Writer’s magic, unexpected left turns, and my new friend Esther

It happens every single time I write a book.

Writer’s magic.

Others call it serendipity, or “the universe” (whatever that’s supposed to mean), or coincidence, or any number of things. But for me, it’s always been — magic.

Here’s the way it works. I sit down and start to write. I’m a pantster, which means I fly by the seat of my pants. No outline, no bulletin boards with pictures of characters cut out of magazines, no charts or lists or anything like that which my plotter friends use. Sometimes I have a vague general idea of where the story might go, but as often as not, it takes a surprise left turn and goes somewhere else entirely.

I just love this process of discovery as I go along! I love all the unexpected twists and turns. It keeps things interesting. Plus, inevitably, the magic happens, which is exactly what occurred recently with the draft I’m working on at the moment. (It’s another Pumpkin Falls mystery, in case you’re wondering.) And this time, I caught it in the act — well, almost — which rarely happens. It’s hard to track exactly where ideas come from, but once in a while, eureka!

So I was writing along, minding my own business, and all of a sudden, this synchronized swimming element popped into the story, completely out of the blue (or so it seemed). My main character, Truly, is a swimmer, so the pool is always a part of her story, but whoa, where did this come from? And not just synchronized swimming in general, but specifically two nonagenarians (great word – a nonagenarian is someone in their 90s) named Zadie and Lenore who used to swim with Esther Williams in Hollywood!

Seriously — I kid you not, they just turned up on the page, all sassy and bursting with life. No way was I going to shut the door on the two of THEM. They were pure magic.

Writer’s magic.

So into the story they’ve swum, and I am spending my evenings researching Esther Williams and watching her movies.

Now I haven’t watched an Esther Williams movie since I was in middle school, and happened to stumble upon one when I was channel surfing on a Saturday afternoon with nothing else to do. THAT’S A LONG TIME AGO! What on earth had made me think of her, and those fabulous over-the-top Busby Berkeley choreographed water ballet sequences? Dozens of swimmers! Fountains and flames! Live music! And Esther herself, with her sequins and shimmer, her girl-next-door smile, her perfectly coiffed hair and perfect makeup, which no amount of water could ever dislodge!

I had no idea.

But I’ve learned not to question these magic moments when they occur, and I’ve been having enormous fun immersing myself (pardon the pun) in Esther’s watery world, and finding ways to bring elements of it into my new book.

 

That’s a scene from Million Dollar Mermaid. Isn’t it fabulous? And isn’t Esther amazing? She was a real athlete, a champion swimmer who would very likely have been an Olympian but World War II interfered, and she ended up in Hollywood instead. She makes those stunts look easy, but they aren’t. Not at all.

Meanwhile, last weekend I went to see the new movie Crazy Rich Asians for the second time, because I liked it so much the first time I saw it, weeks ago right after it came out.

And suddenly there it was, onscreen, the source of this particular moment of writer’s magic. Just a flash of a scene at the very end, of synchronized swimmers performing at an over-the-top celebration.

Aha, I thought. THAT’S where I got the idea!

Knowing where and when the seed was planted took some of the mystery out of it, but none of the magic. Because the magic wasn’t done with me yet. It turns out that my young niece, without knowing any of what’s been going on in my head, JUST JOINED A SYNCHRONIZED SWIMMING TEAM!

Which means I have a spy to help me with my research. Isn’t that fun?!

So here’s to writer’s magic, left turns, and my new friend Esther Williams!

Catching up

Hi there! Remember me? Oh my, what a whirlwind spring and summer I’ve had! I’ve been writing writing writing, mostly. I’m working on a new Pumpkin Falls mystery featuring the one and only Truly Lovejoy. Anyway, I spent the past week on a “staycation” from my day job, coffee-shop-hopping around Boston with my laptop in search of the perfect writing spot. I love writing in coffee shops! It’s a nice change from working at home alone. Anyway, I thought I’d share my favorite spots for decaf mochas, my current motivator of choice.

The winner is …


BURDICK’S!  Oh my goodness. I knew their hot chocolate was a winner, but the mochas? Swoon. Unbelievably rich, with just the right balance of chocolate and coffee. I love the fact, too, that this outpost is just a few blocks from the Boston Public Library, which is one of my favorite writing haunts.

Coming in at second place is Tatte (rhymes with “latte”), which is like a little slice of Paris here in Beantown.

Seriously – I dare you to resist something this gorgeously creamy! And they have amazing baked goods which I try hard to resist but usually can’t. Fortunately, they offer teeny tiny cookies at the checkout (so smart of them), so I can indulge in a wee treat without ending up not fitting into my pants.

(And yes, there is a mermaid on my laptop screen — I use Scrivener, which let’s you customize the “Composition mode” backdrop. There’s a mermaid element in my new book….)

In third place is Athan’s.

A European-style bakery with delectable hot chocolate and very good mochas. I like the casual buzz, too. You can often find me here.

Finally, a newly-opened neighborhood hangout: Cafe Landwer.

It’s been around since 1919 (not in my neighborhood), and in fact my favorite drink on their menu right now is a tea called “Berlin 1919” — Berlin, Germany, is where the cafe has its roots. It’s served with cinnamon and lemongrass and mint and a slice of orange and is HIGHLY ADDICTIVE! BUT there is something on the menu that is also calling my name and which I intend to try very soon: NUTELLA LATTE.

Are you kidding me?

Sign me up. I’ve been resisting (see: importance of fitting in pants, above), but I have a feeling I’m going to cave this weekend. I’ll check back in and let you know how it was…

What are your favorite places to write? Or read, or daydream, or draw, or whatever it is you love to do?

 

Fan Mail Friday

I recently returned from a writing retreat (more on that another time) to find a mountain of mail waiting for me. Snail mail! Email! Packages and parcels! Whee!

I love hearing from all of you, and I promise you will hear back from me, but it will have to wait until I finish the first draft of MDBC #7….

There is one bit of mail I need to respond to right away, though, and publicly. It’s from Cassie in Canada. Cassie is an aspiring writer, and an extremely talented one. I got a sneak peek at her future greatness thanks to an incredible piece of fan fiction that she sent to me.  Here it is:

HVF with Cassie's book

If you click on the picture, it should enlarge enough so you can read the title:  “Gatsbing at Surprises”

Can you guess what she’s chosen for the mother-daughter book club to read in her story?  Yep. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. An excellent choice, and one of my favorite classic novels!

As I opened this beautifully bound volume, I discovered the first surprise–she dedicated it to me!  I got tears in my eyes as I read the inscription:

For Heather Vogel Frederick, who is my inspiration and whose delightful series
was the inspiration behind this book.

But wait! There’s more! She also included a note:

“Dear Heather,

The only thing better than writing this book would be seeing your face when you opened it!
I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoy your own series! Happy Reading.  🙂 

Love, Cassie”

WOW!

Here I am, tears in my eyes and all:

HVF with Cassie's inscription
On the right-hand page, you can also see the first quote she chose from The Great Gatsby:

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

Is that perfect or what? Don’t you just want to dive in?  I sure did.

Cassie, you are a WONDER!  You absolutely made my day, my week, my month, and more. I can’t thank you enough for this dear, heartfelt, amazing gift. Reading your story has been my treat to myself these past few evenings, after I finish my writing for the day. It’s ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS, DARLING! (as Wolfgang would say). Oh, And I love love LOVE the “Author’s Note.”

She ends it with:  “Since this is the author’s note, I guess it means my book is finished. It’s not great, it’s not even that good but in the words of Francis Scott Fitzgerald, ‘tomorrow I will run faster, stretch out my arms farther…’ Practice makes perfect and who knows, maybe books by Cassandra [last name deleted for privacy] will start appearing on your library shelves someday!”

I have absolutely no doubt they will.  Here’s why:  Those three words, “practice makes perfect.”

This is the heart and soul of writing–of any art, and any endeavor in life. Cassie obviously gets that. We have to work at the things we love, to become good at them, and then great.

Here’s what one of my literary heroes, Ann Patchett, has to say on the subject:

“Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story.”  This is from her superb essay “The Getaway Car,” which as far as I am concerned is required reading for every single aspiring writer on the planet. It can be found in her book of collected essays, “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” and also purchased as a single essay here and here and here.

Practice makes perfect.

When I was Cassie’s age, I aspired not only to be a writer, but also a flutist. My hero was Jean-Pierre Rampal. I listened to his recordings endlessly, by turn inspired (because he was so phenomenal) and discouraged (because he was so phenomenal). I heard him twice in person, and swooned at his skill. I tried to echo his phrasing when I played the pieces he played, tried to mimic his tone and his passion for music. While I always fell short of his perfection (seriously, the man was superhuman), my technique greatly improved under this regimen. He gave me something to aspire to, and although I never became a professional flutist (my love of writing eclipsed my love of music at some point in college), I was a better musician for it.

It’s the same with fan fiction, and with the practice novels and practice stories we produce, and all the writing we do in fits and starts when we’re first beginning. Keep working at it, keep aspiring, keep practicing.

Practice makes perfect.

 

 

Writing with friends

Greetings from deadline exile! I’m barely coming up for air at the moment, but I thought you might like to take a peek at one of the few fun things I’m allowing myself to do these days, other than write.  Wait, what am I saying? This one actually involves writing!

But it’s still fun.

Coffee Shop writing group July 2014

Every week, I meet three of my author friends at a nearby coffee shop to write. From left to right, that’s Susan Fletcher, Rosanne Parry, and Susan Blackaby.

And yes, we actually do write!  Together. Well, separately, but together. You know what I mean. And yes, I’ll admit it, we do chat a bit as well…

Writing can be very solitary work. It’s good to have friends you can chat with.

This particular coffee shop happens to be in a lovely location, and on a glorious summer day, it’s not exactly a hardship to sit and work on their lakeside patio!

Badge of honor

I recently did my last school presentation of the year at Whitworth Elementary here in Oregon. I love their mascot, their school spirit, and their school wolf “HOWL”:

Whitworth

Excellent words to live by.

It was a fabulous day, with loads of great questions for me from the smart and lively students (and all the students were definitely smart and lively!). School visits are so energizing for us writers, who spend most of our time alone, spinning words into what we hope is gold for our readers…

Speaking of spinning words, Whitworth’s delightful librarian Deanne Harms prodded me to share a picture of my keyboard. “That’s the keyboard of a working writer,” she said when she spotted it, and it’s true. I wear out keyboards faster than I wear out computers. Check it out:

HVF Laptop

This is my MacBook Air. I have the 11″ model and I am truly, madly, deeply in love with it. It’s embarrassing how much I adore this amazing little machine! It’s light as a feather, slips neatly into my purse/backpack/carry-on, is able to leap tall buildings at a single bound–no wait, it can’t do that. But I bet it could if it tried! Best of all, it’s still going strong at nearly four years old.

Back to the keyboard. I think you need a closer look. Click on the picture below to enlarge it:

HVF Keyboard

Funny, huh? Good thing I know how to touch type! When you spend all day every day writing — which for me means typing on my laptop — this is what happens. It’s just a hazard of the job. And a badge of honor as well. Wearing out the keys on my keyboard means I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing: writing books for YOU!

And sometimes it means goofing off writing a blog post…  😉

 

A little MDBC inspiration

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a question frequently asked of writers. Our #1 question, in fact. My answer, as you know if you’ve read the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page of this website (click here to visit it): absolutely everywhere!

Sometimes it’s fun to trace where one specific idea came from, however, and that’s what I want to do today.

Those of you familiar with my Mother-Daughter Book Club series will recall that in PIES & PREJUDICE, Jess Delaney and her mother take a cake decorating class together. Much to her surprise, Jess discovers that she actually enjoys the class (she goes along initially just to humor her mother), and that she has a knack for decorating cakes, including making frosting flowers.  This comes in handy when Jess and her friends start a baking business, and then in a later book, when Jess and her mother make a wedding cake for someone special (I’m not saying whom, just in case you haven’t read the entire series yet!).

So, where did I get this idea?

Would you believe my own life?

Heather and her culinary masterpiece
Heather Vogel with her culinary masterpiece

This is me at age 12, standing proudly in front of my crowning achievement as a cake decorator. My mother and I had taken a class together earlier that year (and yes, we had fun, just like Jess and her mom did!), so when my beautiful Aunt Judy got married to my handsome Uncle Howard, guess who was asked to do the honors?

Yep. Me.

My mother helped, too, of course. But as far as I was concerned, this was my baby!

HVF wedding cake closeup
And isn’t it a beautiful baby?  Three layers of my grandmother’s delicious pound cake topped with white buttercream frosting and adorned with frosting roses in two shades of pink, clustered on the top and trailing down the sides. A crowning achievement, if I say so myself!

My interest in cake decorating evaporated shortly after this photo was taken, but nothing ever goes to waste for a writer. Part of our writing process is mining memories for material. And this was one particularly sweet memory I was happy to find a spot for in one of my books.

 

Catching up

I can’t believe it’s been almost three weeks since my last post!

I do have an excuse, though.  I’ve been busy traveling.  First to Bainbridge Island, then to Texas, then to the Midwest.  I’m home again now, dashing toward an April deadline…

Today I want to talk about Bainbridge Island.  Here’s the view from the ferry last month:

View from ferry

Bainbridge Island is a magical place, a little village on Puget Sound just across from Seattle.  Would you like to know what I was up to there?  I was going to keep it top secret, but I had so much fun that I just have to share.  See if you can guess from this picture that says 1,000 words:

HVF and Sarah and Victoria at Eagle Harbor 1-2013

That’s me on the left.  Sarah’s in the middle, and Victoria’s on the right.  If you guessed “Heather is at a bookstore,” you are correct. But I wasn’t just visiting a bookstore, I was working at a bookstore — UNDERCOVER!

That’s right, I was on a spy mission of sorts…

Being a writer has its perks, one of which is doing cool stuff for research.  Sometimes my job involves travel; sometimes it involves interviewing people, or reading a lot of books on a particular subject (for instance, I read a zillion biographies of Louisa May Alcott as background for THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB).  This time around it involved pretending to be a bookseller for a couple of days.

Fortunately for me, I have a friend on the inside at Eagle Harbor Book Co. in Washington State. Victoria Irwin and I were colleagues many moons ago when we both worked for The Christian Science Monitor, my favorite news organization in the whole world and the place where I got my start as a writer.  And now, all these years later, we’re both still working in words, but life has taken us to new places — Victoria to a bookstore, and me to writing fiction. She didn’t hesitate when I asked if I could come shadow her at work for a few days, and find out what goes on behind the scenes at a bookstore.  She even let me stay with her and her family!  Now that’s true friendship.

Here’s the thing — the novel I’m working on now (working title: ABSOLUTELY TRULY, which may change before it’s published in Summer 2014) is set at a family-run bookstore in a small New Hampshire town.  Being an avid bookworm, I have of course spent many happy hours in bookstores, browsing and buying. And being an author, I have of course spent many happy hours in bookstores, meeting readers and signing books.  But I really had no clue what goes on behind the scenes, and in order for my novel to ring true-to-life, I needed more information.  So over the course of a few days, I “helped out” at Eagle Harbor Book Co.  (I say “helped out” because I don’t know how much help I really was — I mostly asked a lot of questions and got in the way.  But they were really nice to me anyway.)

What a wonderful bookstore!  And what wonderful booksellers! They’re passionate about books, have read everything under the sun, and know everybody on the island.  Or at least it seemed that way.  And they know their customers’ dogs as well, and keep jar of dog treats for them behind the counter.  Yep, dogs are allowed in the bookstore, too. You’ve gotta love a place that lets dogs come in and browse.

If I were going to design a bookstore, it would look like Eagle Harbor Book Co.  It’s light and bright and airy, with beautiful wood floors and big windows and shelves bursting with colorful books.

Main bookstore photo

Plus, there are lots of nooks and crannies where customers can sit and browse…

Front nook

Bookstore armchair

Of course, I got to peek behind the counter:

Counter at Eagle Harbor

And I got to see the secret cupboard where chairs are kept for author visits:

Secret cupboard

And I spent time in the back office, too, which was as comfortingly messy and stuffed with books as my office at home:

Bookstore back office

One of the things I was most fascinated by was the book club section.  There are a LOT of book clubs on Bainbridge Island! (Maybe it’s the rain, or maybe something about island life makes people want to curl up and read?)  Some of the clubs meet at the bookstore …

Book Group Sign

… while other are private. But their monthly reading choices are displayed on several large bookcases, so that other customers can see them and be inspired.  Brilliant, right?  I wrote down tons of titles that I want to read, too.

Book Club reads

Possibly the best part, though, was meeting some of my fans.  I was downstairs in the Used Book Annex when Cara and her daughter (she of the gorgeous Anne-of-Green-Gables hair) caught up with me. Our smiles say it all, don’t they?

HVF with Rene, Fiona, Cara

Rene, one of the bookstore owners, is on the left. She’s a long-time bookseller who knows and loves children’s and YA books, so we bonded over that.

I also met two more fans who came all the way over from Seattle on the ferry to see me!  The three of us had a great time talking about THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB.

Such beautiful and intelligent girls, all of them!


Heather at Eagle Harbor Books 1-28-13

All told, it was an amazing trip.  I can’t thank Eagle Harbor Book Co. enough for letting me hang out with them for a few days! And I can’t wait to immortalize them in my new book.  Stay tuned.

 

 

An owlish gift

I’ve always loved owls.

Owl sculpture

 

Here’s one I bought in England when I lived there as a girl with my family years ago.  I remember saving up my allowance (“pocket money,” the British call it) for it, and the satisfaction I felt when it was finally mine.  He’s been perched on my desk ever since, his plump little self a talisman of sorts who keeps watch over me as I write.  I often find myself picking him him up, my fingers idly seeking out the familiar contours of his smooth terracotta body as I ponder and dream.

I’m not sure what it is about owls that appeals to me.  Is it their sturdily elegant oval shape? Their expressive faces? Those beautiful, unblinking eyes that watch over the world in silence?

Maybe it’s the mystery to owls that I find irresistible — their haunting call, or the way they whoosh silently out of nowhere on those great, wide wings.

Which is exactly what happened to me last night at dusk.  I was in the back yard, playing with our dogs, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a dark shape soar overhead and land in the maple tree.  At first I thought it was a hawk.  We have a lot of those here in the Pacific Northwest.  But then I saw that unmistakeable silhouette.  An owl!

He was so beautiful that for a long moment I couldn’t breathe. Then I whipped my phone out of my pocket and took a picture. In the fading light, the first shot looked like a blob on a branch, so I turned the flash on, hoping to catch the reflection of his eyes…

Owl January 2012

Success!

Isn’t he gorgeous?  (For some reason, I’m convinced it was a he.)  I still can’t  believe he was right there in my yard!  It’s not like I live out in the country (I call our neighborhood “rural suburbia”).   What a gift!

I soon realized that he was indeed a gift — from my muse.  She (my muse is definitely a she) can be a lazy sort, who often skives off  heaven-knows-where when I most need her.  Like now, when I’m writing a book.

Last night, though, she delivered.  The story I’m working on at the moment desperately needs an owl, and I didn’t even know it. Until she sent me one.

 

Monday musings: Inside the shell of character

I love buying eggs from my next-door neighbor.

Aren’t they lovely?  So many different colors! On the outside, anyway — inside, eggs are eggs.  Lisa has at least four varieties of hens running around her yard, maybe even five or six.  It’s so much fun to look out my kitchen window and see them scurrying to and fro in search of bugs and other good things to eat.

We used to have chickens, too, but they eventually went into chicken retirement.  (You can read about that here.)  They provided not only eggs (and amusement), but also food for thought.  Click here for a link to a blog post from a few years back that was inspired by a little backyard observation.

That’s the best kind of observation, really, isn’t it?

So what does this motley dozen nesting on my kitchen table tell me today?  Well, perhaps that despite our outward trappings–race, nationality, gender, faith, age, political leanings, etc.–on the inside, where it really counts, we’re all the same.  As a writer, I’ve learned that it’s the inside of my characters that counts, too. Whether I’m writing about a girl on an adventure at sea in 1835 (THE VOYAGE OF PATIENCE GOODSPEED), a mouse who dreams of being a secret agent and the fifth grade boy who helps her out (THE BLACK PAW), modern-day stepsisters on the receiving end of a spell gone terribly wrong (ONCE UPON A TOAD), or a whole cast of moms and daughters who end up reading the classics together (THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB), it’s the heart of the matter that’s most important.

Sure, I need to pay attention to details like dress and appearance and mannerisms and all that.  It’s part of my job (and a very fun part, I might add) to make the window dressing as interesting and alluring as possible.  But what is it that really connects us to those who live out their lives on the written page? What is it that makes some characters wrap themselves around our hearts?  Think Charlotte and Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web.  Or India Opal Buloni in Because of Winn-Dixie.  Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  

It’s what’s on the inside, isn’t it?  It’s their hopes and fears and worries, their dreams and yearnings.  Those “inside the egg” things that each one of us can relate to, and that ultimately connect us all.  So when you’re writing, be sure to crack open that shell and breathe life into your character from the inside.

Give your character a heart, and it will speak to the heart in your reader.