Observation brings inspiration

How well do you observe the world? Do you really look at the people, places and events around you? Or is it all a blur in your memory when those things are no longer directly in front of you?

We are all so busy with our individual careers, families, worries … life in general… that we move automatically through 0ur daily routines without taking in the details. But as a writer it’s those details that matter and can make the difference between a good story and an exceptional story.

Some of the nicest comments I’ve received is that the readers felt as if they were in the places about which I’d written. I think that comes from having been a travel writer, as it was my job to take in the details and describe locations in a way that would make others want to go there. My articles had to lead the reader into a locale by making it real for them.

I would say that is one of my strong points. On the other hand, I’ve not always been so good at detailing the people in my articles or the characters in a story. That is where I work the hardest. So, over the years, I’ve learned to study people: their general appearance, habits, facial qualities or lack thereof; their way of walking and talking, and the way they interact with others. Sooner or later, some of those bits and pieces will find their way into a character in my fiction.

Even if you write fantasy and specialize in characters from other worlds, you must include the details if they are to be believable.

Observations bring our written pieces to life. If you aren’t already being overly observant, start practicing right now. Look out your window and take in all the details of the scene. Really look at it and study it. What’s in the scene? What stands out? Look at the colors; describe them. Are there hidden places there that you might want to investigate? Does the view give you a feeling of any kind; make you smile, make you sad?

The next time you are talking to someone, be it relative, friend or colleague, take a moment to study their face and the way they talk. Do they have any habits that are obvious, or quirks of personality? What does their skin look like; or their eyes, ears, hair, hands, clothing, posture? All of these things make up the total person and we know that when it comes to each individual, we can use the word “unique” correctly.

Sometimes it’s fun to sit in a crowded place and focus on someone to study. I find this is particularly easy and entertaining in airports, with its many kinds of interesting subjects rushing about or sitting across from me in the waiting areas. The same could be said for a busy restaurant, or a shopping mall, gatherings of every kind.

Inspiration through observation is everywhere. Take the time to look around you, and be inspired.

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Now available as an ebook on Amazon.com:

“A Spirit in the Heart” by Ell Wheeler is a light romance that takes readers into the north woods of Minnesota and the beauty of the lake country. When a man and a woman from two different cultures meet and try to understand each other, anything can happen; and does.

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Just keep writing

Happy New Year! Here we go again. I hope this will be a healthy and happy year for everyone.

We are a few days past the celebrations when the world welcomed in 2018, but that’s just long enough to have finalized those resolutions, or already have given up on them. The problem with resolutions is that we often don’t think them through. They are not always realistic.

For example, in 2017 I was determined that I would finish my newest novel by year’s end. I forgot to consider all the days during the year that I might not be able to write. Such as: the week-long trip to visit distant family; the days I was too sick to get out of bed, let alone write; the special celebrations with family and friends; the days I helped a friend or relative who needed me; all the days when reality intruded. You get the picture. You’ve been there.

What I wanted to do was to sit down at my computer every morning at 8 a.m. and crank out about 1,000 words of perfect prose in a plot that would have the Pultizer people banging on my door. HA! What a dreamer I am. Some days I did reach that numerical target; on other days I only managed 200, but they were darn good words, and quality will always beat out quantity when it comes to writing.

I’ve changed my goals for this year. I still intend to write on a regular basis. Maybe not daily, but the best that I can in the time allotted to me. I will still set objectives and personal deadlines, but this year I will forgive myself if I don’t meet them.

Happy New Year and happy writing.

Recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

Each of us has our strengths and weaknesses when we write. Do we recognize them? We should. But no matter what they are, they will contain much of what we are and what we know personally.

I feel that one of my strengths is in setting the background of a story so that the reader feels he or she is actually in that place. Having traveled quite a bit has given me a view of many locales and I can use the pictures in my mind to set a scene. Failing that, I can pull up an actual photo of a place that I have visited and describe it, or even a photo of a place I’ve never been and use that. After a while, my mind begins to create its own visions of the places I want in a story.

I do the same thing with characters. If I look closely at any of the characters in my stories, I will see bits and pieces of someone I know. Those little quirks of personality that I remember from someone I’ve met will always find their way into my fictional characters and make them more interesting, and real. That’s fun to do and it’s a good way to start. Once I’ve given a character a foundation of traits, it’s easier to imagine others. Sometimes they are good; sometimes bad.

In my novel, A Spirit in the Heart, I have a main character that is part American Indian. I spent a lot of time in Minnesota and I met people who share some of the same attitudes that I let that character express in the book, but I also wanted all his good attitudes to prevail.

Everyone we know has something about them that sets them apart. Maybe they are exceptionally frugal; or they’re a miserly sort; or giddy, or grumpy, or scared of everything, or annoyingly happy all the time….whatever. Those are the things that give a character substance and can make the reader love them or hate them.

And then there is plot. Alas, I have to admit that here is where I sometimes struggle. Okay, we all know that many romance novels don’t have much of a plot (no offense intended to those that do), but that’s the way I began with Caribbean Charade. I followed a formula of woman/man has crisis in love life; woman/man meets someone else that both attracts and annoys them; they start to get together; no they don’t; together again, off again. Well you get the picture. This goes on until finally they admit that they love each other and it’s happy ever after time. That was my first novel.

The second one became a bit more complex, and the third one I am working on is more complicated still. So I’m learning as I work and I believe I’m getting better as a writer.

My goal is to make everything from characterization to setting to plot come together in one dynamite story. For me, that can be a challenge. For others, it may be easy. But all of us have strengths and weaknesses, and we have to recognize them. We need to play to our strengths and strengthen our weaknesses. That’s how we become better writers.

There is a Computer God

I could be the poster child for the “computerly challenged.” Just made up a new word there, but it best describes what I am talking about.

I know there are others out there in www-land who understand that. A month ago, if you had asked me about my URI or about the widgets I use on my blog site, my reaction would have been “Huhhh?”

I still couldn’t precisely define those terms, but I have learned a lot in the last few days. It all began when I tried to change the email address associated with this blog. I thought I had, until I suddenly couldn’t get into the administrative section to be able to add, edit, or post. And what I ended up with was a duplicate page asking me where I wanted to start.

Wait! What? Start what? I already have a blog, but where is it? For two days my blog was in some sort of purgatory, waiting for me to pray it out of there or come rescue it, which, as you can see, I did, but not without the risk of damage to my sanity.

So what happened, you may well ask. For starters, I thought I had changed my email associated with the site and thought up a new password. And then I removed the original email account. Apparently that didn’t work because every time I tried to sign in with the new email, the program refused to recognize me.

Things get a little muddled here, because I went through a whole round of helpful (or not) exercises with the support team that got me nowhere. Lest I give the wrong impression, those who responded to my cry for help tried their best before sending me on to one of the experts, who walked me through yet another series of steps. There is a Computer God because I finally recovered the original email and using the last password I could remember, “A Writers’ Consortium” popped up. Happy me.

What does this have to do with the writing life? Seems like everything, especially in this day of instant communication where we have so many resources that let us put our work out there for the world to see. It’s another lesson in adjusting and adapting to the way things are done, and every day is a learning opportunity.

What did I learn? Mainly that I always need to do my research before flying off in a different or unfamiliar direction. Had I gone through more of the tutorials with wordpress.com, or asked some questions in the on-line forum, I might have avoided all the stress. It’s the same with writing. Do the research. Check the facts. Then check them again. It’s all about getting it right.

And, oh yes, develop a system for remembering passwords.

Make Every Word Count

Ever have a day when, as a writer, you just don’t feel like writing? Well of course you have. What a silly question!

Every writer has those days. Sometimes that old friend, Writer’s Block, comes to visit and there’s no way to get rid of him (or her, if I must be politically correct.) And when we do get rid of him/her, him/her always seems to find his/her way back again at another time, and we must deal with the pest time and again.

I mentioned before that one way to get around writer’s block is to change direction in whatever you are working on, or work on something totally different or new or fun or crazy. Our brains need a little vacation now and then just like our bodies.

Besides dealing with the blank page and not knowing what to write, there are times when the process seems terribly slow. We write a sentence and it’s not right. We delete it. We write again. Still not right. And that can go on for a long time.

Sometimes we get involved in editing what we’ve written previously, and that can take up quite a bit of time, but that’s okay. That’s writing. It’s polishing and perfecting, and that’s something that we all need to do.

Then there are those writers who say they have to write x number of words per day or they don’t feel as if they have accomplished anything. I tried that once. I set a number that I thought seemed realistic. Sometimes I hit my target. Sometimes I missed big time, and when that happened I felt bad, as if I had failed in some way. It didn’t work for me, so I changed my standard.

I have had days when I sat down to work on my latest novel and I couldn’t crank out more than a few sentences, either because I was not motivated or I was tired or didn’t feel good, whatever. But I did get those few sentences down on paper and that did move the story along, albeit not very far.

It seems to me that it is far more important to make whatever you write the best you can do on that particular day. Be satisfied with your work, whether it’s ten words or 1,000. Ten great words can be so much more valuable that just trying to hit a target number.

One of the best books I’ve ever read on writing is “Make Every Word Count” by Gary Provost. It’s still in print and I highly recommend it. In fact, I think I’m going to read it again. It can only help.

Meeting the challenge

Starting a blog was a real challenge for me. That may sound strange to those of you who started learning how to use computers and their various programs while you were still in preschool, but I’m not one of them.

I talked about how I began my writings with a pen on notebook paper. I guess that’s not so bad because I know writers today who still like the feeling of putting a pen to paper. It just takes an awful long time to do it that way. And in my case, after I wrote it out by hand I had to type it out on a typewriter. Remember those? The result was often pages that were hideously gunked up with errors covered with white-out or mistakes that I didn’t see. Sometimes I decided I needed to switch things around and I would retype the entire manuscript again before it was ready to mail. (Yes, regular old snail mail, but that’s a whole other subject.) Typewriters did get better and more advanced over the years, but they still left a lot to be desired.

This is beginning to sound like the kind of story my grandfather would tell: “I had to walk to school every day, five miles, through the snow, uphill, both ways, shoeless.

Anyway, my first computer was the first personal computer (PC) ever produced by IBM. Now if that gives you a hint of how old I am, so be it, but please keep it to yourself. That was back in the years of the floppy disk, and it was a real pain. If I recall correctly (and I might not), I had to insert the 5.25-inch floppy disk and boot up. Then I had to eject that disk and put in the one that contained the writing program, which was better than doing it by hand, but still pretty terrible.

Somehow, there was a way to save what I had written; probably on yet another disk. Eventually, it was possible to add a second disk drive, which simplified it a bit, but it has been so long ago that I don’t remember the details and it does feel like it is ancient history now. If you want the details, you can read all about those first PCs on Wikipedia. There has been amazing progress in computer technology since those first years.

I digress. My point is this: being a writer is a challenge and it requires being enrolled in a personal continuing education program that never ends. There is research to be done and methods to explore that enable us to connect with the readers of the world. Also of importance are the networking and social opportunities available online and in our communities where writers can go for encouragement, writing tips, career help, and moral support, such as this blog and many others.

There was a time when I was content to use my computer just to write, to play games on it, to send and receive email, and to research topics when necessary. That’s still okay for some people, but as writers, we cannot stop there. Being a writer means to be constantly learning, not only in what we write about, but about the tools we use to enhance that writing and promote our careers.

I’ll never get rich doing this, but I will continue to write and to meet all the challenges that come with being a writer, because it is what I feel called to do.

Now if I can just figure out how to work my new phone I’ll be happy.

The old-fashioned way

We all know that the world has advanced in technology and communications in gigantic leaps and bounds, and I for one am thankful. As a writer, I have gone through several progressions that have made my writing life easier. In a previous article I talked about writing everything out by hand and then typing my articles on a progression of typewriters, and finally moving on to the difficulties of learning how to write on a computer.

Making the transition from hand writing to computer writing was not easy for me. Writing sentences by hand is slow, but it gives one’s mind time to think about what is going onto the paper. Writing onto the computer screen seemed strange at first. Thank goodness I got used to it quickly. The greatest benefit was being able to delete and/or correct words and move entire paragraphs around with a couple taps of the keyboard. The process helped me to get more of my ideas down on paper and finalize them for submission to magazines.

Now I’m going to bore you with the old-fashioned method of submission. Back in olden times (which in this case is about 1980), there were several important steps to do. First of course was that the manuscript (ms) was proofed and presented according to the editor’s guidelines. (Still a very important step.) If it was more than five pages, it was to be mailed flat, so there was always a supply of large manila envelopes at hand.

Most editors wanted a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) enclosed with the mailing to facilitate the return of the ms when it was rejected. The writer absorbed the mailing costs both ways.

I eventually bought a small scale and obtained a chart that told me how much it would cost to mail x number of pages and how much it would cost for an editor to return them. So I needed a large roll of stamps on hand also. It was either that or stand in line at the post office to have the materials weighed and stamped. And then, given the delays in mail delivery and the fact that editors and their assistants often had to wade through piles of unsolicited materials, I would wait, and wait, and wait for a response.

Then all of a sudden, or at least it seemed like it to me, came the World Wide Web. Wow and Holy Cow! It’s a whole new world out there at my fingertips. Having the resources of the internet for research, communication, and networking changed the lives of writers forever, and it keeps changing. I can now query an editor or send a manuscript from the comfort of my office. It’s quick and easy.

The one thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the wait to find out if my work will be accepted or rejected. Might as well get used to it; that will never change.