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!

Writing contest

Those of you who are regulars here at my blog have heard me sing the praises of SPILLING INK: A YOUNG WRITER’S HANDBOOK. (If you haven’t, this is the sound of me singing: FALALALAFABULOUS! )

It’s one of my absolute favorite guides for young writers, and I recommend it all the time.  Click here to learn more about it.

Anyway, big news this week:  Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter, the delightful authors, are hosting a writing contest!  A teen short story contest, to be exact. And there are prizes, too. Click here for full information, then get out your pens, sharpen your pencils, and hop to it. I’m rooting for you!

SpillingInkBkshot

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Tick tock

I’m on deadline this weekend — racing to finish the first draft of WISH YOU WERE EYRE.  I don’t know how it works for other writers, but for me, books tend to pick up momentum the closer I get to finishing them.  Kind of like a snowball rolling downhill.  All of a sudden the ideas start flowing thick and fast, and I have no choice but to sit tight and hang on for the ride.

Actually, I do have a choice, but I wouldn’t be a professional if I slacked off.  Slacking off is for amateurs, for wannabes.  Real writers need to be willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

And so, I’ve been burning a lot of midnight oil this week — and even some 3 a.m. oil.  It’s all part of the job.  I’m not complaining, mind you.  I happen to think I have the best job in the world.  And when that flow kicks in, I’m more than happy to ride the wave.  Or the snowball.

But look!  There, on the horizon.  Do you see it?  I do.

Catch you on the other side!

Extraordinary ordinary life

Part of  a writer’s work is being observant.  I try and go about each day with my eyes and ears wide open.  You never know when an idea will come your way, or when you’ll see or hear something that might add color and life and richness to the texture of a story.

Plus, ordinary life is just so full of extraordinary beauty!  Look what I found tucked away in a quiet corner of the airport in Austin, Texas recently:

An art exhibit on handmade lace!  In an airport, no less!

These little wooden things are called bobbins:

And somehow, by an intricate system of weaving them over and under each other, beautiful patterns appear:

That’s a lace collar.  Breathtaking, isn’t it?  I can picture Elizabeth Bennet wearing it.  And check out this cami and shawl:

The intricacy and detail are stunning, aren’t they?

This is my favorite:

A rooster made entirely of lace!  Who could ever dream that something as astonishing as this would be possible simply by the weaving together of thread?

I have no idea whether I’ll ever use the art of lace-making in a story.  Viewing this exhibit added richness to my life, though, as well as to an idle hour at an airport.   And these kinds of “beauty” deposits to one’s memory bank can’t help but reap dividends when we put pen to paper.

First draft blues

rollerbladeI’m flailing away on the first draft of my next novel here, which I liken to trying to navigate through an unfamiliar house on roller skates, blindfolded. 

To cheer myself up, I asked a group of writer friends to share their analogies for the process.  Feel free to add your own to the list – the more the merrier!

 “Writing a first draft is like starting off on a long journey in your car, and even though you don’t know your destination, your annoying GPS says, ‘recalculating’ at every turn you make.”   — Mary Jane Auch

  “Julia [Durango] says ‘it usually comes with a heaping side dish of revelation and discovery’ — and a pile of steaming mussels even though you thought you were ordering the lamb.  At least that’s my experience in both writing and ordering food at a restaurant in France.  Bon appetit!!!!”  — Andrea Beaty

 “Writing the first draft is the process of discovering everything you left out or got wrong in your outline.”  — Fred Bortz

  “Writing a first daft is like driving through a howling snowstorm. Your headlights pick out only a few feet of the snowy tunnel ahead of you. If you go slow, don’t stop, and keep just a bit of the edge of the road in sight, you might make it without slipping off into a ditch or crashing into something large right in front of you.”   — Shutta Crum

 “Writing a first draft is like going to a foreign country without knowing the language. There is much pointing and gesturing and humility involved.  Fortunately, it usually comes with a heaping side dish of revelation and discovery.”  — Julia Durango

  “First drafts are like that high school dream. You know the one. You’re back in the 10th grade, and you’ve forgotten a whole semester’s worth of homework, and you have to stand up and give a presentation.  Oh, and you’re naked.  Every mistake, every fault, every personal flaw is going to be exposed. Yup.  It’s like that dream. Only real.”  — Kersten Hamilton

 “Writing a first draft is like stepping off a cliff and hoping the story will catch you.”  — Rukhsana Khan

 “Writing a first draft is like trying to assemble a giant jigsaw puzzle without getting to look at the picture first.”   — Jo Knowles

“Writing a first draft is like stumbling blindfolded through a labyrinth chasing cave creatures who are doing their best to get away from you as fast as they can. You can’t make a noise because if you do they will shut up and you will never find out their stories. You work really hard at listening and soon you start hearing something that sounds like a story.  When you think you have enough you stop in the middle of the labyrinth and start scribbling like mad, even though you can’t see a thing.  You get used to the darkness and you learn to avoid the drip from the ceiling.  Just when you think the pages are stacking up and you’re halfway there, the cave creatures laugh at you and change directions and you find out the drip was the most important thing in the story after all.  Now instead of a labyrinth you’re really following a water cycle and everybody’s got gills but you.”   — Uma Krishnaswami

  “Writing a first draft is like heading to New York from Chicago, and suddenly discovering that you really want to go to San Antonio.”  — David Lubar

 “Writing a first draft is like knowing you need eggs, lemon juice, and melted butter to make hollandaise, but that you will have to find the hen, the cow, and the tree in order to assemble your ingredients. And once you find them–they will not be in the same place, of course–you will have to use every bit of wit and charm and energy you can muster in order to get the hen, the cow, and the tree to part with their goods. Once you figure out the proportions and technique, you will realize that you wanted a bechamel sauce after all, and you will need to start all over again.”             — Susan Patron

 “Writing a first draft is like bungee jumping off a bridge—halfway down you think, ‘What the hell am I doing and is it too late to back out?’”  — Mary E. Pearson

 “Writing a first draft is like trying to get into a room that is neat and orderly, with everything in its proper place. First, you have to figure out how the door unlocks. Then it’s so haaaaard to push it open.  Finally, you slip through the doorway and get a delicious glimpse of that glorious room when BAM!  Another door slams in your face.  After a big sigh and a few donuts, you settle in to figure out how THIS door opens . . . . .”  — Dian Curtis Regan

  “Writing a first draft is like not knowing there’s a monster until you’re in the belly of the beast.”   — Cynthia Leitich Smith