Writing is about love, the love of the writer for the words, for the story they are telling. I have always tried to write from the heart, whether I am writing science fiction or a research paper. The need to share the heart should be what creates the story. As writers, we should not limit ourselves to any one genre or subject. Writing is an act of love, a reflection of the spirit and sharing that is what makes a writer.
Last year, I embarked on a journey to tell the tale of two remarkable people and those that touch their lives. The story unfolded magically for me. Many times, I felt more like I was listening to them tell me their story, that writing it myself. They even decided to have a very different ending than I originally planned. It’s moments like those that make writing something more than just words on the page.
This book reflects my deep love of the natural world. I was raised on books celebrating the nature and they fostered in me the deep and abiding belief that the world is beautiful, healing and full of magic. Discovering beauty can sooth even the most battered soul and in finding freedom and love, the world can be changed. This is the story I set out to tell.
After the Frost was released on June, 4 2014, under the penname PG Owyns. I am extremely proud of this book. The penname was in part, because of something that happened to me several years ago. I preordered a favorite mystery novelist’s new book without bothering to read the description. Imagine my surprise when the book arrived and it was a very depressing “literary” novel. I guess part of me worried about someone expecting my usual fare and instead getting this book.
I am excited to share After the Frost with you.
After the Frost will be available for 99 cents beginning the 7th of June.
After the Frost on Amazon
What people are saying about After the Frost:
This is a beautiful book! Full of gorgeous descriptions of nature and penetrating insights about the nature of family ties, illness, love (not just infatuation, but real love), and the soul's needs for freedom.
A wonderful gentle story with lyrical writing. The characters are well developed, and the plot is both intriguing and compelling.
After the Frost was a beautifully written book. It takes you to another time and place where there is beauty in everything.
An exquisite story of living and loving with all of your heart while also having the strength to beat the odds and hold on to life with both hands.
This book is lovely. The prose is lyrical. The message is clear. Love can heal you. The lack of it can make you ill. The descriptions of life in the wilderness in the Pacific Northwest of 1928 are painted so vividly. While reading this book I could almost smell the smells, hear the sounds and see the sights that are described
When I lost two of my furry family within the space of a few days, I was heartbroken. I took my pain and did what I usually do--I poured it into words on a page. It came out as a poem and after wrestling with myself a bit, I have decided it would only be right to honor them and share this with you.
Requiem for a Feline
Love, we are told is warmth
The sun on our face
A soft body beside us
The gentle touch of another life
Love is light, life-giving
Filling every moment of the day
What then when the warm body
Lies cold against my chest?
Silent beside me
No warmth, no light
Shards of my heart break off
Like glass, cutting as they fall
Tearing deep marks in my soul
Tiny warmth, soft, gentle
Gone now into the cold
Is there sun there?
I tell myself there is
This is just a step on a greater path
That does not change the cold
The stiff body that was warm
The playful glint of an eye
Comfort when I cried
So playful, bringing joy
And I bleed
Sometimes things happen and writers find themselves up against a wall—the words are on the other side but getting past that wall is impossible. Writer’s Block. Everyone has it at some point. What causes it is almost impossible to pin down—it can be a plot point that doesn’t move, a character that has decided to stop talking, an event that comes out of nowhere and just stops everything dead. So, what to do? First things first, set aside that project for a moment. It will wait patiently while you focus on something else. I promise it will wait for you.
Now, let’s dive into an organic writing practice that’s like free-form jazz. A practice session where musicians come together and each take a turn putting together a piece of music. It’s improvised, it’s in the moment, and each relies on the others to move the melodic line forward. Sometimes they go back and find the song, perfecting it and releasing it. Sometimes they don’t. Most importantly, they just let the music flow from piano to drums, guitar to bass, sax to vocals and back again. Each building and weaving the melody together.
So, what does that mean for us as writers? I think there are times when we need this kind of experience as much as those musicians do. It’s a way to challenge ourselves, a way to create something that is completely unexpected—sometimes even out of our comfort zone.
Here is the exercise: find at least one fellow writer—or if you are part of a writing group two or three or more—and decide, very generally, on a story and characters. For the sake of this blog, we will say our story is about a far off world with three suns and ten moons. It’s a place of war for some, extravagance for others. Each person creates a character and gives them a basic personality that all the other writers know—so they can write that character when their point in the musical odyssey comes up. That's the beginning, very rough outline and equally rough character sketches. Once that is done, set a limit on chapter length—between 1,500 and 3,000 words is good.
Now comes the fun, challenging and scary part.
One person starts the story, building in the world (it doesn’t have to be sci fi or fantasy, it can work as well in a historical novel, a romance or anything else depending on participants and inclination). Their character will begin it all, and they can even bring the other characters into the fray. Remember there is a word length and you will be passing the “melodic line” on to the next player. Cliffhangers are fine, but leave a way out—this is collaborative, not competitive.
This can be far more challenging than it seems on the surface. Most writers like to have complete control over their world and their character(s). Leaning back after you’ve written a chapter and waiting for what comes next is hard. Very hard. Especially when the story takes a turn you weren’t expecting—but that is the whole point. It’s a challenge to let yourself just go with the flow of the story in the same way those jazz musicians go with the flow of the music.
I’ve done this several times. In fact, I am always trying to talk someone into doing this with me. I love the it—well, I love it now. At first it was incredibly hard to just let the story happen. I don’t tend to do very hard outlines in stories, but I generally know where they are going. With this kind of exercise, it is impossible to control that “where”. It’s hard, it’s scary, to hand a character you inevitably end up loving over to someone else, but in the end it’s worth it. You can look at the project you were stuck on with new eyes and maybe a path around that wall of Writer’s Block will be visible. And you might just find that in the meantime you (and your fellows) have created a story you all truly love.
All writers face a huge challenge when they embark on a novel—research. Love stories, mysteries, adventure novels, they all have at least some research behind them. For those writers who work in worlds that are a little—or a lot—removed from everyday life, research can prove to be tricky. Science fiction, fantasy and paranormal novels pose interesting questions. Should I research? If so, how much should I research?
The answer to the first is easy. Yes. Oh, yes, yes, yes!!! Your world, whatever it is, needs a framework, and research is the beginning of the frame.
How much research? Now that’s tricky. The answer is “enough”. How much is enough? I tend to err on the side of too much. I might not ever use that lovely tidbit I discovered about some archaeological find in Northern Europe and how it ties into my mythology. Or I learn more than is really needed about the physics of how my spaceships might travel though the void (as my poor ex-physics professor can attest). I need to know these things for me to make the world whole. The point to all the work is to make your worlds come alive for your readers. To let your characters move in a world founded on solid bedrock and not on shifting sand.
There is always the issue that there is someone out there who is a specialist in something you are writing about and will find a major flaw and pick at it—something a tiny bit of research would have fixed. On a TV show I watch, the characters spotted wormwood on a wall. All I could think was “you’d think a television production office would have a good enough research team to know that vine is NOT wormwood.” It still drives me nuts because the amount of effort it would have taken to get it right would have been so small.
Am I being too picky? Maybe. The problem is I am not the only one who is that nit-picky.
So, you’ve done your research, you know your history, or physics or the natural history of the lost species of the somethingasaurus—now what? Now you can settle into writing, referring to your research when needed. When you choose to deviate from the facts, you are making a conscious choice and one you can point to and say it was deliberate. Knowing your world and the framework it is built on is key in creating believability. Just don’t go overboard. I tend to find myself removing pages of really exciting research (to me) from stories because they really aren’t needed for the story, I just loved those little tidbits so much.
I still sneak a few in, and that’s the fun of it, the final pay-off of the research. Adding in one little thing that is off-the-wall but just so delicious it has to be there—and your readers will love you for it.
To outline or not to outline, that is the question.
It’s a question I am asked a lot. “Do you use an outline?” The answer? Yes and no. I tend to have a very vague outline in my head when I set out to write a story, blog or novel. I have an idea of what points and pieces I want to hit—action, character development, beginning, middle, and ending, but I don’t lay it out on paper. I tend to let the story evolve organically while keeping those points I want in the back of my mind.
I have compared writing to music before, and this is another time I think the comparison is apropos. When a writer begins, like a musician learning an instrument, there is a lot of practice involved. You don’t pick up a violin and magically begin to play Mozart. You practice, you run scales, you learn music by rote, often bar by bar until you have learned an entire piece. Then you set out on another and another, until one day you can sit down and pick up the violin, open music you’ve never seen before and “hear” how it should be played, catch the nuances on the first or second time, then refine from there.
Writing is very much like that, you can’t sit down the first time at a computer and magically produce Pride and Prejudice. It takes time. First the scales—practice pieces focusing on one aspect of writing, character, action, dialogue. Once you are gaining mastery there, it’s time to branch out and open that first piece of “music”—a major project of some kind. A multi-chapter story or novella, perhaps even a novel. The first time, consciously—even physically—outline the work. Sketch out the details (like the bars in a piece of music) then write each as you go.
After working through several stories, you’ll find that the pieces are starting to develop more organically. The outlines will become more and more vague—from spelling out each major point and action to just an idea of where the story will begin and how it will end. The characters won’t need to be fully described before you begin, they will build their own melody as you write.
One of the hardest parts of writing is the idea that you must practice before you can “play” a major piece. It seems so simple, you communicate every day, you write emails, SMS and texts, you might even compose letters as part of your job. You read books and stories, so it is easy to not practice, to not learn the scales, before attempting to write a piece without that hard work in place. But, as easy as it seems, tt’s also not something to ignore. Practice is important, very important. Giving yourself a day or two a week (or month depending on time/how much you write) to write stories that you never intend to publish—ones that are to hone your skills, help you build characters into believable people—is vital. It’s not a waste of time, it’s just like running scales and using practice pieces before working on that performance piece. In music you do it every day, in writing you should as well.
To outline or not to outline? The answer is yes—to both.
I love bookstores. Well, let me rephrase that, I love what bookstores once were. When I was young, there was a bookstore within a fifteen minute bike ride from my house that was the perfect bookstore. It is the bookstore by which all others are measured in fact.
Nestled between a shoe repair shop and a hair salon, it had been there for as long as I could remember. It had everything a bookstore has to have, including a store cat. I have vague memories of sitting on the floor in the back of the shop where they had a children’s area with blocks and puzzles and asking the cat for advice on a puzzle, or reading out loud to him.
As I grew older, of course, my perceptions changed and it became the bookstore.
It boasted a collection of new and used books. The store was full of the tangy scent of fresh ink and the lovely musty odor unique to used books. Not the used books that are so often the staple of used bookstores today—no these were old books, ancient tomes collected at estate sales and other wonderful places. Books with a story to tell—not just what was written in the book, but the book itself told a tale. Some even had the treasure of the former owner’s names and the date it was received.
Then there were the extra special ones—the ones with the notes handwritten in the margins. For me those were always like the original owner was sharing a secret with me, something we had in common. I still treasure those books. My collection of travel books from the Victorian Era started in that book shop and the very first book I purchased had those secret notes. I still remember one on a page about travel to Egypt, the owner of the book had written “camels are not a pleasant creature.” That tiny thing tied me to the original owner. I felt like I knew him and had shared that adventure with him.
One of the wonderful things was the new books were tucked in with the used ones, so you could find a first edition of Arthur C. Clarke next to a new paperback edition of the same book. It was a wondrous way to discover books I didn’t even know existed. I usually went there with a book in mind, and left with three extra spanning everything from history and science fiction to herbalism and cooking.
The sad thing is, bookstores like this one have mostly gone the way of the dinosaur, wiped out by giant asteroids of the big box bookstores like Borders and Barnes and Nobles. I miss them, I miss sitting on the floor surrounded by a collection of books some dating from the 1800s and some brand new. I miss finding those gems with notes from a secret friend. And I am sad that there are generations that will never be able to discover this magical lost world.
One of my favorite questions to ask writers is “who are your top ten favorite authors”? Before we go further, let me explain, I am not fishing for a compliment, and don’t expect my name on their list—but there is a name I do expect, but rarely hear—their own. If you ask me—amongst the top ten are Patrick O’Brian, Elizabeth Peters, Robert B. Parker, Anne McCaffrey, Jane Austen, JRR Tolkien, Conan Doyle and, yes, me. Is it an act of enormous ego? Tossing myself in with some of the finest writers of our time? No, and this goes back to why I asked other writers who their favorite authors are and why they aren’t on that list.
I write stories that I want to read. In fact my first adventure into what is now termed “fanfiction” came about when I had finished all forty of the set of Hardy Boys books my father had purchased at the Goodwill. I was devastated. There were no more stories, and I’d read all the books twice—then I realized, I could write my own adventure! It was a moment of true enlightenment and the beginning of a life-long journey to tell stories, to relate the world through my written words.
If I don’t write what I want to read—and reread—how can I ask others to do the same? If I am not enjoying what I have created, how can I ask a reader to purchase a book or spend time reading a short story? Ovid said scribere jussit amor (love bade me write) and that is the place we should all write from. Love. If you are not in love with your own words, how can you expect anyone else to love them?
I have talked to many writers recently who said they don’t read their own stories, novels, or essays. Why? That is always the first thing out of my mouth, usually followed by the insertion of my foot. I don’t mean to be awkward, I am truly curious, if you are not writing something you want to read, why are you writing? I understand sometimes we get stuck in jobs where not everything we write is what we want to be writing. News, columns, even romance novels sometimes are more about the money than creating something to read again—then again—why not? Even that simple hundred-word news brief is going to be read by many people, so why not make it the best it can be?
Writing should always come from a place of love, a place in the heart reserved for words and their expression. It is the place that stores life experiences and lets us tap into those places to create our stories.
If you are not in your top ten favorite writers, ask yourself this hard question—why? Is it that you see flaws, things that you might have done differently? Is it that you don’t like what you have done? Why? Why don’t you have your books or stories loaded onto your Kindle or Nook or PC to read and read again. Not to the exclusion of others, but because you have told a story you wanted to read, and believe me, if you write stories you will love, I guarantee other people will love them too.
Today, take out a story or book you haven’t read since you put the final edit on it and open it again. Read it, and become one of your own favorite authors.
I have touched on the idea of fanfiction many times over the past few years. People outside fandoms don’t really understand fanfiction—in short it is writing a story based on someone else’s characters and set in their universe. That’s a little simplistic, but the basic idea. I have been writing fanfiction since I first figured out that I could write stories about my favorite characters, starting with the Hardy boys when I was about eight.
But let’s talk about another aspect of fanfiction.
A lot of authors and movie/TV creators look down on the world of fanfiction. In a way I understand, it is someone else messing with your creation—but in another way it is the highest form of flattery people love your stories so much that they want to stay and play.
But that is not what I am talking about (completely) either.
I am talking about fanfiction as a tool for the writer/creator. Reading fanfiction in the worlds you have created gives you as an author an insight into your own world that you will never find in yourself. Seeing the characters, situations and adventures fans create (for better or worse) allows you to see more deeply into your own work. It’s a scary prospect, venturing out into fanfic in your worlds, but well worth it. Finding out where readers are attracted and how they see a character is an eye-opener.
I personally think every author should find someone to read their work, then write fanfiction. Maybe two—or if you are lucky enough to belong to a writing group, have everyone write fanfiction in everyone else’s universes. The insight is amazing! A minor character might suddenly be in the forefront of four or five stories, a certain character trait you thought was awesome is dismissed, the list goes on. It is a valuable tool and a way to hone your skills.
The greatest inspiration for writing is life. Everything I turn into words comes from life in some way. The thing, for me, is it is not always obvious where I get the inspiration from. People tend to assume you have to have something huge happen in your life to make it worthy to write about, but it’s the small things that make up life. And think about books—it’s the small things that make a book more interesting.
I was talking to someone the other day about the death of an author (Anne McCaffrey). We both loved her, and we were talking about what we loved—and beyond the obvious, dragons, fire lizards and the wonderful worlds she created—what we loved most was the little things. The small details of daily life, the things that made the world real were what we loved most.
I have been accused of taking research too far once or twice—ending up in the ER then writing about it—but it’s not just the big event I use, it’s all the little things that happen while I am there. Things that might not even happen in a hospital setting in my writing but something I remembered from that experience—the way someone spoke, a man’s walk, the silence, or the noise, the music in the background or the pervading smell. Everything is a potential moment in a story.
Every day I watch, I listen, I smell and taste. All of that is translated into writing at some point. While I never duplicate a person in their entirety, I might take a piece of them and use it in a character. The way they brush the hair out of their face, or something they say. Flash, a character in my Custodes Noctis series, is the only character who regularly swears, and yet it is part of his definition as a character and he doesn’t even notice it is so much a part of him. Based on someone? Yes, a little.
I also notice the world at large, the scents of the seasons, the bitter tang of autumn or that only snow produces. Or it can be the heavy scent of a warm damp climate summer, dripping with the weight of the perfume of flowers, or the dry medicinal scent of the southwest on a hot day. Roasting coffee smells a little like skunk, the southwest in autumn smells like roasting chilies. Each little thing makes the world more alive for me and that reality I can pass on to my readers.
Using the things I love and experience are what I think make writing a richer experience for me as the writer and hopefully for the reader as well. Little things make a story live for me, and it is the little things I want to share. Yes, something huge is happening, but everyday life goes on as well.
Every writer has doldrums. I’m not talking about writer’s block, that’s a whole other ball of wax. No, I am talking about the doldrums, those times where we just lay stagnant, unable to move. (The term came from sailing and those latitudes where the winds would suddenly fail and the ships would just flounder.) I know them all too well. I can sense a story, feel it waiting like the breathless wind that never comes, and it just sits. I can toss everything off my personal ship and still it sits. I stare for hours at the computer and the words that should be flowing sit idle, lost in latitudes of the doldrums.
I have to admit a lot of my doldrums get caught up in the “what’s the point.” I get frustrated with my story and wonder if I will ever get it finished. Or I ask that question that haunts every writer from bestsellers to the writer of obituaries on the smallest paper in the smallest town on earth. Does anyone even read this stuff except me?
Then comes the gift of what I call the “Joan Wilder Moment”. For those of you who haven’t seenRomancing the Stone more than once, you might not get the reference, so let me explain. The heroine of the movie is a romance novelist who goes to rescue her sister from evil kidnappers in Columbia, and things go a little less than perfectly when she arrives. Finally she and the erstwhile hero make it to a small village—which turns out to be the stronghold of a drug-lord. As they are about to be shot by said drug lord the hero says, “Write your way out of this one, Joan Wilder.” The drug-lord lowers the gun and says, “Joan Wilder? You are Joan Wilder? The romance novelist? I read your books!” And of course, he becomes their staunch ally.
So, back to the Joan Wilder Moment.
In making reservations for an upcoming con, there was a “Muffy Morrigan? The Muffy Morrigan? I read your books!” Now, this was not someone who worked for the con, but rather an employee of the hotel that is hosting the con. It was a moment that reminded me why I am writing. Not just because I love my stories, but because I love sharing my stories. When someone is excited by what I’ve written, or is touched or—in the case of my story about gastroparesis—finds a little hope, I am blown away. Each time is like the first and I glow with the same lovely, fuzzy warmth.
I’ve found through the years that the doldrums almost always have a “Joan Wilder Moment” attached. Just like a ship lost in the windless sea finally catching the Trade Winds, so we can find that breathe of fresh air. Look for it. It will give you the joy and the momentum to sail on.
I have been a writing all my life and have been published in newspapers, magazines and books. Recently, I have started working with writers helping them to learn to love their writing, and how we, as writers can learn from musicians and their techniques.