Why Do We Write? What Do We Write About?

Many of my fellow authors here have been sharing their thoughts about how and why they write, so I thought I’d chime in, too. Sometimes, when I speak to writing groups or classes, an individual in the group asks me how they should decide what they want to write about. Frankly, that question usually astounds me, because I often have at least a dozen ideas competing for attention in my imagination. In my opinion, it all begins with passion.

“What are you passionate about? What do you think about every day?” I ask. One man’s face lit up and he answered that his passion was music. He had been writing about his grandfather using his ham radio, memories that were pleasant, but not really connected to his passion. He was inspired to develop a story about a musician right at that meeting. Another person started musing about the pioneer history of the area.

I have three passions, and those are always the basis of my stories. First is my passion for justice. I worked as a private investigator for a decade, and nobody hires a private investigator when everything is going well. Someone is always being cheated or threatened or mistreated. And as anyone in the law enforcement or legal profession would tell you, justice does not always prevail in real life. I worked on multiple cases where a crime had obviously been committed, but there was not enough evidence to charge the perpetrator, or in some cases, not enough evidence to even find the perpetrator. The sad real-life case of two murdered hikers in my area was the inspiration for my novel Backcountry. I had to fictionalize what might have happened, but the frightening, ugly fact is that the real killer is still out there. But in my novels, I can make justice prevail, and that feels good.

My second passion is for wilderness and wild animals. I spend a lot of time hiking, kayaking, snowshoeing, scuba diving in wild places, and I want to share my enthusiasm for our public lands and fellow creatures with as many readers as I can. So each novel in my Sam Westin Wilderness Series is set in a wild place, and each features wildlife. And yes, humans are nearly always the villains of my stories, because that is nearly always the case in real life. Humans kill wild animals a million times more often than any wild animal ever kills a human.

My third passion is for animals in general. I couldn’t live without animals in my life. I am constantly fascinated by their physical abilities and their intelligence. I love the fact that they are not human, I celebrate the special powers of their species. Imagine being a bird, living in a world of air where moving in any direction is possible. Imagine being able to dive to great depths in the ocean and swim through clouds of squid and fish like a whale. Imagine being able to jump to the top of a refrigerator like my cats, or find people by scent like a dog. So my passion for animals comes out not only in my wilderness novels, but my fascination with animal intelligence is the basis for my Neema Mysteries, which feature signing gorillas.

So, my advice to aspiring writers is always: Find your passion. And then share it in your stories.

Internet Trolls and Tree Frogs in Bags

I wish I could write about my next mystery because today I went hiking in the snowy north Cascades where I’m setting the story. But I’m tied up with a ghostwriting project about cyberbullies and internet trolls that is keeping my imagination all too imprisoned in the ugly present. And I’m struggling with the plot in my novel, because I want to set it in post-pandemic times, but the plague didn’t conveniently end in the spring season that I needed it to for my plot to work out. I may have to resort to true fiction to resolve that successfully. But I have to get internet trolls out of my head first. Reality can be such a pain to deal with sometimes.

So, this post is about something totally different: the happy surprises in my life that have involved animals. I have often said that I don’t expect life to always be kind, or easy, or fair, but I darn well expect it to be interesting. And so, I’m thrilled every time I get a surprise that makes my day more intriguing.

Most of my surprises involve animals, especially wildlife, so it should be no mystery why I include so much of the natural world in my writing. My cats are sometimes responsible for my surprises, like the baby opossum I discovered under the couch. Although neither of them ever admitted it, I’m pretty sure one of them kidnapped that poor baby. Of course I rescued it, using a beach towel and a cat carrier. Did you know that a baby opossum is a pretty fierce opponent? They growl and are more than ready to use those sharp teeth.

And then there was the mole that climbed into bed with my visiting sister. That was a surprise to her as well as me. Cats again, no doubt. Mine like to kidnap all sorts of interesting creatures. They rarely injure them. It took me days to find the poor little beastie crawling along my floorboards and take it back outside. It gratefully dug itself back into the earth in seconds. I discovered that moles have beautiful soft silky fur. And giant feet, or course, all the better to dig with.

The tree frog in a sandwich bag by the kitchen sink was probably one of the biggest shocks. Scared me to death. Had an intruder been in my house? Was this a warning of some kind? After I got over my hysteria, I remembered that I’d washed out a sandwich bag the night before and hung it over the faucet to dry. And I had found tree frogs in my house before. I’m not sure I can always blame the cats, because I’ve found frogs sneaking around window screens from time to time. So, tree frog + window over the sink + sandwich bag drying by the sink = tree frog squirming in sandwich bag.

These surprises don’t always happen in my home, though. One time, on a sailing trip through stormy seas, when I was thoroughly seasick and out on the bow tying down something or other in pouring rain, a dolphin emerged beside the boat, rolled over on its side, and we both stared at each other for a long moment, gifting me one magical experience in a truly miserable day.

As a kid, I was awed by a giant luna moth, praying mantises and walking sticks, horned toads, tortoises, bright green garden snakes. (I wasn’t so fond of the patterned brown serpents.)

I will get back to my creative writing soon. For now, after I hammer away at the keyboard for a few hours on my contract job, I keep venturing out into the natural world, trying to banish internet trolls from my brain to allow more space for happy surprises.

Using Weather in Writing

A few years ago, after a surprisingly heavy snowfall (for my coastal area), I decided to pull on my hiking boots and stroll the 1.5 miles to my favorite park while the scenery was coated in white.

The trail was only a bit slippery and the frosting of snow made thick woods and waterfalls completely enchanting. The winds were calm, and the temperature hovered around the freezing point, hardly life-threatening. I was deep into my beloved woods when I noticed that other aspects of my walk might be more than a little hazardous.

BellinghamSnow2014 022

Branches overhead were so burdened with wet snow that every few minutes I heard a loud CRACK! Then a branch would crash to the ground, sometimes from as high as fifty feet in the air. I spent a fair amount of time hugging big trees as I waited for plummeting snow and debris to settle around me. The situation added an unexpected element of suspense to my outing. As in: I could die here today! At least one person dies every year in my state from falling limbs.

This was a good reminder of how much weather conditions can add to any story and help set the mood. I decided that the falling tree limbs would make a great addition to one of my next novels; now I’ve got to find an appropriate place to put that scene.

Weather can set the mood and intensify the feelings an author wants to provoke in readers. Although it might be a bit cliché to set your big suspense scene during a thunderstorm, flashes of lightning and claps of thunder can add a lot of tension. Delve into your memory and sort through all the weather situations you’ve experienced in your lifetime, and you’ll think of interesting weather elements to add to scenes. Because I’m a hiker, kayaker, snowshoer, and scuba diver, I’ve had a lot of run-ins with dramatic weather over the years.

Gathering storm clouds

I included a thunderstorm in my novel Endangered, but the main threat in that Utah setting is peripheral to the storm: when it’s raining on the high plateau, a flash flood could soon be roaring through the slot canyons. An earthquake opens my romantic suspense Shaken, and my heroine Elisa is pinned to the ground by a falling tree. But again, the earthquake isn’t the real threat; it’s the cool damp weather, and because she is trapped, she soon has to battle hypothermia as well as a broken leg.

Pouring rain and driving snow lessen visibility and can add suspense when a character needs to be on the move outside, or if that character is on guard against a threat coming from outdoors. If your characters are indoors, bad weather outside can make a scene feel more “cozy” and romantic.

Tornado

Tornado conditions are always anxiety-provoking: I grew up in Kansas and Oklahoma and once had the occasion to watch as the change in air pressure caused the giant plate glass panels at the front of a store to bow inward. (Fortunately some doors flew open and equalized the pressure before the windows shattered, otherwise I might not be here to write this.)

Sunshine and gentle breezes can add to a pleasant scene. Relentless baking sun and drying winds are a different story.

You see what I mean. The snow is all gone from my neighborhood now, but I want to add those cracking limbs to a future book. And maybe I’ll find a place for those dramatic bowed windows, too, although I no longer live in tornado country. There have been a lot of avalanches in the west this year, so of course my next novel features one.

woman celebrating the sun

In real life, we all deal with the weather every day. And you don’t have to be out camping in the wilderness to deal with weather-related disasters. I often think about all the people trapped in 2012 in high-rise buildings in NYC during a blackout caused by the flood after a hurricane–remember that? Personally, I can’t think of anything worse.

So when I feel the story I’m writing is lacking in some respect, I try to think about how I could use the weather to add drama.

Weird and Wonderful Surprises

I love the unexpected, don’t you? Celebrating unusual experiences is part of being a writer. I’ve had a number of unexpected encounters with humans and other animals over the years.

Once I was standing at a bus stop in Seattle, along with a number of other people, when a woman walked up to me and asked “Ou est La Bon Marche?” (Where is the Bon Marche? Bon Marche was a big department store at the time in Seattle.) I pointed in the general direction and said, “La-bas, l’edifice beige.” (“Over there, the beige building.”)

Now, how weird is that? This woman asked a perfect stranger on an American street corner a question in French and that stranger happened to be me, who sort of speaks that language. She didn’t even look surprised when I answered.

One time I was scuba diving at night off of Grand Cayman with a group of friends. We were in fairly shallow water (maybe forty feet), down in a canyon, when we heard rumbling and saw lights shining over the ridge. I didn’t think much of it because we were in an area with a fair amount of boat traffic, and I knew we were deep enough to be in no danger from boats zipping by overhead. Then suddenly, a small submarine zoomed over the canyon rim and nearly mowed us down.

Yeesh! Who knew you had be on the watch for deadly underwater vehicles?

In college, I was crossing the campus in Oklahoma, my eyes focused on a newspaper in my hand that I was reading as I walked, when I heard what sounded like a very loud trumpet from an elephant. I looked up. Standing before me on the sidewalk was indeed an elephant. The man on his back waved to me. I stepped off the sidewalk, and the elephant and rider continued on their way.

Elephants wandering around the University of Oklahoma. Of course. Why not? (I later found out that one of the fraternities was having a circus fundraiser that day.)

When I was having tea on vacation in Kenya and gesticulating with my spoon to emphasize some no doubt fascinating comment to my comrades, a Colobus monkey leapt onto the table and grabbed my spoon. I held on. He bared his teeth. We played tug-of-war for a bit. I won. Maybe that incident is not such a surprise if you have a lot of experience with monkeys. I gained a bit more experience with those furry devils on that trip, especially on one memorable day when the crew left the windows down in our Land Rover and returned to find an entire troop of monkeys partying inside.

During a spectacular meteor shower, I was standing out in my yard on my rural property at around 3 a.m., simply amazed by the light show going on all around. There were so many meteors that I stopped counting at 100. They looked as if they were falling so close that I kept expecting to hear explosions on impact.

Then I heard a loud snort behind me (ACK!!) and whirled around to see a magnificent buck standing only a few feet away, starlight gleaming off his incredible rack of antlers, his breath steaming in the cold air.

I can never see meteors now without thinking about the “magic buck” I encountered that night.

Those are just a few of the weird and wonderful encounters I’ve experienced in my lifetime. They enrich my life and add spice to my novels when I can find the right places to sprinkle them in. What surprises have you had that delighted you?

Confessions of a Confused, Disorganized Writer

Does the drifter know anything?
     That’s what it says at the top of a page of writing notes (okay, scribbles) that I found a while ago in my desk drawer.
     I’d give anything to find out if the drifter knows anything. As a matter of fact, I’d give anything to know who the drifter is.
     The most troubling aspect of this question is that the note is definitely in my handwriting. Perhaps the query refers to my grandpa-may-have-been-a-serial-killer screenplay, since there are other cryptic notes on the same page such as Maybe Jessalyn was her mother, not her aunt, and I do have a deceased character named Jessalyn in that story. There’s also kind of a down-and-out handyman, but he’s always been part of the community; he’s not really a drifter.
     Then again, since there’s another scribble on the same page about designer sunglasses that I recognize as a reference to Undercurrents, my marine-biologist-dies-in-the-Galapagos mystery, maybe the question pertains to that novel. But while there’s a drifting corpse in the ocean, there’s not really a character that I would really call a drifter in that one, either.
     I search my memory banks. How about Call of the Jaguar, my find-the-other-lover-in-war torn-Guatemala novella? Endangered, my missing-kid-in-national-park mystery? Shaken, my earthquake/arson/is-our-heroine-committing-insurance-fraud romance? Nope. No drifters.
     Perhaps I was going to add a drifter somewhere? Or perhaps it belongs in a future story? I have another note about a mystery solved due to an error overlooked in digitally altered photographs, and that doesn’t match up with any story I’m currently working on.
     I haven’t always been this way. Who’s to blame for my current mental and physical confusion? I blame editors and agents.
     When I first decided to turn my writing talents from “how-to” manuals and books to fiction, I sat down and wrote Endangered, my first mystery novel, in about six months. Total focus. I sent out query letters.
Not taking new clients at this time.
Not distinctive enough to stand out in a crowded market.
     Not for us.
     Not right for us, but this is subjective; others may feel differently. Good luck.
    
The few agents who asked for samples hinted that the story seemed awfully close to Nevada Barr’s writing. I’d never heard of her at the time, but when I read some of her books, dang if they weren’t right, my protagonist (park ranger), setting (national monument), and story (was the missing child eaten by a cougar?) could have been written by her. The tone was even similar. I suspect Nevada is my long-lost twin.
     So, I changed the protagonist and the story slant substantially, and sent it out again.
My client list is full.
     Not distinctive enough to stand out in a crowded market.
     Well written, but I advise you to lose the technical stuff and focus on the outdoor adventure.
     Excellent writing, but add more technical stuff and lose some of the outdoor adventure and nature aspects.
     Not for us.

     Oh, I did get a contract in the mail from an agent who wanted money up front, which seemed a little suspicious. I called to get more information. When I asked about this person’s experience and publishing contacts, I discovered she was no more of a literary agent than I am.
     My novel did finally intrigue one agent from a reputable house sufficiently that she jotted down several very good suggestions for changes (bless her!) and agreed to see the novel after I made changes, along with samples of all my other work. Thank God, I thought, and applied myself to making the changes. Five months later (hey, I was working full-time in a software firm), I eagerly mailed my much smoother novel to her. I promptly received in reply a note from the head of the agency:
This agent has quit agenting. We shredded your manuscript.
    
If my four cats hadn’t kept reminding me of an imminent tuna crisis, I might never have scraped myself off the floor.
     I wrote a children’s book about a Kikuyu girl who wanted to save the hippos around her village in Kenya. It was a prizewinner in a local contest. A publisher was interested until she found out that I wasn’t African-American.
     I went to screenwriting school in an attempt to revive my sagging creative spirit. I wrote my first romantic adventure screenplay, sent it around.
Not taking new clients at this time.
     Client list’s full.

Not for us.
     I heard a romance editor talking up an outdoor adventure novel as ‘exactly what we’re looking for.’ After reading that book, I was a) confused, because in no way was it a romance (the protagonist’s lover is dead from the get-go) and b) enthused, because the book had a tone and theme similar to Endangered. I fired off a query to that editor, referencing the conference and the book she’d mentioned. No response.
     Meanwhile, having read that it’s much easier to publish mysteries if you’ve got a series, I worked on sequels to Endangered. (That series has five books now.)
     I finished a romance. I started to send out queries on it, while still trying to find a place for Endangered and its sequels Bear Bait and Undercurrents.
Not taking new clients.
     Got any non-fiction proposals?
     Not right for us, pardon the form letter.
     Agent deceased.
    
I did finally get a contract for three mysteries with Berkley Prime Crime. After the first one was published, my editor/champion moved to a nonfiction position, and no editor left in the original group was even mildly interested in marketing my mysteries. So, after two years of stagnation, I got the rights back and published them myself.
     Now I’ve got eight mystery novels, three romantic suspense novels, two drafts for children’s books, dozens of outlines, crowds of characters, hundreds of clever clues, and a score of half-baked plots romping through my head. “You must like banging your head against the wall,” my mother once remarked. (I’ve always had such a supportive family.)
     I’m a fast writer, and a good one, according to my fans. If I had only had honest feedback on what editors and agents wanted, or encouragement to run down any particular path, I would have galloped to the kill like a cheetah after a bushbuck. Instead, I still seem destined to become like the giant sunstars I see on my scuba expeditions; a creature with so many appendages that it’s a miracle it can move at all.
Does the drifter know anything?
    
I really hope so. And I hope he shows up soon to share it with me.