All posts by leanna649

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Every writer of fiction hears, “Where do you get your ideas?” and many, like me, respond, “I don’t know.” But, nagged by the sense that the answer isn’t satisfactory, I finally gave the question some thought. There’s still something of an “I don’t know” component involved, but I’ve decided that writers aren’t really different from everyone else. Writers simply take ordinary thought processes, worry them to a greater degree, and apply them to the page. Ideas can come from making observations that stick, borrowing from real life, needing to solve problems, gnawing on imponderables, and listening to the subconscious.

Making Observations That Stick

Who doesn’t like to people-watch? Sitting one day in the airport, I watched a woman talking on her phone. Slender, hair colored and styled to perfection, dressed in a business suit and expensive-looking heels, she was far enough away that I couldn’t make out her words. But she was doing all the talking. Her face was contorted, and she kept stabbing the air using her right index finger like a stilleto. Someone was getting crucified–an employee? a kid? I’d hate for her to be my boss or mother. Here was Cruella De Vil, from 101 Dalmatians. But anyone sitting in an airport with nothing to do might engage in some imagining beyond the first impression. There could be a more sinister reason for her behavior–maybe she’s chewing out a hit man for a bungled job. Or, thinking charitably for a good reason she’s lashing out, she could be talking to a doctor who bungled an operation that crippled her husband. I’ve not used this character or image in a story, but she is stuck in my head, a resource I might draw on some day.

Sometimes whole stories or books come from an observation that sticks. When I first joined the board of The Nebraska Society To Prevent Blindness, I was intrigued by the first entry in the chronology of the National Society: “Founded in 1908 to promote legislation of eyedrops to prevent ‘babies’ sore eyes.'” (I’m paraphrasing.) It was my “Huh?” over that curious phrase that led me to do research and ultimately to write my debut novel, Compromise With Sin.

Borrowing From Real Life

I may or may not use this situation, which I once saw on the news. A Marine scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan just days after his wife is expected to give birth is offered a deferment when the baby is born needing life-saving heart surgery. He decides to leave for Afghanistan the day before his son’s operation.

By the way, I have a problem with writers who reveal intimate facts about friends or family members. (I say that even though I’ve always enjoyed the novels of the late Pat Conroy.) But this issue bothers me to the extent that I’ve made it the crux of my work-in-progress (WIP).

Needing To Solve Problems

Much of a writer’s work involves the need to solve problems. Every type of story has both big and little problems that set the imagination in motion. How did this happen? Who’s at fault? What will the character do next? What will be the consequences of the character’s decision? What’s the best/worst that can happen? Etc.

But this kind of thinking isn’t just the province of writers. It’s true for all of us. The car breaks down, making you late for an important meeting. Your job doesn’t pay enough for you to manage student loan debt. Your spouse wants you to move out.

In my debut historical novel, Irina Taylor wears scarves. It wasn’t until after publishing the book that I learned that scarves had not yet become a fashion accessory. Hmm. Irina is the protagonist in the novel I’m currently working on. I needed to give her a reason for making lengths of fabric she wraps around her neck, so I decided she’s hiding a scar she got as a child when her twin, Christina, threw a fork at her. And having to think so much about the scarf may be the reason a scarf becomes very prominent late in the story. (That’s the “I don’t know” component.)

Gnawing on Imponderables

I can’t say that I often address imponderables in my writing, but there are several in my head. One comes up in my WIP, and that’s my difficulty appreciating the biblical account of the Prodigal Son. I’ve always sided with the loyal son, not the one who squandered his fortune on women and booze, and returned home to a feast and the open arms of Daddy.

Listening to the Subconscious

When I’m thinking or writing I know I’m feeding my brain, and I trust my subconscious to go to work. It’s not as though I can program it and expect answers or ideas on my schedule. The subconscious does what it will and often reveals itself in what are naturally hypnotic states: when I’m falling asleep or waking up, driving a familiar route, or putting on make-up.

Not all the ideas that come from my subconscious are useful. But when they are, it’s so much fun.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

–Kurt Vonnegut









Lessons From Novel First Lines

When I’m looking for a writing-avoidance activity, I sometimes google “novel first lines.” That’s where I can find inspiration–not just for the opening of a novel, but for chapter beginnings as well.

There are numerous web sites that list the best X number of first lines. (Will someone please tell me why “Call me Ishmael” so often makes these lists?)

Here are some first lines I like, i.e., words that make me want to read on to find out what’s next:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

“This is a tale of a meeting of two skinny, lonesome, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.” Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

“They shoot the white girl first.” Paradise, by Toni Morrison

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide–it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills–the two paramedics  arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.” The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

“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.” 100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Housekeeping Detail for Indie Authors

I recently learned from Tosh McIntosh that Amazon will shut down CreateSpace, which means authors need to move their print titles to KDP. Go to your KDP account, and you’ll find simple directions for moving your book. It took me five minutes.

Your favorite first lines? Leave a comment.




Ben Rehder Visits our Book Club

A “halo” appears above the head of Susan Mayson for inviting Ben Rehder to our book club. Richard Slagle, on the right, has read everything Ben has written.

It’s no secret here that I’m a big fan of Ben Rehder. His novel The Chicken Hanger is one of my all-time favorites. At my urging, our little book club read it, loved it, and Susan Mayson decided to invite the author to our meeting.  He graciously accepted, even flexed when presented with a time change.

He would probably want me to comment on the shirt he’s wearing in the photo. He’s promoting not a book, but Emancipet, a low-cost spay and neuter clinic, and  Clear the Shelters day.

Ben is best known for his very funny book series about a Blanco County (TX) game warden, and fans are eagerly awaiting the  book he’s currently working on. (I envy Ben for being able to write a book in eight or nine months.) A newer series, the Roy Ballard Mysteries,  features a private investigator. The first book in each series is free for Kindle users: Buck Fever and Gone the Next, respectively.

In discussing The Chicken Hanger, a book I recently wrote about on this blog, people were surprised he’d written it in 2007. Ben said in his research for the book, border issues have scarcely changed over the years. “You see headlines of fifty years ago that could have been written today.”

I told him that his books are being recorded by the Texas Talking Book Program, which he seemed glad to hear. In my seven years of volunteering with Talking Book, I’ve noticed there’s almost always a Ben Rehder book in the process of being recorded.

I’d love to have talked to him about self-publishing, which he turned to after having a legacy publisher for his earlier books. But I respected that our group is a book club, not a writing club.

Book club members loved the book, and I asked Ben how we can best promote it. He said, “Tell your friends.”


When I’m writing, I write, and then it’s as if the muse is convinced I’m serious and says, Okay, Okay, I’ll come.

–Maya Angelou





Texas Talking Book Program Fills Real Need

On Tuesdays, my husband, Tim, and I narrate books for the Texas Talking Book Program. The free service, which depends heavily on volunteers, is affiliated with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, administered by the Library of Congress.

When I brought Tim to Austin eight years ago, he had fifteen years of experience with the Colorado Talking Book Program. He’s the better narrator in the family. His acting background has been a bonus as he does characters and dialects well, which is not a requirement for narrators. In fact, there are those who would prefer to leave such interpretations up to the reader, but Tim’s narration often brings kudos from the people who review our work.

The Texas Talking Book Program, now in its forty-first year, serves anyone who cannot read or hold a book. A majority of patrons are blind or have low vision, but other patrons include those who have a reading disability, can’t read English, or can’t hold a book. Books chosen for recording have a Texas theme or setting or are written by Texas authors. Priority is given to patron requests.

Over the years, the program has faced the challenge of adapting to technological change. Today’s recordings are done in a digital format. Once recorded, a book is copied onto cartridges, which are mailed to patrons, who load them into a specially designed player provided by the program. Currently an ambitious program is underway to convert archived books from tape to digital.

In recent years, books recorded in Texas and elsewhere have become available nationwide through BARD, which stands for Braille and Audio Reading Download.

You can’t get much more patron-friendly than the Talking Book Program. Everything, including players and mailing costs, is provided free of charge. Patrons can even call and talk to a reader adviser for help in selecting books. I learned only recently that there’s a phone-in book club so that people can get together via a conference call to discuss a selected book.

Every once in a while, I like to stop and think about the significance of what Tim and I and all the other volunteers and staff are doing. I like this quote from a patron: “When my vision deteriorated, much of the fun of life disappeared. The Talking Book Program restored much of the zest of living.”


Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

–Stephen King


Write it Hot

As I write this post, it’s 110°F in Austin, TX. As you can imagine, the heat is a subject that flares up at some point in every conversation. The usual, “You keeping cool?” or “I don’t know how people work outdoors when it’s this hot.”

I started brainstorming with myself about how a writer of fiction might describe extreme heat without being trite. Ideally, it involves “showing, not telling,” especially when it reveals the impact on characters. My list:

  1. A couple in a car argue over how much money to give to a panhandler who offers bottled water from a cooler to drivers.
  2. Firefighters collapse from heat exhaustion.
  3. A mail carrier sees a tied-up dog in distress, gives it water, and returns after dark to rescue the animal.
  4. While eyes are closed and heads are bowed in prayer, a church-goer takes a hand fan, provided compliments of Bowers Funeral Home, and slips it into her purse.
  5. A driver encountering a road block where a work crew is removing concrete chunks realizes the debris had burst from expanded highway seams.
  6. Looters delight in a power outage.
  7. Mother, who has never been known to utter a swear word, grips a hot handrail and says, “Holy shit.”
  8. The lover on top slides off.
  9. A roofer buying work boots inquires about soles that won’t melt.
  10. Homeless people park with their backpacks and over-stuffed trash bags in the public library.
  11. Swamped by an increase in heat-related emergencies, an EMS team loses precious minutes getting to a call because they’ve run out of ice and have to stop at a convenience store.
  12. Home Depot sells out of window air conditioners.
  13. Home invasion burglaries go up as more people sleep with their windows open.
  14. An air-conditioned mosque provides overnight shelter for people of all faiths.

Btw, I have some experience with # 3 and #5. I once knew a musician who sometimes after a late gig would rescue  dogs he knew to be abused. And I once had to stop on a highway while road crews removed chunks of concrete.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin.

–Mel Brooks




The Sentiment Resonates, but . . .

One of the rewards of reading fiction is coming upon a passage that makes you pause because it so truly illuminates something you’ve experienced or felt yourself. It happened to me while reading my book club’s recent selection, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.

To set the scene, pretending that his wife, Rachel, is dead, Marty sits with Ellie in a jazz club.

Excerpt: He takes a big sip of his Tom Collins to wash away the aftertaste of deceit. He thinks about the European river cruise in the spring, the way Rachel will lay out the brochures and ship menus across the perfectly made bed. They will eat oysters and truffles and make love once or twice, floating by the peat fields of old Europe, sunken down into its ancient rivers. She will read novels in bed and fall asleep with the light on. The predictability of it is both heartening and its own kind of ruin.

The Take-away: This paragraph begins with so much promise, and the last sentence, “The predictability of it is both heartening and its own kind of ruin,”  perfectly captures Marty’s ambivalence. I know that feeling.  Coming upon it expressed so well made me pause. Unfortunately the paragraph doesn’t end with that sentence.  The author adds words that suck the power from the sentiment: He looks up at the stage where the trumpeter is on the outer edge of his solo, rising onto the balls of his feet to launch his big, buttery tone. “That kid’s not bad,” he says. We’re back to the present moment in the jazz club. And the paragraph peters out with an unnecessary dialogue tag.

Paragraph breaks exist for a reason, as I pointed out in a previous blog post “Domesticating the Paragraph.” My guess is that Smith, intent on developing a pivotal scene with Marty and Ellie, didn’t recognize the potency of the sentence in question. It happens.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.



A Lesson in a Word

I was immersed in a poem the other day, one that created a compelling and dramatic scene with enviable turns of phrase. For example, . . . “because the hallway is empty of everything but soothing lemon wallpaper and the eucalypt  sting of disinfectant . . . ”

The poem is “The Gurney,” by Sarah Holland-Batt. I was engaged until the last line where the spell was broken by a single word: “gimballing.”

Not knowing the word’s meaning, was I missing something critical? Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines “gimbal”: a device that permits a body to incline freely in any direction or suspends it so that it will remain level when its support is tipped.

Hmm. So now I know the definition. I’m picturing the wheels of a grocery cart which can, theoretically, turn in any direction. But other than the fact that the word works rhythmically, I don’t find that it enhances my appreciation of the poem.  If I were to make a stretch, I’d say that the gimballing wheels suggest that things can change at any moment.

My point with this post is that a single word can act as a road block on the page. Something I must remember. Simple words are best, except in the dialogue of a character who fancies himself smarter than everyone else.

Now, this brings me to The New Yorker, where said poem was published. When I  read the magazine’s poetry, fiction, and cartoons, more often than not I’m left  with “Huh?”

I’ve concluded it’s because I lack sophistication. What would help me a lot is if the magazine would print a little gauge with each selection, sort of like, “You must be (this) tall to ride this ride.” It would say, “You must be this sophisticated to read this (poem, story, cartoon).”

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.

–Christopher Columbus

Links for Writers v2.0

Do you ever wonder how Charles Dickens or Edith  Wharton wrote novels without benefit of computers and the internet? We are fortunate to have an abundance of tools at our fingertips. I’ll connect you to a few in this post.

Disclaimer: Read this post at your own risk. You, alone, must accept full responsibility for the minutes and hours you take away from your own writing to peruse these links.

Write to Done

Write to Done has the tagline: “Unmissable Articles on Writing.”  You’ll see on its visually rich, commercially slick landing page a sampling of its offerings targeting novelists, short-story writers, nonfiction writers, and bloggers. Tips and articles cover productivity, motivation, writing craft, marketing, and more. Mary Jaksch, Chief Editor, believes that it’s practice, not genetics, that makes a writer, but more than that, the practice needs direction, hence her blog.

The Write Practice

Like Jaksch, Joe Bunting, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of  The Write Practice, believes in practice, so much so that readers will find a 15-minute assignment at the end of each article.  For example, in the article “How To Write a Mystery Novel,” author Joslyn Chase ends by asking readers to select a sub-genre–cozy, police/medical/legal procedural, private eye/noir, or suspense–and write the opening scene, respecting the conventions of the genre and reader expectations.

Writer’s Digest

As you might expect of Writer’s Digest, there’s a wealth of information covering all aspects of writing. If you sign up for the Writer’s Digest Newsletter, you can download free character development worksheets.

MOOC: “Moving the Margins: Fiction and Inclusion”

My thanks to Lolly Walter for alerting me to this MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), “Moving the Margins: Fiction and Inclusion.”  The free, self-paced MOOC is offered by the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa. Slated to begin mid-July, the course should be open for registration any day now. It features authors writing and speaking about voice, character, setting, style, language, and “moving the margins” of the known and the expected.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


A ratio of failures is built into the process of writing. The wastebasket has evolved for a reason.

–Margaret Atwood

Want Your Indie Book in Bookstores? Think Again

Besides offering Compromise With Sin on Amazon, I wanted to see it in bookstores and libraries (more on libraries later). That meant the book would have to be available from a major distributor, such as Ingram Content Group, Inc., and Baker and Taylor. Ingram makes that possible for indie authors via IngramSpark.

I did my research and got Compromise With Sin into the IngramSpark system. It required some special formatting as well as understanding what bookstores require. Independent bookstores buy at a discount, typically 55 percent. And they require that the book must be returnable.

My first shock came when I discovered that on the sale of my book at $14.99, my take would be 51 cents. The second shock was that I would have to bear the cost of any book returned. Ouch.

The third shock was that when I approached BookPeople, my big, local independent bookstore in Austin, I was told that even though Compromise With Sin was in the Ingram catalog, they would not buy it because it was a print-on-demand book. They would, however, be glad to carry it on a consignment basis. (I’ve learned that this is the policy of many independent bookstores.) I would provide six copies of the book, which they would display for three months. I would make up to 55 percent of the purchase price. They charge a $25 handling fee.

Here’s how the numbers would work for me: I pay $7.58 for each book I order from IngramSpark. That’s based on an order of 18 books and includes shipping and handling costs. So if BookPeople paid me the maximum 55 percent on $14.99, my take would be $8.24. But, there’s the matter of a $25 handling fee, which amounts to $4.17 per book. Now the store pays me $4.07. Bottom line? The sale of a single book would cost me $3.51. I passed up the deal.

While I wish that BookPeople had a friendlier policy toward local authors, I understand that bookstores need to make money. And while I never expected to make big money on my book, I won’t be paying people to read it. Bookstores can still buy it from IngramSpark but probably won’t because I no longer make it returnable.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by.

–Jennette Walls








The Chicken Hanger: a Story for our Times

I don’t fancy myself a book reviewer. But I want to tell you about a novel that has stayed with me for several years, one I feel is in keeping with today’s messed up management of the border. The book is The Chicken Hanger, by Ben Rehder. He’s been called the Carl Hiassen of Texas for his comic crime novel series: The Blanco County Mysteries and The Roy Ballard Mysteries.

But The Chicken Hanger is a literary novel, quite a departure from Rehder’s usual work.  The story is about Ricky Delgado, who crossed the border into Texas illegally and works with other migrants at Kountry Fresh Chicken in Rugoso, Texas.  When the story begins, he’s sick, but going to work nevertheless, at the worst job he’s ever had. He’s a chicken hanger, meaning that he grabs squawking chickens one at a time from a crate as they enter the plant and hangs them from shackles on an overhead conveyor belt.  Of all the workers doing live hang, he is the fastest–30 birds a minute.

Learning that his brother has been shot and injured trying to cross into Texas, Ricky must decide if it’s worth seeking justice, a move that could expose him and lead to his deportation. And he faces another dilemma when he learns what is making him and other workers at the plant sick.

A big reason the story succeeds is that it’s not limited to the immigrant perspective. A rancher, who tries to scare off immigrants with warning shots, finds a bloodied backpack and engages in a cover-up. A Border Patrol agent faces the toughest decision of his career.

Btw, I encountered this novel several years ago when my husband, Tim, narrated it for the Texas Talking Book Program. He subsequently narrated Hog Heaven, a book in The Blanco County Mystery series. The story is as funny as The Chicken Hanger is sobering.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.

–John Green