My Ideal Idea Book – What’s Yours?

Most writers have some method for recording ideas, making location notes, or maybe even sketching out a scene.  What’s yours? Mine must be portable as I never know when a good idea will start rattling around in my head.  I go for walks and just think about my current project.  Scene ideas will pop into my head, a whole new story idea might come up, or maybe I’ll have a great dialog idea.  I’ve got to write it down.

For most, the tools are a notebook and ball-point pen, though I’m not alone in being particular about my writing utensils.  What makes me anguish a bit more than most over this idea is that in addition to being a writer, I’ve got a fountain pen fetish.  If I’m going to put ink to paper; it’s got to be done with a fountain pen.

Fountain pens generate special challenges.  Those of us afflicted refer to the perfect triad of paper, pen and ink as though it were some magic potion, and I suppose it is, as a great pen only writes well with the proper ink on the proper paper and finding this combination is much of the fun of writing with fountain pens.

I’ve tried many combinations and I’ve found the ideal combination for my needs.  The goal is actually more complicated than just finding pen, ink, and paper that work together as I’m a guy.  I have no purse.  Some might say I have no brain.  So in addition to the general need for pen/ink/paper compatibility, I need:

1) The pen needs to be cheap because I’m prone to losing them.

2) The notebook must be small enough to fit in my back pocket.

3) The ink needs to dry quickly as I need to be able to make notes and shove the notebook back in my pocket without smearing.

Here’s my solution.  All of this stuff, except for the Moleskine notebook, is available from my favorite fountain pen store, Goulet Pens.   Nicest people on the planet and they provide a fantastic online shopping experience.

Cheap Pen & Quick-Drying Ink

Platinum Preppy pens are simply the best bargain ever.  With a street price around four bucks, they provide a smooth-writing pen and a natural for a portable, cheap pen system.   If you lose one it’s not a burden to replace it.

Platinum cartridges have a small ball inside them that help to keep ink flow even when the pen hangs out in my pockets for long periods of time.  The problem is the ink, which isn’t bad, but I’m fussy about my ink.  Goulet Pens has a tutorial that talks about converting a Preppy to an eye-dropper pen (you fill the entire barrel with ink) and I’ve done that.  While I’ve never had one leak, I don’t like the idea of carrying them in my pants pocket and elimination of the cartridges also means elimination of the small ball in the cartridge.

But it’s easy enough to use a syringe to fill any cartridge and that’s the approach I use.  My ink of choice for portability is Noodler’s Bernanke Blue (also comes in black).  It flows well from Preppies and it dries almost as quickly as I can lay it down.

Small Notebook size

The critical dimension for my portable notebook is that it must fit in my back pocket.  Thus, Levis determines my notebook size.  I use a Moleskine notebook as it fits well.  I have tried a Rhodia Webnotebook as the paper is superior but it’s just enough larger that it’s uncomfortable to carry on my butt.  If that’s not a problem for you, I highly recommend this notebook.  So, for me, Moleskine it is and my ideas are captured and I get to enjoy writing with a fountain pen.  What do you use to record your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

Coexist by Julie Crane

Consider this writing task.  Write a young adult novel with a cast of young girls and the occasional hunky guy.  Have them live in a modern computer world, interacting with each other on Facebook.  Oh, and don’t forget to include an elf war.

How would you do that?  I’d give Julia Crane a call.  She’s got more experience with this than the rest of us and she does an amazing thing: she makes it believable.

Coexist starts with Keegan, an teenage elf and her family who are, not surprisingly, also elves.  Elves have their mates chosen for them and she’s thinking about him, whoever he is.  But elves coexist with normal humans, beings without the powers of elves.  And thus the story begins.

Crane weaves a tale of Keegan’s balancing act between living the life of a human teenager while hiding her elfen heritage, her destiny, and her brother’s destiny, which is to have a role in resolving the impending elven war between the light and dark elves.

I’d like to tell you more but that wouldn’t be fair, would it?  If you enjoy young adult fantasy, get this book.  Read it.  You won’t be disappointed.

I’m An Author – I Make Stuff Up

One of the great things about being a fiction author is that you get to make stuff up, or as Lawrence Block put it, “you get to lie for a living.”  We create worlds, or recreate existing worlds, sculpt characters and provide them situations.  We’re limited only by our imagination.

As authors we’re told to “write what you know” but I write mysteries without having murdered anyone, or even been near a murderer.  I doubt that those writing about knights fighting dragons have experienced their words either.  We make stuff up.

But occasionally this comes back to bite an author.  Sometimes readers believe that we “write what we know.”  And such was the case when my brother and his wife Kathie came to visit (see here for some coverage of that event).  They had both read Her Book of Shadows which made their visit particularly fun.  The setting for my mystery series is Quebec City so as we wandered the town, seeing the sights, I could point out the various scene locations of the book.

Then it happened.  We were walking along my river, the St. Charles River and the topic of cooking came up.  Kathie said, “I need to get your recipe for broccoli chicken.”  Because I’m old and have a hard time remembering my birthday, it took me a few beats to figure out what she was talking about.  Then the light went on.  She was referring to this passage from Her Book of Shadows.

 

From Chapter Seventeen: I chopped the broccoli into small bits, using only the tops of the flower heads. I threw them into a bowl, grated Parmesan into it, added bread crumbs, lemon juice and some olive oil, creating a broccoli paste. I poured myself a glass of wine and added some to my mixture, adding more bread crumbs to maintain the paste consistency.

I sliced into one side of each chicken breast and filled the slot with broccoli paste, closing up the slot and holding it together with a couple toothpicks. I basted the exteriors with a bit of olive oil, sprinkling them with tarragon and a bit of pepper and I set the oven at 350F.

My protagonist, Scott Riker is making dinner for his family and one of the minor themes of the book is that he’s a decent cook.  The problem here is that this “recipe” was a figment of my imagination.  It wasn’t following that advice to “write what you know.”  I was “making stuff up.”  And so I was a bit embarrassed to admit that I’d never made stuffed broccoli chicken, though I was inwardly thrilled that it had seemed so believable.

But I like Kathie a lot.  She likes broccoli and so do I.  So, here’s how to make Riker’s famous Broccoli-stuffed Chicken.  And while I never measure anything when I cook, I did so in this case to provide some quantities:

Ingredients

chicken breasts (3-4)

broccoli (1 cup of broccoli buds)
parmesan cheese (2 tablespoons)
bread crumbs (1 tablespoon)
lemon juice (1 tablespoon)
olive oil (enough to turn the rest into a loose paste)
* I also mixed bread crumbs, parmesan and tarragon for use in coating the exterior of the chicken

The Process

I mixed the broccoli paste in a small bowl.  It doesn’t become a tight paste because of the broccoli but this result can be spooned into chicken breasts that have had a pocket sliced into them.  I apologize that my kitchen isn’t set up for high-quality photography but here’s a photo of the paste to give you an idea of its consistency.

I spooned the paste into the pockets and  basted the chicken breasts with olive oil.  I sprinkled the bread crumb coating* on top.  The chicken was transferred to a lined baking sheet that I’d painted with olive oil so they wouldn’t stick.  This is how they looked as I  stuffed them into a 375F oven.

About 45-minutes later, this is what they looked like.  Within half an hour they had disappeared and my family was all smiles.

I admit that I do cook, so maybe when I’m making stuff up about Scott Riker cooking, I’m also “writing what I know.”

 

Beautiful Quebec And Family Visits

It’s been a week since I’ve posted but finally I have a good excuse.  All those other times I was just goofing off.  My brother and his lovely wife came to town.

This might not seem like much to those of you who actually get to see their families on a regular basis but for me, it was a special treat.  As much as I love Quebec City, it’s roughly 3000 miles from my “home”, which is (was?) in Arizona.  Most of my family still resides there and it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen my brother.  While I won’t waste your time with details of our visit, I thought I’d share a few of the snapshots I took as we wandered parts of Quebec City.

We started on the Plains of Abraham.  This is a very large park that used to be a farmer’s field, Mr. Abraham’s field to be precise.  But then the British climbed the cliffs, the French came out of the walled city.  They both brought guns.  Now, Mr. Abraham’s field commemorates the battle that saw the British take control of Quebec City.  Unless you’re a historian, all of the battles that preceded this 22 minute interaction, and the months of bombardment, are lost in the pages of history books.

What is not lost is the beauty of the place.  Not only are there rolling hills and tall trees, there is an extraordinary garden, called…wait for it…the Battlefield Park Garden. For reasons unknown to me, a statue of Jean d’Arc looks down upon it.  It’s a copper statue much like the Statue of Liberty so I’m guessing it was a gift from France at some point.  Ignorance am me.

From there we headed to Rue Cartier, a wonderful street filled with small shops and restaurants.  We were foraging.  The photo is of my brother, his wife and my daughter.  They’re smiling because the food is on its way and hopeful that this will be the last time I have them pose for a photo.

After lunch we visited the Citadel. Quebec City is, or was a very strategic location, the walled city sits on a point, high above the St. Lawrence and this is the place where the Gulf of St. Lawrence shrinks down into what is to become the St. Lawrence Seaway.  This access point is very narrow and so anyone with a pop-gun could defend it against invading ships, which is one of the reasons it was so hard for the British to invade in the first place.

But invade they did and when those rebels in the US started shooting at Red Coats and dumping tea in Boston Harbor, the British in Canada got worried.  When those same infidels tried to invade Canada, they were even more convinced.  They used a French fort design and constructed a great fort to defend against American invasion. 

This fort is now the home of a French-Canadian regiment, the 22nd, which has a long and illustrious history.  The fort has never been attacked, at least not by a military.  Annually, however, tourists invade to tour the place, see the museum displays and to buy pieces of wood, plastic and paper.  These “souvenirs” are smuggled from the country, to rot in closests around the world.  It’s really amazing but very good for the Quebec economy.  Last weekend, we were part of the invasion force.

No visit to Quebec is complete without enjoying the fabulous architecture.  The “castle” as most call it is actually the Chateau Frontenac, a huge luxury hotel built long ago.

It’s currently having the upper roof replaced and not wanting the view disrupted too badly, they wrapped the area with large canvases painted to resemble the hotel behind them.  From a distance, it was surprisingly effective.

We saw statues…lots of statues.  This one is of Sam Champlain.  While French folks were living in the Quebec City area long before he showed up, he was an organizer… a doer.  He is considered the founder of the city so he gets a big statue.

In front of the Chateau Frontenac is a long promenade that is absolutely delightful.  There are a number of reasons for this, not the least being that you can buy ice cream cones there.  I guess, though, that most people go there to look down on the St. Lawrence which is a couple hundred feet below.  It’s quite a sight.

This is a photo of my wife and I, in our go-to-market clothes.  You’d think we could get dressed up to show family around but we’re a casual lot here in Quebec.

I’m sad to say that while we went other places, I seemed to run out of motivation to take photos so there are no more.  I’ll try to take others before the snow flies.

Cheers — Larry

Blooming Quebec, Why Doesn’t Everyone Live Here?

Winters are hard in Quebec City.  It sits at the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the wind blows and the snow falls sideways.  During winter we have only eight hours of daylight.  Many of my friends wonder why anyone would want to live here and, along with fellow Quebecers, so do I when February rolls around.

But when summer arrives, we get the answer.  Sometimes it’s unbearably hot with high temperatures (winter temps by the standards of this Arizona-raised boy) and humidity readings that match them.  But most of summer is idyllic.  It’s time to sit outdoors, stand outdoors, and for the adventurous, move around outdoors.

I’m a walker, myself and this is the time I enjoy my river, the Riviere St. Charles.  The province has created what they refer to as a linear park along some 32 kilometers of the river.  There are walking trails that wind their way along the river, sometimes through forests, sometimes along more urban trails, skirted with well-maintained gardens.  And there are the flowers….oh my goodness, what flowers.

 

Book Highlight – Game 7: Deadball by Allen Schatz

I love baseball.  Here in Quebec most people are hockey fans but I prefer to more deliberate nature of baseball.  The rhythm of the game is as relaxing as home runs and double plays are exciting.  And, right now, it’s the baseball season.  What better time to read a baseball book so when I came across Allen Schatz’s Game 7: Deadball, I had to click the ‘buy me’ button.

Author’s Book Description

Secrets, lies, and revenge provide the sparks that ignite a fiery collision between past and present…

A puzzle takes shape as baseball’s World Series unfolds, but the pieces don’t fit: a string of missing women, strange threats, gambling problems, kidnappings, and relationships long dormant are all somehow connected, but Marshall Connors–major league umpire–may run out of time before he can solve the mystery.

Marshall’s season has ended and he is looking forward to post-season plans that include time in Florida, first helping his mentor teach an umpire training class, followed by a lot of sun. Those plans are cut short when Marshall is given a surprise assignment to work the World Series as crew chief, but the real reason is not discovered until he is neck-deep in trouble.

The sudden change in plans rekindles a relationship with the O’Hara family–Terry, major league pitcher and Game 1 starter in the Series, Michael, Terry’s father and former major leaguer, and Samantha, Terry’s mother and Michael’s ex-wife–but Marshall quickly realizes some things truly are better left alone.

As the Series plays out, so does the truth behind long-buried O’Hara family secrets and Marshall is caught in a storm that threatens to destroy him and those he loves. With the help of his best friend, Thomas Hillsborough–ex-CIA spy–Marshall fights to solve the puzzle before the Series reaches its climax in GAME 7: DEAD BALL, the ultimate contest of survival.

My review

The author uses the 2008 World Series as the backdrop for a thriller that includes a history of friendship between several men, who go their separate ways but who share a particular incident.  The lives of these friends converge at the World Series.  Marshall Connors, the main character, is an umpire and without giving anything away, the story involves players on both teams, Connors , baseball security, the FBI and a high-tension situation that involves kidnapping, extortion and the need to prevent these nefarious actions from derailing the World Series and possibly jeopardizing its legitimacy.

Schatz does a remarkable job with a complex plot, involving a number of points of view.  He’s taken some liberties with the real history of the 2008 World Series in that the real World Series was won by the Phillies four games to one.  Schatz needs more time for his story to unfold, so it takes the Phillies until the 7th game to defeat the Tampa Bay Rays.  Nevertheless, if you’re a baseball fan you’ll appreciate the realism Schatz injects into this side of the novel.  If you’re not a baseball fan, that’s ok too as you’ll enjoy this thriller and Schatz’ stiletto-sharp writing style.

 

Using Styles to Solve eBook Formatting Woes

If you hang around people who author eBooks you’ll find grumbling about the compilers that turn Word documents into eBooks.  Most of the grumbling reflects their use of a modern word processor as a typewriter, as they insert tabs, multiple carriage returns (enter key) and hard page breaks to format their books.  They imbed all sorts of format characters and then don’t understand why the compilers don’t like this stuff.

At the same time, anyone who has been in the publishing business knows that the proper way to format documents is without tabs and multiple carriage returns.  Microsoft Word revolutionized desktop publishing when it brought styles and stylesheets to the desktop.  Most editors don’t write a word until they have styles created to format them.  Apparently most of the world didn’t get the memo on this as few seem to use styles or stylesheets.

To the rescue, however, is Heather Marie Adkins, woman extraordinaire, the same woman whose The Temple I just discussed just yesterday.  This morning she released a five-part series on using styles to properly format a document.  It might be the most important blog post you ever read.  Find it here:

All Paragraphs Are Not Created Equal by Heather Marie Adkins

Book Highlight: The Temple by Heather Marie Adkins

This is the original cover of Heather Marie Adkins’ paranormal romance novel.  I first saw it discussed on Facebook, checked out the description and decided to give it a try.

Adkin’s Description

Vale Avari has a mysterious past and a laundry list of super-powers, but that’s nothing compared to what she finds upon moving from small town U.S.A to jolly-good England.

A chance dart throw lands her in Quicksilver, an off-the-map place with a big problem – people are dying, and word is, it’s supernatural.

At her new place of employment, a temple dedicated to the ancient Mother Goddess, Vale learns something even more shocking – women guards are disappearing at an alarmingly patterned rate; women who possess special gifts like her own.

Supernatural powers aside, Vale isn’t ready to believe in the Wild Hunt as the culprit, and she’s determined to prove the deaths are acts of human violence.

Plagued by a brute with a history of domestic violence and lusting after a dark-eyed man with a secret, Vale has a limited amount of time to discover the killer before he strikes again. In the process, she’ll learn things aren’t always what they seem and the supernatural might not be so extraordinary after all.

The Hunt could ride for her.

*************

This is the current cover of The Temple, drawn by Heather Adkins’ little sister, Sheridan.  What caught my eye in the description was that her main character, Vale, had super-powers.  In spite of my guy genes, (translation: I don’t read romances of any kind), I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  While there is some romance it definitely leans more towards a paranormal mystery.

I don’t know what Ms. Adkin’s plans are but this book could serve as the beginning of a series featuring Vale and some of her friends.  In any case, here’s the short review I wrote and posted on Amazon and GoodReads.

My Review

I don’t read romance novels. It’s a guy thing. But I picked up The Temple because of a discussion of the book elsewhere. The author’s imagination and ability to write wonderful descriptions combine to produce a story that, while there is romance, there is also adventure, a dose of fantasy and a splash of humor. I really enjoyed it.

 

Getting A Writing Fix – What’s The Big Deal?

It’s said that writers don’t just want to write.  Rather, they need to write.  I’m always skeptical of this sort of stuff as, to me, writing is like any endeavour.  You do it or you don’t.  It’s likely that you procrastinate over it, look forward to it, and enjoy or hate it, all at different times.  At least that’s what I’d like to believe.

But I have to confess that I feel soooooo much better this afternoon than I have for the past couple weeks.  We’re in the middle of renovations that I’ve talked about here in the context of said renovations getting in the way of my writing.  Sunday, though, we got to a stage where we could actually start storing our sofas and TV in the living room rather than having them fill the kitchen.  I literally danced around the kitchen floor when it became available again.  Eating nuked frozen meals, grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs is not my style so getting the telephone and coffee maker off the stove top was a watershed moment.

So, what does this have to do with writing?  Absolutely nothing, which is the point.  All this has kept me from writing except for a couple of short blog posts – until today.  We decided to ‘take the day off’ which manifest itself in my wife and daughter going to a strawberry farm to pick strawberries, one of the pleasures of living in Quebec.

I stayed home, all alone, well almost.  I had my laptop and Scrivener, so I did some outlining and some WRITING!!!  It felt soooooo good.  I wrote only a couple thousand words but the spring is back in my step and maybe, just maybe, there’s something to that ‘writers need to write’ stuff.

 

What Drywalling Says About Novel Writing

I wrote earlier about the best writer procrastination tool in the world: remodeling.  It’s occurred to me, however, that lessons from our remodeling project say much about a wannabe novelist approaching their first novel.  So, I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.  Besides, I needed a break and felt compelled to write some words. I hope I don’t get too much drywall dust on my computer as I type. Oops…too late.

My wife and I decided to replace our living room carpets with wood flooring. Then we decided that this would be a good time to paint as well. Then we decided that we should do some remodeling, creating an arched exit into an adjacent hallway and, while we were at it, some other structural changes. And since we were doing all that, I decided that I should do some electrical work too. In the software biz we used to call this “feature creep.”

In many ways this is what a wannabe writer does when he/she decides to write a novel. They get an idea, then realize they need some characters, a location, and some way to develop the idea into a story. They’re not sure how it all works, often will say things like “I’m not so good with grammar” as they launch themselves into the project but, undaunted, they proceed.

We were that way with our remodeling project but said, “How hard could it be?”

Simple tools are deceptive

Beyond the sawzall, hammer, and belt sander required for the structural changes, drywalling amounts to mounting sheets of paper-covered plaster, covering the seams with tape, and then plastering the surface smooth. Easy peasy. How hard could it be?

The tools required are few. A knife is required to cut the drywall and a screwdriver is used to attach it to the wall. Then, simple trowels and sanding materials are required to create a smooth wall surface. Heck the tools just get rubbed on the wall until you’re done. How hard could it be?

Writing a novel is the same way, requiring only a laptop or pen and paper. You just write a bunch of sentences, run a spell check and you’ve got a novel. The budding novelist has already done the hard part – they have an idea. How hard could it be?

In both cases the simplicity of the tool set, however, is deceptive and fools the gullible remodeler/writer into a false sense of security. As it turns out, tools have nothing to do the creative process. It’s true that War and Peace would be shorter if Tolstoy had to write it on stone tablets but otherwise, tools don’t matter.

Jump right in

We took to the task like ducks to water. I am somewhat skilled in woodworking so cutting and mounting drywall was easy for me. Neither my wife or I knew much about drywall “mudding” but she had done some before so she was the expert, until she wasn’t. So we had to stop and read about how to do it. The reading helped considerably but there was still the problem of execution. First we had to undo all the wrong that we’d done. If not for the resultant aching muscles from the work, I’d chalk this up to practice. Then we had to try to do it properly but found that our skills were lacking. It’s hard to understand how it can be hard to make plaster smooth with a trowel but I can’t do it. I need a lot more practice.

This is the same problem a budding novelist faces. It seems like it should be simple enough. Other people do it. You just write a sequence of 50 or so scenes and you’re done. You write the proverbial beginning, middle and end of the novel. That’s all there is too it. But, just like drywalling, developing skills on the fly sounds easier than it is and results are often less than stellar, which leads to…

Fixing the errors

We found that fixing our screw ups took far longer than anything else. We also learned that the last 10% of the job required 50% of the time. We learned that getting the little details right was the hardest and that unless we got them right, nothing looked good.

And sadly, this is the hardest thing for a wannabe novel writer to realize. So many poor stories could be great ones if new writers would simply understand that the details are the most important part of writing. Getting down the bones, as some describe writing a first draft, is a breeze relative to the work involved to get the details right, having characters to come alive, and writing descriptions that stimulate a reader’s imagination. Putting the polish on the execution is the most time-consuming part of novel writing. And just like drywalling, these stages require the greatest skill and knowledge.

Damn, this is taking forever

We learned that because our drywalling skills were limited and because we were constantly repairing mistakes, this job took us twice as long as we thought it would. A professional could have done the job in one long day, maybe two if he took long lunches. It has taken the two of us a week to accomplish. Our lack of skill has been the single cause for our slow progress. Still, we did accomplish it. Next time it’ll be easier.

If one reads what writers write to other writers, one sees this same thing in their words. Seasoned writers talk of being fast, efficient, and writing thousands of words a day. New writers struggle to generate a few hundred. They claim they’re ‘blocked’ and attribute this to some ethereal being rather than the grim reality that they’re bumping up against their skill limitations. These new writers haven’t yet learned the skills that permit their ideas to flow smoothly from brain to paper. But with practice, just like creating smooth walls, a novel will come together with a healthy dose of perseverance. You just might have to read a bit and practice your skills to make it happen

Why we do it

As we stood in the room, looking at our smooth walls and crisp, plastered edges, we could have hurt ourselves trying to pat ourselves on the back, but we were simply too tired to do so. Instead we just smiled at each other and thought about our initial thought. “How hard can it be?”

And this is true for novel writing as well. When you hold your novel in your hand, or load it up on your Kindle, the feeling is awesome. And when you get to that point you’ll also know just how hard it can be.