Writing Tip

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Measuring Time

With New Year’s Day coming up, Sandra Merville Hart’s article about using a timeline to organize your fiction work seems appropriate.  I have created timelines even though my first book takes place in one week, not counting the final chapter.  I still needed to see when I should place key events and how these key events could take place during the normal schedule of my characters.

For example, my teenage characters all have jobs and can’t call off because their family desperately needs money.  So if a key event could not take place in one of their work settings, I had to place it before or after work or give my character an urgent reason to call off work.  My novel is written in first-person, so when I had days when nothing critical to the plot occurred, I included a quick or funny summary of what had happened during that time so the reader knew time had passed but nothing significant had happened.

Recently, I have been working on a mystery set during October.  I want my climax to take place on Halloween.  So I wrote down the days in that month and began plugging in events.  The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t kick the action off during the first week.  It left too many empty days.  So I condensed my timeline to three weeks.  My timeline is definitely not carved in stone, but it gives me a starting point for organizing the action of the mystery.

Writing Tip

Placeholder ImageWriting about holiday disasters made me think that this article on Almost an Author about using embarrassing moments as inspiration would be a nice companion piece.  I also like that Mrs. Lord warns against using other people’s embarrassing moments.  Don’t embarrass somebody twice by using his or her embarrassing moment in writing that you will share with others.  As Mrs. Lord says, each of us must “have enough embarrassing or funny stories” from our own lives that we don’t need to borrow other people’s.

Merry Christmas!


I wrote this for my parents as a Christmas gift many years ago and they kindly said I could reprint it here.

Be Still

Be still

On the holiest night of the year

And think

Among the billion, billions of stars

In the vastness of forever

He would have come

If only

For you.

Writing Tip

nypl-digitalcollections-510d47e3-5cd8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99-001-wDisaster Don’t Have to be Disasterous

Some of the most interesting holiday events are the unplanned, unforeseeable holiday disasters.  As long as they aren’t tragic, these disasters can provide inspiration for your writing.  Sharing disaster stories is one of my families favorite pastimes when we get together.  Everyone who was involved pitches in during the retelling.  A camaraderie develops between the people who weathered the disaster.  That bond alone is enough reason to write down family disaster stories,  polish them, and if you think it would make a nice gift, give the finished product to those who lived the story.

When I was in high school, my parents had both been sick in December, so holiday activities were postponed or cancelled.  It was just a few days before Christmas, and we still didn’t have a tree.  I drove my junior high-aged sister and my elementary school-aged sister to the local church where we always bought our cut tree.

But when we pulled into the parking lot, no trees were on display, no person taking money from customers.  The only sign that the Christmas tree farmer had used the lot were four or five Christmas trees thrown down beside the lot.  I didn’t know what to do.

Junior high sis took charge.  Yelling at the top of her lungs, she asked, “Does anybody want any money for this tree?”

Nobody answered.

The trees were ours.  We loaded one into the station wagon, placed a sister in the back because there was no room in the front seat,  and headed home with our hot, I mean free, tree.  It’s one of my favorite Christmas memories.

The Christmas I was nineteen is know in my family as the Year of the Plague.  On Christmas Eve, starting with me, a stomach virus felled each member of my family until by Christmas morning, only my dad was left standing.  Collapsed around the house, the rest of us lay wondering if death really was such a bad option.

My oldest sister, coming in that morning from out of town, stayed at my grandparents.  She really enjoyed the extra time with them.  I believe the Year of the Plague is one of her favorite Christmas memories.


Writing Tip

nypl-digitalcollections-510d47e3-6334-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99-001-wJournaling for the Holidays

If you keep a daily writing journal, writing down your family traditions and events of the Christmas season is a wonderful way to make memories for yourself and your loved ones.  If you write every years during the holidays, you can see how your traditions stay traditional or how they change over the years, especially as you add new family members.

When my entire family gets together for Christmas, we have fried oysters for the Christmas dinner, a tradition from when my mom’s mom was a girl.  Not one of my siblings’ spouses has acquired a taste, or even a tolerance, for friend oysters.  So we have ham along with the oysters, keeping our family tradition alive and our in-laws from starving.

When my husband and I were first married, we had a major disagreement over what kind of Christmas tree to have.  He grew up with artificial trees and likes them because they don’t shed needles and can’t dry out and catch fire.  I grew up with the whole real tree tradition — braving the elements to select a tree, wrestling it into the house, realizing it’s much too big, rearranging furniture to make it fit, watering it, and picking up the needles as it’s brought in, while it’s standing, as it’s taken out.  My husband did not see the charm of the live Christmas tree tradition.  He only saw a dead fire hazard.

We were still battling over the tree when I came home from work on day during the holidays and found a tree stand in our living room.  It’s one of the nicest surprises I have ever had.  My husband still thinks the tree is a dead fire hazard, but I accommodate him by not cutting the tree until a week before Christmas and taking it down on New Year’s Day.  Traditions remain and change at the same time.

Something else to record during the holidays are when events don’t going according to play.  I’ll write about holiday disasters on Thursday.

Writing Tip

img_6543Humor in the Great Outdoors

I enjoy humor writing, but my absolute favorite author is Patrick F. McManus. I only discovered him a few years ago and I am so glad I did.  I have enjoyed his stories and essays over and over again.

Mr. McManus wrote most of his articles for Outdoor Life and Field & Stream.  Then these were collected into books, which was how I found them.  Beyond being able to tell the difference between a rod and a rifle, I know nothing about fishing and hunting, but that hasn’t kept me from laughing myself breathless when I read Mr. McManus’s stories.  His tales about the woes of outdoor pursuits are general enough for anyone to understand.  I also like his stories about growing up in rural Idaho in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s because coming from a small hometown myself, I understand rural humor.  His stories also remind me of the tales my dad tells of growing up in West Virginia.

I have so many favorite Patrick McManus stories that it is hard to choose which ones to discuss. But since I have been talking about figurative language, I will highlight the stories where Mr. McManus anthropomorphizes animals.  I think these are some of his most hilarious tales.

Mr. McManus has written many stories about a stray dog that moved in with his family when he was a boy. He describes Strange as having the opposite characteristics of those listed in the Boys Scout motto.  In “Strange Meets Matilda Jean” from Real Ponies Don’t Go Oink!, he writes:

“If I threw a stick and told him ‘Fetch,’ he would give me this insolent stare, which said, “Fetch it yourself, dumbo.  You threw it.”  Then he would flip a cigarette butt at me, blow out a stream of smoke, and slouch back into his doghouse.  (Well, no, of course, he didn’t really smoke cigarettes, but that was the essence of his attitude, as though he had watched too many movies about hard-boiled detectives.)”

In other stories, crows deliberately warn wildlife that he is out hunting, hummingbirds img_6546become menacing if their feeders are left empty, and in “My First Deer, and Welcome to It” from They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They? “the deer danced and clowned and cut up all around me, smirking the whole while” as he loads his rifle.

Patrick McManus has even written a guide to humor writing, The Deer on the Bicycle: Excursions Into the Writing of Humor.  He has also written a mystery series featuring Sheriff Bo Tully.  I didn’t like these stories as well, even though I am a big mystery fan.  But it’s been awhile since I read one, so I will try again.  To learn more about Patrick McManus and his books, click here.

By the way, very few of his short stories have any kind of bad language in them.  I have read many of them to kids, who sometimes stop breathing from laughing so hard.

Writing Tip

Placeholder ImageIdiom’s Delight

One of the joys I get from writing is using figurative language, whether it’s idioms, smilies, metaphors, alliteration, and personification.  Here is a very good article on how to use idioms.  Coming from West Virginia, I am used to people inventing idioms to suit different occasions.

One time when I was feeling sorry for myself, my sister remarked that I was “dancing around the ol’ bitter barn.”  I have no idea how she came up with it, but ever since, it’s been a joke in my family when anyone sounds bitter or self-pitying.  Another sister invented different ways to say “whatever floats your boat,” such as “whatever cranks your case” and “whatever skins your skunk.  I would love to use “whatever skins your skunk” in a story.  I haven’t found an appropriate place yet.  To describe someone who isn’t smart, my dad would say that he or she “couldn’t lead a two-car funeral”, meaning a funeral procession.

If a writer uses an unusual or original figure of speech, it draws me into their writing.  I will have some examples for my post on Tuesday.

West Virginia Wednesday

nypl-digitalcollections-510d47e3-5cd8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99-001-wFestival of Lights

If you enjoy driving around to see Christmas lights, you should visit the Festival of Lights at Oglebay Park outside of Wheeling.  The Festival was started in 1985.  You follow a six-mile route through the park to see light displays covering more than 300 acres.  My family has visited the lights since I was a kid.  My most recent visit was December 2014.  It’s a lot of fun go with a carload of people.  We didn’t want to get stuck in a huge line winding up into the hills before we ever got to the park, so we arrived right at sunset.  It wasn’t very dark at the beginning of our drive, but it got dark quickly so we could enjoy the displays.  There is a per car donation and lot of other Christmas events within the park.  To visit the park’s website, click here.

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