On Writing by Heather Haven

People often ask me how one goes about writing a book, be it a novel or a memoir. How do you get started? How do you finish? I don’t have a lot of answers but I do know one simple fact: you can’t be a writer if you don’t write. Below are a few things I’ve learned along the way to get me writing. Not foolproof, but helpful, I think. Now and then, I revisit these few rules. I don’t want to make my craft so complicated or get so lost in it I forget the basics.

1 – Give yourself permission to write. Many people think they can’t or shouldn’t write something. Maybe it’s not the time. Maybe other things are more important. Not so! If you want to do it, it’s important. Don’t let family, friends, or circumstances discourage you. If writing is something you want to do then do it! Giving yourself permission is the first step.

2 – Think about what it is you want to write, what you want to say. Fiction or non-fiction? A short story or novel? A memoir, biography, autobiography? It doesn’t have to be big, maybe a couple of pages to start you off. Then put pen to paper, so to speak. Following through is a big part of success in any field.

3 – Find the right set up. You’ll need a quiet place where you can work undisturbed. To be literary for a moment, Virginia Woolf makes this point in A Room of One’s Own. It doesn’t matter if it’s an office with a computer desk or a kitchen table and a tablet. Whatever and wherever you choose, make it your own. Claim it, at least for the span of time you’re writing.

4 – Have the right tools on hand. Notepad, pencils, pens, computer, printer, paper, etc. Be ready for the job of writing. Remember, it’s your job. Approach it that way.

5 – Set up a schedule for yourself and stick to it. Find or make the one time of day when you can concentrate on what you’re doing — writing. Try to choose the same time of day, every day, but if it can’t be that way, go with it. Let everyone around you know this is the time to give you some space. Make it a habit, whether it’s fifteen minutes a day, one hour, or six. Writing is a lot like playing tennis. The more you do it, the better you get. Practice, practice, practice.

6 – Explore the craft of writing. Take classes, read books on subjects that interest you, go to a few lectures. Join a writing group, join a reading group. Make it a living, breathing, attainable craft. Writing can be yours. It can also be a gift for future generations and your family. But most important, it’s what you want to do.

Happy Writing!

Living the Fiction by Heather Haven

Being involved in what you write is one of the keys to being a good writer. But it can get out of hand. When I started the first book of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, Murder is a Family Business, the story included finding a kitten. I discovered I couldn’t write those scenes without becoming a little misty-eyed. I think a lot of that was due to the fact the feline in the story was based on my cat, Tugger, whom I loved and adored. He’s been gone to that great catnip haven in the sky for over eleven years, and I still love and adore him.

Wait. Misty-eyed.

The scene where Tugger was found by our protagonist in an abandoned phone booth in the rain, a frightened, drenched kitty, could never be written with completely dry eyes. This stayed with me no matter how many rewrites. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but hoped it was an indication that I was a true writer rather than needing therapy. And I’m sticking to that.

Fast forward. As I was writing the 3rd book of the series, Death Runs in the Family, both Tugger and another cat, Baba, are catnapped. In the story, they’re put into their carriers, placed into the back of a station wagon, and are being driven to Las Vegas. As I write cozies, they would, of course, be rescued. That was the plan. However, before I could write the rescue scenes, something happened in real life that took me away from the computer. For three long days! I was good the first two. I would tell myself, this is just a story. But no matter how often I repeated the phrase, each time there was this little ping that would strike at my heart.

In the middle of the third night, I sat bolt upright in bed. It was three am. I had done nothing but toss and turn. I had to face it. I wasn’t going to get any sleep until I did something about the cats. My jerky movements and noisy sighing woke my husband up who wanted to know what was wrong. I said, “I have got to get those cats out of the back of the station wagon. They haven’t had any food or water for three days!” “Whatever you say, honey.” Then he rolled over and went back to sleep. You can’t be married to a writer for long without learning their ways. So I got up, went to the computer, and wrote the chapters where not only are the cats rescued, but they get salmon, water, and lots of cuddling. Within the storyline it had been probably six to eight hours. But in my heart it had been three long days. I went back to bed at seven am wondering how Eric Knight wrote the story Lassie, Come Home and managed to get some sleep.

I thought (hoped) this affliction only surfaced when there were animals in my stories. Unfortunately, not so. The 4th book, DEAD…If Only, has several chapters taking place on a thirty-foot cabin cruiser in the Gulf of Mexico during a hurricane. Many’s the night I would wake up seasick from the ten- and twenty-foot fictional waves pounding the boat. The 5th book, The CEO Came DOA, revolves around a Columbian drug called Devil’s Breath, a drug which reportedly takes a victim’s will power away and even kills in strong enough doses. You can succumb to this drug through swallowing, inhalation, or skin absorption. In short, pretty versatile, pretty lethal. Naturally, as I was writing this book we went on a Caribbean cruise that docked in Columbia for a day. I was a nervous wreck. I almost didn’t get off the ship. After hubby finally talked me into going ashore, I clung to him like a three year-old child to a teddy bear. This was a little difficult when one of us had to go to the baño or bathroom. I’m not sure what I did to international relations, but we took solace in the fact I was only there for one day.

I am currently writing the 8th book of the series, The Drop Dead Temple of Doom, set in the Guatemalan jungle. Woven into the story is the Yellow Dart Frog, one of the most poisonous amphibians in the world, and the Fer de Lance viper, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. I threw in some pumas and jaguars just to round things out. Lately, I have been quite careful when I step outside my front door. You never know what’s going to pounce.

Expositions Are Like Prunes by Heather Haven

A writing teacher once told the class, “Get off the front porch.” What she meant by that was to stop explaining the who, what, why, and get to the story. As every writer knows, this can be tricky. You have to ground your reader. You have to let them know where they are. But you don’t want them to get lost in nothing but details. Or bore them to death, either. You have a story to tell. So get off the front porch and tell it.

Naturally, I forgot the teacher’s advice. Again. In rereading the first draft of The Drop Dead Temple of Doom, Book 8 of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, I couldn’t believe how much backstory and explanation I’d put in. I even had the effrontery to open the book with three pages of a case Lee, the protagonist, just finished solving.

Really, Heather? The reader is interested in three pages of gobbledygook about a case that has nothing to do with the ongoing story? I don’t think so. What I was trying to get across was the protagonist had had a bad three weeks and was exhausted. All she needed in her life was to go traipsing off to the Guatemalan jungle.

Okay, why didn’t I just cut out all the junk and say that? Because sometimes we writers get caught up in how much exposition is enough and what is too much. That’s why I say they’re like prunes. Are five enough? Are six too many? It’s what writers grapple with continually. Expositions, not necessarily prunes.

Opening paragraphs set up the story, too. Or should. That’s where we make our contract with the reader. They are going to know right then and there what kind of a read they will have. Naturally, the writer has to live up to that contract. We can’t promise them an easy, breezy cozy with a happy ending and then hand a child or the family dog off to an axe murderer never to be seen again. A writer like Ruth Rendell has a different kind of contract. When she writes, “It reminded Burden of a drowned face he had once seen on a mortuary slab. They put the glasses back on the spongy nose to help the girl who had come to identify him” we know right where we’re going.

Within the first couple of paragraphs of my latest wannabe book I wrote, “The most vengeful I get is wanting CEO and mother, Lila Hamilton-Alvarez, to have the frizzies for just one minute of her life. Then I’d hand her some anti-frizz conditioner saying, welcome to my world.” These lines may stay or they may not. This is after all, only a draft. But it certainly does set up what kind of read follows. Within the first few opening paragraphs, the reader’s appetite is whetted for what’s going to come, how it’s going to come, and how much they are going to love it. Heady stuff.

This is not only about justifying the $ they spent to buy the book (I could have used more dollar signs, but my books are on the cheap side). Mainly, it’s because we want them to keep on reading. Not just this book, but all our books. And in order to do that, we have to make things clear, bring the reader to the starting point, but get on with the story.

After I reread the beginning of Drop Dead Temple, I wound up taking over half out of the first three chapters, in particular, the opening pages. I realized — again — it needs to start with the current problem and just a hint of why we are where we are. I am also in the process of taking out much of the backstories of my continuing characters. I will, of course, be sneaking some back in further on down the line. This is not only for newbies or because I try to make each book of a series a standalone, but as reminders to my ongoing readership. But this is after the story is moving, the reader is invested, and when they want to know more. Hopefully, after fourteen books I will know what I need to share and when I need to do it. But there are no guarantees. It changes with every book.

It’s a tricky bit of business, this exposition stuff. Please pass the prunes.

Research Can Kill Ya by Heather Haven

Every writer knows one of the major components of writing a book is the research. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, you don’t throw the reader out of the story with misinformation or untruths. I love doing a little research as I go along. I don’t have to do much as a rule and when I do, it’s usually within sections. But in my latest book, The Drop Dead Temple of Doom, the 8th book of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, I wound up not knowing one single thing about the subject. Make that subjects.

You know how it is. You get a bee in your bonnet about a story and you’re gung-ho to do it. I wanted to base one of the characters in my latest Alvarez adventure on my best friend’s daughter. This young woman is the closest thing to an Indiana Jones I’ve ever met. She traipses around the jungle fighting off jaguars, leeches, and malaria all in an effort to help preserve the history of ancient Mayan civilizations. And she’s quite a looker. If you were shooting the movie of her life, you’d cast her in the role of herself. In addition, the plight of what is happening in Guatemala with the loggers, poachers, and the disappearance of habitat for thousands of endangered species just cried out to be told, albeit as a cozy mystery with a controlled happy ending.

But here was my lack of control. I didn’t know anything about ancient Mayan Civilizations. Or the Guatemalan jungle. Or the world of archaeology. So my research took the tenor of my college days. You know, where you blow off a particular class all semester then suddenly learn on Friday there’s going to be a final midterm on Monday, and you have yet to crack a book. I only did that once, but the 48 hours of sleepless nights cramming facts and figures into my noggin that I knew I was going to forget once the test was over is still etched upon my soul. And here I was decades later, doing the same thing. Cram, cram, cram. Write, write, write. Forget, forget, forget. Yup, college days.

In the beginning I found I was barely doing any writing, I was merely researching. But I had to. If I didn’t, I would stop mid-sentence and ask myself basic things such as, “How does it rain in the jungle with a tree canopy overhead? (The water slides down trees, leaves, and branches to the floor of the jungle and becomes mud. Wear waterproof boots.) Do they really have foot-long caterpillars? (Yes, and they biteth like an adder and stingeth like a serpent.) What is the pre-classic period of the Maya? (1800-900 B.C. Please don’t ask me about the other periods, because I can barely retain this one.) At an archaeological site, what is a Project or Dig Director? (The head honcho in charge of everything from accounting to mixing limestone.) And so on and so forth.

And it isn’t over yet. I still don’t know a thing about the world of black market orchids, because I haven’t gotten to that part of the story yet. But I’m only in month seven. Give me a chance.

The New Nancy Drew… Really? by Heather Haven

Like a lot of mystery writers, I tend to read and view tons of other mysteries, just to see what’s happening and to learn a thing or two. Call it the tools of the trade. Recently, I stumbled across yet another new television series based on the world famous Nancy Drew Series by Carolyn Keene. And there the resemblance ends. I don’t mean to be rude…well, yes, I do… but this is soooooo not Nancy Drew. At least, not the Nancy Drew I grew up with.

As everyone knows, the Nancy Drew of the past is a spirited young woman who lives with her widowed father, Carson Drew, a lawyer, and their trusted housekeeper, Hannah Gruen. These three, despite the generation gap, have a warm and loving relationship. Nancy’s two best friends, George and Bess, as well as her quasi-boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, solve crimes warm and fuzzy. Nancy is a young lady who is strong and self-reliant, with a feel-good crew to back her up. That’s the gal detective I know.

Enter Nancy Drew 2020-21, where these kids look around 26 and act a bad 40. The opening scene of the new television series has her sitting astride her convicted felon boyfriend, Nick, whose real name is Ned Nickerson. They are having sex. Excuse me? After the shock of that, we move onto George. She is supposedly Nancy’s best friend. This George is a belligerent young woman who has just ended the affair she started at 17 years old with a 30-something married man. By the way, she does not like Nancy. They never got along.

Then Bess Marvin shows up. She ‘s in love with a woman posing as a chauffeur who is actually a policewoman. Bess is also a rich family’s poor cousin, literally, but is dying to be a part of this obviously questionable clan. Marvin skeletons are in every closet but they take Bess into the family on the proviso she rat on her new girlfriend. She does.

And these are the lighthearted parts.

Let’s get heavier. Carson Drew, Nancy’s father-knows-best dad, is a dysfunctional man involved in the town’s evil doings and has been for decades. If there’s a murder or dead body, odds are Carson Drew had something to do with it. Just when you hope you might be able to root for him it turns out he’s not Nancy’s real father, but has lied to her about her parentage every step of the way. Add in the paranormal, seances, and some supernatural thing called the Aglaeca, and this storyline gets darker with every episode.

As a writer, I can see how the scriptwriters sought out any idea the protagonist, Nancy Drew, would find challenging. Then they threw it into the story and doubled-down on it. She is betrayed by her father, her lovers, and her friends continually. Even her roadster does her dirty. But to be fair, Nancy may be tortured every step of the way but so is everyone else. They only pause long enough to find a new lover, change partners, or have a séance. Then its off on the next soul-ripping escapade. There is no joy in River Heights, which by the way, has been relocated to Horseshoe Bay… because.

But here’s the kicker. Even though this new series is NOTHING like any Nancy Drew book I’ve ever read, the producers put into the credits the phrase “Based on the Nancy Drew Series by Carolyn Keene.” That started me thinking. What would I do if the producers take the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, currently under option, and make them into a television series nothing like the books? They have already told me if the projects goes, the movies will be a little different. But what is a “little?” And will I care? Can I do anything about it if I did care? The answer to that question is a resounding no. I signed certain rights away to see my stories come alive in another media. And I would probably do it again.

But this may be why Sue Grafton said she would never sell the television or movie rights to her books, I’m thinking. It comes down to the written word versus other media forms. The iconic Nancy Drew series is decades old and has been loved for generations. But that makes it vulnerable. Or is it so endeared by all of us, we don’t give a hoot what anyone tries to do to it? We know the truth. And the truth will set us free.

There’s another truth. Once you put your work out there, out there it is. An offshoot of Jane Austen’s Emma turned into the movie Clueless came off charming. But it might not have. The movie based on Janet Evanovich’s book, One for the Money, was a real dud. And nothing like the book. But the end result is rarely up to the author, alive or dead. You are completely at the mercy of a whole other entity. Maybe the Aglaeca. It’s no wonder so many of us writers have a reputation for drinking. I get it now. Pass the vodka.