Friday, December 07, 2007

Writing Stuff: Novel Ideas – The Heart Stopping Newbies

I have a friend who – for the past ten or so years – has been talking about the great epic novel we should write together. I always treated this as something that in theory sounded like a lot of fun, but in practice would be some kind of writer's hell in which I would be constantly either trying to make sense out of his ideas or cringing at the prose.

Funny how we practicing writers get these self-important ideas about how good we are in relation to people who just talk about writing.

Well, this week, Steve Zurian sent me his idea of opening lines for the epic. And it is maybe the best opening paragraph I have ever read.

So now I have a whole other dilemma, or rather several. Do I try to write a second paragraph that picks up? Do I try to plot based on this first line? OMG, do I even go there when he is so obviously full of the kind of talent I have only dreamed of?

Sigh. For a long time, I have waited for his first line. Be careful what you wish for. I know he's a genius of a particular type – witty, funny, interested in a lot of disparate things, exasperating, and well-read – and he listens to the Red Army Chorus and Mannheim Steamroller with equal enthusiasm.

But I never thought he would write the perfect opening lines. They are so good I wish mightily they were mine. I can't post them here, as they belong to him, but let me assure you that they combine snap, wit, and the California freeway system.

I heard another person deliver an excerpt from their first novel at the recent Los Angeles Sisters in Crime Holiday Bash and pre-published writers' party. Mischa Adams read from her novel, Two Old Bats at the Will Reading and I damn near split a gut. I had to stifle my laughing so I could hear each line.

Now I'm really in trouble – how do I slog on with my so-called novel when there's all this incredible talent out there? Will hard work be enough? Who's gonna read my stuff when there's Steve Zurian and Mischa Adams out there?

How do you handle the doubts that crop up – the legitimate ones and the ones that are your own worst enemies?

How do you get back to your writing when real genius puts it to shame?


Good news on the weight loss front (and sides and back) – slower, but it's still coming off. I'm used to the meal plan now, but maybe my metabolism is used to it, too.

The Pomona Heritage Holiday Dinner – Several people in the historic Lincoln Park District opened their lovely craftsman homes to a progressive dinner. The food was excellent, the company diverse and the houses beautiful. Check out your own local Historical Society or Heritage group and see what beautiful surprises are lurking in your neighborhood.

The rains – it rained last week and this week. In spite of the mudslide and flash flood dangers - especially in the fire-torn areas - and the absolutely abominable traffic, the rains are so beautiful and we need the water.

Be careful out there.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Chapter Two – Find Yourself a Place

Remember Jessica Fletcher? She wrote all those murder mysteries – presumably cozies – in the comfort of her turn-of-the-century, meticulously-restored virtual mansion in the mythic and friendly New England village of Cabot Cove. In reality, it was a California coastal exterior and a rather nice studio interior, and of course, she wrote nothing as she was a fictional character herself, although the fiction persists and there is a whole mystery series written by "Jessica Fletcher" and available today.

As a well-off widow with means, she had the time to be a busybody and the money to pursue not only the murderers, but also a life of ease when it came to tapping out her tomes on that gorgeous old typewriter.

Okay, that's fiction. What do we do in real life?

In real life, we work at other jobs, take care of the house and kids, and deplore the lack of space, time, money and machines. We write in the kitchen, the dining room, a corner of the bedroom or the garage. We write at Starbuck's or in the park, or on the bus or at work. We use a pen or pencil, a big work station, a laptop, or even a typewriter.

We write cozies, hard-boiled noir, police procedurals, character studies, science fiction, film scripts, short stories, memoirs, journals, magazine articles and blogs. We write for money, for fun, for everything in between, and for our readers and ourselves.

I have been absent from the blog for almost a month – and guess what I've been doing: what, writing, you say? How about procrastinating and looking for a place to write that feels as good as the one I had back when I was working and had little time and a lot more discipline.

I needed to find myself a place, the way the dog turns around countless times on that old blanket, or the cat scratches that worn out chair pad to ribbons before settling in with a sigh.

It's got to feel right and not get in the way of writing. Pleasant, but neutral, no big distractions to block out, no spectacular views or the sound of running water (a hundred trips to the bathroom taught me this one) or the distracting smells of bread baking, dirty diapers or an incipient electrical fire.

Gotta admit, I found it – it's not to so much just the place, but the combination of the right time and a good place. For me, it's mornings in my old corner of the guest room office, with the diffused light behind me and the comforting distant sounds of the dryer and the trash guys picking up the garbage.

So try to find yours – it's half the battle.


CHAIR CUSHIONS Okay, here's the promised photo of the new cushions on the Danish chairs. In fact, here's a before and after shot, with just the edge of the old, worn out brown cushion visible – the new mid-mod pattern is beautiful, no?

WEIGHT LOSS And one more beautiful thing: my blood sugar seems to be in the normal ranges and I have lost 15 pounds.

The "before" picture is me 15 pounds ago, but the "after" picture – one of me last weekend taking pictures at an old Joseph Lautner-designed motel in Palm Desert – is a work in progress. I am determined to lose all the weight I gained a few years ago when I had the stroke. I know, it's a tiny image and I need to get a better one, but I want to lose another 10 pounds before I take a "real" picture of myself.

A Truly Beautiful Thing: Thanksgiving Dinner with my friend Nancy's family. We have had Thanksgiving with them many times over the years – and have lived through the loss of parents, in-laws and friends. But this Thanksgiving we celebrated the marriage of one of the nephews and the whole cycle of renewal and thanks.
Hope your Thanksgiving was memorable and happy.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Chapter One – Find Yourself Some Ilk

Okay, I tell myself – enough slacking off! The dishes/housework/gardening/basket weaving/doctor's appointment/video game/TV show is done. Now write. Awww, do I hafta? I don't wanna!

Back when I was working the day job from dark dawn to darker dusk, I managed to cram in a minute here and a minute there, eagerly budgeting my limited time to do something I really felt compelled to do. But there's nothing like a block of free time to make you want to do something – anything – but write.

So I broke down and did something yesterday that I haven't done for nearly a year: I attended a Sisters in Crime L.A. Chapter meeting. "Hello, my name is Kate and I'm a writer."

Okay, it was more like "Whoa, look, it's Kate – I wondered whatever happened to her!" and "Hey! I remember you!" (peers at name tag) "Oh, uh, maybe not…"

The speakers were great (check out the website for the program – the slides were grisly, but Mr. Nicholson was the nicest guy in the world) and the camaraderie was even greater. Afters, Sue Ann Jaffarian and I went out to dinner and brainstormed about short stories, novels and ideas for stories. The latter ranged from the ridiculous to the truly sublime. I came away eager to write and back on track.

So maybe what we solitary time-wasters really need is the occasional personal interaction with others of our ilk. This is great if the ilk is local. But if all your ilk are too far away for you to get to, then perhaps email and internet contact can help too.

Sue Ann's witty banter was terrific – but what really helped me was to sit there and tell her my story. "Well, there's this woman who's on vacation…" By the time I got to the guy in the Toyota with the Glock, she had all kinds of questions and suggestions. And by the time she told me about a Young Adult book she was thinking of, I was excitedly interrupting with, "Yeah, and maybe she could have an interest, like Ancient Egypt or dinosaurs or statistics or something…"

So today's blog is a bit short because I am eager to get on with my story. After all, there's got to be a connection between the guy with the gun and the lost puppy…


Gary Hamilton's party last Friday night. He's the best party host I have ever met and a genuinely nice guy.

The puppies and kitties all sleeping together in the kennel this morning. The weather has turned chilly with the loss of Daylight Savings time. The season has changed from Summer to Holiday.

I picked out the kookiest mid-century modern fabric for the new cushions on my Danish modern chairs – I'll photo them when they're done. The place is a real Jetson's house!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


FLASHES OF SPECULATION is back! Go have a loverly (and free) read today!


Last weekend I was on a panel at the Burbank Public Library with a group of interesting writers from Sisters in Crime. Gayle Bartos-Poole coordinated, and Gay Degani was our moderator. But there was no moderation among the other participants: Mari Sloan, Christa Faust, Lori Wolf and myself.

We were there to discuss what makes a story scary – and what scares us in general.

Before I go any further, I want to add that right up front, sitting with her Daddy, was a delightful ten-year-old writer named Lynette, who graciously allowed me to critique one of her own stories about poisonous plants from outer space. The inclusion of a child in the audience forced us to moderate our language, probably a good thing with me there.

Gayle brought props, so across the table we had an assortment of bones, skulls, a ghost and vintage (and handmade) Hallowe'en gear. Gayle knows how to set the scene.

Mari based much of her story, Beaufort Falls, on her Southern upbringing, which included odd relatives like a jail-matron great-granny. Her characters included a cross-dressing serial killer with a fondness for decapitation.

Christa Faust is well-known for her hard-boiled and noir work – the only female writer (so far) to have a book published by Hardcase Crime. With her diminutive figure encased in fishnet tights, a black lacy bra and a little bitty dress, her now-platinum pixie hair done up in barrettes resembling horns and her winged tattoos, she looks like the epitome of a naughty girl. She is, in fact, a sharp cookie with an even sharper wit and a tremendous amount of publishing and writing savvy (she was the only full-time writer in the group.) Put me on a panel – or in a room – with her anytime. She holds the audience spellbound and knows how to sell books, too.

Lori Wolf is a sweet and unassuming lady with a quick smile. Her books, Parrot on a Limb, and Gothic Doo-Wop blend magic realism with quirky humor. There was nothing frightening about Lori, but her books send shivers up my spine. And she knows how to tell a ripping good story.

Gay Degani was a bang-up moderator – she and I will co-host a short story panel at the San Dimas Public Library on November --. Funny, frightening and a skilled writer, her stories have recently appeared in Landmarked for Murder (with me!) and in the new Little Sisters in Crime anthology.

So what scares us to death?

Well, zombies and vampires and creatures (or plants) from outer space.

Stephen King, Dean Koontz and all the usual suspects, of course. And Edgar Allen Poe.

And we discussed the current vogue of over-the-top violence movies and stories, the disgust-me-with-gore trends which feed a different sort of appetite.

But there's something else. The scariest things are not the ones busily going bump in the night. The scariest things of all are what Christa called the Adult Fears: loneliness, the fear of betrayal, and failing health. The loss of a loved one, a child or beloved partner. War and its inevitable and appalling consequences. Financial destitution. And this week, in my area, the great equalizer of rampaging and indiscriminate fires. The things that really scare us are sometimes too difficult to write about in our usual stories.

Our scary stories offer us a way of dealing with the real horror of our everyday lives in a way that lessens the real fears even as we are reaching for a light to snap on while enjoying Stephen King.

So enjoy the season of scary stories, and the thrill of bumps in the night that can't really hurt you.

And temper your own scary stories with hope.


Being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Now I can deal with it. I was so afraid my symptoms were of something much, much worse (see above.) I am enjoying my new meal plan and have lost 7 of the pounds I so desperately need to lose. And I feel terrific!

Being back to the blog – I have been gone for three weeks of mostly medical stuff. Now I'm looking forward to getting back to my writing.

A flock of Canada geese flying overhead yesterday, escaping the smoke of the fires. Film of people rescuing horses from the flames. A kind and generous soul who opened her several acres in a fire-free zone to house and care for animals endangered by the fires.

The best in people always comes out in adversity.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Where do you do your writing?

I try to write at work sometimes, but it just doesn't work out. I need to write in the area I have created for myself at home. Non-writers don't always understand how this works.

"Why don't you just write at work?" they ask. "You know, when things are slow…"

Well, things are seldom slow, I need peace and quiet, I like my own keyboard, and where's my drink? Oh, and I don't like to be interrupted, especially by email, the phone or my boss.

And I don't want it to bite me, either, somewhere down the line when someone throws it up snottily with a, "Well, we were working, but Kate, you know, was writing." It's pretty much right up there with conducting your own home porn business from work - even though everyone is secretly interested and almost all of them think they could do it.

So I write at home. I have a nifty little setup in a spare bedroom with a desk and a nice chair and enough space for the computer, a drink and a snack. No one bothers me in there, either.

My space will become even niftier when I get the garage remodel done and move my "office" out there where I can construct a mammoth desk and have immediate access to the outdoors, a small refrigerator and the laundry area. I get ideas while doing the laundry, okay? Nothing like dirty clothes to get the brain working…

But we are not all the same. I have seen other writers on the go: at Starbuck's or the local coffee shop, at the Library, the park and the Mall. I have seen them sitting in their cars, laptops balanced between bites of some kind of fast food, or typing away waiting to pick up their kids.

So, tell me. Where do you write? And what would your dream writing space be? And would it include the sweet, gentle sound of the dryer?


The flight of the big and little birds. I saw three herons in flight this morning. Yesterday I watched the Hummingbird Wars at the new feeders.

Tiny flowers creeping through the garden, most of them deliberately planted, but a few interesting volunteers.

A cocktail party at my friend Linda Garner's beautiful mid-century house. Exquisite house, fun guests, lots of great food and drinks!

Monday, September 17, 2007


Well, maybe I just forgot to have my character complete an action which - if left unaccomplished - would have catastrophic or unintentionally funny consequences in the real world. Or maybe I rewrote something, forgetting that everything in the known universe is connected, and when I didn't correct everything down the line, the whole thread of existence was threatened.

Loose ends need some tying up, or at least a sort of gathering and tucking.

Some memorable examples from personal experience:

The Romance That Went Nowhere. In this scenario, a Main Character or a strong supporting character has a romantic twinge or encounter of some sort. In the real world, they would follow up on this, but in The Book (you know, the one you're writing) you forgot all about it and it just disappeared. Wait a minute - that kiss meant something, didn't it? Didn't it?

The Zombie Subplot. You are just typing along, doing revisions and edits like crazy, and that subplot you decided to get rid of gets excised thanks to highlight and delete. Well, most of it, anyway. But the reference to it three chapters on is still there, a lonely undead reference to confusion…

I Love You. What's Your Name Again? Naming characters is such a personal thing. Baby books, phone books, your relatives and favorite writers, characters and pets can all provide inspiration. But if you decide to re-name someone, remember to change all references to that particular name. I have read real, published books where the MC starts out with one name and inexplicably has another midway through the action.

Only Her Hairdresser Knows for Sure. It was like the name - when you changed your MC's name from Betty Sue to Magdalena, you changed her golden locks to raven tresses. Or maybe you just forgot what color her hair was when you referred to her shiny brown bob in Chapter Two, but had the handsome and daring Brash Hardly grabbing her long, titian hair in Chapter Four. Oh, and was Brash always bald?

The History Time Forgot. Sometimes I do a little data dump of history up front, getting warmed up for the real story later. Parts of this historical essay can be important later on, but other parts, like her father's occupation or the story about a childhood trauma, might just be me, setting the stage for myself. If they stick out and have no relevance to the story, go back and get rid of them or they'll distract your reader, who somewhere is still wondering about those historical incidents that never showed up again.

The Stuff You Left Out Went Bad. Sometimes it's the other side of the coin you have to worry about. Don't leave out the important details because you know them. If it doesn't get written, how can your reader know?

Now, did I forget to turn off the printer before I left the house? You know how those old bits of electronics heat up…


A fabulous dinner party at my friend Nancy's. Five of us celebrating with excellent food, a wonderful lime cake, and a promise of more celebrating in a few weeks.

Getting all the laundry done throughout the day and ending up with everything clean and folded. Clean sheets on the bed!

Happy Birthday to my friend Bill Sanders - an icon of the furniture design world, raconteur extraordinaire and all-around great guy. And I loved his new haircut, too!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


The writing is so good it absorbs me.

I am walking the Cornish seacoast, choppy wind in my hair, thinking about hot cups of tea. Thank you, P.D. James - you put me right in there, eyes welling with tears.

Or maybe I am thrown back into my old Counterintelligence days, thinking about how interconnected tradecraft techniques are, especially when peripheral people are drawn into a job, or when you recognize something on the other side of the fence that you always thought was yours alone. Thank you, William Gibson - you got my stomach in knots, sweating over the old paranoias.

Getting drawn in is what it's all about. Losing yourself in the story - it's why you read, isn't it?

And isn't it why you write, too?


The Calendar that tells me I only have thirteen more work days left.

The dish of M&Ms on the coffee table. Only a few at a time are disappearing - DH & I are both being very controlled and sensible. Besides, I remember that time I went face down in 5lbs. of them.

Rum cakes from Tortuga Rum. I just ordered a chocolate one for someone special's birthday.

I know it's September 11. I'll remember the past, but I won't let it stop me. The future is too important.

Friday, August 31, 2007


I'm stuck again on my ms - this is a recurring problem and it makes me restless and irritated and sends me out looking for something - anything - to do that doesn't involve writing.

So I play the "what if" game. I make myself play at least ten times a go. Here it is, as I played it this morning:

What if my MC, a nice middle-aged lady sorta like me only much more brave when it comes to looking in peoples' windows or talking to strangers or going off into the woods alone at night than I am, knocks on the door of the dilapidated house and:

1. Nothing much happens. No one's home.

2. The little girl who lost her dog answers, is delighted to be reunited with Fluffy, and the music for happy endings starts to play.

3. No one answers, so she looks in the window and sees that the house is empty.

4. No one answers, so she looks in the window and sees some pretty awful furniture and a living room really ready for Candace Olson's Divine Design or Trading Spaces. Clear plastic slipcovers are on the 1970's orange crushed velvet couch, and an overflowing olive green ceramic ashtray is still smoldering. A paisley caftan covers the part of the body visible on the floor. A pair of scarred and veiny legs stick out from it, with ugly, misshapen toes painted in chipped layers of Revlon's Fire 'n' Ice nail polish.

5. No one answers, so she looks in the window and sees the words "Go Away Doggies" scrawled in blood across the far wall. A tiny headless mannequin slumps in a corner, awash in more blood. At least it looks like a mannequin...

6. No one answers, and the front windows are curtained, so she goes around to the back door, which is wide open, and swinging off its hinges.

7. No one answers, so she goes around to the back. There is no back door, and the two small windows are high off the ground and appear to be painted shut. The unpainted cellar door is chained and locked with an old rusty padlock. She hears the whimpering of a small animal, and realizes it is not the little dog in her arms. She puts the little dog down and it runs through the waist-high weeds, yipping at the noise which seems to be coming from a shed.

8. A pretty lady in an apron opens the door and smiles. Our MC is swept in on a cloud of fresh coffee and Chanel 19 into a spotless living room. Music plays softly and the coffee table is set with an old-fashioned coffee service, china plates and freshly-baked scones. Sunlight streams through the windows, and our MC wonders why the outside of the house is such a mess when the inside looks like the cover of Better Homes and Gardens circa 1959.

9. A sound of crashing and shouting is heard, then a woman in sweats with her hair tied back in a scarf answers the door. "Well? What do you want?" she demands. "If you're selling something, just turn your butt around right now and get the hell out!" The woman looks behind her into the dim, foul-smelling gloom. "And you just stay right where you are Missy, if you don't want another taste of that switch! Little bastard, you drive me crazy!"

10. She waits for a few minutes, then knocks again. A shuffling noise can be heard inside, a sort of slow dragging. Then the locks on the door are undone slowly, one by one. She counts five. That's a lot of locks for one run-down little house at the edge of nowhere, she thinks. What do you need all those locks out here for? The door creaks a little as it opens, just a tight hinge, not a full-fledged Halloween scary noise. But enough to give her an involuntary shudder.

Okay, if that doesn't get you started, I don't know what will. Which one do you think I went with? Or maybe I just kept on going and wrote something completely different.

The point is, I wrote something. And once you get going, you just keep on until you run out of steam or have to go to the bathroom.


We put some low-voltage lighting in the back this week - the timber bamboo lit from underneath looks beautiful.

I checked the calendar - only four more weeks at this job, then off to new things.

We had a short but intense electrical storm Wednesday night. It is a highly unusual thing to happen here, but the sky was very beautiful. And the little dogs got to come in and hide under the covers.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


I got asked a question the other day - someone wanted to know if it was okay to use a real town, with real places and real people, in a work of fiction.

Well, yes, it is.

But if you are going to use real stuff, you need to get it right. Here are a few hints.

SETTINGS: Real places can lend a lot of verisimilitude to a fictional work. I used to live in Pasadena, CA and I loved seeing landmarks in print. Wow, I thought, they're on the corner of Del Mar and California! What a thrill! These characters are in my town!

But wait - Del Mar and California run parallel - there is no corner of those two streets. The irritation I felt was out of proportion to the booboo, and it made me want to put the book down. A simple drive-by - or look-see at a map - would have fixed it. The author lost credibility with me in that instant.

If you are setting your story in a real place, it's okay to make up the details: Smokey Joe's Bar and Grill might be a figment of your imagination. Your characters may live in buildings that don't really exist in the real town. They might work at fictional shops, factories, offices or clinics, or eat at fictional taco stands or drink in fictional hotel bars. They might shop in real stores, though. They might pull into the real gas station or the real dry cleaners or the real post office.

So how do you know what to make fictional and when to use the real thing?

If you are using a real town for your setting, use just enough detail to set the mood. You don't need to describe every single thing, but there should be something about this place - a mood, a season, its geographical position or history - that makes you want to set something there in the first place. So be accurate geographically and with any major landmarks. If you use real streets, be familiar with them and know where they go. Know which neighborhoods are residential and which are commercial or deserted or where the wharf is. Know why you want to use it as a setting.

If you use real stores or businesses, remember they are your background, not your story. Don't bad mouth real businesses. If your character has a bad experience in a store or diner or somewhere, make it fictional. You don't want to libel anyone's business. Your fictional story does not depend on absolute reality of setting, so only use it as a seasoning.

PEOPLE: What about using real people in your fiction? Can you do this? Well, yes.

Public and historical figures may be used in your fiction. Keep in mind that these were/are real people and as such, may be used for mood. But be careful - you do not want hordes of lawyers screwing up your story.

You may mention public figures: "Mayor Quimby's office was in the historic City Hall, and the Mayor was strolling the gardens. He was an imposing figure and he waved to us as we passed." No problem there. "He eyed my companion and I suddenly remembered all the gossip about his sex-offender status." Okay, not so good. Don't malign public figures as they can sue you.

You may mention celebrities: "We hoped to see Brad Pitt, but all we got were glimpses of Dr. Phil and Scarlett Johanssen." "I thought it was Melanie, but it turned out to be Cher walking a small dog." Watch what you say - a lot of celebrities make a lot of money by suing folks who print inaccurate or awful stuff about them. If you need to be mean, make up a celeb.

Historic figures: Okay, here you have much more leeway as most of these folks are dead. The dead can't sue you for libel. You can have them in lots of situations, by name.

TRADEMARKS & CORPORATIONS: In the movies, this is known as product placement. It's tricky!

If the product must be named - Coke ™ instead of cola, Kleenex ™ instead of tissue, you gotta use that little trademark symbol and use the product name correctly. If you refer to companies, use their corporate names correctly and watch what you or your characters say about them. If you need to crash a plane, poison a town or expose a scandal, use a fictional company. If you attribute unsavory things to a real company, they can sue you.

And keep in mind the world changes. Remember 2001: A Space Odyssey? Pan Am was the carrier. Uh, Pan Am is long gone.

So, you can use reality in your fiction to help make it believable. I love reading stories set in places I know, with reality sprinkled in liberally in the form of real cars and real foods and other real stuff. It gives me a connection with the characters and the story. But your writing needs to be so good that everything in your story can be made up and still make me suspend my disbelief for the whole satisfying experience.

I look forward to reading your story - but don't have anyone meeting on the corner of Del Mar and California in Pasadena, okay?


The irrigation ditches, drying up from the weeks of high temperatures and drought, and choked with duckweed, but still providing a weird sanctuary for the few remaining water birds.

The new glass in our clerestory windows - it's so clean!

The chocolate cake at the local fast food joint. Heaven!