Nancy: Not Writing, But Thinking About It

Thinking Creative Thoughts

So, do you know what happens when you’re working a lot of hours, not sleeping enough, and haven’t gotten your flu shot for the year? If you’re me, you get the flu. And fast on the heels of that, you might even get a bonus opportunistic sinus infection. I can power through a lot to get words on the page, but some days, rest and healing have to take precedence. And those can be perfect days to spend time absorbing other people’s writing, through books, blogs, movies, and TV shows.

On the surface, it would appear I haven’t gotten very far in my WIP revision over the past week and a half, but as I snuggled under my blankets and watched all sorts of interesting shows and read books that had been teetering on the top of my TBR pile, my writer’s brain was whirring away after all. Today, with the meds finally kicking in and the fog around my mind receding a bit, I took stock of all my forays into other people’s stories, and here’s what I learned.

From the World of Books

I started a new series, which I discovered through the Magical Words blog where David B. Coe, writing the Thieftaker series as D.B. Jackson, posts regularly. The series is set in the years prior to the American Revolution, an historic time period near and dear to my heart, as my own Taste of Liberty is set in the early years of the Revolutionary War. I have always loved studying the history of that time period, and researching my own book gave me an excuse to immerse myself in it. Reading Jackson’s work allowed me that same sort of indulgence. It also showed me how research into the same time period could be used so differently, and so masterfully. People sometimes talk about the setting of the book being like another character, often when referencing the place of the story. In Thieftaker, the time period is used this way. It turns out that, in addition to being an accomplished fiction writer, Jackson has a PhD in US history. He also consulted with other PhD historians. While I’m not going to get a PhD in history (although it sounds awesome! – yes, I am that nerdy), if I ever write another historical, I’m going to consider finding historians with expertise in my specific time period. And I’m going to revisit Jackson’s series to ponder the things I think he did so well and see what approaches I can steal use for guidance.

Another new-to-me discovery was Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a ‘near future’ dystopian tale. For me, this was an example of the right way to begin a book with a scene from late in the story. This technique can feel manipulative, giving the writer a way to hook the reader with an exciting passage and then jumping back in time and making her wade through chapters or even most of the book before reconnecting with the opening scene. I am not typically a fan of this approach, but in this case it worked. I don’t know that I will ever open a book this way (never say never, but I’m doubtful), but it did give me food for thought about how to play with a timeline to serve the story without being manipulative.

From the Blogospere

As I wrote last week, in addition to reading 8LW daily, I also read Jenny Crusie’s ArghInk. Recently, Jenny has been dissecting episodes of the TV show Arrow to explore aspects of writing, and has been hitting topics left and right that have me pondering aspects of the revision of my WIP. Last week I wrote about how a line in one of her posts made me realize my first act was antagonist-anemic. This week, a post about the community in the TV show Leverage has me thinking about ways to distinguish my three protagonists, all of whom show up in the first scene, more distinctly. One of the things Jenny discusses is using arguments among characters to highlight their differences. I have done that instinctively with my three girls – they love each other, but man, can they ever drive each other nuts! I need to make sure each disagreement among them allows me to specifically bring out characteristics in each of them (and I also need to make sure I’m not too heavy-handed with this arguments = character differences approach),

From TV (even though I consider cancelling the expensive cable subscription every other day)

All right, this is where it gets weird, but bear with me. One of my guilty pleasures these days is a cable channel called ID, which stands for Investigation Discovery. In our house, we affectionately refer to it as the Murder Channel. Most of the shows are real-life crime stories from well-known shows Dateline to lesser-known gems like Southern Fried Homicide and Who the Bleep Did I Marry. But when I watch a show on this channel, it’s really not for the sensationalistic titles. For my WIP, I’ve watched a handful of stories about stalkers to see how they behave and how they escalate based on the reactions of their victims (like what kinds of things can happen after a woman files a restraining order against an ex). This information is applicable to my main protagonist’s story in the WIP.

The other types of shows I’ve been watching recently are mystery shows. Any kind of mystery shows, from PBS marathons of Miss Marple and Midsomer Murders (no alliteration intended) to reruns of Murder, She Wrote (and yes, they are as corny as you remember, if you are old enough to have watched them in the 80’s). But all of these stories have what I’m seeking, which is their own formula for building a mystery plot. I have been very scholarly in my approach, even using a copy of this guest blog post from Susan Spann on Chuck Wendig’s blog to look for which universal elements of mysteries the writers use in their stories. I’ve also been paying attention to beats and pacing, and now know, in multiple series, when to expect certain ‘surprises’ to be revealed. All this is fodder for a future story simmering in my back brain, the story that just might be my first foray into mystery writing.

I hope this post finds all of you in good health and working away at your own creative projects! Are you also taking time to refill your creative well with other people’s stories? What kinds of scholarly knowledge or guilty pleasures have you been pursuing this past week?

15 thoughts on “Nancy: Not Writing, But Thinking About It

  1. Just catching up on the great posts there have been over the past few days while I’ve been away, thanks as always – I really don’t know how you all manage to keep it up, but they are much appreciated (Jilly – I’m off to Kenwood House as soon as I have a moment!)

    Reading is my main pleasure… guilty or otherwise…. this week I’ve read books by Joanna Bourne, Nora Roberts, Mary Balogh and Sherry Thomas – and each one has taught me something that I can use in my writing. I find reading more and more the best education for writing I can get (that’s my excuse). I’m also ready a great history book about the 1950s as background.

    • I haven’t read a Mary Balogh book in a while – I must add her to my TBR pile for the near future.

      So is your story set in the 1950s? The nice thing about that as a time period is that in addition to relying on historians, you could also talk to people who lived in that era.

      That makes me think about reading something recently about the HBO series True Detective. Part of the story takes place in the 1990s, and they reference it as a ‘period piece’. Really, the 90s? Already? It’s amazing how fast we all become part of history.



      • Hello – my reading was influenced by what was available in the local library here on holiday in Cornwall. Yes, my story is set in the 1950s – seemed like a good idea at the time, although people have since pointed out that it can be to sell work that’s not contemporary but is set in the not too distant past (so that was rather a downer)! In contrast to your HBO series, several contests and publishers count the fifties as contemporary, which just feels wrong to me.

        Completely forgot to say sorry to hear you’d been ill on my last post – didn’t mean to be uncaring!. By the way, I’d never heard of Leverage before Argh Ink, must look up and see if it’s on in the UK.

        • Thanks, I am glad to be on the mend!

          As for the time period, I think you should write the book of your heart, do the best you possibly can by the story, and worry about marketing later. Not only will it make you happier as a writer, but it will probably make a better book, too. And the marketplace is fickle, and there is always room for a ‘one off’ success set in a less less popular time period, not to mention no one knows what will be selling like crazy a year from now. Frex, ‘they’ pronounce historical romance dead about every other year, but I’ve been reading it for decades and it has yet to actually go anywhere :-).

      • LOL, this has been happening to me constantly this month. I’ll look at an expiration date, or the date of a TV show and think, “Oh, that’s not that old.” And then I’ll do the math. The 90s were 20 years ago on a good day . . . . How did that happen? Time somehow really sped up in my 40s.

    • Go to Kenwood on a sunny day if you can, Rachel – the grounds are almost as stunning as the house.

      Glad you’re feeling better, Nancy. Tonight I’m going to hear Joby Talbot talk about composing music for dance, and especially about writing the score for Chris Wheeldon’s new narrative ballet The Winter’s Tale. I think/hope it should be a fascinating and inspiring evening.

  2. I had started gorging on Leverage episodes before Jenny decided to make those the focus of the current discussion, and it’s been fun for me to be a little ahead of the viewing pack and see what I think is happening and how that compares to the Argh discussion. I love Leverage.

    Sorry you got the flu! And I hope you’re feeling better soon.

    • Thanks! Recovery is slow but sure.

      I just got my husband on board to watch Leverage as our workout viewing material when we are on the treadmill/ elliptical. Now I just have to get healthy enough to get back to working out, and I will start watching the whole series. Sounds like it must be a good one if it has kept you and Jenny and others on her blog invested in it!

  3. I’m sorry to hear about your flu! All of the 2nd graders at my school today are out with the flu for a week, and who knows when the first graders will succumb. I had the flu (type B) over New Year’s holidays, and there’s a constant feeling of dread that I will get type A (which is supposed to be nastier) one of these days.

    It sounds like you needed the rest, though, so I hope you come out stronger and fresher than you went in. (-: Good to fuel your creative tanks! I’ve been doing a lot of that this month, and without the excuse of major illness (and feeling vaguely guilty about things like housework as a result). My husband and I just finished the first season of Arrow, and I’m not sure if we’ll go on. It’s a comic book, and commercial considerations mean they will never have resolution — things will just go on and on until they suck, and then everything will probably end very badly. I like a happy ending, which can be very difficult to pull off in a dystopia. But damn, the action is really good. And even though I don’t think Felicity is love interest material, I love, love, love her. I love a smart and sassy “secretary” archetype. I also loved the island story, but since they killed everyone, I’m not sure if it’s worth going on . . . .

    • I have not watched Arrow, but certainly have read a lot of great analysis if it over at Jenny’s blog. I, too, have hesitated because if the comic book aspect. If you do continue, let me know if you think it’s a good investment of time. My husband and I are always looking for the next series (right now it’s Blacklist and we will be adding Leverage) for our workout distractions.

      • My husband really liked Arrow at first, but he grew to dislike Oliver intensely as the season progressed for “being selfish.” That might be a very Japanese perspective on Oliver’s character, but it is true in a very deep sense. Oliver thinks that only his fine self can save the city, and also winds up doing some things because he wants to do them, not thinking of others. I can’t quite tell if this is going to be something in Oliver’s growth arc, or if it’s a permanent feature as the protagonist’s “fatal flaw.” Tomo is ready to quit the show, though, so I’m going to be asking advice about continuing, too.

        I can’t think of a good quitting place before things start getting sour. The show paces the revealment of the “deep plan” quite well so we really don’t know what’s going on until a few shows before the end of season one. And, certain plot elements are very attractive. (-: And from an exercise standpoint, Oliver’s pecs are really quite inspiring. It might actually be the perfect workout show!

        I’ll keep you posted! (Hope the other Ladies who have been watching will chime in, too.)

      • Although I don’t really watch TV (I know, I’m weird), my husband and his colleague are hooked on True Detective. You might give it a try. They also like House of Cards on Netflix (and having attended Clemson U in South Carolina I can tell you almost all the “scenery” you see is real).

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