Away From the Fray

IMG_3635Sometimes I get in trouble. I never mean to, because I dislike conflict. So I try to get along with people, but I am a liberal, so if someone tells a racist joke or utters a homophobic remark, I might say something. Sometimes I just walk away, other times I’ll say, “you might not know you’re telling a racist joke” or “I support the LTBGQ community.” I don’t hide my ethics or values, and I very much dislike when bullies gang up on good people.

I am the program director for Detroit Working Writers, an organization I’ve served since 2008 in many different capacities. I’m currently program director: I find seasoned, well-published people within the organization (or they find me) who want to give workshops to the membership. I’ve been doing this since being appointed by President Carl Anthony in late 2015. Naturally now that I live in Florida part of the year, I’ve had to resign.

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Meanwhile, I’m trying to finish out the workshops and other events I’ve scheduled. I also have had lots of interest in others who want to give workshops. Really talented people who have won awards for their writing, been nominated for Pushcarts, and just really good folks who want to help our members reach their dreams. But I’m not planning any workshops for 2018.

So. Dilemma. Then I met with our president and said “Can we utilize this talent with a conference?” DWW has had an annual conference for several years, but the board had not been enthusiast. Nobody wanted to chair an event that takes a lot of work to pull off. So President Carl and I decided we’d do the work required and Carl got two other members who are not on the board to help. We have a conference committee. This 2017 conference will be the last event I’ll participate in for DWW. Because I love Florida so much I’m going to be here even longer next year.

But also because our board has become divided, which is normal. Despite my once held belief that all writers are liberal, that’s not actually true. You have your liberals and conservations in writing circles too. So the board is currently at odds which is awkward for me. I’m in Florida, away from the fray for the moment. I wish I could stay here forever.

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How To Find Writing Ideas

Where do you get your ideas? For writers, that is the most frequently asked question. It seems to vex many of my writer friends, but I’m not sure why. Maybe they don’t want to admit that they do nothing to produce ideas, that ideas simply float into their heads. Well, anyway, that’s what happens to me.

It starts with one little thought and builds from there. Does that sound difficult? It is.

For example, Sister Issues. I got the idea for my first published novel, an indie, while driving down a charming, winding river road in my town. I noted, not for the first time, that the quaint old Victorian houses were being torn down and cheap chain restaurants, strip mall drugstores, and branded coffee shops were replacing them.

I noticed this with some dismay because the house I was passing, one of the few actual homes left on that road, had always been a favorite. The lawn in back sloped down to the river, where the delicate leaves of an ancient willow tree trailed in the stream. What would happen to that house, it’s gingerbread architecture and flower gardens so lovingly painted and trimmed?

I felt a pang in my chest. Not for the first time. But what to do? People have to shop and eat and so forth. It’s progress. Which I cannot stop. But I can, in my head, put a young woman in that house and have her open a coffee shop on the main floor. She lives upstairs. Cher’s place is called the Sugar Shack because that song, from the early 1960s, floated into my head once the woman was up there getting comfortable.

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An early cover from Sugar Shack

Sugar Shack eventually became Sister Issues

And so on. From the first idea comes setting or character and before I get too far down the page I start thinking about conflict. Which also comes out of the character and setting. I’d just been feeling conflicted about suburban sprawl, so that’s the larger issue, or the theme, as we former English teachers like to say. So the original idea bursts and flowers and then I pick it apart and arrange it in a vase…I mean a novel. I arrange it all into a novel. And there will be lovers because there just always is—I like to see people happy together. Well, first they have to suffer a little bit. That’s conflict, too. Then maybe they’ll be happy together. At least some of them.

So much of my novels come from my life. Not one word or deed in any of them is taken from my own experiences, but every single emotion of all the primary characters is something I’ve felt. This is not alarming, I’m just telling you the real answer to the question. Happily, I have never written from the point of view of a psycho-killer, at least not yet.

But I have had evil characters. Just like there is evil in life, and I have observed it, so too do my flawed, imperfect (but not psycho-killer) characters observe the evil around them. Frankly, they’re as baffled and dismayed as I am by all the hate and mayhem. Sometimes there are unexpected grace notes, too. You need them in life and in fiction. For example, soon after I self-published Sister Issues, The Wild Rose Press offered me a contract for my second novel, The Paris Notebook.

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Library at USC where my son matriculated from grad school

At the time I came up with the idea for novel number two, I was teaching, it was my very first day, at a university. Before that I taught at a community college and before that I taught high school. So climbing the rungs of academia was a bit daunting for me, but I was a good enough teacher of English to muddle through. Except in my very first class on my very first day we heard The Simpsons coming through the wall. And another class laughing and laughing. I was teaching these young people how to write a college essay, and writing is not easy, and nobody was laughing.

My students looked at me like “Why aren’t you showing us cartoons and making jokes?” I did apologize for our rather dry subject matter, but I was curious. What was that other professor teaching? So being the questioner that I am, after class, I went over, introduced myself, and asked him. Turns out he was teaching the same exact course as me. He just did it different. We became friends, despite the fact that he was younger than I was and single to boot. And we still see each other once a year or so. He’s a Shakespeare scholar now.

And I write novels. That little story of meeting John set the first scene (later cut, alas) for The Paris Notebook. Two English teachers, with wildly different lives and at-odds ambitions, share an office. Sparks ensue. Also mayhem and evil. You know, I have to take my former comment back. I did delve a bit into the mind of a would-be psycho-killer in that novel. Just a bit, but the way I did it was to take that Super Ego “it’s all about me” part that is in all of us (but perhaps larger in myself than in you) and enlarged it to Big Box store size.

That’s how you find your way into a psycho-killer. Ha! Also, I read a couple of books for research. One was called The Psychopath Next Door. Evil becomes much less bewildering when you understand that most murderers and bad people simply have no empathy. They are born without a conscience. And they learn to hide this fact very early in life. They are charming and you probably love some of them, at least the ones who are not evil psychopaths. The gentler form of folk who lack empathy are simple sociopaths. Most sociopaths are not murderers or evil. They just don’t have the “I care” gene. Or, they only care about themselves. There’s more, and it’s fascinating and creepy, but I read that book a long time ago so I don’t want to muck up the authors’ research any more than I might have already done.

I love research. Usually non-fiction books. I like social science a lot, neuroscience and psychology, but I’ll read anything if it makes my story better. I’m a reader after all; most writers are. All writers should be. I read everything, including every genre of fiction. I like strong female characters in fiction. I also like strong females in real life. I once knew a strong woman who invited me to her place on Lake Huron up north.

She and her husband had bought these beat up hunting cabins. There were six of them. Together, they renovated these places, just as they had their historic home in our town. Then, the strong woman, who could plaster walls and refinish wood and hammer nails, also decorated these now sturdy cottages in the most adorable shabby chic style.

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I’m from Michigan, so I love big water. 

I spent the day in awe of her and a few years later I wrote the novel that would become the first in my Blue Lake series for The Wild Rose Press, Blue Heaven. My husband gave me the idea for Luke’s #1 Rule, the second book in that series. We’ve literally been married half our lives, but back when we were still newlyweds he said “I only had one rule when I was dating.” He kind of chuckled ruefully when he said this. But I was intrigued. “What?” I wanted to know. “No single moms.” He looked at me with his big blue eyes and we had a good long laugh because he’d married me, a single mom, and we were both pretty happy about it.

Our wedding almost didn’t happen. We broke up for a minute after we were engaged. But then we got back together and it was quite romantic and we went on in this fashion for more than twenty years before I remembered that remark and asked him if I could use his “one rule” idea to write a book. He wasn’t thrilled with that plan. But I begged and he said yes as long as absolutely nothing in the book resembled our real lives in any way. I promised. Then I asked my sons, who were little boys when we married but were now grown up men. “It won’t really be you and it’s not about us.” They didn’t mind, so I went ahead and wrote that book.

Husbands aren’t the only givers of ideas. Writers sometimes have critique groups that help. My critique partner gave me the final scene of Luke’s #1 Rule. She read my final scene and said, oh no, you don’t want to do that, do this instead. So I did. And then I had to turn in my next novel and I didn’t have the right title because hate and mayhem had ensued and it wasn’t the sweet little love story I thought it would be.

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The largest writing group I belong to is Detroit Working Writers.

They’ve been around for more than 100 years.

I emailed my partner and said “Any ideas?” I listed all my bad ones. She felt so sorry for my broken brain that she sent a list, and down that list a bit was the perfect title. That is the name of my next book: Love and Death in Blue Lake. I hope it comes out sometime this summer, but you never know. I’ve had lots of writing partners through the years. Really, I can’t get by without them. And then there is my editor. She’s lovely. Having an editor is one of the best things about working for a publisher instead of going indie.

I have a couple of indie novels too. Sister Issues of course, with my daughter-in-law and her real life sister as cover models. Then I wrote a couple of indie paranormals and one of them, Sweet Melissa, actually does have a segment that is from my real life when I was a young hitchhiking hippie. Everything in that one section where Melissa’s friend talks her into hitching to Colorado really happened; I just moved it from a short story I’d written years ago. So writing is also about being willing to break your own rules for a story idea’s sake. And just following thse ideas wherever they lead you.

Twitter Inspiration

Found out about National Romance Novel Writing Month, aka NaRoNoWriMo, a little late but decided to jump in anyway. Need all the inspiration I can get for Luke and Chloe, the star-crossed lovers in my WIP. Plus, they’re on Twitter @naronowrimo so I can check in. Got 300 more hard-won words today, and that’s all good. I revised 45 pages as well.

Traditionally, NaNoWriMo is “all new words” but that’s not what I need and I don’t think NaRoNoWriMo cares that I’m in revision mode. For me, that means going through, page by page, and adding to the story, upping the conflict and hotness factor. When I say hotness factor, I’m not talking 50 Shades of anything–I’m talking about the initial attraction between two people who are perfect for each other.

That’s priority one for me. I want the romance to shoot the moon. And when I wrote the first draft, I didn’t take it far enough. (Thank you to my critique group: Vernie Dale, Tom Phillips, and Bob Baker!) The other thing I need to do is flesh out a skimpy subplot that absolutely plays into the main theme of the story and is tightly entwined. In the first draft, that got very short shrift. My writing pals sat in my dining room a week or two ago and helped me brainstorm where the book needed filling out.

Because for me, it’s always about filling in the parts I skip over. Every writer has her weak spot, and that’s mine. What that means in practical terms is the first draft will be short, lots of it will be internal monologue (telling where it should be showing) instead of action, dialogue and conflict. So I need to use what I have but carefully cut the “sitting and thinking” and fill in the right stuff. The best stuff: Action. Dialogue. Conflict.

Revising, I also look at language and try to add color and humor. Cut those cliches right out of my book! One way to do that is to switch the cliche up with a new edge. Thank you Twitter for leading me yet again into inspiration! If you’d like to follow me, I’m @CynthiaHarriso1. I always follow back real people who are not scary:)

Mistakes & Heartbreaks

So of course there were one or two perfect days of happiness when my new project seemed shiny and simple. The story rolled out in front of me like a red carpet, just asking me to take that walk. And I’m still walking, seeing where this leads, but just ahead, right in my path, I see a thorny bush.

Sure the roses smell sweet, and their petals are soft, but I know the prick of those thorns. There are places I don’t like to go in my stories. Places too close to my own mistakes and heartbreaks. And as I’ve been working out the conflict in this new story, up turns one of the worst times of my life, asking to be taken up and picked over for the sake of fiction.

Sometimes it’s just not worth it. For now I’ve put on some sturdy gardening gloves for careful pruning. Maybe I can somehow salvage that lovely bouquet without cutting myself to ribbons in the process.