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.

 

 

Going dark for a bit

Do not disturb writer at work

I’m signing off for a couple of weeks to FINISH MDBC #7 (which still doesn’t have a title, believe it or not).

Behave yourselves while I’m gone, OK?

I’ll have lots to tell you when I return, and lots to share, including a sneak peek (finally) of ABSOLUTELY TRULY, which is mere WEEKS away from its book birthday!  (And which is available for pre-order from your favorite bookseller, hint hint…) It just received this glowing review from Kirkus:

“Moving from Texas to New Hampshire, displaced 12-year-old Truly Lovejoy finds herself solving two local mysteries while adjusting to small-town life.

Everything changes when Truly’s Army pilot father loses an arm in Afghanistan and returns home depressed, causing her parents to unexpectedly relocate to rural Pumpkin Falls to manage her grandparents’ failing bookshop. Just under 6 feet tall and worried she won’t fit in, Truly’s surprised how quickly she feels part of both school and community as she helps in the bookshop, tries out for the swim team and practices ballroom dancing for Cotillion at the Winter Festival. Convinced a signed, first edition of Charlotte’s Web she’s discovered will alleviate the bookshop’s financial woes, Truly’s determined to catch the thief when the volume vanishes. Meanwhile, a cryptic message she finds inside the book triggers an elaborate treasure hunt as Truly and her new friends decipher clues leading them to hair-raising escapades in the library, church bell tower and covered bridge. Truly tells her story in a relaxed voice, allowing readers to warm to her genuine, self-effacing, humorous, foot-in-her-mouth persona along with her realistically portrayed, fun-loving family and a bevy of eccentric Pumpkin Falls locals.

There’s never a dull moment in Pumpkin Falls with Truly Lovejoy on the case in this contemporary, feel-good series opener.”

I am so thrilled that the first review out of the gate is such a great one!  Thank you, anonymous reviewer, whoever you are!

When I return, I’ll also be able to (finally) offer a few hints about MDBC #7 — and some pictures, too, since I’ll be spending some time on location at the place where the story is set.  Fun, huh?

Ciao 4 niao, everyone!

P.S.  And if you’re on deadline too, or you know someone who is, click here for DIY instructions for this cool door knob sign:

Writer at work

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…  😉

 

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.

 

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!

Calling all young Portland writers!

Want to learn how to create characters so real they walk off the page?

Head on down to Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing (Beaverton) this coming Friday afternoon, December 10th, at 4:30 p.m.  I’ll be teaching a writing workshop with my friend and fellow author April Henry aimed at aspiring authors between the ages of 10 and 18.

There’ll be a book signing afterwards, too!  Hope to see you there!