Thursday, July 28, 2016

Musical Interlude: Mahler's Symphony No. 3, Finale

I'm cheerfully lowbrow when it comes to classical music. Most of my favorite discoveries have come from switching on the classical radio station and happening on a piece that captivates me—though I do have my favorite composers. My encounter with this piece was a combination of both: I pricked up my ears when I heard a selection from a Mahler symphony being announced, since I'd thoroughly enjoyed pieces from his other symphonies before. This is the finale from his Symphony No. 3, known as one of the longest symphonies in the classical repertoire (around 90 to 105 minutes, depending on tempo). Isn't it gorgeous? (And is it just me, or does some of the beginning remind you a bit of the melody to "I'll Be Seeing You"?)

Friday, July 22, 2016

Snippets of Story: Mrs. Meade Returns

My project for July has been writing the first draft of the next Mrs. Meade Mystery, The American Pony. I got off to a slightly rough start—along with battling some nasty seasonal allergies during my writing sessions, I think the first few pages suffered from my trying to "tighten up" my style unnaturally to keep the story's length from overshooting that of the others in the series. But I've decided I just can't worry about that. The story has to be written as it needs to be written. After all, you're all fond enough of Mrs. Meade that you won't mind a few extra pages, will you?

I've had the plot idea of The American Pony saved up in a notebook for quite a while now, and it's been a fun one to develop. As it revolves around an English family visiting Mrs. Meade's home ground of turn-of-the-century Colorado, I've been able to draw on some of the research I did for writing an article about the English in the Old West several years back. Reading a lot of books by English authors lately also seems to have helped me with my dialogue—that part of the story at least has been flowing smoothly and has been enjoyable to write. Anyhow, here's a few snippets!

They were leading their horses out of the barn now, halfway down the slope. Mrs. Meade squinted a little. She had occasionally suspected lately, though she did not like to admit the possibility, that her eyes were not what they once were when it came to long distances. But the strong eastern light of morning flashed so on the bold white patches of the pinto pony that everything else looked a little shadowy by contrast.

"The Army would never have done," said Frederica positively.

"Quite," said Oliver. "The Army would never have done. I should have been out from under your jurisdiction then, Frederica."

It was a most unfortunate position to be in. Seated as she was between the two lighted windows, she could hardly rise and move either way along the veranda without being seen, and betraying that she had heard. It may have been the more honorable course, but Mrs. Meade was not sure it was the kindest one...

"Who did it?" said Sir Edmond, fearfully brief.

"That I couldn't say, Lord Marsland sir," said Collyer, who had not made a study of his Peerage. "All I know is what I found, and I've told you that."

"Not at all. But it's a poor doctor who doesn't get involved in a bit of mystery once in his life. I read the detective-story magazines, you see, Mrs. Meade. And correct all the medical details in red pencil."

I can tell you that Mrs. Meade has a new assistant in detection this time, a character who appeared briefly in a previous story. But don't worry, Sheriff Royal will be back in future installments! Meanwhile, you can glimpse some of the setting-inspiration pictures I've pinned recently on my Mrs. Meade Mysteries Pinterest board.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Nonfiction Shelf

I really learned how to write from Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Trollope, and de Maupassant.
~ Louis L'Amour

I think I learned how to write largely by L'Amour's method—reading good books and absorbing their style. I suppose I must have had some writing textbooks back in the early days of my schooling, before we switched to a more literature-based approach, but considering that I've utterly forgotten them, their influence can't have been great.

In the present day, I'm not a huge fan of how-to books on writing. When I first began writing seriously several years ago, I did read a ton of how-to blogs and articles and gleaned a lot of solid practical advice from them: things like how to handle point of view, avoid too much passivity, et cetera. After a while, though, I found you can reach a saturation point with this—you begin to feel like you're reading the same advice over and over again, and even that it's making you second-guess your own work too much. So eventually I moved away from how-to topics as a steady diet, referring back to them only when looking for help with a specific problem or feeling the need to brush up on a certain technique.

The kind of writing nonfiction I find I like most now is memoir-type writing by authors, who share some of their own techniques, opinions, and experiences with the joys and headaches of writing—less of a "how-to" than a "how-I-do." Sometimes you agree wholeheartedly with their conclusions, sometimes you differ, sometimes you find a thought or a tip which never occurred to you before that ends up being a tremendous help. It's a less formal and less pressuring way of exploring the subject of writing than strict lists of dos and don'ts.

All that being said, here's the small collection of nonfiction writing books I've accumulated over the years—books that have provided inspiration, or served as a trusty reference. They kind of fall into two categories:

nuts and bolts

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. Truth: when I was young I thought the title of this book was "Strunk and White"—it was one of those copies where the authors' names on the cover are bigger than the title, and everyone in the house just casually referred to it as "Strunk and White." Anyway, this is a primer I don't think you can go wrong with, no matter how experienced you are. It's always useful to come back to when you want to clarify certain basic guidelines, or just need a breath of fresh air to clear your head after reading too much bad English. And it takes up next to no space on a bookshelf.

Simple and Direct by Jacques Barzun. The funny thing is, I'm not certain if I ever read this one straight from cover to cover, but I am sure I've absorbed all of its contents at some time or another, and benefited from them. Much like "Strunk and White," it aims at creating a common-sense, understandable style, and goes into a bit further practical detail.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. After reading this blunt, irreverent, no-nonsense guide to punctuation, I don't think there was ever any danger of my forgetting what the different punctuation marks were invented for or how not to use them. Punctuation somehow receded to the least of my worries, and erudite specks such as the ellipsis and semicolon became warm and fast friends.

Chambers' Synonyms and Antonyms. The only criticism I have of Chambers is that they should have better bindings, because this is my second copy, and I'm fairly certain I'll eventually end up splitting this one's binding too. I pull this one off the shelf in both moments of inarticulate despair and moments of being certain there's a better word to express the idea knocking at the inside of my head.

those lovely intangibles

Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster. This is a really nice, intelligent and relaxed look at the basic elements that go into making an enjoyable novel, illustrated with examples from classic literature. I did a lot of pencil-underlining once I got my own copy (also wrote a short review which you can find here), and pick it up every once in a while when I feel like I need a big-picture restoration of perspective.

The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. I'd been curious about this one ever since Abigail Hartman recommended it so enthusiastically, and I wasn't disappointed. Sayers makes the case that man, being created in the image of God, shares the characteristics of God as Creator, and has a natural instinct to create and craft works of his own. Being a writer herself, Sayers uses examples from the writer's life and experiences to illustrate her ideas about the creative mind, which is what makes this book particularly interesting for writers. It's definitely the deepest and most scholarly book on this list, and I'm looking forward to another slow and careful reading to mull over its ideas further.

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. You've probably heard me mention this one before. It's got such a nice refreshing, emboldening perspective on creativity—not just for writers but definitely applicable to writing—that flipping back through my favorite parts is always somewhat of a pick-me-up when I feel like I've bitten off more than I can chew or gotten lost in the minutiae of things going wrong with a project.

Writers: what's your opinion of how-to nonfiction? Love it or hate it? Favorite nonfiction books on writing?

Monday, July 11, 2016

On Wrangling Ideas

I am always swamped with ideas.

An overactive imagination is both my greatest blessing, and sometimes a rather pesky curse. I wouldn't be without it for anything, because it means I always have an idea when I need one; but it's also an ongoing challenge.

I have ideas filed away by the dozen. I have notebooks full of one-paragraph and two-page sketches for short stories that may or may not end up being written one day. I have bits of random dialogue waiting to find a home in some story or other. I have lists of titles without stories, titles which just sound so nice I didn't want to forget them. I have a handful of antiquated novel plots from my early teen years, mostly for nostalgia's sake, but partly because I have a touch of the pack-rat instinct that says not to throw away anything that might conceivably be useful one day. (I did go through my older notes recently and cleared out a lot of stuff I realized wasn't going to be any use; I'm getting a little more practical in this area.)

I have a few false starts of novel and novella drafts that I haven't given up hope on. I also have concepts, character lists and a few sketchy notes for novels that I firmly intend to write one day. And then I have a dozen quick outlines or concepts for novels that at this stage are pipe dreams, but which I had to write down just on the magical off-chance that someday I will find myself capable of writing them.

Story ideas, you see, are not bound by time or space or one's own capabilities. It doesn't take any effort at all to dream of writing an epic family saga spanning thirty or a hundred years. It's easy to fudge the technical details in your mind when you're captivated by a plot that centers around subjects you know practically nothing about—aviation, horse racing, railroads, factories, oil drilling. With the experience I'm gaining from researching Dearest Lieutenant, I know I can master those subjects if I really want to write about them someday—one at a time, please—but the task would be no joke. Ideas are free, but writing a book costs time and effort.

Occasionally I catch myself saying, "Why didn't somebody just write this or make a movie of it in 1946 so it would exist for me to enjoy and I wouldn't have to do all the work?"

The practical challenge of the overactive imagination is, of course, that it barges in on you at the most inconvenient times. It tempts you with those glittering new ideas when you're supposed to be concentrating faithfully on just one or two projects till completion. Learning to manage it is an ongoing thing for me, but I think I'm getting the hang of it. You see, I've spent most of my life, from early childhood on up, entertaining myself by making up stories in my head. Some of them dance pleasantly in my mind for a while, then evaporate painlessly when it becomes clear they don't have enough substance to be worth the time. But when an idea keeps coming back, keeps gaining complexity and keeps hinting at future promise...then I begin to take it seriously.

So I write it down.

Even if it's just one paragraph, I commit the concept and perhaps a few character names to paper; maybe a few key scenes or lines of dialogue; and that satisfies the anxious little corner of my mind that insists "This is good; you don't want to lose it!" And then I go back to whatever I'm supposed to be writing. Whether the captured concept is for next month, next year or next decade, I know it'll be there when I need it and I can rest easier. Even if my imagination never does.

(In this twenty-first century, I sometimes create a private Pinterest board. Somehow that seems like even more of a commitment than pen and paper, so I usually wait till an idea has been upgraded from the pipe-dream stage to the "I'm definitely going to write this someday" stage—but the way some of the pipe dreams have been nagging at me lately, I wonder if Pinterest would help keep them quiet.)

Seriously—I have jotted notes for a couple of series, at least one trilogy, two of those epic family sagas, and at least one sequel to something I've written but not published yet. Silly? Perhaps. But it doesn't cost anything to dream.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Weekend Odds and Ends #29

  • This article from the New York Times, about the writer's experience reading his grandmother's teenage diaries from 1910, is absolutely lovely. Now I wish I could read the complete diaries!

  • The 100th anniversary of World War I's Battle of the Somme was July 1st, and England produced a memorial that was both simple and tremendously effective.

  • Here's an interesting article on the fallacy of "never give up": Winners Give Up All the Time

  • For Georgette Heyer fans, here's a neat little walking tour of a section of London where you can see various landmarks featured in her novels.

  • From Letters of Note—I think this excited missive by Madame de Sévigné is the 17th-century version of Barney Fife's "This is big. BIG big."

  • Finally, here's a September blogathon that I must think of a good entry for: the Agatha Christie Blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehner and Little Bits of Classics. Topics can include books, film adaptations, anything Christie-related that you like!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Down to the Lake

A few weeks ago I made some photo collages for my work-in-progress The Mountain of the Wolf, and I enjoyed the results so much that I had to go and do some for Lost Lake House too. My Pinterest board for this story is one of my favorites, so I had plenty to work with! Here's what I ended up with:

If you're looking to escape to the lakeside for a fun summer read, check out Lost Lake House here!

Bonus: Smashwords is hosting a big summer sale through the month of July, and several of my titles are included—The Silver Shawl, Wanderlust Creek and Other Stories, and both of my historical fairytale retellings. Use coupon code SSW50 at checkout to get 50% off!

Friday, July 1, 2016

A Mid-Year Review

I feel this blog has been a little patchy lately. Aside from the Research Diaries, I haven't really written anything of substance on here in a while. I think it's partly because I've been in the transition stage between projects. I've been doing a lot of thinking and figuring, some marketing experiments both successful and unsuccessful, and sorting out my long-range plans for the rest of the year and beyond.

When I set my writing goals for 2016 back in January, I figured those four items were just about enough to tackle for one year. But to my utter surprise, here I am at the mid-point of the year, and I find I've been able to put a check mark next to all four of them. I have

  • Revised and published Lost Lake House

  • Written the first draft of The Mountain of the Wolf

  • Begun research for my planned WWII novel Dearest Lieutenant

  • Done a bit more editing on One of Ours, which is on a back burner for the present

If there's one thing I've learned about setting goals, it's this: making smaller, manageable lists of goals and finishing ahead of your estimated time is way better than making a long list and ending up depressed because you didn't get it all done in the time you thought you would. It's easier to maneuver, to change up the order of your goals or give a particular one more time or less time as needed, if you know you only have two or three more items awaiting your attention afterwards—as opposed to eight or nine. Now, at the mid-point of 2016, and having re-assessed my long-term plans a little since January, I have six clear months ahead of me in which to pursue them. And I'm keeping it even simpler than the first half of the year. I want to

  • Draft most or all of the next Mrs. Meade Mystery (working title The American Pony) in July

  • Start writing the first draft of Dearest Lieutenant by this autumn.

Plus one other project of which I can't say as much yet. I'm going to do a small CampNaNoWriMo challenge to help me along with The American Pony, but start in a little late because of family vacation this week. And I hope once I get back on a consistent writing schedule, I'll be able to be a little more consistent with blogging too.

We're halfway through 2016: how are you doing with your writing goals?

photo by myself

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

My Ten Favorite Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a freebie topic this week, and it recently dawned on me that I don't think I've ever attempted a list of my all-time favorite books. So this seemed to be a good opportunity to try it!

Anyone who really loves books knows that picking a set number of favorites is hard. There may be a handful that always fly quickly to the head of the list, but after those few, there are swarms and swarms of books that you love equally and just can't decide which are really your favorites. I chose nine for this list and then found myself with about nine more all vying for that tenth spot.

Also, I'm not claiming these are the best books I've ever read. For instance, there's no Austen or Tolstoy on this list, even though I count them among my favorite classic authors and think their books are brilliant; the reason probably being that I haven't decided which of their novels are my favorites yet (I sense the time is ripe for re-reads of Sense and Sensibility and Anna Karenina to help me decide). These ten are simply the books that are dearest to me for one reason or another, which I re-read most often and enjoy just as well every time. I shan't give commentary here, but I'll link to my review wherever I've written one.

Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart // my review

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington // my review

Complete Works by O. Henry

Tiger Eye by B.M. Bower // my review

Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther // my review

The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart

(which I have sworn to someday review, and which really deserves a new edition with a beautiful cover)

Poor, Dear Margaret Kirby and Other Stories by Kathleen Thompson Norris // my review

The Day I Became an Autodidact by Kendall Hailey // my review

Are any of these your favorites?

Friday, June 24, 2016

Left-Hand Kelly is on sale!

Looking for an addition to your summer reading list? Look no further! The Kindle edition of my short Western novel Left-Hand Kelly is on sale for just 99¢ from today through next Thursday, June 30th. Grab your copy today—and if you've already read and enjoyed the book, tell a friend!

2015 Peacemaker Award Finalist for Best Independently Published Western Novel

Sixteen-year-old Lew Kelly grew up idolizing his enigmatic ex-gunfighter father. Everyone thought Lew’s habit of practicing his quick draw was a harmless amusement—until the day when a boys’ hot-headed quarrel exploded into gunplay, with disastrous results.

Three years later, Lew is withdrawn and bitter—and he still carries a gun. When an unexpected twist of circumstances forces him to face again the memories and the aftermath of that ill-fated fight, will old wrongs be righted—or will the result be an even worse tragedy than before?
"A very difficult to put down read...Foley's characters are both complex and well developed...The tale is beautifully paced, building through tense and frantic scenes to its neat conclusion." - Western Fiction Review

* * *

BONUS: Meanwhile, Kobo is hosting a 50% off sale on all Kobo Writing Life titles, which means that you can currently get ANY (or all!) of my books for half-price at Kobo. Just use coupon code 50JUN—the sale lasts only through Monday, June 27th.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Research Diaries, Part III

Remember my first great research discovery—the difference between a DD and a DE? That seems like years ago. Since then, I've read so much about both types of ship that I think if I were to set foot on either one, I'd feel like I'd been there before. (Lord willing, I am going to set foot on the only surviving DE in existence before this project is over.)

I've determined that yes, I'm dealing with both types of ship in different parts of the story. I've roughly divided my research into about three sections, each corresponding to a part of the novel (at this stage I'm envisioning it divided into three Parts and an epilogue), and right now I'm focusing on the background for Part I: destroyers (that's DD) in the Guadalcanal campaign. It's rather funny—in order to convincingly write a given scene that may take up about ten minutes of the novel's timeline, I'll probably end up having read about ten research books.

Library ebooks, by the way, are a wonderful thing. If your library doesn't have the physical book you want, and you're not sure whether it's worth investing in a be able to check it out and start reading it on your Kindle in a matter of seconds is great. (I've also made the thrilling discovery that you can suggest digital titles for purchase if they're not in your library's digital catalogue, which is terrific for fiction reading as well as research!) My current research read is Condition Red: Destroyer Action in the South Pacific by Frederick J. Bell, which I'm thoroughly enjoying. Published while the war was still in progress, it remains vague about tactical matters and most names and places are altered or blanked out, but there's a lot of excellent "local color" about life on a destroyer—sights, sounds, emotions, tidbits about everyday shipboard life; which is exactly what a researching novelist is looking for. It's also written with a good sense of humor, as this extract demonstrates:

The other thing I'm doing at the moment is stockpiling—gathering materials for future reference. I've been filling up a favorites folder, my library wish list and a private YouTube playlist with links, photos, interviews, old magazines and pamphlets, video clips...all to be sorted out and gone through methodically when I reach the subject they relate to.

This has been particularly exciting in one respect—as I think I may have mentioned earlier, my first big "lightbulb moment" early in the project was when I decided to make the home-front setting New York State, so I could really write-what-I-know for a change. But a couple weeks ago I had a second, bigger lightbulb moment...after I'd slowly realized that randomly choosing a town I've only visited a few times was going to entail quite a bit of extra research on top of what I was already looking at. Why not set it right smack in my own hometown of Troy—where I'd have the advantage of writing about a place I already knew well geographically, and could do my historical research right on the spot? Within hours of having this idea, I'd found real-life locations that perfectly matched my imagined settings for pivotal scenes in the novel, and everything seemed to click into place at once. I've been having a great time browsing through fascinating vintage photos of the city during the 1930s and '40s, and added a lot of material relating to local history to my growing stockpile.

I've a ways to go yet. For instance, I found out that there was a USO canteen in Troy (which also clicks perfectly with some of my plot ideas), but haven't been able to find out exactly where it was located yet. (Anyone know of some good resources on the USO?) But I'm pretty much looking forward to the challenge. I have a feeling this part is going to be fun.

Part I
Part II

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Quote: The Smallest of Stories

Dare to tell the smallest of stories if you want to generate large emotions. 
                                                                 ~ William Zinsser

Monday, June 13, 2016

Soundtrack for a Story: The Mountain of the Wolf

The soundtrack for this story is a bit shorter one. When I began plotting/writing The Mountain of the Wolf, I initially didn't have any "inspiration music" at all. Then while working on the first draft, I gradually began recognizing some songs that fit, and rediscovered a classical work that suits the story's atmosphere (and coincidentally, its setting/plot) perfectly. Perhaps I'll find some more as I continue to edit, but here's what I've got for now:

Selections from Billy The Kid by Aaron Copland:

As for the story itself, it has me a little bemused at the moment. Last week I finished typing the rough draft I wrote in April, and discovered it was about five thousand words longer than I had expected. And that's with one scene (which I cravenly skipped during the first draft because I was dry of ideas) still to be added. Now, how in the world did that happen? I guess there must have been a lot more scrawled in the margins of my notebook pages than I realized. (You should have seen me as I tried to type certain pages, turning the notebook this way and that as I tried to decipher from the various margin notes and scribbled arrows and crossings-out exactly which sentence was supposed to come next.)
image: 'Silhouette of a cowboy on horseback' by Allan Grant, 1949