Using Your Travel Hallucinations for Story Ideas

And then I dreamed all the flesh was stripped off my bones, and …

I’ve been back a couple of weeks after a month-long housesit on a tiny island in the Caribbean. This was a vivid place, strikingly beautiful, and we had adventures, thrills and stresses in our time there—and equally so in getting there and coming back. But memory and travel are the oddest things: I was looking at photos yesterday and was struck by how much I’d already forgotten. Not the broad strokes and major events that happened, but the telling details: the shape of the harbor (which we saw almost daily), the color of a restaurant we’d been to (and the flavor of dishes we ate), the curve of a street.

The details are the things that should fix a place in memory, so I’m troubled by their fog. But I want to talk about an ancillary fog that happens after travel. That’s the stunned sense of being back in a familiar place, but having it seem strange or slightly tilted—“off,” but not off enough to pin the quality of oddness down.

Pieces of my mind and body, even given a full week to account for jet lag (and the space/time continuum) were still on the island, and the person who arrived here claiming to be me seemed to have a fake driver’s license.

A Bike Ride Pulls the Brain’s Curtains Back

But let’s get to the details, as noted above. I often ride my bike—with delight—on weekends here, so my first weekend back, I was eager to take one of my local rides, which for stretches take me along the Santa Cruz County coast. When I paused for a breather at an ocean overlook, I saw a breaching whale, fairly close to the shore. Not that of an unusual sight in Santa Cruz, but still, a whale, wow!

I felt energized by that, and hopped back on with spark, but just minutes later, and completely unprompted, I saw in my mind’s eye a jarring scene of my brother’s death. That played out enough so that I was crying a little. (By the way, my brother’s fine.) Just so you know that I’m one happy-go-lucky guy, as I was approaching my house at the end of my ride, I had a fantasy that my cat had been poisoned.

She’s fine too.

Maybe I was tired? Indeed, I was panting like a blacksmith’s bellows as I was riding, because it had been six weeks or so since I’d tackled these hills, but I think it was more that I was feeling dislocated in some way, and my mind was just clicking through a slide wheel of images. But who knows?

Putting Your Writer’s Mind to Work

However, one of the best things about being a writer is to be gifted with story ideas, and to play with them. I probably won’t do anything with these three isolated “incidents” that happened on my ride, but after I got home, I made each of them into a storyline in my mind, where these dustups happen.

The whale sighting I turned into a science-fiction prompt, where sentient whales start to take revenge on all the years of us killing them, and they develop great killing skills themselves, grouping up to take down big shipping vessels, causing damaging coastal waves, taking hostages.

My brother’s death I made into a literary fiction piece, kind of like the great Marilynne Robinson’s Home, which has an estranged brother return to a family. Except in my tale, a brother causes another brother’s death and runs away, and the family is forever changed. And then he returns, and things go from lousy to really lousy. Bestseller, eh?

As for the cat poisoning, a cat being poisoned would be the opening scene for a murder mystery, where before a person is murdered, a lot of animals connected to the deceased’s household, including lizards, guinea pigs and birds, are individually poisoned. Before the poisoner turns to murdering one of his fellow humans. Dastardly!

Anyway, the peculiar gyrations of the mind are kind of like aerobics classes for writers. So there are some benefits to the odd frazzling that happens after traveling—it seeds your mind with stories.

Oh, if you like the story ideas, go for them. Combine all of them in the same novel: murder mystery, sci-fi literary masterpiece. You have my blessing.

Tiny Islands Can Bite, But Robert Louis Stevenson Sailed On

You might think that’s a paddle for the kayak, but it’s a mosquito swatter

When I screeched in displeasure and slapped yet another mosquito (this time, the evildoer biting my bony knee) today, Robert Louis Stevenson sailed into my mind. That mind of mine has been salty of late, because the insects are winning here: “here” being a house-sit on a small, lovely island, Bequia, in the Caribbean.

Small, lovely tropical islands often have lots of small, unlovely pests, and the mosquitoes here have been ravenous, particularly lately, where my twice-daily bathings in Deet (not recommended if you want to handle power tools later in life, or perhaps play effective chess) are now failing to take effect. Well, they do have an effect: they make me feel ill, and they provide a slick surface for the mosquitos to ski on my skin, before they dip in their murderous prongs.

I thought of Stevenson, because while my aggrieved groans probably echo all the way back to Santa Cruz, Stevenson, a Scot, author of Treasure Island and other charms, was a dedicated traveler in an era when traveling itself—much less traveling to distant lands with no comforts—was complex and effortful. Stevenson was a sickly child (lungs) and a sickly adult, but he took up world travel early, and had a few bouts of near-incapacitating illnesses during and after his early journeys.

A Complication of Bones

Not long after his marriage in California he described himself as “a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom.” For years after that, he searched for a region and climate that would aid his flagging health, but to no avail. So, rather than bunker up in Europe or the States, he embarked on a series of long, hard voyages to Pacific islands.

Now, I lived on a small Pacific island for a year, and they had many modern conveniences, though we felt the sting of deprivation when the island ran out of beer. Stevenson, chronically ill, was taking arduous sails to remote places where beer—and probably most of the foods he was accustomed to—was a fantasy. In the meantime, while he traveled, this mere complication of cough and bones was writing acclaimed works.

He journeyed the Pacific for years, finally settling on Samoa, where gentleman’s clothes were likely a nuisance. He was 44 when he died there, probably of a cerebral hemorrhage. (Oddly enough, with all those South Seas travels, some literary historians have suggested that Stevenson was inspired to write Treasure Island based on a stay in the Monterey, CA area, having spent time at shimmering Pt. Lobos.)

At Least the Mosquitoes Don’t Have Lawyers

What am I getting at here? This: I have been heatedly complaining to my boon companion Alice about the dastardly mosquitoes for days now. Spiteful things they are, but I’ve really got to buck up a bit. Mr. Stevenson was just a bag of bones and he wandered the globe in a time when wandering took some real gumption. Here, there’s plenty of beer (though I’ve been leaning more toward the rums).

I’ve been saving up the material of the many island stays I’ve had—there’s the wet clay of a novel amid all of that sweating. But in the one I’ll write, the mosquitoes will all be butterflies.

A Writer’s Workshop: Memories and Memorial Days

Malibu, wondering if I would taste better with a steak sauce

Out and about for the Memorial Day weekend, we seemed to have a wand wave of favorable signs: There was the kite string that led up a rocky hill in a beautiful canyon at Ft. Ord Dunes State Park that I picked up and tugged and lo! a beautiful turtle kite sprung high in the air, heretofore unseen high on the cliff.

And then strolling that pretty beach, the amazement of three hang gliders very slowly moving past us above, so low that we could easily see their expressions. And then later, our first time at the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge (whose title might be bigger than the park), seeing a determined red-wing blackbird harass a big turkey vulture completely out to the park, and then fly back, very close to us, into the wetlands area he was defending. I’d seen small birds annoy hawks, but never one so focused on ushering a vulture to the door.

That seemed like a pretty good day of small wonders, and we settled in with the great Boulevardiers we’d barreled for a month to mellow appeal in our 3-liter barrel and toasted the glory of small things. When our cat brought the small bunny to our door to display her hunting talents, that’s when the wonders went awry, for us at least.

The Goddess of Small Dead Things

Our cat Malibu, who was semi-feral when we adopted her, spends a good deal of her time outside. We are grateful if rueful for the rats and gophers she eviscerates on our outside doormats, and more grateful yet that she seemingly has no talent for doing the same for birds—we don’t see any remains or feathers on the rural property.

But a bunny.

A young bunny, soft gray, its staring eyes knocked into forever, their last sight my cat’s flashing teeth. She’s never brought back a bunny. There’s a moral inequality there, of course, where we sigh over the gophers and forget them an hour later, but feel strong ethical queasiness about a young rabbit. The artificial hierarchy of living things expressed in the quick, unreflective emotion: oh god, she’s killed a bunny!

Writers Try to Capture Quicksilver

So, an interesting day for a writer—that childlike feeling of glee when I saw that kite rise out of nowhere, and the plunging dismay upon seeing my cat’s bloodletting. I have a sharp sense that writers should keep a look out for those instances, the reminders that we are animals as well, subject to those flights and grottoes of emotion, often multiple times in the same day.

To be able to describe how that works with characters in stories is tricky, because it’s easy to resort to a kind of “she felt a stabbing in her heart” kind of writing (if you’re in a close third-person narrative) rather than something that gets closer to those hummingbird wings of something that flashes and then is gone, but perhaps creates a layer that lingers.

And on this Memorial Day, I salute my father, gone now near seven years, who served in the Army Air Forces in WWII and the Air Force in Korea, a waist gunner in a B-17 for many runs in the European Theatre and Korea. Considering the precarious exposure of waist gunners. and how many didn’t come back, he may have been surprised he made it. But my mother, my three siblings and I are happy he did. Thanks, Dad.

I write because of the commas in the broccoli

Reedsy, the site that joins authors with editors and designers, has a nice promotion going on right (or should I say “write”) now: they will donate $10 to Room to Read,  a non-profit organization that seeks to provide girls in Africa and Asia with access to education, for every author who uploads a one-minute video explaining why they write.

I couldn’t resist.

Writers Need to See Their Inner Lisa Simpson

Lisa, blowing hot and cool

I live near a series of sloughs, tidal waterways where many shore and seabirds—ducks, geese, pelicans and gulls, wrens, swifts, finches and blackbirds—ply their trade. There are nice trails that wind through the shoreline’s green growth, flanked by nearby businesses and homes. At lunch time on work days I often walk the trails, alone or with Alice, a great respite from the MacBook screen.

At some points on the sloughs there are tree-shrouded pockets, often down embankments, where homeless people have made small camps. They are periodically flushed out by city workers maintaining the slough trails. I’ve never felt threatened by these people, and have often greeted them when they are up on the trails, but I’ve never felt fully comfortable seeing them in the makeshift forest “caves” they craft out of tarps and odds and ends. I’ve never offered them any help either, not wanting to get involved in the hardship of their lives.

The other day, I was walking alone on one of the trails near the “entrance” of what is lately the biggest of the encampments, and on top of a nearby covered trash can was one of the toys you see in the image above—Lisa Simpson on a little red chair, wailing on the sax. It was a bit scruffy, but it was perfectly positioned to be looking out at people who passed by on the trail. Now I have no clue whether it’s true, but I’m sure it was one of the homeless people, displaying a bit of humor for people going by.

Boo Radley Did It First

It reminded me a little of Boo Radley, in To Kill a Mockingbird, leaving trinkets and minor valuables in the knothole of a tree for Jem and Scout. That small gesture—and again, who knows if it even was one of the homeless people—made me realize once again that as a writer, I need to stop the constant tape playing in my mind and see people as individuals. Not just “that homeless guy in the bushes” but that particular guy, six feet tall, skinny, with strange shoes and a loopy grin, and maybe a mother who wonders where he is. See the person, not the projection (which, if fear is a component of the seeing, is always blurred).

There’s an interesting post on cultural appropriation and writers here on WriterUnboxed that asks if it’s OK for writers to write outside of their genders, their race, their culture. The comments, almost all measured and thoughtful, express well-considered opinions from various points of view. I wrote there about a novel of mine where one of the main characters is a black homeless guy, an ex-alcoholic, modeled after someone I saw pretty much every day on the streets outside of where I worked.

The reader is in the mind of that character a good deal, and that mind is that of a black, middle-aged guy on the street, a wounded Vietnam vet who destroyed his family relationships with alcohol and who is making his way back the hard way. That’s a mind far from my own. I won’t put my long comment on that post here, but it ends with, “I probably get it wrong fairly often, but writing in the minds of people different from yourself is one of the ways we try to understand each other.”

Small revelation, I suppose, that we’re all individuals here, making our way as best we can, but for writers (and broadly, for everyone) it’s essential to try to hear the saxophone behind the tree-line of our personal boundaries, and try to make out the tune.

Editors Will Pay for Articles that Play

Me, in the outfit I wear when I write first paragraphs

This writing life is serious stuff, with its cold deadlines, its fusty grammar rules and its dense packagings of data. But readers in most corners are showing less of an appetite for data density, and more for the conversational, the playful, the light touch that can still deliver information, but deliver it with some sweet sprinkles on top. Editors seem to have more appetite for sprinkles these days.

Obviously, some publications—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders comes to mind—don’t care much for sprinkles, and rightly so. But if you’re a freelancer like me, who writes for newspapers, magazines and online business publications, it’s heartening to know that editors are more enthusiastic than ever to accept pieces that weave in some humor with their copy threads.

To demonstrate that I’m not making this up, here are a few opening paragraphs from three pieces of mine for which some bewitched editor paid actual money. All establish a certain tone from the outset, and hopefully would make you want to read further.

5 High-Proof Truths That Whiskey Is the Key to a Better Life
There’s advice everywhere on how to be a better person. Meditate, be nice to children, pat puppies on the head, eat arugula. But those things are so superficial, and some are plain tedious. We have more practical advice: drink Whiskey.

Drinking Whiskey will make you a better person. And it’s much more fun than arugula. Here’s why:

 
That’s the beginning of a blog post for Flaviar, a spirits purveyor that writes about all things booze. Their style is irreverent and somewhat arch, which is fun to do. It gave me the chance to practice that writing trick of jab, jab, punch, with the setup lines and then the punch delivered in the last line of the first paragraph. This piece will come out on their blog sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Trail Mix: An Oahu Hike — Plus Margaritas
I can forgive you, if you’re on Oahu, all excited about taking a shoreline hike. You toss on the shorts, throw a small snack, some binoculars and sunblock into a backpack and — knowing that there are water bottles in the car — drive all the way up the westside toward Ka’ena Point where the road ends, and get out to begin your hike in the sizzling sun. And then you realize that one water bottle is empty and the other half-filled.
I can forgive you, because my girlfriend and I did just that.

 
This intro is a slight variant on the first trick, using the sustained second-person direct address to put the reader in the driver’s seat—and then pull the driver’s seat out from under the writer with the last line. This is from a short piece recently published in the San Jose Mercury News.

How to Properly Diagnose a Failed Email Campaign
As Mark Twain said after his latest marketing promotion, “The reports of the death of the email campaign are greatly exaggerated.” As any marketing maven knows, email lives, with a vengeance, and remains one of the biggest hammers in any marketer’s toolbox.

But as you know all too well, bad email promotions are death warmed over: email done wrong does your promos and your products a lethal turn.

 
This one has to take a more businesslike tack, since it was written for The Content Standard, an all-things-content-marketing publication. But still, anytime you can open a piece with a [fake] Mark Twain quote, you’re in good hands.

All of these writings establish a sportive, impish slant from the first lines, which works in the context of each piece. This isn’t writing for the ages, but it’s fun to do, and if someone will pay me for it, I’ll type it up.

If you can produce this kind of work without it seeming labored or too corny or shallow (and perhaps that’s how these ledes struck you), it could be a good approach to your freelance pieces. As I’ve said before, it’s often useful to pitch an editor with what you foresee as the actual first paragraph or two of a piece, so they can taste what they’d be getting.

Do any of you use this kind of breezy style in your work? (If you do, don’t pitch my editors—they’ll be on to you.)

Writing (or Writhing) in the Margins Between the Political, the Professional and the Personal

This old tree of ours never reads the news, and look how it’s doing

“Crisis, change, all the myriad upheavals that blister the spirit and leave us groping—they aren’t voices simply of pain but of creativity.”
—Sue Monk Kidd

I spent a lot of last week—and with only vague success—trying to not read too much news. The drumbeat of madness from Washington has had a paralyzing effect on me. I am accustomed, even eager, to read several sources of news in the mornings, and go from there, informed and alert, to my current writing project.

But recently my reading has left me stunned, so that I fidget at the keyboard, make a false start with whatever I’m writing, glance again at a different news site, look on Twitter for mounting evidence of our government turning its back on its people, and then having a numbed, shell-shocked sense of dislocation.

I was around when Nixon was in his heyday, but this is the most cynical, least statesmanlike administration I’ve ever seen. Our president is not simply incompetent, but spectacularly deceitful. It boggles my mind.

Perhaps worse yet I sense that he has no moral compass: he is not a decent man.

Maybe this sounds like the standard liberal pabulum, that I need my pacifier and my stroller for my nanny-state government. But it doesn’t feel that way. I do know the Democrats missed a significant message from a wide swath of the population that’s really hurting. But this “solution” feels like less of one, for all of us, every day.

The Headlines Hurt the Head

Because I have deadlines, and work to do, I vowed last week to avoid reading the headlines and analysis. But I was only partially successful—the sheer luridness of it pulled me in, though less deeply than weeks before.

My purpose in writing this is to look at how this strange situation has given my writing the jitters. I’ve still met my business-writing deadlines and have penned some creative pieces as well, but there’s been so little joy in it. But raging against the machine seems like a Sisyphean sort of response, no matter how justified.

Have I actually done anything about these threats to our republic? Other than signing a bunch of online petitions and frothing at the mouth in front of my friends, no. No attendance at rallies, no writing/calling my congresspeople, no marches on Washington. I’ve bounced on the trampoline of my mind wondering if there’s something or someone I could write that could make a tangible contribution, without it being some kind of self-congratulatory “Well, I did my duty, where’s the beer?”

Strange Days (and Daze)

There’s a confluence of concerns in my household’s air these days: not only is the Orange Beast spreading his malevolence, but several of our friends are in late cancer stages and others are undergoing emotional turmoil. At least we can reach out to them and offer connection and concern.

But in the face of poisoned politics, mere rage is pointless. There is some evidence that writing about your emotional turmoil is a helpful way to distance yourself from distressing life experiences, so while I’m musing over some more effective way to address my squirming, I’ll take comfort in that.

Thanks for listening.

Writers: Draw Yourself Out of Your Corners

Harold doesn’t quite have Eve’s charms

When I was a little kid, one of the first books that grabbed my imagination was Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. That was just the first in a series of Harold books: Harold later gets to go to the North Pole, into a fairy tale, and on other adventures. The scheme was—and still is, for Harold lives on in my imagination—this: Harold uses his purple crayon to draw objects on the canvas of his life, and they become real.

Thus the post image above, where Harold has drawn himself a bounteous apple tree, but then, worried about someone swiping the apples, he draws a fierce dragon to guard it. But the dragon is a little too fierce, and Harold retreats backward, his dragging crayon accidentally drawing the line of the sea—oops! But luckily, he draws a boat to ride on its waves. And the boat ride leads to …

The books fascinated me as a kid, and still do, because of the freshness of imagination and the openness to possibility. There is a kind of “the world is new again because I draw it new every day” feeling in Harold’s work that is an invitation to snap up the window shade of your imagination, rather than clamp it down. Harold isn’t much for preconceptions or expectations. Or perhaps he’s an alternate definition of “preconception”: he hasn’t conceived—and thus fixed—his mind’s mooring, so it goes places that are unmoored, and exciting ones at that.

Writers Move Through Associative Worlds (and Words)

This is exactly what a writer does (or what a writer experiences—many times it seems there’s less a “doer” than the process of something being done). Most writers are very associative: a single word can magnetize other words in the vicinity; a single image can make for a flip book of cascading images. And if writers just have some glorified form of ADD, I don’t want any medication.

Harold’s purple prosody is also a drawing of the creative process, which can seem as random—and often as productive—as the wandering noodling of his crayon. What the source of creativity is, or what sparks it remains an elusive thing, though scientists have their clipboards ever at the ready for assessing brain-wave readouts and chemicals in spit.

The Beauties of the Brain

The brain is a splendid thing (even if mine commands me to watch bad TV now and then). Sometimes it’s very far off in its assessments, such as when you see a wiggling towel on the road when you’re driving, and your mind paints it into a wounded coyote. Processing error that is, but it’s a creative error, and just having a malleable landscape for creative error is a writer’s boon.

There’s a loveliness in daydreaming, in flipping through the cards of your imagination, putting them in odd combinations, and letting them fall into colorful mosaics on the floor, into patterns or combinations that are there born for the first time.

There’s beauty in the impractical, in things that can’t be immediately applied to solve a problem or that have an immediate return. Beauty in reverie, where the wool that’s gathered might turn into a short story, a paragraph in an essay, or just threads discarded, perhaps taken up again months later.

What this post is really saying is that letting your mind meander is a fine thing for a writer. Harold showed me that you can paint yourself into a corner, but you can crayon the corner over and turn it into a trampoline. Writers, keep meandering. But don’t forget to do the dishes occasionally as well.

Joel D Canfield: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Keyboard

I can’t speak for the past, but at this moment, Joel wasn’t doing anything illegal with his mouth

Let’s throw open the stage (I hope he’s dressed) to Joel D Canfield, an author pal of mine who has just released his second novel in his Phil Brennan mystery series, A Still Small Voice. Joel has multiple books in multiple series, but the real multiplications are for you: he’s giving them away for free.

That’s a good bingo right there, but the kicker is that his books are good. I’ve read a number of them, and helped out with some editing on more than a few, and they are chockablock full of intrigue, whimsy, deception, suspense and high-nutrient storytelling. Grab a few and settle back (or jump up tensely when the story turns)—you’re in capable writerly hands.

Here I’ve asked Joel a few questions about his trade and where he’s going with his work:

You have written and published many business books, but in the last few years, you’ve turned your writing toward fiction. What steered that change? Did you always write stories, but are giving them their full due now?

I’ve always been a storyteller but until a few years ago never wrote any of them down. My narcissistic streak loved the attention I got from spinning a good yarn so I listened to good storytellers and stole their best ideas. When my wife’s social media business took off, I took on the household chores and stopped worrying so much about making money, which is possible with a business book, but a right challenge for fiction authors. In fact, I’ve recently started giving away every one of my novels to anyone who signs up for my newsletter, and reduced the prices at Amazon as low as they’ll allow.

You used to call your novels something like “Raymond Chandler cozies,” though I think you amended that a little. How would you describe the genre and general flavor of your fictional work?

I like putting morally rigid people in ambiguous situations, forcing the best bad choice. I used to call them Chandleresque cozies. But they’re not cozies, which carry certain implications about happiness and light. I love noir, revere Chandler and Hammett, but my books aren’t quite as dark. Like Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies” and other books, mine are more about people and their struggles than about a puzzle to solve. They’re as much literary fiction as they are mystery. Since calling them “literary fiction” would be like announcing that my restaurant “serves food” I’m sticking with “mystery” as the short answer.

From your research, you are probably more familiar with story structure, story beats, character arcs and the like than many writers.  What do you look for in an editor to help with the underpinnings of a story (or provide with story mechanics)?

I don’t think it’s hard to find an editor who knows a good sentence. Harder to find one who knows a good story. I’m far more concerned about developmental editing, feedback on whether I’ve composed a ripping yarn, or just a ball thereof. Just as important is working with someone who respects my style, balancing what a reader wants to read with what I need to write.

You have several mystery series going, with distinct settings and characters. Will there be more of all? Have you considered specifically pushing the existing characters harder, challenging their stable pictures of themselves or anything on a structured, outlined level? Or do you think ahead more in broad strokes?

After an artistic crisis at the end of 2015 I spent the first 9 months of 2016 deciding whether or not to continue writing. The answer was yes, which launched a heavy rewrite of A Still, Small Voice. It also launched three months of introspection which included the kind of inner-demon-wrestling authors love to foist on their characters. I’m not all the way through, but far enough to know the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the headlamp of an oncoming train. Having spit into the abyss when it stared back, I’m ready to ratchet up the turmoil and put each of my characters through an appropriate level of pain. They’ll thank me later.

Scotch or Bourbon? (Or for you, should I ask, Pancakes or Waffles?)

Irish. Particularly fond of Wolfhound. And waffles, please, topped with morally unambiguous toppings: butter and real maple syrup.

I can’t let Joel have the last word here, can I? The Bentley answer to that last question would be Waffles à la Wolfhound, with liberal dollops of whisky (or even whiskey) and syrup. Mmmm…

Tips for Supercharging Your Small Business

Since I can’t be the smart person ALL day long (it’s bad for my complexion), I like to let others step in and counsel us freelancers, solopreneurs and small business types. But I did get my licks in: below is an infographic (click to enlarge) that has a bounty of advice for small—but strong!—businesspeople on matters integral to small businesses, and I even get to throw in my penny’s worth too. The good folks at Invoice2go put this together, so give them a look.

Also, I know that you are desperate to fill your electronic stockings with electronic stocking stuffers, so I’ve reduced my Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See to $3.99 until January 15. Stuff those stockings with abandon (and ebooks).