Monday, January 27, 2014

Using Real Life in Your Writing

Saturday, I had a fun afternoon planned with some special friends. We were going to have a “girls day” at the movies and see the critically-acclaimed August: OsageCounty that has finally made its way to our small-town multiplex. With low temperatures and high winds, it wasn’t the most ideal of days for it. But, once you are inside a cozy theater caught up in a movie, who cares about the weather?

I live ten miles outside of the town and as I departed my home at a little before noon, it was windy and cold, but only the slightest of snow was blowing. One of the friends I was meeting had texted me about 30 minutes earlier that the winds were horrible, but I didn’t think anything about it. I was excited to be with friends and see acting favorites Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.

But, as a drove toward my destination, the weather changed dramatically. Snow had begun to fall and what wasn’t sticking to the roads seemed to be doing a dance on top of it. The wind created a shimmering effect that was mesmerizing. Once into the town limits, my cell phone began ringing and beeping as my friends were discovering the same curtain of weather that I was. We would not see our movie. We would travel home in case the weather turned even worse. I was sad, but safety was more important.

Slowly and carefully, I made my way home, keeping watchful eyes on the roadway and the drivers around me. But my mind, my mind was imprinting itself with what my eyes were seeing. If found myself speaking out loud, writing a verbal description of the unique way that the weather was presenting itself. I wanted to save it to use in a description and I did just that.

Many people who have read my novels have asked how much of what I write comes from real life. It’s a hard question to answer. I doubt that there is a writer, living or dead, who hasn’t used something out of their own life in the stories they create. More frequently, I believe that writers take a spoonful of real and dip it into their cup of fiction. It’s how well they stir it that really helps “tell the tale.”

I’ve heard it said that there are no new stories, just new ways of telling them. I think the premise behind that is correct. Writers borrow the basic frame of a story and then put their own personal twist on it, intentionally or not. Is not the modern story of Harry Potter and his two friends similar in many ways to the saga of Dorothy and the three who help her on the Yellow Brick Road? The creativity comes in how the writer takes that skeleton and builds the body of the story to be its own unique individual.

So, I took a little real life and now it has a place in the upcoming fourth installment of the Legends of Graham Mansion series. Someone will drive through a winter storm and you will see through their eyes what I saw through mine.

I really would have rather seen Meryl, but that will have to be a story for another day.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Confessions of an Awards Show Junkie

I am an awards show junkie.

Okay, there, I’ve said it. It is the first step toward recovery.

I love award shows, well, that’s not entirely true. I love certain award shows, namely those that honor motion pictures. That means that tonight I am watching the first show in the season, the Golden Globes (this show also honors television work, but that’s okay, it makes for an interesting audience). I will be watching the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards next weekend and will ultimately work my way to the crème a la crème, the Academy Awards most commonly known as the Oscars!

Is it the glitz and the glamour? Well, maybe, but I think mostly it is the honoring of the craft of creative arts. For those of you who read my blog in its previous life, you know that I have a semi-secret wish. I would love to be a screenwriter. As a writer, it would have been a dream come true. Let me explain. I see the scenes in my stories as you would see the scenes of a movie. They flash before my eyes like they are rolling across a big screen and then come out the tips of my fingers. It’s a delightful experience, except when it occurs in my dreams, over and over again.

If you have been reading my series, Legends of Graham Mansion, you know that in the second book, AMBITION, there is a scene in the book where David Graham is at a grave in the pouring rain. This scene came to me in a dream. I wasn’t quite that far in the writing of the story, but it kept visiting me each night until one night I just got up and wrote it and poof! I never had that dream again. In that book, word for word is a description of how that scene played out in my head. It is that simple.

So, I have been blessed to see these wonderful characters and stories that I have been writing like my own private movies. I guess that makes me feel a kinship to those creative people who take the words of talented writers and bring them to life on the screen, whether big or small. The actors and actresses, the directors and cinematographers, but, most of all, the screenwriters who create the stories that take you on a journey to another life.

I admit that the beautiful dresses and sleek tuxedos are dazzling as they pass down the long red carpet. Seeing the actors and actresses as closer to the real people they actually are and watching their faces as they wait for those life-changing words, “and the winner is,” is exciting. It’s all a grand illusion and over in a few short hours. But, it’s the stuff dreams are made of and maybe that’s what attracts me most of all. Dreams, we all have them, whether we are willing to admit it or not. They become are friends or enemies depending on how far we are willing to go to make them come true.

My dream screenplay for my blockbuster film would most likely be a heartwarming story with a dab of humor and at least one good cry. It would star Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks with a long list of supporting actors that you all know and love and a few new faces, just getting their start. It would be filmed in Virginia, of course, because it is for Film Lovers. It would be directed by a cutting edge director who could see the story as I dreamed it and make it even better than I imagined. And, the score of the film would have a delightful cornucopia of music including at least, you know what’s coming, one selection sung by Elvis Presley.

So, now that I have made my confession. I encourage all of you to watch those award shows in the next few weeks. Culminating with the Oscars on Sunday, March 2. Experience the glitz and glamour, the anticipation, learn about all of the movies that you missed when they graced the big screen, but will soon have the opportunity to watch via the wonders of DVD or video streaming.

And, mark your calendars for the 2044 awards season. Perhaps, in 30 years, at the young age of 78, I will finally have reached my goal and be able to grace that red carpet…and the Oscar goes to…

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Paying It Forward

I recently had the opportunity to speak to an Advanced Senior English class at a local high school. The teacher, an old friend, asked me to talk about writing. She had heard me speak last summer at the awards ceremony for the Chautauqua Festival’s creative writing competition. She thought that some of the ideas I had left with that group might inspire her young writing students. What she didn’t realize is how much it would inspire me.

As I mentally prepared for the presentation, I thought about my own Advanced Senior English class and the wonderfully inspiring teacher who made such a positive impression on me. Her name was Mrs. Doris Hudson. She not only taught English, but drama as well and was the advisor of the school’s forensics team. Needless to say, I was involved in all three of those endeavors and eagerly soaked up her knowledge and encouragement. As the years have passed, I have wondered where she was. She left the area not long after I graduated high school, possibly for one of Carolinas. I especially wished I could find her, when I published my first book. I would love to send her a copy. She is a very good memory of my teenage years.

I thought back to how it felt to be that age. You give off the opinion that you think you know everything and all the adults around you know nothing. I don’t really think that most of these teens, then and now, really truly in their hearts feel that way. They just begin to realize that they know that adulthood is around the corner. They want so desperately for those “older folks” to not see them as children. They want to begin to be accepted as equals. What we realize later in life is that we never exactly get accepted as equal by those who are older than us, especially when it is 20 or 30 years or more. Because, that age difference never goes away. It just seems different to us as we live the adult life with them.

They were a stoic audience at first. Polite, but bored. I knew that the only real way to reach them, to convince them to consider what I was saying, was by making the presentation conversational, by making them laugh.

I told them that no matter what profession they went into, they would be writing every day. Even that excuse that they were going to have to come up with on Friday night when they got home late would be writing. They would have to carefully choose their words and form their story to have any hope that their parents would believe them. I could see the smiles in the room after that. Maybe this older lady (sigh, that’s me) is okay. Maybe she has something worthwhile to say.

I gave them examples of professions where good basic writing skills could have powerful ramifications, such as a police officer writing up a complex report regarding an investigation or the nurse who must write clear, concise sentences about someone’s medical condition.

For those who wanted to be professional writers, the advice was simple. Write every day. Allow yourself to be edited and critiqued. It’s the difference between success and failure. And, don’t just follow that age old adage to “write what you know.” Personally, I think it is some of the worst advice ever given to writers. Write about what you don’t know. That’s what will stretch your creativity. That’s what will hone your skills.

I approached my short time with them as a means to “pay it forward,” as a movie of the same name illustrated a few years ago. I hoped that I had reached some of them, in some small way. I hoped I had made a difference. Within an hour after I left, I got a message from my friend, the teacher, saying that her students loved it! And then came a quote from one of the young ladies in the room about me. “Now, she is just somebody I would like to go to dinner with!”

I made a connection. That young person understood what I was trying to convey and got enough of a glimpse of my personality that she found me interesting. How rare is that with a thirty-year age difference! It’s one of the nicest compliments I have ever received.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Finding My Own Redemption

I started this blog a couple of years ago with a desire to explore my creative writing again after many years of focusing on non-fiction technical writing. I thought it would be a great way to start a dialogue between myself and others and give me a bar of accountability to reach. Well, be careful what you wish for…

As many of you know, I embarked on a creative adventure in 2012. That journey has resulted in the creation of three novels in the last 20 months, with two more slated for release in 2014. What was a fragment of a goal two years ago is now a surprising reality!

I’ve commented many times in the last two years that sometimes we are in a moment of crossroads. It probably occurs more frequently than we realize, but all too often we don’t recognize it. Somewhere deep inside me I knew that I had the ability to write a novel, but there was never that push, that spark to make it happen. There was certainly never a deadline.

Those of you who know me personally know that I really love to help people. I thrive on encouraging others, helping them reach goals. This became part of this miraculous writing journey for me when a casual acquaintance approached me with an interesting challenge. Her dream of wanting a fiction series to honor the history of the historic property that she managed has turned into a creative adventure beyond my wildest dreams. It is amazing what can happen when you start out to help someone else with their dream, you might just create one of your own.

And so began the Legends of Graham Mansion series. We’ve taken a little history, a little mystery and we’ve added a twist in time. Book One, Redemption, was released in September 2012 followed by the next two volumes, Ambition and Deception, in 2013. My fingers are typing away on the fourth installment. Salvation will be released this spring, with the last of the five-part series, Revelation, coming out in the fall.

I swear I didn’t realize I had it in me. The ability to write so much so quickly on nights and weekends. The first book began and by midway, I realized, the title would have a dual meaning. I was finding my own redemption. You see, life has a way sometimes of stifling your dreams. You get caught up in building a life, a home, a career, and you let that flow overtake you. I’ve been blest with all of those things and have worked hard to make them realities, but in doing so I let them overshadow some of what was at the core of me.

Recently, I was on an interview panel to hire a marketing person for a regional position. Of course, you are looking for someone who can think quickly on their feet, who can adapt to whatever is thrown their way. I asked the candidates this question. What is one word or phrase that you would use to describe yourself? After the interview day was over and I was driving home, I thought about that question and how I would answer it. How I would I sum myself up? Of course, there are many ways that others might answer that about me. Their own perspectives and experiences with me would taint their choices. This thought has been mulling in my mind for a couple of weeks now. An assortment of words come to mind as I think about different aspects of my life, but I keep coming back to one word. No matter if it is a work-related situation or a personal project, there’s one adjective that I keep coming back to…creative.

The dictionary defines creative as having the quality or power of creating; resulting from the originality of thought; imaginative…yep, that’s me. Always thinking, always imagining, always looking for another way, another solution, another possibility…the engrained desire to create something new, bigger, different.

And I’d lost a little of that, along the way, as it applied to the core ability that I believe I have—writing. I was constantly writing for work or an occasional freelance project, but I wasn’t creating the characters and the worlds and the stories that lie deep within. I needed a little redemption, and I think I may be finding it.