Listen, Step Back, and Trust Your Gut (or: How I Wrote My Latest Story)

I thought it might be fun today to talk a little bit about my creative process, and to show you what my latest short story, “Quiet Neighbors,” looked like when I started writing it. This isn’t something I’ve done before, but as I work to make a better routine for myself and eventually, hopefully finish a novel, I think it might actually be helpful to take a better look at how I’m currently operating.

So, first thing – I never really plan ahead, and I usually don’t know what I’ll write about when I open up my laptop and get started. Sometimes, a setting will come to me first. With “Quiet Neighbors,” it was a suburban neighborhood, newly built, without much space between houses (or privacy between neighbors). Sometimes, I’ll hear a voice first. When this happens, I listen. I always like to write from a character-driven place, and so if I’ve got a strong character from the get go, I feel like I’ve already got a head start on the work to come. When “Quiet Neighbors” started to take shape as what it eventually became, it was the narrator’s voice that compelled me to write. I wanted to know more about that character, and how that character perceived and interacted with the world.

Second thing – I try not to force a story to work. There’s lots of advice – and it’s good advice – about forging ahead and writing past blocks, but I find that if a story isn’t flowing, I’m not telling it the right way. When this happens, I like to take a step back, a few days away, and just give my brain time to think and process. In the case of “Quiet Neighbors,” I actually loved what I was building when I started, but something just wasn’t clicking. And so I started to look at it differently, and pretty quickly, things fell into place, I think as they were always meant to. I don’t mean to say that I never push through, and that every story has to flow easily for me actually finish it, but if my gut tells me it’s not right, I trust it.

And now, because I’m sure (or at least, I hope) I’ve made you curious, here’s what “Quiet Neighbors” looked like when I started it. It became something I’m really proud of, but it certainly didn’t start where it ended up, and I have to say, I couldn’t be more pleased about that.

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“The Quiet Neighbors”

There are two things you should know. The first is this: We liked them. They seemed like a bright young couple.

They moved in on a rainy day at the beginning of April, one of those gray, not quite cold days when you can feel the spring in the air. We heard the moving truck before we saw it, clunking down the wet pavement, the hiss of rain-slick tires.

We missed the MacKinnons. They’d lived in the big house at the end of the cul-de-sac for ten years before they moved, raised their children alongside all of ours. They hosted a Christmas party every year, they always put out the best Halloween candy and they could be relied on, you know?

Their house sat on the market for longer than anyone thought it would. Almost ten months ticked by filled with a string of showings and open houses, and a couple of times, the house went under contract. We all offered to help. We landscaped the garden beds over the summer and kept the front porch swept. We shoveled the driveway when it snowed. We all wanted to see the house sell, not only because we knew it make life easier for the MacKinnons – they’d moved in with her mother because of the cancer – but because we wanted the best new neighbors we could get. We wanted someone who’d take pride in the house and the neighborhood, just like the MacKinnons had, and just like we do. That’s what makes a good neighborhood. That’s what makes a home.

So the moving truck pulled into the driveway in the middle of an early spring downpour. We’d heard about the new owners from the realtor. A young married couple with no children (yet). They both worked in the city but wanted the space to grow. They had one dog, no cats, and oddly, only one car.

“How do they commute to the city?” That was Mr. Grayson to the realtor.

“They drive in together,” the realtor answered, “and they both get to work from home on Friday.”

“Must be nice.”

How do you make time for writing?

This is something I’ve been struggling with lately. My days have been filled with meetings and phone calls, my evenings with emails, and my competing priorities – all important, all very loved and in some cases personal projects – have been keeping me busy. In the middle of all of it, I’m finding it hard to carve out real, significant time to write.

Case in point: I’m writing this on a Sunday night and scheduling it for Monday morning, when I’ll be on the road for several hours.

What to do?

I’ve played with schedules, with different ways of making and looking at to-do lists. I’ve tried mornings and evenings. I’m sort of at a loss, and while I AM getting my writing done, I’d just really like to get my arms around it better.

So, readers and writers, I’m curious. How do you make time to write? How do you balance life’s busy-ness and actually get words on the page? I’d love to hear your techniques, your ideas, your advice…

I’m not pleading for help or anything, but, you know, never hurts to have good tools in the toolbox. 😊

A Book, a Quote, and a Wish (One More for Women’s History Month)

I didn’t plan to write another post for Women’s History Month, but it seems the universe had other ideas, and here we are.

I’ve been working my way for the last few days through If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie.

(Cover image from Goodreads)

I’m not finished with it yet, so I can’t recommend it completely, but it is certainly making an impression. And there’s one quote from it, in particular, that I just can’t get out of my head:

We are wild creatures still, at heart, and if we listen to our hearts we will remember how to listen to the song of the fierce-beaked, wild-winged little wren who, hopping from tree to stump, shows us the way home. When we stop, when we let ourselves see, when the torn veil of this broken civilization lifts away from our eyes – we can find our way back home.

I’ve been thinking on this one for days – women as wild creatures, the unrelenting call of home, nature as a partner, and as something sacred, and the things, a million little things, that pull us as women away from ourselves.

The older I get, the more I notice. And the more I notice, the more determined I become to explore and discover my own magic, and to live in it and share it without shame or fear. And I suppose that’s my wish for all women, as we continue to make history – that we find our magic, that we let our magic shine, and that we leave a path for others to follow.

Found Friday #24: My friend wrote a book!

Y’all! I am so excited to share this! A friend of mine published his first book, Thomas Creeper and the Gloomsbury Secret.

The official release date is Sunday, March 21st, but I preordered several copies (one for me, one for Graham, one for the cat, one for the dog, a bunch for friends and family…), and they arrived today.

Yes, I have already read it cover to cover.

This book was so delightful and fun and just absolutely the perfect read for kids (and adults!) who like mysteries, spies, secret codes, ghost stories, pirates and submarines, history, magic, and unlikely teenage heroes. Yeah, J.R. Potter managed it all of that stuff into one fantastic little book. And he created all of the illustrations, as well.

Here’s the jacket summary:

Thirteen-year-old Thomas Creeper hasn’t been dealt the best hand. He lives in the seaside town of Gloomsbury—a damp and miserable place overrun by scabber weed, where the sun shines for only a few days each year. With the inexplicable death of his older brother, David, Thomas becomes heir to Creeper & Sons, the family’s funeral business, and his place as a mortician’s apprentice seems set. Thomas, however, dreams of a different kind of life (as a code-cracking spy) in a different kind of place (anywhere but Gloomsbury!).

When a body arrives on the doorstep of Creeper & Sons Funeral Home with signs of foul play, Thomas and his smart-as-a-whip sidekick, Jeni Myers, are thrust into the middle of a terrifying mystery, one which will reveal the link between Thomas’s family and the dark secret of his hometown. Joining forces with the motley crew of the Conch Whistle, a high-tech submarine that hides in offshore waters, Thomas and Jeni must rely upon their wits (and a few magical devices!) to defeat a powerful and horrifying foe.

I’m so proud of my friend and so happy for him! And the book is really, really, really good. It’s even won an award already – the 2019 Kraken Book Prize for Middle-Grade Fiction.

So, if you’d like to learn more and maybe purchase it and see for yourself, check out his website: https://www.jamesrobertpotter.com/

And for those of us still plugging away at our own great works, onward!

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

I’m having trouble thinking of what to write today. Normally, I work on posts a week or two in advance – though I don’t always post what I’ve worked on – but lately, life’s been too chaotic for much in the way forethought.

So, I found myself today doing what I normally do when I’m feeling uninspired, and I looked through some of my favorite pictures. I came across this one, from a trip to Alaska back in 2016.

I’m not sure what it is, but something about this photo just speaks to me today. Maybe it’s the way the water is just so calm and clear. My mind certainly isn’t lately. Or maybe it’s that the pebbles all seem to fit together just so, like they were meant to be exactly where they are. Maybe it’s the slant of the light on the ripples, beautiful and brief, and now memorialized forever in a snapshot.

And I don’t know what I want to do with it. I’m sure, though, that there’s a poem or a story in it somewhere.

So, we’ll see, I suppose, and hopefully I’ll wake up feeling better and brighter tomorrow, because I’ve promised a short story on Friday, and I keep my promises. 🙂

For now, I’m curious. What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired? How do you fight feeling…just, meh…when you’re writing? If you have a good tip or any tools that you use, I’d love to know!

P.S. – Thankfully, we didn’t get a lot of ice on Monday evening. And also thankfully, it looks like we might actually get some snow this weekend. I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

2021 Short Story Challenge Theme!

You guys, I have agonized over this. And I’ve gotten some really good suggestions. I’ve looked at quotes and poems, at nouns and verbs and adjectives, at artwork. I wanted to pick a theme for 2021 that feels accessible, not esoteric, and that will lend itself to lots of different stories from lots of different people with lots of different life experiences.

So, here it is, the theme for my 2021 Short Story Challenge:

Home. A place of comfort for some, a place of anxiety or fear for others. For many of us, a place we’ve seen plenty of in the last several months. A physical space, or a feeling, a certainty or a longing, a boon or a burden.

I feel like home has plenty of stories to tell. I hope you’ll join me in telling twelve this year. Let’s see where home takes us.

My story for January will be up next Friday, January 29th. (And then I’ll resume the regular Found Friday feature.) I…haven’t started writing it yet, but I’m excited to see what it will become.

And, if you want to write along and post a story for each month this year, I’m excited to see what you’ll create.

Let’s make 2021 a year for stories.

Short Story Challenge 2021!

At around this time last year, I’d made up my mind to write twelve short stories for each month of 2020. The idea was that each story would have something to do with its respective month – inspired by a holiday, typical activities, the weather, etc.

I enjoyed the project so much that I’m doing it again in 2021. This year, I think I’d like to challenge myself to write twelve stories around a central theme. But I don’t know what that theme should be! So, I thought I’d reach out to you, wonderful readers, for your ideas and suggestions.

And to see if any of you would like to join me in my Short Story Challenge 2021. 😊 It’ll be fun!

So, what do you think my central theme should be?

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If you haven’t read them and you’d like to catch up, here’s a list of the twelve stories from 2020. Some of them I really like, some of them could have been better, but either way, it’s kind of cool seeing all of them listed here. I enjoyed writing each of them. I’ve put asterisks by my favorites.

January 2020 – Charmed

February 2020 – Snow Moon

**March 2020 – Something Borrowed

April 2020 – The Green Man

May 2020 – The Bridge

**June 2020 – The Day Thomas Leonard Came Back

**July 2020 – Magic Hour

August 2020 – Birthday Funeral

**September 2020 – Memories of September

October 2020 – The Sleepwalker

**November 2020 – In the Time It Takes

December 2020 – The Last Glenmoor Christmas

A Note on My December Short Story

I’ve been plugging away at my December short story this week. I think I like what I’ve got and where I’m going. My original goal was to post it today, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. So, I’ll try to post on Friday. It’s a Christmas story (I think), so it would make sense to post it on Christmas Day (I think).

If not by Christmas Day, then it will be next week.

By the end of December, there will be a new short story on this blog.

I don’t struggle with deadlines, I think, so much as I struggle with ideas. I’ve got lots and often I’ll start a few different stories at once and see which one finishes first. I’ve started two different stories for December, and I like them both. I’ve put in a similar amount of time on them at this point, but I think I know which one I’ll focus on in the coming hours/days.

I don’t know yet quite where it’s going, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it gets there.

I think that’s my favorite part of writing, at the end of the day. I love the journey. I love starting with almost nothing – a character, or a sentence, or a setting, or a few lines a dialogue – and building a whole world in the course of just a few pages.

There’s nothing quite so tantalizing and terrifying as a blank page.

So, onward, and we’ll see where I get to. Or rather, where the story takes me. Somewhere good, I hope, and a bit Christmas-y.

What scares you the most about writing?

Someone told me once that they wouldn’t be brave enough to write, and that I must be very brave to try. I’ve been thinking about that this week, as 2020 comes to an end and I set goals and dream dreams for next year.

I’m not a very brave person. Truly. I’m afraid of heights, snakes, flying, germs (ESPECIALLY NOW), crowds, ladybugs (Don’t ask. I don’t know either.), and the dark. Yes, the dark. And yes, I am in my thirties.

When I decided I wanted to write – really write, and make a career of writing – it wasn’t out of courage. It was out of desperation. I felt like there was nothing else in the universe I could do, and do as well, as write, and that if I didn’t get my words out there, part of me would just…shrivel up and die. And I felt like I was perilously close to that happening, and I couldn’t let it. I couldn’t lose myself.

I know. It sounds very dramatic. I’m a Leo. And an only child. And a retired theatre kid.

But the sad truth is, writing scares me, too. I figure anything worth doing should probably scare you a little, and sharing my thoughts and my fears and my hopes and my demons with the world is pretty frightening.

The thing that scares me the most, though, more than anything else, is that once I write and put my words out there, they don’t belong to me anymore. They belong to anyone who reads them. And once I’ve sent my poems and stories and essays out into the great, wide world, I hope they’ll find the people who need them, who want them, who will love them. But I know the world is not a safe, kind place for stories.

I write anyway. I think that’s the thing about life. You’ll always be afraid, and you’ll live anyway. Boats are safest in the harbor.

But that’s not where they’re made to be. So of course, I’m afraid to put my writing out there. But I do it anyway, because stories are meant to be read. And words are their own kind of magic. And I’d rather use the magic and be afraid than live a life without any magic at all.

A Grandfather’s Story

Veteran’s Day always makes me think of my grandfather, my favorite veteran.

He died in 2015. He didn’t talk much about his service, at least not to me. What little I do know, I’ve learned from my mother, and I’m always trying to piece it together in stories, because those are all I have left of him now. I wonder how many grandchildren could say the same thing.

Here’s something I wrote not long after he died. I thought I might include it in a larger work (that still isn’t done, and might never be).

Some of it’s true.

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At a fork in an old country road, surrounded by rocky fields and green mountains and flanked on both sides by cracked pavement, sits an old white farmhouse. Its shutters and clapboard are going grey, its chimney is crumbling, and any reminder that it used to be part of a functioning farm is long gone, replaced by overgrown patches of wild onions and cattails. There’s no sign now that it ever housed a family. This is the house where my grandfather grew up, nestled outside of a small Appalachian town.

The land is called Hell’s Half Acre, and my grandfather knew, when he was a boy, that he’d have to work it. Walking home from school, a satchel of books swinging in his hand, he wondered every day if it would be the last he’d make the trek. And one day it was. He left school in seventh grade, a servant to the farm. It was that, he told my mother, or be sold to another family, one with the resources to afford another mouth to feed.  Instead, he used his hands to work. Evenings on the farm, and days underground, laying wood for mine shafts. And each day, he’d stare at the fork in the road, and wonder if he’d ever get to choose any direction at all.

“When I grow up,” he said to himself, eating dinner at a quiet table full of tired, hungry people, between gulps of buttermilk and bites of toasted biscuit, “when I grow up…” He didn’t dare dream of that time. Dreaming felt hopeless, not an escape but a trap, a long, dark tunnel with no light at the end. 

Then, when he turned sixteen, there came a war.

“I’m going to sign up,” he said to his brother, and he did. He lied about his age, though not by much, and found himself on a train west, to basic training somewhere in the Dakotas. And then a ship east, to Africa. And then a ship north, to Italy. And it was there, sleeping in empty towns and eating blood-spackled bread, that he met a girl. Sort of.

Back home, my grandmother was reading books by flashlight every night, hiding under her covers from a father who thought women shouldn’t read and a step-mother who wore her dead mother’s clothes. Sometimes, in the quiet, heavy darkness, my grandmother would talk to her sister, who died when they were both very young, because she had no one else to talk to. 

“Lucy,” she’d say, “when I grow up…” And she’d pause. “When I grow up…”  And she couldn’t finish the thought. When she grew up, she would be some man’s wife, some child’s mother, and finally some graveyard’s newest coffin.

And then one day, she sent a picture and a letter to a soldier from the county, off fighting in a war that involved the whole world. And it changed everything.