Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Dream to Some, A Nightmare to Others!

Guest Blog

In this episode of "Where Do You Get Your Ideas?", we learn that story ideas do sometimes come from dreams. Alas, my own dreams have never found the essential narrative rigor. For that, I've had to turn to others.

When I wrote Lost Dog, I had no long range plan. It was my first mystery, after attempting science-fiction, literary (whatever that means), and fantasy. The first three books will never see the light of day, for good reason, but as practice they were invaluable. By Lost Dog, I was actually starting to develop some chops and so, with help from critiquing co-conspirators, it was my first manuscript to become a book.

Other writers may have that long range plan. They may have goals, an arc mapped out in advance—perhaps years in advance—of actually being published. Me? Uh.

As Lost Dog was going through the pre-publication process, editing and marketing, my agent asked, "What are you working on next? We need to keep this train moving." And my response was …

It was …

Yeah, see. No long range plan.

I wrote my first novel, the science-fiction one, because I read and loved science-fiction. I wrote the literary novel because, well, I was in a college creative writing program and that's what you did. I wrote the fantasy because I loved fantasy. And when I wrote Lost Dog, it was because I loved mystery too. But beyond that, there was no coherent forethought. I was telling stories I wanted to tell.

So, what would I work on next? A historical novel? Comic narrative non-fiction? (I love those too.) Haiku collection? Well, it turns out I needed another mystery novel because, well, I was a published mystery author. Okay. No problem. I love mystery.

Here's the thing. I am not a font of ideas. Those writers who have twelve ideas before breakfast? Yeah, I hate them. I had no ideas for a next mystery novel. What I did have was a character I liked, Detective Skin Kadash, an important but supporting player in Lost Dog. He had a great voice, a distinctive characteristic, and I knew I'd enjoy going forward with him.

But how?

Cue crickets.

Fortunately, one morning my wife said to me, "I dreamed a group of men—all cancers patients—were dying, and I had to investigate their deaths." There was more to the dream, but I can't tell you the rest because if I did it would be a big spoiler for what would become my second mystery, Chasing Smoke.

Yes, Chasing Smoke is based on my wife's dream. Of course, I switched her with Skin. I also introduced a number of my own touches and jiggered the narrative to the point she actually said, "You got it wrong." But the essential story foundation grew out of her dream, and a series was born.

In my defense, I would like to say that the idea for my follow-up, Day One, was actually my own idea. But I can't say Chasing Smoke is the first time I raided someone else's dreams for story fodder.

In 1981, I was a freshman at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio (NOT Florida), and one morning at breakfast one of my dorm buddies—fellow named Joe Miller—described a dream. His mother ruled like a tyrant from the top floor of a huge house, issuing orders from above by intercom. Joe offered lots of rich details, and I hung on every word. At last I said, "Can I steal your dream for a story?" Joe graciously granted permission.

Over the next 25 or so years, "A Tall House" would go through many incarnations. I turned in a version in a creative writing class in 1982. I re-worked it again in 1983-85. In 1990, I moved from Ohio to Portland and in the process lost the original manuscript, as well as the floppy disk the working copy resided on. Alas.

All was not lost, however. Joe's dream was always there, and the story remained one I wanted to somehow tell. Off and on in the 90s I tinkered with a new version. But it never quite came together. It was Joe's dream, after all, and unlike Chasing Smoke and Skin Kadash, I had no hook of my own to hang it on.

Then in 2006, shortly after I signed the contract for Lost Dog, I met the editor of Spinetingler magazine, fellow mystery writer Sandra Ruttan, who suggested I enter the "Spinetingler Cozy Noir Contest." The requirement of the contest was that stories entered merge the essence of the cozy mystery—oft defined as a mystery where someone dies but no one gets hurt—with noir—dark and cynical and gritty.

Suddenly I had the hook I needed for "A Tall House," floundering all those years. I rewrote Joe's dream again, and for the first time the story stopped being entirely his and at last become more mine. I entered the story and had the great pleasure of winning. You can read the dream-to-story, a quarter century in the making, at Spinetingler here.

What does all this mean? It means ideas can come from anywhere. The old standard, "Where do you get your ideas?" has as many answers as there are people, and then some. Lost Dog grew out of an exercise in a writing class. Chasing Smoke and "A Tall House" came from someone else's dream. I knitted Day One together out of my own thoughts, a few news stories, and characters I'd been developing for a decade. My next book, County Line (due out summer 2011) grew out of a comment a reviewer made about Lost Dog.

All valid starting points, just a few out of many possible sources. Wherever your ideas come from, through the alchemical mix of imagination and writing, you can make them your own.


Bill Cameron is the author of the dark, Portland-based mysteries Day One, Chasing Smoke, and Lost Dog. His next Skin Kadash mystery, County Line, will be released in June 2011. His stories have appeared in Killer Year, Portland Noir, and the 2010 ITW anthology First Thrills. Lost Dog and Chasing Smoke were both finalists for the Spotted Owl Award for Best Northwest Mystery. Cameron lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is currently working on his fifth mystery.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Embarrassing Admissions

I haven't any idea why there is this need to admit my own shortcomings. A wise woman would keep her mouth shut, but today there is an urge to humiliate myself.

Before that can be done, however, it is important you know I finally decided on a new vehicle. I lumbered into the Subaru dealership in my 14 year oldVW Cabrio, and zoomed off in this four-door sedan. It wasn't my fault. The salesman had a British accent. I'm a sucker for a British accent.

That is not the embarrassing part.

When I was in the dealership, there was only one thing I wanted from the Brit. Yeah, I didn't care about the airbags, the engine, the windshield defogger or the parking brake. I just wanted to know how to set the radio stations.

That is not the embarrassing part.

When I drove out of the dealership, the radio was on a classical station. I turned it up and the music filled the car as if an orchestra crammed into the back seat with me. It was spellbinding. Now here is the embarrassing part. In my other car I didn't listen to a lot of classical. I tell myself it was because old convertibles are so noisy. I sang along to enriching songs like "Come Fly with Me," "Hot Hot Hot" and "Smooth." But after a few trips in the new car, I can't get enough classical music. I searched at home, hauled out a Bach, a Chopin and a Mozart CD and blew the dust off.

I always knew I liked Mozart, but I didn't know what utter perfection his music was until I heard the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, second movement, Adagio.

I'm in love with it. Seriously. There is enough time on the way to work to play it twice. I'm hoping this is just a phase. That isn't the embarrassing thing, though. I mean, a lot of people listen to the same song twice, right? Right?

Here is the next embarrassing thing. I have, on occasion, pictured my novel as a movie. I mean, really, it is so vivid in my mind that I got seasick writing some of the scenes. You are going to have to trust me on this. I wrote long into the night finishing "The Storm" scene, and when I went to bed, I was still riding the waves and I'm positive my skin was a little green. I'm hoping this is normal--not the getting seasick, but the picturing your novel as a movie.

When I picture it, I always try to imagine the background music. Sometimes when I hear music at Starbucks something will come on and make me think, that would be great for the "Uh oh, maybe I shouldn't have done that" scene.

I know exactly what scene the Clarinet Concerto, should be played. It is only a brief scene in the book, but in my mind I see the camera pan back with the ship on the vast expanse of ocean, while the orchestra answers the clarinet solo.

So now you know. I'm a dweeb. I've only just discovered the magic.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Quoting a Writer

Benjamin Franklin, 1767, by David Martin

The hardest thing about writing fiction is coming up with a witty quote for which you'll later become famous.--Melanie Sherman

Okay, so I admit that might not make me famous. I've been worried about this for about a month. Were I to obtain a spectacular agent (and, of course, any agent who offered representation would be spectacular--just saying) and the agent were to sell the book to a brilliant publishing house, naturally there'd be calls from Oprah and The Today Show, the local 5 PM news, and my parents. They would all want an interview and they would all expect a quote. Authors always seem to have them.

Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't.--Mark Twain

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.--Ben Franklin

All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Is that a bulletproof vest? See, now that's so insulting. That's like saying I'm not smart enough to shoot you in the head." --Janet Evanovich (Seven Up)

At first I thought writing the book would be difficult. That wasn't nearly as hard as rewriting it. Six times. But even that wasn't as bad as the query letter. I thought that was the worst of all, but I was wrong. Coming up with an amusing, charismatic quote is like a senior citizen expecting to still have a full head of hair after pulling out the gray ones.

You don't suppose I'm merely procrastinating on my revisions, do you?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pretending to be Dear

They are at it again. Stalking me. Plaguing me. Planning their next rampage. They have "look-outs" posted along my route home, ready to radio my approach to their comrades. They are evil. Ever since they ate all the plants in my garden (before I came to hate gardening) they have had it in for me because I refused to continue to plant more for them to clip to the ground.

Well, that and the fact that I scared one of them into charging me...twice.

Driving home yesterday, I passed by a neighbor's five acre parcel at 50mph. What I saw had me slamming my foot down on the brake pedal of my new car. It doesn't stop as sharply as I would like. I overshot the sight and had to motor a quarter of a mile before I could safely turn around. Not sure if I had seen correctly, and not even sure which property I'd seen it, I poked back the way I'd come, searching behind white rail fences with innocent horses grazing, and stands of arbor vitae. Finally, past some young Douglas firs, I spotted what I'd glimpsed.

The house is up a long driveway about two tenths of a mile from the road, but halfway between the house and the road is an outbuilding which provides a lovely piece of shade in the late afternoon. The shade cannot be seen from their house. I doubt the property owners know they have squatters. It can barely be seen from the road, either because of trees and plants, but I continually search for such signs because of my precarious relationship with neighboring wildlife.

There they were, in all their heinous splendor, taking a little breather before continuing their assault on what is left of my garden. I actually had to pull into the people's driveway and use the pitiful telephoto lens on my cheap little camera, but I caught the pernicious little beasts in the act.

I'm going to see if the post office will put this picture up in the "Most Wanted" display.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Garden Party

I was busy in my plush, windowed cubical today, tapping on my keyboard and humming some nameless tune by Mozart when Ryan ambled up. His hair stood out straight on one side like he'd run his fingers through it. He huffed out a long sigh and slapped down a material discrepancy report.

"Here is the paperwork for what we just shipped out."

I glanced at it and back to my computer screen. "Thanks."

Peck, peck, peck.

Now, most people would take that as a hint that I was either very busy or very rude. Either way it would normally discourage further chatter, but not with Ryan. "Um...I think I might not have told you. I'm having a house warming party on the eleventh."

I stopped typing, jumped up and grinned. "Really? On the eleventh of next month?"

"Yeah." He folded his arms across his chest.

"Swell." I snatched a pen off my desk and leaned over to the wall calendar, flipping it up a month. "Ryan's House Warming" I wrote in big letters across the proper square.

My pen dropped back into the rubble on the desk and I resumed tapping on the keyboard.

"Oh, that is just so cute," came Ryan's amused voice.

My fingers hovered over the keys and I raised my gaze to his. "Cute?"

"You thought I was inviting you?"

I glared at him and he laughed. "Ha. I'm just imitating you. You'd do that sort of thing," he said.

"Would I?" I pinched the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger. "No wonder people hardly ever come back here and talk to me."

He chuckled and sauntered back out into the mainstream of the cubical maze.

He's never forgiven me for that time I invited him to my garden party. When he asked if he could bring a friend, I nodded. "Yes, please do." He got out his little notepad and wrote down the date and time and, being the sweet, polite man that he is, he asked if he could bring anything.

"Yes," I said. "Bring any gardening tools you have and some gardening gloves."

I really do hate gardening.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Revisions and Riesling

When I was researching The Pirates' Reckoning, a lot of time was spent at the library and book stores. When I began writing it, I spent a lot of time at Starbucks. It is such a great place to zone out and write. But what do you do when you reach a roadblock?Writer's block.

A rush trip to Lincoln City on the Oregon coast. There is something so soothing about the pounding surf and the squawking gulls and the foggy mist setting in at night. Salt settles on the paint of the car and slimy bird droppings dribble down the windshield. A bowl of clam chowder at Mo's and a glass of Riesling on the deck lend that extra push to kick-start the sluggish mind.

On Sunday morning I had breakfast at a restaurant with wall-to-wall windows overlooking the ocean. It was in that restaurant I first saw the kaleidoscope of rainbow color as the morning sun lit the spindrift floating over windblown waves. Yesterday, while sipping my mimosa, I saw a whale spout, breach and plunge back in, flipping his tail like a lover waves to a departing train.

I got a lot of rewrite done over an extended weekend. But then I took a drive to Newport. There is a lot happening in Newport, but something made me want to write about ghost ships, and zombies.
Next book.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Guide to Survival while Promoting Your Book

Guest Blog
Carolyn J. Rose
Author of

On Friday, Melanie Sherman dropped by Art in the Heart to visit the Authors’ Table set up in the middle of the street at 10th and Main in downtown Vancouver. I was there with my latest book, Hemlock Lake, hanging out with five other authors, mystery writers Bill Cameron, Ann Littlewood, and Sheila Simonson, Clark County history buff Pat Jollota, and Ron Gompertz, the man who wrote a humorous tome about the fall of Rome. Hanging with us was writer Sharon Axline who described herself as a roadie and treated us like royalty.

“When your book is published,” I told Melanie with a laugh, “you’ll be out here with us.” The sun was in my eyes, but I’m pretty sure she blanched at the idea.

And I don’t blame her.

Promoting and selling isn’t for the faint of heart. The process of meeting, greeting, and pitching our publications doesn’t come easy to many of us. Believe it or not, many writers, myself included, are shy and retiring types. We’re most comfortable at our computers, chatting with our fictional characters.

But Melanie’s got a great story. She’ll get an agent and she’ll get a publisher. She will be out in public soon. To help her (and anyone else who’s interested) prepare for what comes after publication, I’ve created a tip sheet: A Short Guide to Survival while Promoting Your Book.

  • Psyche yourself up. If you don’t believe in your book, no one else will.

  • Prepare to preach the doctrine of “this is a darn good book” and convert browsers into buyers.

  • Keep your expectations low. If you tell yourself you’ll sell only a single book at an event, you’ll be delighted when you sell more.

  • Set your energy level on high.Smile, laugh, and even dance if the music moves you. Positive energy is contagious.

  • Check self-consciousness at the door. You may find yourself reading to an overflow crowd or to someone who stopped by to ask directions.

  • Give something away. Postcards, pens, and pins may translate into future sales.

  • Make eye contact. Take off your sunglasses and hat.

  • Make people feel important. Thank those who come by. Give out compliments. Make connections.

  • Put comfort before fashion. Standing for hours in shoes that pinch can cramp your style as well as your toes.

  • If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the summer art fairs. Otherwise, say “yes” to every opportunity.

  • Stay hydrated. But stay away from those adult beverages until an event is over.

  • Share your snacks. Offer candy or crackers if the event allows. Avoid too much salt or sugar.

  • Know the location of the nearest bathroom and make sure you have a few spare tissues in case the roll is down to the cardboard.

  • Mechanical inclination is always helpful. You never know when you might have to set up a canopy in the middle of a street, adjust a microphone, unfold a recalcitrant table, or tear duct tape with your teeth.

  • Bring a friend for support of all kinds. If a friend isn’t available, make a new one on the spot.

  • Don’t get mad, get material. File those close encounters of the weird kind for use in future books.

By now I can almost hear you saying that I’ve prepared you to be a yo-yo. Up (psyche), Down (expectations), Up (Energy), Down (impatience). And that’s about right. It’s not always a smooth ride. Be flexible. Have fun. Make friends along the way.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Art in the Heart, Vancouver USA

Writers are strange people. Nothing is as it should be, nothing is certain. Just when you think you know what is happening with a writer there is a new twist, a dip in air pressure, a gust of wind.

I knew Carolyn J. Rose would be there, at Vancouver, Washington's Art in the Heart festival, promoting her book Hemlock Lake. But secretly I wanted to go meet Bill Cameron, with whom I'd been conversing on twitter for nearly a year. I wanted to buy one of his books, but I wanted it to be autographed. I wanted it to be personalized. I wanted it to have meaning. Most of all, I wanted it to make me feel like I belonged in the inner circle of published writers (even though I'm not). Bill has three books published and another to come out in June of next year. He is witty and charming and amusing on twitter as @bcmystery and I hoped he'd be the same in person. He did not disappoint.
He sat at a table outside Angst Gallery beside Carolyn J. Rose, an awning shading them from the glinting August sun (yes, we do get sun in Washington, for crying out loud), with stacks of Lost Dog, his first, Chasing Smoke, his second, and Day One, his third. He even had a few copies of an anthology, Portland Noir, in which he had a contribution.

"Hi, I'm @Scupperlout," I told him. He didn't back away in horror. This was a good sign. He even stood and shook my hand (I shall never wash it). He knew who I was, he'd read my blog, and still he smiled. What a gentleman.

"Which book shall I start with?" I asked.

He pointed to Lost Dog. "Well, I would start with Lost Dog," he began.

"I don't want to start with Lost Dog." Although I've nothing against Lost Dog, I didn't want to start with it.

Without missing a beat, Bill said, "Or you can start with Chasing Smoke, or Day One," jabbing a finger to each with just the slightest hint of trepidation. I snatched up Chasing Smoke. I think that is the one I wanted all along just because I'm in love with the title.

"You'll autograph this, won't you?"

He smiled graciously. So graciously in fact, that I got brave and reiterated my offer (okay I was begging, I admit it) to have him do a guest blog here. He said he'd consider it.

Then I noticed Ann Littlewood sitting beside Bill. Her first book, Night Kill, takes place at a zoo. Ann spent years working at the Oregon Zoo in Portland so she knows the "behind the scenes" stories the general public could never know...until now. She had given a talk at the Vancouver Writer's Mixer last year and read an excerpt of Night Kill that was so intense I still get goosebumps when I think of it. Although it was her first, and she had copies of her second, Did Not Survive on the table, I had to get the first just to read that scene myself, and savor the chills.

I introduced myself to Ann and asked her if she would autograph her book. "Certainly," she said, her expression deadpan, "what name would you like me to use?"

Besides her own? Johnny Depp? Just a thought.

Bill did, indeed, autograph my book. He wrote, "Melanie. Thanks for saving my life in Vietnam. Bill Cameron"

It was nothing, Bill. Really. Nothing.

Ann wrote, "Melanie. Keep your fingers out of the cages. Ann Littlewood, aka Johnny Depp" I mean, honestly, it almost looks like his signature. Only prettier, like her own.

How did she know about the times I stuck my fingers in the cages at Knowland Park Zoo in Oakland, California?