surprisingly, two books whose story worlds may be separated by oceans of space and centuries of time often share a unique challenge – and it’s a big one.

Historical novelists must accurately, or at least believably, write about the no-longer-observable past. Depending on how far back in time the novel is set, the story world may be entirely alien to the author and reader, requiring as much imagination to envision as a science fiction setting on another planet. But at least history is documented. All it takes is research – albeit sometimes a lot of laborious research – to recreate the story world.

Writers of ripped-from-the-headlines novels have the advantage of writing about a world in which they actually live – or at least can visit in person, research through contemporaneous reporting, and learn about through interviews with living people. This can still take a lot of time and effort, but it’s a very different exercise.

Here’s where the writers in these two different genres find themselves in exactly the same boat: their stories are set in real places, at real times, referencing real events, where real people play roles side-by-side with fictional characters.

The happy part: the writers can find out all the facts that make their story worlds “real” through research and/or direct experience.

The scary part: so can everyone else.

In other words, writing that mixes the imaginary with the actual will be checked. Whether it’s religious scholars debunking the authenticity of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code historical religious references, or military spook experts nitpicking Tom Clancy’s gizmo-laden weaponry and black-ops tactics, stories that deeply depend on a framework of real-world fact to support their fictional narrative and characters must tread a fine line.

a-million-little-piecesThe proportion of reality to fiction is probably the first deliberate decision that must be made. The spectrum is wide. On the literal end of the scale is the newly-named genre “creative non-fiction,” which tells a “true” story but tinkers with inconvenient facts for dramatic purposes. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, an Oprah Book Club selection, was famously slammed for being a memoire with undeclared fictional elements. More recently, the Oscar-nominated film Selma, which chronicles the recent (and still sensitive) history of minority voting rights, upset some critics when its narrative strayed from the true sequence of events.

argoAnother Oscar-winning “ripped-from-the-headlines” film, Argo, which was written for the screen, chose a strongly America-centric point of view to tell the story of the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis. The film has been widely criticized for historical inaccuracies, and for downplaying or misrepresenting the roles of the Canadian, British, and New Zealand embassies (the freeing of the American hostages after 444 days in captivity was called “the Canadian Caper” in the media at the time, as well as in a 1981 TV-movie). Not surprisingly, Argo was banned in Iran, where it was reviled as “the hoax of Hollywood”. Subsequent to Argo’s release in 2012, a Canadian documentary, Our Man in Tehran, was produced to “set the record straight.” Thus, while Argo was billed as a true-to-life dramatization, there are a lot of folks who would put it in the “creative non-fiction” category.

But creative non-fiction tells stories of actual people and events – in a more dramatic (and perhaps entertaining) narrative style than straight documentaries. What about placing fictional characters into a historic or contemporary context, and telling their made-up personal stories alongside the real-life stories of actual people and events?

There’s a huge range of fiction-to-fact mixes possible. And this is where it all gets murky.

In part, the choice depends on whether you’re using the real-life context and events mainly to tell the story of a fictional protagonist – or whether the aim is to faithfully tell the story of the real-life events by using a fictional protagonist to be our “eyes”. In the first case, the real people and events are background, while the story of the fictional protagonist is foreground; the protagonist’s point of view is personal, and may or may not be accurate. In the second case, you’re counting on the fictional character to be a reliable narrator, and there’s probably more need to demarcate the fact from the fiction: some things did happen, in exactly the way described, while other things did not happen, but realistically could have.

wolf-hallOr, you could just say the hell with it, and write about the real people in the story as though they were just part of your cast of fictional characters – giving them feelings, thoughts, relationships and actions right out of your imagination (and research). Think Wolf Hall, the Man Booker Prize-winning historical novel by Hilary Mantel, which portrays the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of King Henry VIII.

Of course, the closer you get to contemporary times – the ripped-from-the-headlines type of story – the riskier it is to “fictionalize” real people. Especially characters that readers already have a strong personal opinion about – be they heroes or villains. For instance, you probably don’t want to say anything mean about Pope Francis, or anything complimentary about Adolf Hitler. Unless you’ve been really despondent about your empty mailbox.

A poorly conceived mix of fact and fiction in your contemporary, ripped-from-the-headlines novel can also take you to the shores of the stormy Sea of Litigation. For instance, if you’re considering an unauthorized, fictionalized biography of a living person, might as well just go ahead and retain a lawyer right now. The risks include defamation, invasion of privacy and misappropriation of the right of publicity. Check lawyer and writer Helen Sedwick’s website for more on this topic.

In my (possibly paranoid) opinion, it’s also risky to muck about with potentially explosive revelations that cross the line between fiction and fact, whether they appertain to national security, sex habits of the rich and famous, dark corporate secrets, political scandals, or anything else that might make a real, live, super rich, not-too-scrupulous person apoplectic. But perhaps I’ve been watching too much TV.

As novelists, we all mix fact and fiction in our stories. It’s inevitable. Even science fiction and fantasy genres create their worlds on similarities and contrasts with normal old reality. Richly atmospheric novels draw readers into the story world by bringing life, detail and significance to real places, things and circumstances. But there’s a difference between simply bringing realism to the time and place of a story setting, and using real events and people as integral parts of the narrative.

It’s tricky, especially for fiction writers who strive to use imaginary stories to express some essential truth. We want to illuminate, not obscure. Lead, not mislead.

In our overstimulated, chaotic information age – where we’re all force-fed a steady diet of uncurated stories in print, on screen, and online – it seems the line between fact and fiction has become increasingly blurred and contorted. Sometimes I find myself wondering whether that line is in danger of completely disappearing, and what that would mean for the future of concepts like “trust” and “truth”.

So I like to keep track of that line between fact and fiction. Especially in my own writing.

Reading is the best medicine

Joe’s Post #133

Good readsActually, I should say reading good books is the best medicine.

In my newly busy life, I’ve found it hard to carve out time to read (and write, but, ah, yeah, let’s not talk about that). However, for any writer anywhere, especially if you’re in a writing funk as us 5/5/5ers seem to be, then books are the answer.

Why not TV? TV is awesome and fun and easy to do. But that’s exactly why it’s good escapism, but bad for your writing health. Oh, it may give you a few good ideas about story or character or even some pretty visuals, but nothing beats words actually entering your head from your eyes.

But books do take time. I’ve never been a speed-reader so I tend to avoid War and Peace-size books and gravitate towards the ones that are about 400-500 pages. Oh sure, tomes like Game of Thrones sneaks in (you know what, I have to confess I have a soft spot for super chubby fantasy books – 800 pages ones) but mostly what I read can be read in a week.

If I take the time.

Kardashians! Not Cardassians!!!!

Kardashians! Not Cardassians!!!!

So these last few weeks, I’ve made a greater effort to make the time. I’ve not watched Survivor or hockey or anything to do with the Kardashians (not that I ever did). I’ve tried to go to bed a little earlier so I can have time to read.

And it’s working. By reading words well written, I’m getting inspired with ideas and characters and locations and all of that writing stuff. It’s the first step to recovery, I think. It’s that step that hopefully gets me back to the love of writing.

Ah, the Martian Chronicles. So good.

Ah, the Martian Chronicles. So good.

Hey, think back. What inspired you to write? Odds are it was another book. For me, it was grade 7. Mr. Moore’s class. He read to us Ray Bradbury and all I wanted to do was run home and write about martians and aliens. I still do in some way.

Now, however, I have all these voices in my head that say I can’t do this or I can’t sell that. I have to find a way to deal with those voices, but in the meantime, I’m returning to the beginning. To how I got started.

To reading.

So what books inspired you to write?


Best show last week – As per the post, I didn’t watch much but I did spend an hour with Battle Creek. Funny show. Created by the dudes who made Breaking Bad and it features a gung-ho FBI agent sent to a bankrupt small town.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Finished Brent Weeks. The Way of Shadows, and his next book, Shadow’s Edge. I’m on his last one now.

Pages written on new book  Got 20 fun pages done on characters. Does that count? Probably not, but again, it’s better than nothing.

Social media update – 1 blog every 2 days on my step-dad site about my experience as a chaperone on a grade 7 camping trip.  Fun times, let me tell you. Check it out.

Health  OMG, finally better. Dare I say I’m in good health or am I tempting fate to give me another infection.

Best thing last week  Well, it was actually on March 8th, but my best friend got married. Congratulations Sheila and Gord. Beautiful wedding.

Worst thing  My laptop has problems, again. Grrrrr. I have a loop of word file syncs that somehow shuts down my computer.

The Write Stuff – part 3: re-kindling the fire

Paula’s Post #101 – 

Almost midnight in the garden of good and evil. AKA the Coachella Valley. More familiarly, Palm Springs, the storied desert playground. And if this is Tuesday, it must mean I have exactly 33 minutes to get my blog post up in cyberspace.

Piece of cake, baby.

No, I have not reformed. I’m still beyond distracted by work, tennis, golf, charitable events, book club, reading, friends, husband and oh – did I mention moving and unpacking? My teething puppy? The 95 degree heat? The BNP Paribas Openthe tennis world’s unofficial fifth major?

Not a laundry list that is particularly conducive to serious writing. Why, today… rushing around like a chicken with missing anatomical parts, I actually through (oops, another case of homonymanitis) I mean ‘threw’  two rather large checks (or for my anglophone friends ‘cheques’) in the big round filing cabinet. Aka the trash can.

But guess what?

I don’t care (and not just because I figured out what a nitwit I’d been and recovered the checks/cheques).

You see, ever since I posted Part I of this rather personal and rambling missive two weeks ago (The Write Stuff (part I) aka “Houston, we’ve got a problem”) I’ve felt a strange sense of liberation.

Two weeks ago, I knew I had a problem. I wasn’t writing and hadn’t been for a long time. Wasn’t even really faking it anymore.

Then last week, in The Write Stuff – Part 2 I followed up with what some may have uncharitably viewed as a bit of a ‘blow off’ post. A celebration of sorts (over finally saying ‘no’ to something, but also a wee pat on the back for the milestone of clocking my 100 blog post). The latter achievement I’m justifiably proud of, even as ‘hare’ in this pack of 5writers.

But last week’s post had a more serious component, too (though, of course, coming from me, you may have wondered if it was all a bit tongue-in-cheek when I started musing about 12 step programs for wayward writers and, in particular, the need to admit you have a problem).

But guess what?

It’s working.

Since last week’s admission of same, I’ve felt energized! And while in a busy week, chock full of commitments and activities, I haven’t made much progress on my actual writing, I have been thinking (yes, thinking) about how to metaphorically dust myself off and start all over again.

If you’re familiar with 12 step programs (personally or referentially), you’ll know that Step 2 is based on looking to a ‘higher power’ as a means to restore one’s sanity.

But what, pray tell, does that mean for lapsed writers?

Darned if I know.

Except for this one small thing. I used to love reading and writing, and lately… not so much. I want to get back to being that person caught up in ‘story’ both reading and writing. I need to find a way to capture that euphoric enthusiasm.

Now, my 5writer colleague Joe is all about identifying a character’s ‘wants and needs’ in order to make fiction more compelling. Fact or fiction, I don’t know if I’m on the right track or not with this, so help me out with your own ideas – but for me, I think I’m looking at a ‘back to basics’ approach.

Discovering what first ‘kindled’ my love of story. Of mystery. My dreams of being a writer. Looking back to when I was say, five or six years old, and my mother read the Hardy Boys to us as the moths swarmed overhead and we slapped away mosquitos under starry summer skies at our summer cabin. Or a year two later, when at seven or eight I started reading Nancy Drew mysteries on my own.

But how can I dial back the clock now? Today, in the midst of the desert, when I’m well… let’s face it, a wee closer to 6-with-a-zero-added-to-it than six?

Guess what?

There’s an app for that! A Kindle App, to be more precise. This evening, please don’t laugh, I actually downloaded the 80th Anniversary edition of Nancy Drew #1 – The Secret of the Old Clock.

Oh, dear dear 5writer colleague Silk. Goddess whom I know shares my love of dear old Nancy. I suspect you are going to just love this.  Oh, oh, oh… did I mention you can even cough up a bit more and get the Audible edition and have Laura Linney read it to you.

Dong… Dong… Dong…

Hear that? That’s the sound of the clock hitting midnight in the garden of good and evil. Time to read ‘Chapter 1’ and rediscover that secret of that damned old clock.

Good night Silk. Good night Joe. Good night Karalee. Good night Helga. Good night, dear followers. Oh, and don’t forget to leave a comment and let me know your own ideas for re-kindling the fire?

Old Clock

Erin Go Bragh


Silk’s Post #123 — In honour of St. Patrick’s day tomorrow, I thought I should poke around a bit for something to say about Irish writers. That was hours ago and I’m still lost in the deep, often surprising, maze of literature that has flowed for centuries from this small (it would fit into the State of Maine), ancient, island nation.

Or nations, with an “s”. And there lies but one of the complexities of Ireland. Everyone knows about the Troubles, of course. But I suspect the only people on earth who really understand the fraught history of Ireland are the Irish.

But, lest I draw the ire of the Irish by my lack of a nuanced understanding of the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (which is part of the United Kingdom), I should really scurry back to the safety of discussing literature.

And even that is like stepping into an unknowable world. Just think for a moment about what the Irish literary tradition is famous for. Okay, got it?

No you don’t. Because, like a magical trickster (and you know who I mean, he wears a jaunty green hat and keeps his gold at the end of the rainbow), Irish literature can’t be captured so easily.

One thing you might be able to say, with some truth, is that Irish literature doesn’t flinch. It sometimes delights in mourning. It’s often infused with irony, humour, nostalgia, philosophy or melancholy – characteristics it shares with the time-honoured art of discourse at an Irish pub.

(Henry Spalding’s Encyclopaedia of Irish Folklore and Humour illustrates the connection with this pick-up line, said to be overheard at O’Banion’s Beer Emporium: “Pardon me, darlin’, but I’m writin’ a telephone book. C’n I have yer number?”)

Yet it can be light and playful, like a limerick. Or iconic and experimental like Ulysses. Or powerful and absurd like Waiting for Godot. Or dark and haunting like Angela’s Ashes. Or magical and enchanting like The Chronicles of Narnia.

What do you say about a national body of work that equally embraces every form of writing and storytelling:  jokes, songs, tales, poetry, drama, short stories, humour, horror, philosophy, political satire, fantasy, novels, memoirs – and has left its indelible mark on each?

How many of you are aware that each of these leading lights (among many, many others) share an Irish heritage: Jonathan Swift, W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Maeve Binchy, Brendan Behan, Edna O’Brien, Eoin Colfer, Anne Enright, Sean O’Casey, C.S. Lewis, Emma Donoghue, Iris Murdoch, and Bram Stoker?

Silly me for thinking I might be able to nail Irish literature with some glib summary in a blog post. Hah! I may have a drop of Irish blood in me (doesn’t everyone?), but I’m not foolish enough to attempt such blarney. Instead, I’ll let some of the loquacious Irish authors speak for themselves as a St. Patrick’s Day tribute to the creativity and wit that the Emerald Isle has given the world …

“Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives. The English reading public explains the reason why.”   — James Joyce

“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”   — W.B. Yeats

“To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.”   — Daniel Patrick Moynihan

“Your battles inspired me – not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead.”   — James Joyce

“I think being a woman is like being Irish … Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time.”   — Iris Murdoch

“That’s right, there’s free beer in Irish paradise. Everyone’s jealous.”   — Kevin Hearne

“Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”   — George Bernard Shaw

“The earth makes a sound as of sighs and the last drops fall from the emptied cloudless sky. A small boy, stretching out his hands and looking up at the blue sky, asked his mother how such a thing was possible. Fuck off, she said.”   — Samuel Beckett

“We Irish prefer embroideries to plain cloth. To us Irish, memory is a canvas – stretched, primed and ready for painting on. We love the “story” part of the word “history,” and we love it trimmed out with colour and drama, ribbons and bows.”   — Frank Delaney

“Thankfully the rest of the world assumed that the Irish were crazy, a theory that the Irish themselves did nothing to debunk.”   — Eoin Colfer

“When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious.”   — Edna O’Brien

“The History of Ireland in two words: Ah well.”   — Niall Williams

And from Bill Barich (A Pint of Plain), who is not an Irishman, but clearly knows his pints: “H.L. Mencken’s Dictionary of the American Language supplies a long list of slang terms for being drunk, but the Irish are no slouches, either. They’re spannered, rat-arsed, cabbaged, and hammered; ruined, legless, scorched, and blotted; or simply trolleyed or sloshed. In Kerry, you’re said to be flamin’; in Waterford, you’re in the horrors; and in Cavan, you’ve gone baloobas, a tough one to wrap your tongue around if you are baloobas. In Donegal, you’re steamin’, while the afflicted in Limerick are out of their tree.”

If you’re toasting St. Patrick tomorrow, I hope your celebrations do not result in any of the foregoing conditions.

Slainte mhaith!

The Write Stuff – part 2

writer rehab

Paula’s Post #100 — Today’s post is a celebration, of sorts. A celebration and a milestone.

For the celebration part, I’m celebrating the fact that today I actually said “No” to something. “No” to taking on yet another challenging, engaging, project.  “No” to working on a committee with several talented, dedicated professionals. “No” to working together with others to hopefully help to enrich the small coastal community where I live.

I have mixed feelings about this. I think I could have contributed (and of course I was actually flattered to be asked to participate). But looking back over a hundred posts to this 5writers blog, I can’t help but notice (as I’m sure our readers have) that, increasingly, my posts have have been more about why I’m ‘not writing’ rather than about what or why I’m writing.

Something had to give.

So, I’m celebrating because I’ve taken the ‘first step’ towards returning to the world of writing. I don’t know how many steps it will ultimately take. Perhaps 12, like AA (the original 12 step program, begun in the 1930’s by ‘Bill W’). Since that time, this sequential approach to dealing with problems has evolved to tackle a myriad of addictive and dysfunctional behaviours.

Problems like not being able to ‘just say no’.

Step 1 – admit I am powerless; admit that my life has become unmanageable.

Okay, I’m okay with this one. I get it. I can’t just keep saying ‘yes’ to every shiny new fun thing that comes along.

But guess what?

I couldn’t help Googling ‘writers’ and ’12 step programs’ and even in this I find I have failed to come up with an original idea. Check out:

Writers Rehab: A 12-Step Program for Writers Who Can’t Get Their Acts Together

by DB Gillies (available from Amazon) and marketed as a ‘comprehensive self-help book in the form of a 12-step program for writers dealing with emotional or psychological roadblocks with their writing’.

I haven’t ordered it yet (but I sure am thinking about it).

Oh… and the Milestone part? Post #100 – I’m pretty happy about that. Even if Hare did come in last.

My stats for this week:

1. Projects said “no” to:


2. Airplane rides:

Two (up to Edmonton on Friday and back south again on Monday to see grandchildren M 3 and S 1).

3. Books read:

One – The highly acclaimed (and highly recommended) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, for my desert book club.

4. Chapters written on new novel… ah, wait for it… may be next week.

There’s more than one English


Silk’s Post #122 — Is English the world’s viral language? It’s spoken by 400 million people as a first language, and by another 800 million as a second language. It’s the official language, by international treaty, for aeronautical and maritime communications. It’s the dominant language on the Internet (55% of top websites compared to less than 10% for the next most-used language). It’s the global language of international business, with one study by the British Council reporting that by 2020, two billion people will be studying it. Some have charged English with linguistic imperialism because of its impact on other languages, including language death.

How the language of a tiny nation-state with only .009% of the world’s current population became the lingua franca of the planet is a subject for history scholars. What I’m interested in is what English’s ungovernable spread and variation means to English language writers today.

It doesn’t take an English professor or student of linguistics to make this simple observation: the English language is a bit of a mess.

In its odyssey from the colonial era that spread it like a virus across the continents to its modern predominance, English has evolved in hundreds of different directions. Perhaps it is the language’s ability to mutate in Darwinian fashion that has made it the fittest survivor. It has adapted to different tongues and climes to become a whole family of variants, each unique but all (relatively) comprehensible to each other.

There is a movement to corral all these dialects, to reshape them to conform to a standard “International English,” also called “Global English” or (in one of the least elegant words ever coined in the language) “Globish.”

But good luck on that. Despite the best efforts of grammarians and lexicographers over the centuries, living languages love to defy rules the way children love to jump in mud puddles wearing their best shoes.

So, when an English speaking writer sits down to write a novel, it’s a fair question to ask: Which English will be used?

I don’t just mean the spelling difference between “colour” and “color” or “programme” and “program”. As an American-born writer transplanted to Canada 45 years ago, spelling variation has been a continuing hitch in my writing style, like a small limp. Canada, forever caught between the old world and the new world, has retained some aspects of the Queen’s English while adopting others from American usage. So: colour, not color. But program, not programme. You just have to memorize them, like the times tables. Then there are many Canadianisms – eh, hoser, pogey, zed, serviette, loonie, toonie, double-double, kerfuffle, give’r, and the picturesque fill your boots – which I now forget sound foreign to my friends in the US.

But those are more the punchlines of jokes about the difference between Canucks and Yanks than fundamental differences in culturally-specific syntax. Yet, real and profound differences do exist, and they are critical to the story world and voice of a book. Because when people talk differently, they also think differently. See differently. Even act differently.

Language usage – whether narrative or dialogue – telegraphs the world view on which the story is built, reveals setting and social structure, hints at history and backstory, conveys lifestyle and belief systems, and sets the pace and mood of the book.

Sometimes it’s stylistically obvious, like the antiquated language of a historical novel, the dialect of an ethnic or cultural group, or the street slang of an underclass. All these are harder to do than they seem, the most common mistake being a heavy hand. The natural voice in the reader’s head is likely to “speak” in relatively standard English, and readers can get annoyed or exhausted when continually forced to interpret a “foreign” language. If they have to keep stopping to figure out what the patois means, you’ve gone too far and they’ve probably already escaped to water their geraniums or turn on their TV.

Sometimes, however, it’s the subtle shading of English usage that creates a unique and vivid theatre of the mind. These are the books that transport readers and make them feel they’ve slid into a different, memorable, world. A world where they’re both a visitor and a native at the same time. These are the stories that make readers say I felt like I was right there.

It’s easy to assume that this is achieved mostly through skillful description and those telling details the writing books try to teach. But a lot of it is how the writer uses language.

I think of the languid pacing and reflective mood that characterize many of the best novels set in the South, for instance. There’s a kind of underlying nostalgia, a sense of past days of glory contrasted with the humid dissolution of the present, that colours stories by authors like William Faulkner, Pat Conroy or James Lee Burke. You can hear it in language that flows like slow beads of sweat on a hot day. In Gillian Flynn’s spectacularly successful Gone Girl, the change in mood from the fast-paced New York setting to the drowsy Missouri small town where the characters’ world comes apart is subtly enhanced by the shifting texture of the language the writer chooses, like a suit of clothes, for each place.

Or think about the indelible mark left on modern literature by the revolutionary use of language introduced by the “hard boiled” detective story. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – and later natural successors like Mickey Spillane, Walter Mosley and Elmore Leonard – crafted a whole genre that was characterized as much by its spare, brutal use of language as by its subject matter.

Am I really just talking about style? Well, maybe. That’s a big term and it covers a lot of territory. But I do think the mutations that have allowed the English language to adapt to different cultures, and different perceptions of reality, may go deeper than the term “style” might suggest. When does the elasticity of English stretch beyond its “standard” form and spawn truly distinct versions? Versions one needs to be conversant in to truly understand the stories of its speakers?

Imagine, for instance, a conversation between an English professor at Eton and a Chicago hip-hop street dancer. Are they really speaking the same language at all? Could they carry on any sort of meaningful conversation? I realize that such a scenario in a novel is, well, remote at best. It sounds more like a comedy sketch. But some of the best storytelling happens when people from “worlds apart” get smashed together on the page.

Telling stories like that – even when the language contrast is more subtle – is the job of the writer-as-translator.

So, be deliberate when you pick your language from the many Englishes that exist.

Or drive the language police nuts, and make up your own!