Where to Find Writing Inspiration

IMG_0027Before I was a published writer, I used to read writers’ biographies and letters for inspiration. I still do, but not so much. Instead of biographies, written by biographers sometimes even after the writer is dead, writers often pen their own memoirs these days. I love them. I’m not sure writers write letters to each other anymore–they’re more likely to email or chat in a private Facebook group. The internet has changed everything about the way we write. It has changed the entire writing landscape. Author websites and interviews abound online and of course they  inspire, but best of all is hearing an inspiring writer speak IRL. Nothing beats it.

Yesterday, Michigan Sisters in Crime (writing groups like Mi_Sinc are where you go to find great writer/speakers) hosted Michigan writer Karen Dionne, whose novel The Marsh King’s Daughter captured the attention of thirty publishing houses a few years ago. I’d heard Karen speak before, at another conference. Her story six or seven years ago was inspiring, but what was still to come would be a very happy surprise.

Karen had written in school, but didn’t continue writing once she married and had kids. In the 1970s, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula invited homesteaders, so Karen and her husband (along with their six-week old baby) moved to the UP and lived in a tent while they built their cabin. Karen remained busy for a long time making a home in a fairly isolated area and didn’t think much about writing until her son won a creative writing award at school. Karen found that several famous writers would be at the award ceremony, and she was determined to go.

Those famous writers inspired Karen so much she set about writing a book and finding an agent. She credits her agent with teaching her how to write as they went through six drafts of her first (still unpublished) effort at a novel. Then she snagged a book contract with two science-based thrillers. When they didn’t sell zillions of copies, her publisher dropped her. But her agent stuck with her and she landed a project she calls “work for hire.” A television show wanted her to write a book using the characters and setting of that show. She was paid a flat fee and does not own the rights to that work.

Meanwhile, she was busy in the writing world with her public speaking and with an online community she helped form. The popular writer’s conferences they held in New York each year took lots of planning. She wasn’t writing, but she was in the writing world, putting on conferences, speaking about writing and helping to nurture new writers. She was learning and networking as she went along, too. Then, after a number of years, the conferences came to a natural stopping place, and Karen was suddenly free to write another book.

She wasn’t sure she had one in her, but the first sentence of The Marsh King’s Daughter came to her as she was falling asleep one night. She remembered it the next day and she still thought it was a good first line. She was intrigued by the voice that had spoken and wanted to see what else this voice had to say. She worked on the novel steadily for a year and a half with no contract and no publisher. Her agent encouraged her and praised an early draft as her best work yet.

When the book was ready to be submitted to publishers, Karen received dozens of offers from major publishing houses. Editors loved it. There was a buzz about this fabulous new work. Many offers were made by editors and finally she signed with her dream editor and her first choice publisher for lots of money. The book went on to receive praise from The New York Times Book Review and many other literary stars, authors and reviewers alike. The book, still with that same first sentence that came to her in the night, became a best seller.

It was an overnight sensation that was some thirty years in the making. Karen had set her book in the small UP homestead where she’d lived as a young wife and mother. The authentic feel of the setting is one part of the book that makes it special. The voice of her main character is also often singled out for praise. Then there’s the brilliant concept: the story is told by the adult child of a woman who had been kidnapped, raped and held for years against her will. There’s a dual timeline as the reader slowly gleans what life was like for the young girl who thought her family was perfectly normal.

Karen is warm and funny. She’s also a generous writer who answered all our many questions about the craft and the business of writing. I know I was not the only writer to come away with a new determination to keep pushing myself even when it seems like that big break is never going to come. Because if you keep writing, you never know where your career will go next.  If you don’t write the book, there is zero chance of landing a fabulous publishing deal.

Many of us wanted to know Karen’s secret formula for success. Her #1 piece of writing advice was to fearlessly write the best book you can. Follow your gut, not the writing rules. Try new things if they feel right. She promises that if you write a great book, agents and editors are out there ready and waiting for it.

Where Mystery Readers and Writers Meet: Bouchercon 2018

UnknownMy head is crammed with information gleaned since the four-hour workshop that kicked off this years’ Bouchercon here in St Pete. I’m only down here in my new second hometown for ten days, most of them gone. I miss my husband, so it’s good I’m going home, even though events conspired to get me here. Last year, at about this time, I thought my book might be out and I could sell it at Bouchercon. I’d heard as many readers as writers come to this event.

First crime novel + Home = Synchronicity.

It seemed too good of a coincidence to pass up. If it all came together, and it did. Just barely. My book came out a few weeks before the conference and I was able to get them into Murder on the Beach bookstore. My sweet little home away from home is always ready for me, all I had to do was book a flight and turn the key. The drive downtown every day was a treat as the conference hotel is on the water. Also, it’s a beautiful venue.

Right away I found out that anyone who wants to can suggest their city for Bouchercon. But if you do, you’re agreeing to do all the work required to set up this massive event. This happened when a was writing in one of the many cozy alcoves at the Vinoy and some people came to join me, asking how I liked the conference so far. Everyone at Bouchercon is very friendly. You really can’t find a quiet corner to write, and why would you want to? People are so interesting and I spend enough time with my characters.

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Did I say that I met my friend Marla, who I have known on the internet for many years, IRL for the first time? That was fun. When we shared our schedules, we found that we’d chosen many of the same panels. That’s a big difference at Bouchercon: panels, not workshops, rule. Readers want to hear from their favorite writers, as many of them as possible. There were also interviews with super-popular writers like Karin Slaughter and  Denmark’s “Queen of Thriller” Sara Blaedel.

During Sara’s interview, I spotted Lee Child in the room. Just like he was a regular person. Earlier I’d seen Karin Slaughter on a panel where, aside from the occasional wisecrack and one or two anecdotes, she mostly kept her head down. Both Sara and Karin said they were introverts and public speaking didn’t come naturally to them. That explained Karin’s demeanor during the panel, otherwise, you’d never know it. They are both eloquent, inspiring and funny.

My biggest take-away was that almost all the mystery writers, and especially the thriller authors, used at least pieces of true crime stories to springboard off and start writing their novels. I felt comforted by this fact, since my crime novel also has shades of a famous Detroit criminal case. I was just like them!

I’m also introverted, like so many writers. We are most comfortable in our writing chairs, working on stories. Or reading books. That was another common theme that came up over and over again: these world-famous best-selling authors read all the time. Novels, poetry, non-fiction. It was something brought up on every panel. If you want to be a writer, you must be a reader. I already knew that and I read more than I write, so again, something in common.

imagesMy biggest personal a-ha was realizing that I was happy not to be famous. I would not have been comfortable up there in the spotlight. One famous author confessed to using beta-blockers, and he got plenty of knowing laughs. Many performers use this medication as it masks the symptoms of stage fright. Musicians particularly can’t play their instruments if their hands are shaking with fear and their head is full of panic. I have used beta-blockers myself for migraine, but found that they are equally effective when I popped one for a migraine before I gave a talk at a library.

I don’t like giving talks. I was a teacher for a long time, so I got used to having workshops ( taught creative writing and literature courses). But the ease of teaching doesn’t translate into feeling comfortable on a stage. So I came away from Bouchercon feeling that my own writing career is working out just fine for me. Would I love a million dollar contract, like Karen Dionne (fellow Detroit area writer, who won Best Novel award for The Marsh King’s Daughter) or Michael Connelly (also in attendance) or any of the other stars? Sure. But I’m also fine as I am, and I am for sure not holding my breath.