Writer’s Intuition

By making a joke in my online writers’ group, I caught the attention of exactly the expert I needed—and didn’t know I needed. The morning’s motivational prompt had been a funny one—something about banging one’s head on one’s desk. I replied, “Speaking of head-banging, my work in progress has a plot thread about metal music.” Another writer replied to me: “That’s my genre. Reach out if you need anything.”

I thought I’d done my research, but once I contacted her, I found out how little I’d really learned. Giving a character a connection to metal music in her past was intended to add surprising elements to the plot. Faced with how little I understood about the genre, and how enormous the project of grasping this complex musical world might be, I had to reconsider and ask myself some key questions.

Is the story dependent on this element? Or does it only add flavor? If that’s the case, could another flavor substitute? This reminds me of something my friend Bob said about cooking. When a recipe calls for Himalayan pink salt, if he can’t tell the difference between using it or regular salt, he’ll go with the plain stuff.

The black metal plot thread might be Himalayan pink salt. I’m going to try plain salt and see if the recipe still works. The story is about the characters, their challenges and dilemmas, their desires and obstacles, their lessons. As long as this character has a certain pair of people in her past, their creative output can be an art form I understand better. I never thought my joke would lead to such a revelation, and yet it felt important to make it. When it popped into my head,  I turned my laptop back on and posted it, though I was on my way out the door. The comment was, as far as I could tell, trivial, but my intuition knew better.

Surprising Myself

Multiple times in the past few months, I dropped my car key while running. My new Amphipod water bottle has a smaller pocket on the hand strap than the old one did, so I couldn’t fit the key with its great big head in the pocket anymore. It was either poking half-way out or dangling from my little finger. When I shifted the bottle from one hand to the other, it was easy to drop the key. After each drop, I told myself I would pay more attention. But I don’t run to pay attention to my key. I’m either brainstorming a scene in a book, admiring nature, or doing both.

I sometimes a route that doesn’t go in laps of a circular trail but along a stretch of sand above Elephant Butte Lake and back. I’ve never measured it, but it takes as long as five miles did on another trail. Not a great distance for marathoners, but it’s my usual. I changed the bottle from right hand to left at the turnaround point and didn’t notice my key was missing until I got back to my car. My phone and spare key were locked in the trunk.

No point in fretting or in objecting to reality. I had no choice but to run back. After a windstorm, the sand was freshly rearranged, and my tracks were easy to retrace. But the sand was soft in places where the key could have vanished. I could have dropped it into a lizard hole. Or a well-meaning person could have picked it up.

Seeing a park ranger’s truck on the dirt road above the beach, I pulled up my mask, waved, and ran to him. He loaned me his phone to call my roadside assistance club, and then I ran on, in case I could find the key.

It lay exactly where I’d turned around and switched hands on the water bottle. I ran back to my car, speeding up so I could get to my phone and cancel the lock-out service.

I did it! Success!

Almost. I was in the middle of the call when the ranger showed up, escorting the wrecker to my car.

Insights from this adventure:

  • I can make the same mistake five times before I learn from it.
  • I can be creative with what I have on hand: I crafted the world’s smallest fanny pack using the pocket from my old Amphipod bottle. My key will go in it.
  • And I can run double my usual miles.

You never know what you’re capable of until you do it.

Where did that character come from?

I sometimes feel as if characters come out of nowhere, fully formed, in search of an author. A few positive, likeable characters have been inspired by real people, but even then, I make changes so I’m not actually putting person X in a book.

Antagonist characters are usually inspired by one specific trait or behavior I notice in an individual. I use that trait as a root from which to grow a character. For example, in the short story Hidden Fish in Gifts and Thefts, I needed someone who would antagonize Mae’s boyfriend, Jamie. As I set up the opening scene, I had an image of a woman I’d noticed a concert a couple of years ago wearing an oddly fitted wig and carrying a small dog. (The wig puzzled me, because it seemed she intended to make it obvious she was wearing one.) Jamie is a musician with a fear of dogs. A woman who would bring her dog to a concert was the perfect antagonist.

Obviously, I couldn’t actually use this real person in my story, whoever she was, but I borrowed the dog—making him far less cute and far worse-mannered—for Hepzibah. I borrowed a variation on the wig, too, and invented a story behind it as the reason for her enmity toward Jamie.

When I was recertifying as a fitness professional in 2019, I took a continuing education course taught by a woman who said “Whoo!” after every segment of the workout. It drove me nuts. I took note of that idiosyncrasy for an antagonist in Mae’s in workplace, a fitness center. I thought it was the only aspect of this presenter I used, but the day Gifts and Thefts came out, I realized I’d used more. Her unprofessional behavior. She made overt sexual jokes, and she kept asking if it was time to have wine yet. I’d forgotten this. Consciously, anyway. In the short story Responsible Party, Sandra commits different offenses. But in retrospect, I see more of the presenter in her than I knew was there while I was writing.

I now wonder what else I’ve borrowed, beyond a wig, a dog, and a “whoo,” to assemble the characters who stand in the way of my protagonists.

*****

Download a copy of the second short story in Gifts and Thefts

Responsible Party

Mae’s internship in fitness management gets stressful when her supervisor starts accusing other employees of theft and tells Mae to find the responsible party. Her efforts bring results neither of them expected.

*****

The Calling is on sale for 99 cents through April 10th.

I’ll be interviewed and will read sections from The Calling on All About Books KTAL, 101.5 FM, Las Cruces, at 12:30 p.m.  Mountain Daylight Time, April 9th. Later that day, the show will be posted on the station’s archive.

New Release Available for Preorder and Book One on Sale

Gifts and Thefts

Six Short Mae Martin Mysteries

 Could a gift cat be a mystery in disguise?

Gifts and Thefts picks up where Shadow Family left off with six connected short stories, beginning with the anonymous gift of a cat and ending with an elephant in the room. Faced with decisions about using her psychic gift, Mae Martin wants to help her friends and colleagues, but uncovering the truth has consequences—for her and for people she cares about. The answers to simple questions have complicated results, and solving one mystery opens the door to a bigger one.

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

Buy

****

Gifts and Thefts will be released on March 31.  The paperback can be ordered then. E-books can be preordered.

The Calling, the first Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, is on sale for 99 cents through April 10 on all e-book retailers.

Buy

Green and Present

For a year, I’ve been making few plans and not giving much thought to what I was doing without. When I got my vaccine appointment, though, I began to think about the future. Then my appointment was rescheduled for a week and a half later, and this brought me back to the present. It’s better than leaning too far ahead. More peaceful. The future will still come.

On a typical spring day, I tried to squeeze in a run at Elephant Butte Lake before the wind kicked up. The lake was blue, the sand staying in place on the ground, the sun warm—and then the blowing started. At one point, the flying grit was so thick I had stop and turn my back to the wind. I couldn’t see, could hardly move forward, and the sand was stinging my skin. In a few minutes, it eased enough that I could proceed, grateful for a visor and for wrap-around sun goggles, and the view was stunning. The wind made the water appear bright green, whipped into miniature whitecaps. Thin clouds of white sand streaked over the surface. I was still being pelted, but even a dirt storm has its moments of beauty.

When I got home, I discovered new greening on the fig tree. Its first leaves had unfurled, tiny but thick and sturdy, and a few velvety, bead-sized green figs had popped out. Later, the fruits will flower inside their skins, and little wasps will somehow slip in and pollinate, unseen by human eyes.

A few weeks ago, my friend Bob loaned me his copy of Tales from the Tao: The Wisdom of Taoist Masters. As I walked home with it, honored by the surprise, I opened the book randomly and came across this passage from Lao Tzu.

Without going out your door,

You can know the whole world.

Without looking through your window,

You can see the Tao of Heaven.

 

Free Short Story: A Preview of Gifts and Thefts

Gifts and Thefts will come out on March 31. It’s been edited and now is now being proofread. If you’re eager to start reading, you can download an uncorrected copy of the first story in the book. (There may be a few typos, maybe not. Editors and authors go “wordblind” to material they’ve read and worked with over and over.)

Click here for your free preview story. Hope you like it!

Rodeo Regrets

Will Baca receives a cat from an anonymous giver, and his girlfriend suspects it’s from another woman. Mae Martin’s psychic journey into Will’s past on the rodeo circuit takes a puzzling twist while she’s solving the mystery behind the gift.

Space

Part of the appeal of the recent pictures of Mars may be the emptiness. No people. No buildings. Just rocks and dirt. It looks a bit like New Mexico. I’m fortunate to have access to open space, places where I can run alone and in silence.

My yoga teacher often guides savasana by reminding us to enter the spaces between the thoughts. One method of meditation is to attend not only to the breath but to the space between, the unforced transitional pause that’s neither inhalation nor exhalation. Likewise, there are spaces—small but deep—that are neither one thought nor the next.

When the to-do list is long and the calendar is full, spaciousness is still possible. The space between.

 

Making Mistakes

I’m at a point in my work in progress (Mae Martin Mysteries book eight) where my protagonist feels compelled to both help and confront the antagonist—a person who has wronged her and done even greater wrongs to people she cares about. Then the antagonist, through actions that karmically earned a disaster, is in crisis. Perhaps there’s an ideal path Mae could take, but can she see it? As the author, do I want her to?

In this book, Mae is taking a college course on Eastern Philosophy. She’s doing her best as a beginner to explore the wisdom of the Buddha. The antagonist’s brother and his roommate are dedicated yogis, not just in asana practice but in attempting to live the philosophy. Mae’s summer house guest is an Apache teenager who is training to become a medicine man. In the scene I’m working on, these well meaning, spiritually aware young people are in a situation where the right action is hard to find. Hard to agree on. Is there room for compassion and outrage at the same time in the same heart? At thirty, Mae is the oldest of the group. She’s likely to mess up. I was not very wise at thirty, myself. Wiser than I was in my teens or twenties, but I’d be making a mistake to portray her with the wisdom of an elder.

I’d also be making a mistake if my characters’ errors are unsympathetic. I have to write this so the reader can feel the struggle. It’s not easy to love your enemies.

Nothing but Nature

To my surprise, I hardly miss my favorite trail. By leaving it to the unmasked dog-walkers and the political sand-scribblers, I’ve found peace. Peace along the sandy lake shore, a strangely un-desert-like experience, running only inches away from the vast blue water and little peeping beach birds. Even deeper peace in my secret place, running on a set of hidden trails with bizarre rock formations, some like geodes made of geodes.

When the weather was warm, bees greeted me two days in a row when I emerged from my car, about to head for my new running routes. I paused to let a bee walk on my hand, honored by its gentle, curious attention. Most of the time, I like people. I enjoy company. But when I’m out in nature, my soul is happiest with nothing but nature.

A Writing Lesson

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while know that a certain trail in Elephant Butte Lake State Park is my sacred space, my refuge where I run in beauty. This fall, it began to lose some of its peacefulness to people who vented their feelings by writing. They could have done it in journals, blog posts, poems, or song lyrics—but they wrote in sand and on rocks.

Today, I decided to do something about it while in the park and later by writing a letter to the editor of the only local print paper. My original letter was 376 words. The paper allows 250. I had to find 125 excess words in what I thought was already perfect.

This was a fascinating process. The original version wasn’t perfect after all. It was wordy. I’d like it better with three of four more words. But I removed 120 I don’t even miss. Can I cut excess words in my fiction this ruthlessly? I’ll have to remember the lesson as I revise my works in progress.

The letter:

At first, I thought the wind would blow the words away. It didn’t. More appeared, political words, in the sand along Luchini Trail. Then words spelled out with pebbles. Then words scrawled on rocks in black marker. Not bad words—honor, respect, integrity etc. But it’s still graffiti. If one person starts defacing the rocks, what’s to stop others from doing it? (Except respect, honor, and integrity.) I turned those rocks over. The graffiti writer returned with yellow paint and rewrote the words. Every time I run, I stop to flip a heavy rock. The person responsible for the graffiti flips it back later. Dear scribbler, I don’t object to your words, but to the fact that you painted them on rocks.

Most of the sand writings were angry. When an f-bomb appeared, I couldn’t wait for wind erasure. With a fallen twig shaped like a broom, I swept away the rage, whether I agreed or disagreed with the writer. I tossed the political-opinion pebbles. One landed in sand so untouched it simply vanished.

The sand I swept was soft and warm. There were delicate little quail tracks in it. Peace. Beauty. It’s what people seek on this trail. But every time I passed those angry words, my mind snagged on inner noise and argument.

We benefit from a space that calms our spirits rather than aggravating our outrages. Perhaps the graffiti writer thinks they’re sending positive messages. But nature can do it better, without black marker or yellow paint.