A Fun Form of Research

books and science

I’ve been spending the last few months working on the first draft of what is turning out to be a novel. It began as an idea for a short story based on a prompt I came across in Writer’s Digest magazine: Your character hears a knock on the door. When he/she answers it, the person who knocked says, “I’m from the future. I’m here to save your life.”

I loved that prompt, and thought I could do something with it. As I worked on the idea I had for the short story, I realized I wanted to know more about that person who knocked on the door. I wanted to know more about that future he was allegedly from. So I started digging, and wrote some more. And more, and more. Soon enough, it was clear I was writing a novel.

Not what I had planned, but okay. It turns out this particular future–without going into too many details right now–is heavily science-oriented, and science has solved a lot of the world’s problems. Awesome. But because of this, books are rare, and reading literature is not particularly encouraged. My character, named Benjamin, nevertheless discovers the joy of reading. Here’s a sampling of the books he reads in the story:

  • The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. Since Benjamin is from “the future”, then a time machine must figure in the story somewhere. This book excites him when he reads it as a child.
  • Antigone, by Sophocles. Benjamin has a good friend named Ellen, who aspires to be an actress (which is considered another subversive activity, besides reading literature). She puts on one-woman plays for him, including this one, playing all the characters.
  • Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie. Benjamin is studying law enforcement (considered a second-rate occupation, far beneath the hard sciences–that, and the fact that there’s not much crime to begin with). He discovers a fondness for murder mysteries; though murder is a rare occasion in his world, it becomes horribly real for him later on.
  • 1984, by George Orwell. Benjamin reads this when he is unfairly persecuted simply for being different. He becomes marked and is always being watched. The book mirrors the tyranny that is beginning to bloom in his society.
  • Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Neither Ben, nor my present day character, Brooke, has read this book, but it plays a small, though key, role in the story. And I like the title–there’s a love story in here somewhere, and there is a terrible illness that threatens the future.

I have to confess that either a) it’s been a long time since I’ve read some of these books, or b) I haven’t read some of them at all. If I’m going to mention any of these books in my story, I better have read them and be very familiar with them.

Reading books–what a totally painless form of research! Because I also have to look into sciencey-related things (NOT my strong point), including writing about time travel in a way that doesn’t make a physicist roll her eyes.

I’ve always been a bit lazy about research (or at least whiny about it), but this I can do.

If you’re a writer, do you like research as part of your writing process? Or does it fill you with dread? Any subjects you like better than others? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!


First Lines

blank book with letters

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

These are, of course, first lines of famous novels (Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, in case you’re wondering).

If you’re a writer, you inevitably come across writing advice that tells you to pay particular attention to the first line of your story. Whether it’s a novel or flash fiction, its purpose is to not only draw your readers in, but also to set the tone and maybe hint at what is to come.

Perusing some of the books on my shelf, I came across these perhaps less famous but serviceable gems:

  • The King stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored. (Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel).
  • For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town. (Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman).
  • I still remember the day when my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. (Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon).
  • They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. (My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier).

Coming up with a great first line is an art in itself, and I’m not sure I’ve quite got it down. It takes practice. Personally, I think short story first lines should be punchy and to the point, while novels can ease into a scene–the whole scene taking the place of the first line to grab a reader and lure them in.

Here’s a sampling of some of my short story first lines:

  • Alice left her body for the first time the day George nearly killed her. The Memory of Oranges
  • I went to the river where my husband died, looking for absolution.  Clean
  • Oliver loved the monsters. The Hungry
  • Rose knew they’d be coming soon to implant her. Plugged In

Would you want to continue reading these stories? My hope is yes. Usually with a first draft, I don’t worry about it too much; just begin. Then go back and try to sculpt it into something that says, you just gotta read this. 

What are some of your favorite first lines? Any great ones of your own? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!




Sci-fi Shenanigans

So I went to the theater to see Blade Runner 2049, and loved, loved, loved it. Loved the original, and the sequel is just as good (and that’s saying a lot). I haven’t written a review. Just go see it. Right now. I want to again.

gosling blade runner
Ryan Gosling as K/Joe.

But instead I’m pondering the story I’ve been working on the past few weeks. Having been inspired by Blade Runners 1&2 and in that futuristic frame of mind, I was wondering if I could possibly write a decent science fiction story. I’m not particularly scientifically-minded, and the only sci-fi story I’ve attempted is my computer chip-brain-implantation story called Plugged In. 

But I remembered a story idea I had a few years ago based on a writing prompt from Writer’s Digest: someone knocks on your character’s door, says (s)he is from the future and is here to save his or her life. Write the story. I came up with a time-travel idea and wrote the first few pages, but then abandoned it. I’m not sure why, probably distracted by another idea (I have that problem). But now seemed like the perfect time to take it out again, dust it off, and finish that amazing story.

Well, as I began again, my mind started to twist into a pretzel contemplating the realities of time travel. I googled “time travel rules for fiction”, and it turns out there’s a few (at least if you don’t want a physicist to cringe), and my story idea violated most of them. So I brainstormed some more and managed to solve most of those problems. As I brainstormed, my story became more and more complicated, with more characters and some futuristic world-building. More problems cropped up, both logistic and creative. But I didn’t mind; this is what I loved about writing: solving plot problems, creating characters, diving into a world of my own imagining.

As my story became more complex, I realized I was probably writing a novel. Hey, November is coming up. Maybe I could write it for NaNoWriMo. All I had to do was spend the next few weeks of October planning structure and tying up a few loose ends before I began writing the actual story on November 1. But the more I explored the story and its details, the more roadblocks I encountered. It’s like trying to put a puzzle together with pieces that don’t quite fit, trying to force the picture to come into focus. Crap. Now what?

I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to persevere with the idea until I get it right (never mind Nanowrimo), or let it go for now and work on something else. Maybe I’m not cut out for science fiction. Maybe it’s just not meant to be. Or maybe I’m giving up too quickly. Maybe, like marriage, I need to hang in there and hammer out the problems, even when it’s not fun anymore.

Maybe I should just go see Blade Runner again and call it a day.



Words and Coffee

I prefer to write outside of my home. There are numerous reasons for this:

  • My apartment is small, and I don’t have a “room of one’s own” to write in; I often leave the house to get some privacy (even though I usually go to a place full of people!).
  • When the weather is nice, it’s hard to stay inside and write; when the beauty of the day calls to me, I’ll grab my notebooks and/or computer and walk to wherever it is I’ll write that day (and get a bit of exercise, too).
  • Often, I have cravings: Dunkin Donuts coffee. A chocolate and nut mix at the local co-op. Or there’s absolutely no food in the house, and I’m hungry. Why not go out and eat and drink and write?
  • There are too many distractions at home: my family, of course; a messy, dirty apartment that screams at me to clean it; the television, the phone, the refrigerator, the cat, noisy neighbors. Any number of things to take me away from my desk. Sometimes I write on my computer, but the internet is an alluring distraction–when that happens, I’ll grab just my notebook and get out of the house.
  • Natalie Goldberg, my early writing influence, told me to write in different places, and so that’s what I did, and that’s what I still do. It’s what I’m used to. Although I don’t write in laundromats, as she suggested.

coffee and writing

So where do I go to write? Here are my favorite spots in my town:

  • Greenfield’s Market. My local co-op is a place I’ve been writing in for close to twenty years now. It’s easily my favorite spot; there’s good food and drink, free wi-fi I tend to trust, and two different places to sit and write: downstairs near the sunny windows looking out onto Main Street, or upstairs in the mezzanine which overlooks the entire store (I try not to sit next to the railing–I’ll gaze out and people-watch the whole time if I’m not careful). I’ll drink peach Honest Tea and nibble chocolate trail mix; my friend Vince is often there, working on his haiku or reading his obscure books. He’ll stop by my table and chat for a few minutes, but respects my need for space to work. Familiar strangers surround me, and I feel right at home.
  • Dunkin Donuts. I love Dunkin coffee. In the winter, it’s hot decaf with one cream; in summer, it’s iced with one cream. The donuts don’t tempt me, really; it’s all about the coffee. There are three Dunkins in my town, which really doesn’t seem excessive to me. One is within walking distance, and that’s where I usually go. In the morning, there is a large group of seniors who gather there every day to talk and tell stories and laugh. They’ve come to know me, and call out a few pleasantries. They can become quite raucous, but I don’t mind. I’ve learned to block out distraction from the multitudes, the shriek of the coffee grinders, the employees giving each other shit. It’s all background babble, white noise. It’s wonderful. It smells wonderful, and I smell wonderful when I go home, the coffee clinging to me like an aromatic shawl.
  • Greenfield Public Library. Sometimes I need to go to the library to search for a book or do some research, and I’ll sit and write for awhile in one of the many comfortable nooks provided. There are the big tables in the main room, near the computers and the check-out desk and the magazine racks; but there are more private places nestled near the stacks, with upholstered chairs and low tables with vases of flowers on them, or a table near a window with a view of familiar buildings, seen from unfamiliar vantage points. It’s quiet, mostly, and being surrounded by books has to be the closest thing to heaven I can think of.
  • Greenfield Coffee. I only occasionally frequent this cafe in the center of town, mostly because it’s kind of expensive, and the coffee is darker than I prefer. But I like the wrap-around glass windows looking out at the intersection of town that often steam in winter, and the hardwood floors and the shiny steel espresso makers. It’s fairly small, so I’m lucky to find a seat among the many other solo patrons working on their own projects, on laptops mostly, but some with actual books and notebooks. I feel I’m a part of a special tribe, my tribe, even if I don’t speak a word to them.

My peripatetic writing habit suits me; it’s like leaving home to go to my office to work, except my office is everywhere. I’ve written in doctor’s offices, in my car (not while I’m driving, just in case you’re wondering), at work at my register. I’ve even written at a picnic table on the town common on nice spring days. Come to think of it, I might have written in a laundromat once, a long time ago. With a pen and paper, you can do your work literally anywhere.

If you’re a writer, where do you like to do your work?

Cinematic Scribes

I love movies. I love writing and writers. So of course I love movies about writing and writers. There are countless movies out there about writers, but here are a few of my favorites:

The Wonder Boys. Michael Douglas in a shabby pink bathrobe and Toby Maguire tucked under the covers with Robert Downey, Jr. is enough to get me on board here. Douglas is a writing teacher who hasn’t had anything published since his award-winning novel seven years prior, and can’t seem to get his life together; Maguire is one of his students, a gifted writer in need of guidance.

wonder boys

Stranger Than Fiction. Will Ferrel is an IRS auditor who suddenly begins to hear a voice in his head, narrating his life. Emma Thompson is the writer who is writing his story. To break her writer’s block, she decides she has to kill off her main character. Her character takes exception to this, and trippy madcappery ensues.

stranger than fiction

Sideways. Paul Giammati is Miles, a struggling writer and wine enthusiast who takes his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a trip into wine country before Jack’s upcoming wedding. Miles looks forward to enjoying the wine, but Jack wants one last fling before his nuptials. His shenanigans throws the trip into disarray and jeopardizes Miles’ budding relationship with a woman he meets and connects with (Virginia Madsen).


And of course, there are the crazy writer/crazy fan movies from Stephen King: The Shining, Misery, and Secret Window, which are enough to make you rethink writing as a life choice.

shiningcmiserysecret window


I also love biopics and tributes: The Hours (Virginia Woolf), Iris (Iris Murdoch), Shakespeare in Love, Shadowlands (C.S. Lewis). Many, many others I’ve seen and haven’t seen.

Writers are an odd bunch, and it’s fun to watch a slice of their lives on film, from quirky to creepy.

Do you have a favorite writer movie?

Slow and Steady

I’ve got a birthday coming up this month, and let’s just say I’ll be on the other side of forty-five. This has led to all sorts of interesting reactions in me, the usual, predictable ones, but the one I want to talk about here is my altered sense of time and how it has affected my writing.

In my twenties, and even throughout most of my thirties, my life seemed like a long road stretching out before me, with the destination nowhere in sight.  I felt like I didn’t have my shit together, but that was okay, because there was plenty of time (and road) to figure it all out. If I wrote, it was whenever I felt like it, and it was mostly complaining in my journal about not writing and not having enough time to write (??!!–this was before I had my daughter, mind you. I had no idea what “no time” meant).

Then suddenly (yes, it seemed quite suddenly) I was forty, and the road became decidedly shorter–terminal, in fact. The destination came into sight; it was still a long way ahead, but the fact that I could see it disturbed me. Okay, I thought. If I want to write, I better get the hell going, because sooner or later this road is going to stop.


Slightly panicked, I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Short stories, long stories, even a couple of  novels. Blog posts. Time was running out. Hurry, hurry, my mind kept badgering me. You’re going to die someday, idiot, get it all out! So I did. Piles of writing accumulated around me. I sent some pieces out on submission. A couple of small successes followed. Not much else since then.

That’s okay, but I do know what the ultimate problem is: I’m going too fast. I’m dashing down these stories (in the small pockets of time allowed me–I think ruefully back on the oceans of time I had before motherhood, and how I squandered that time), and making cursory revision attempts, but I’m not slowing down and really taking the time to make these stories the best they can be. I was so hell-bent on getting a finished product out, they turned out a little shoddy. Decent, but not good enough to be published.

It’s been a big learning curve, and it still is (that’s why I call this blog My Writing Journey-there will always be something to learn along this writing road). And the lesson that’s become clear to me is to slow down, be patient. Slow and steady. Quality over quantity. I don’t have to prove that I’m a writer by pumping out a slew of stories that aren’t quite ready.


I’ve mentioned that I’m working on a story based on a poet that lived in my area in the mid-nineteenth century. I’ve also mentioned that I don’t really know much about poetry, or how people lived in the mid-nineteenth century in New England. So I’m going to have to do a lot of research. That’s going to slow me down. Not a bad thing. I’ve spent quite a bit of time on character sketches for the four main characters, really digging into their personalities, their history, their passions and baggage. This is all after getting down a first draft of the main events in the story, a draft that will be expanded on and reworked. This summer when Lilly is on vacation, I’ll plod away on a workable outline. Maybe NaNoWriMo this November will be spent fleshing out this outline into a novel. And then the real work will begin.

I love these characters, and I must tell their story. But I want to do it right. So I’m not rushing. Slow and steady. I’m not planning on dying in the interim. (I still want to work toward my Fifty by Fifty plan, so I’ve got a lot of work to do!)

As I’ve been pondering these things, I came across this articleabout a Japanese painter who felt he didn’t paint anything of worth until he was 70 years old, that the older he got, the better he got. There’s hope for me yet!



Tormented Genius Women

I have a thing for tormented genius women.

Not because I think I’m a tormented genius. I’m often tormented, but not much of a genius. It just seems like true brilliance often comes with a price, whether it’s tragedy, mental illness or repression or all of these. I’m thinking mostly of women like the Brontes, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and a host of others. Men aren’t immune–think Van Gogh, or Edgar Allen Poe. The myth is that artists and writers need to be a little unstable to create their immortal work.

Obviously this isn’t true for all creatives. But the ones we’re often fascinated with are the ones that suffered and bled out genius.

What got me thinking about this is the recent film A Quiet Passion, about Emily Dickinson, as well as the BBC’s film To Walk Invisible: The BrontesI haven’t seen the Dickinson film yet, but it’s at the very top of my list as far as movies go right now.

Dickinson was famously reclusive, and towards the end of her life barely left her room. She died in 1886, at 55 years of age, of “Bright’s Disease”, commonly known as nephritis.

(Shamefully, I live only 20 miles away from her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, and I’ve never visited her museum. I’ve put it on my summer to-do list.)

quiet passion
Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jennifer Ehle as Lavinia Dickinson.

A few other wonderful films I like about tormented genius women include:

The Hours, based on the book by Michael Cunningham. Though not a straight biography, this film interweaves three story lines concerning Virginia Woolf, her work and themes. Woolf suffered from severe bouts of mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder. She committed suicide in 1941 by drowning, at 59.

kidman woolf
Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf

Sylvia, based on the life of Sylvia Plath. Gwyneth Paltrow portrays Plath, a young poet in the 1950’s, trying to make her mark in the literary world while still outwardly conforming to the feminine ideal of wife and mother. Plath suffered from depression, and committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30, by carbon monoxide poisoning.

paltrow plath
Paltrow as Plath, with Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes

Cheerful, right?

Luckily, we have other genius women, like Jane Austen, whose dazzling gems of comedy and social satire emphasize the genius rather than the torment. Despite her own life being marked by financial struggles, loss, and the boundaries of her gender, her works are a delight to read. She never married, and died in 1817 at the age of 41, possibly of Addison’s Disease.

I’ve read all of Austen’s novels repeatedly, but never read an unpublished novella called Lady Susan. It’s been made into a movie called Love and Friendship, starring Kate Beckinsale, and it’s also on my must-watch list. As far as biopics about Jane, there’s Becoming Jane, which focused on her relationship with Tom LeFroy. An enjoyable film, but it probably took some dramatic license and exaggerated the romance with LeFroy.

tom and jane
James McAvoy and Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane

While I’m talking about women authors and film, I want to mention The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (brilliant in her own right, quite sane, and very much alive). I’m seriously thinking about subscribing to Hulu simply to watch the new series based on the book.


handmaid 2
Elisabeth Moss as Offred.

Have you seen any of these movies? Do you have a favorite tormented genius woman author? Who have I forgotten? Drop me a line, and we’ll talk about it!