Candace Robb

Candace Robb, author of medieval historical books including her Owen Archer series, took a stab at my five questions this month and provided me with plenty new to think about. My biggest takeaway from our conversation? Besides things I learned, I realized I really want to read more of her books! And there are plenty to read, so if you haven’t started I suggest you do. I’ll be digging into another soon. Not that I can know without time traveling, but her medieval world has the authentic feel of someone who has researched it deeply enough to make it her own.

What is your favorite book about the craft of writing? Why?

Candace: I want to mention two, one that was recommended to me by an agent I worked with for a brief time, my first intensive professional relationship: The Craft of Writing by William Sloane (Norton 1979). It’s short, readable, and filled with wisdom from his long career as an editor. His focus is on the relationship between the writer and the reader. The goal is to create an illusion of reality for the reader and not break it, which is why he emphasizes sticking to one POV per scene. The moment the reader becomes confused about who is thinking the illusion is destroyed for them. The second book is Wired For Story by Lisa Cron. She makes use of brain science to teach the writer how to hook readers. Essentially, we read to make sense of our world, to learn what might happen, to try out experiences. Our job is to engage a reader’s emotions. She has great checkpoints throughout. I recommend her clever contents pages for a sense of the book. 

Sarah: I had to go and look at the ‘clever contents pages’ in Wired for Story to see what you meant. Wow! The table of contents has practical teasers for each chapter that can be applied right away. This is so great!

What do you like most about writing a first draft?

Candace: As someone who changes course, revises, rewrites, over and over in the first draft, I spend more than 75% of my time with a book in this long stage. I discover the story as I write, jotting down ideas then returning to the beginning when I’m confident I know how to revise it and move forward. It’s a dance of two steps forward, back to base, three steps forward, back to base. Gradually the “base” is farther along in the story. Even so, the beginning often changes in the second draft. So you can imagine that what gives me the greatest joy is that moment when I first type *the end*.

There are other joyous moments along the way, particularly as the story becomes clear to me. I was quite far into the book that’s now with my editor, A Fox in the Fold, when I realized I was wrong about the identity of the catalyst and saw that I’d inadvertently set up a far more satisfying story than what I’d planned. I thought my heart would burst. I wrote like a madwoman after that until, towards the end, I thought I’d written myself into a corner. I knew my sleuth, Owen Archer, would not embark on the path I’d laid out for him. So I sat down with him and asked for his advice. He was more than happy to oblige, sketching out an ending that required I go back a few steps. Everything clicked into the place after that.

Sarah: I loved our conversation about this second part, especially – that you could discover that you, the author, have been wrong about a particular character all along. It was a relief to me, not yet a published novelist, to learn that I wasn’t the only one. And it’s also one of the fun things about writing, to really be in conversation with the characters and the story.

And thank you for the teaser title…I have so much reading to do before I get there 😬

What is your favorite part of revision?

Candace: Once I’ve spun the tale to the end, I read through the manuscript noting places where I want to add more feeling or description of the setting, seed subtle clues, remove what serves no purpose, add a scene that enriches a character. I love the feeling of seeing it all clearly and diving in to realize my vision.

What book (not about writing) are you reading right now or have you recently finished that you would recommend to others? Why?

Candace: I’m reading Robin Hobb’s Golden Fool, the 2nd book in The Tawny Man Trilogy, which is the 3rd trilogy of The Realm of the Elderlings. Each book is long, so each trilogy is a commitment in time, and yet I dread the day when I’ve read all the trilogies, chronicles, short stories and novellas in the series. How can something so time-consuming appeal? It’s the characters, how each and every one is written with depth and subtlety, how they grow and change, how vividly all the various cultures are portrayed, the magic, the politics, the art. As a writer of series myself, I admire her ability to make me care about all of these imaginary people living in an imaginary world and thrill to be reacquainted with them in later books.

Sarah: This had me laughing in part because I love how the word trilogy has expanded over the years, so much that this trilogy of trilogies is almost banal. But I’m glad you pointed to another important element of literature – the potential and the journey for each character to grow and change (or somehow not). I’ve just finished a book (The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa) in which what appeared to be the main character was really a catalyst for growth and relationship building for all the apparent side characters. Now I’m excited to dig into Hobb!

Can you give an example of how you have been kind to someone else recently, in real life or through one of your characters?

Candace: I’ve been inspired by the Dalai Lama’s answer that his religion is very simple, it’s kindness. I try to make that my default in interactions, particularly prickly ones. It doesn’t mean being insincere, but instead finding a way to say or behave kindly, not to wound. It can be a challenge, particularly on Twitter, because snarky comments are fun. So I’m particularly careful on social media, and I write a great deal that no one ever sees.

Sarah: Thank you! I’m so glad you mention that which “no one ever sees.” It’s like our thoughts, isn’t it? Our minds may come up with things, but we need not share them all. It’s why I’ve focused the questions I ask on the positive; not because we don’t have negative things to say about writing but that they are less helpful than the positive. Kindness works the same way.

Jeffrey D. Briggs 🌑

I pose my five questions to Jeffrey D. Briggs, author of the Waterfront Mysteries. I loved the first book, Out of the Cold Dark Sea (see my review here) and look forward to reading the latest, Within A Shadowed Forest. Books in the Waterfront Mystery series are available at Amazon, Beach House Greetings, Edmonds Bookshop, Paper Boat Booksellers, and Third Place Books. It’s awesome to call out some of these local spots.

What is your favorite book about the craft of writing? Why?

Jeffrey: I have found so much value in so many books on writing. They include:

Each book contains important lessons on craft, the need for discipline and perseverance. Some of it will be new. Other parts will be reminders that I have learned before but forgotten. Plus, there’s always a key piece of advice that stays with me well beyond the time I’ve forgotten or absorbed the rest: Like King’s advice, “Writers must be readers.” Lamont’s encouragement to “give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft.” And Brenda Ueland’s, “I learned that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness.”

What do you like most about writing a first draft?

Jeffrey: The first draft is when I’m at my most creative. I try not to edit as I go but to let the story unfold how it wants to be told, to follow the characters where they want to go. I am world-building at this stage, as close as I’ll ever get to playing God. First drafts are amazing and exciting and scary and frustrating. Much like life. Only more intense.

What is your favorite part of revision?

Jeffrey: The joy of revision is to be done with it. Revision is where the really hard work begins. It requires an awareness of craft, voice, dialog, point of view. It requires an attention to detail not needed in the creation of the first draft. I need to shape and mold that shitty first draft into something that resembles a finished book. That’s hard! Each of my books has required a minimum of 15 drafts before I felt satisfied they were complete. That’s a lot of revision. An old college professor of mine once advised about revision, “You have to learn to kill your own babies.” I have killed a lot of babies in my revisions. My favorite part of revision? The satisfaction of having pulled together, in the end, a good book that will entertain and (maybe) enlighten my readers.

Sarah: Wow. Fifteen drafts! I’m only on ten or eleven or… actually, I’m not really sure. But that explains a thing or two 🤣

What book (not about writing) are you reading right now or have you recently finished that you would recommend to others? Why?

Jeffrey: I am currently reading two mysteries by local authors and friends of mine, Alice K. Boatwright’s What Child Is This? And Devil by the Tail by Jeanne Matthews. They will be speaking at an upcoming Sisters in Crime [Puget Sound Chapter] meeting, and I want to know their work better when I hear them talk. The books are very different—one a historical novel set in 19th century Chicago, and the other set in a small village in present-day England with plenty of tea and scones surrounding an abandoned child and murder. I’m enjoying both.

I recently finished Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. I loved the simple, elegant lyricism of his narrative voice, and his kindness and compassion for his characters.

I reread Moby-Dick and Lord of the Rings every few years for their large themes and wise counsel, often delivered from humble characters. I’ve grown to love the Fredrik Backman books for how they wrap humor and empathy in a delightful cast of misfits and oddballs. I just reread Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness to remind myself that light is the left hand of darkness—a lesson I needed this past year.

I’m enjoying my introduction to Vera Stanhope, Ann Cleeve’s British detective (I’m through the first four), for her psychological profiling of possible suspects and of Vera herself. I love the way she takes time to develop tension, and never forgets to place us in the muck of life.

I could go on all day about favorite books.

Sarah: I love that you took the time here to go on about favorite books. It’s a wonderful thing to love books, to be immersed in them, and to engage and learn from stories, both our own and others. I now have more books I need to read 😍 Also, I agree that Fredrik Backman is masterful.

Can you give an example of how you have been kind to someone else recently, in real life or through one of your characters?

Jeffrey: I have just finished my Driving Miss Daisy period in the winter of 2022. After major foot surgery, my wife was immobile for nearly two months and had another month of just beginning to hobble around. I cooked her meals, walked the dog, drove her to all her appointments, built her a ramp into the house and came running whenever she jiggled her bell. That is the kindness that comes with love.

Sarah: This is so beautiful, and a reminder that our kindnesses can be for those close to us, the people we might obviously be kind to every day. Your wife is fortunate, and I can see that neither of you takes the other for granted. Thank you!

Cynthia Blair 🍨

This month I pose my five questions to Cynthia Blair, author of three mystery series (written as Cynthia Baxter), including the “Reigning Cats & Dogs” mysteries featuring Long Island veterinarian Jessica Popper. Titles include Dead Canaries Don’t Sing and Putting On the Dog.  She has also written contemporary women’s fiction and young adult novels. You can find Cynthia on Goodreads and BookBub.

You will find that sometimes I can’t help myself and respond in italics, but sometimes it’s enough to let Cynthia say it all.

What is your favorite book about the craft of writing? Why?

I’ve never been a big reader of craft books. I’ve learned whatever I know about crafting a novel by paying attention to how other authors have done it. I’ve always been attuned to how authors ask a question at the beginning of the book that keeps the reader reading, the ways they end chapters, the ways in which they construct scenes and build tension…it’s all right there on the page.  

This is an intriguing answer for me, because I so often find writers pointing other writers to craft resources, as I have been doing for years. But one of my favorite exercises, borrowed from a craft book, was to write in the style of a favorite author.

What do you like most about writing a first draft?

That creative magic that comes from out of nowhere and enables me to pour out an entire scene without coming up for air.  Fingers flying, ideas tumbling over each other, sentences writing themselves… it doesn’t always happen, of course, but when it does, it’s exhilarating!  

What is your favorite part of revision?

Being done with it? I find it torture, especially when it requires moving scenes around and then reshuffling different sections throughout the book to be sure it all still makes sense. The only fun part for me is reworking individual sentences or paragraphs to make them cleaner and sharper. I’ll reread something and think, “Why on earth is that word there? Out!” Or “That verb should be at the beginning of the sentence, not at the end!” That’s a good feeling. 

What book (not about writing) are you reading right now or recently finished that you would recommend to others?

I just finished Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout. It’s beautifully crafted. The writing is lyrical and the characters are wonderfully complex (and so human!). It’s about love and acceptance and disappointment and loss and rebirth…all the difficulties and rewards that people experience simply through having to (and needing to) live with each other.  

Can you give an example of how you have been kind to someone else recently, in real life or through one of your characters?

A Summer in Paris by Cynthia Baxter aka Cynthia Blair

A young woman recently wrote to me about a Young Adult novel of mine called A Summer in Paris. It’s the story of three high school girls who go to Paris on a school trip and the effect it has on their lives. One of the characters in the book decides to remain there, despite her parents’ objections. The woman who wrote to me said my book had inspired her to go live in Paris, which had always been her dream. She was grateful that my book had encouraged her to follow the character’s lead, so I suppose that was an inadvertent act of kindness!

Cynthia and I discussed how hard it can be to see our own kindnesses. This question isn’t easy for me to answer, either, and I hope that doesn’t make it unfair of me to ask it. Because I love the answers I hear from people in the Imagine Neighborhood podcast I borrowed it from.

I think that sometimes we don’t see our own kindnesses, either because they are inadvertent, as Cynthia points to, or subconscious, or because we aren’t sure that our intentional kindnesses are received as such. Yet it’s important to know we are being kind in the world, and to pay the kindnesses we receive forward. So I reminded Cynthia that in addition to the great kindness she did by inspiring her reader, she has also been kind to me — encouraging me as a writer and a member of the writing community, and answering these questions.

I hope you have enjoyed her answers and will strike out and read her books if you haven’t already. I confess I’ve so far only read from her Lickety Splits Ice Cream Shoppe mysteries, and I love the intriguing flavors of this dessert that Cynthia weaves in with fun mysteries!

Disappearances

In my May 2020 Newsletter, I included a writing prompt, and promised my own reply to that:

Write a story about a missing object. To whom does it belong? When did it go missing? Why is it important? Where might it be? Does it get found by the end of the story? What other resolutions are there to the story, whether it is found or not?

Below is my short story, Disappearances:


The first object to disappear was a paperclip. It was an otherwise ordinary Tuesday, as far as things went. Emma sat at the makeshift desk in her apodment, the tiny home that had seemed sufficient before the pandemic, before there was no office to go into, no coffee shops to hang out at, no karaoke bars to sing her evenings away in. Now, one of the two seats at the dining counter marking the space between her combo living-sleeping room and the kitchenette served as her desk. 

Emma kept the other spot clear for eating—in fact, she was fastidious with her space, ensuring that even the double-duty couch was only in its bed form from a few minutes before her bedtime, reverting it to a couch again before brushing her teeth in the morning. 

That afternoon, the end of her work hours approaching, Emma sought the paperclip she had removed from the project she was working on. It was not on the counter where she was sure she had put it. She lifted her laptop, shook out the papers it was to hold, searched the floor on both the kitchen and the living side of the counter, even flashed her cell-phone light under the stove and refrigerator. Nothing—no paperclip, nor even a lost grain of rice. 

It was a small thing, though, and probably hiding in plain sight, she thought as she fished a new paperclip out of the box in her supply drawer.

Emma all but dismissed the disappearance of the paperclip until, a week later, the spoon she’d eaten her afternoon snack of yoghurt and granola with disappeared. After putting her work aside for the day she’d gone to clean her lunch and snack dishes to prepare for dinner. She knew she’d eaten—not only was there a lingering taste of peaches and honey-sweetened oats in her mouth, but the yoghurt cup was in her small recycling bin. Just in case, she counted the spoons in the flatware drawer. She checked the recycling and the garbage, and then, as a final thought, she gently reached into the sink disposal, feeling around between the blades. She was definitely missing a spoon. 

After that it seemed that every day something went missing. A ruler, her favorite bandana—the purple one—the power cord for her phone, the lid to her water bottle. Things Emma couldn’t ignore. Things that made her think she was going mad. 

The second Sunday after things began disappearing, Emma stood in her entryway, staring at the corner where her clogs should have been. This was ridiculous. 

“Really, universe? A tiny paperclip, a slender ruler—those maybe just slipped under or behind something. But there’s no way a pair of shoes just disappeared!” she shouted toward her ceiling. 

Emma felt rather than heard laughter in the silence that followed. She frowned. It wasn’t funny. Then she slipped on her running shoes—the only pair of shoes she had other than the heels she reserved for special occasions—and left for the grocery store.

As she made her way down the block, her wallet and phone tucked into the backpack on her shoulder, Emma considered the items that had gone missing. The paperclip and spoon were both metal. The ruler was an office supply, like the paperclip, and although it was mostly plastic it had some metal in it, as did the power cord to her phone. The water bottle was metal, but it was the plastic and rubber lid that had gone missing. And her clogs were leather and rubber. So it couldn’t be some powerful random magnetic force capturing her items. Nor could she think of anything all of the objects had in common.

She shook her head and checked her watch. 6pm. Plenty of time to get through her short shopping before the grocery closed for the night.

Wait, Emma thought. What time did the paperclip disappear? She’d noticed its absence at the end of the work day, around 5:30pm. In fact, every time she had noticed something missing it had been around the same time of day—early evening.

At least there was a pattern in that. Not that this brought her closer to figuring out what happened, but it was something. It also used to be her favorite time of day, when she would stop and visit her grandmother every day, once after school and then after work. Until Gram had died. Now it was the hardest time of Emma’s day, lonesome and quiet even before the pandemic had hit.

Emma did her shopping, listening to the reminders on the intercom to maintain social-distancing standards. Keeping her distance was easy enough. But there was a strangeness to the faces covered in every kind of mask, from balaclava to dust mask to bandana. Were they familiar faces? Friendly? Did what little of her own face that showed over her own bandana, bright green, provide any clear emotional cues? Could they tell she was smiling? Was there any point in making eye contact?

She stepped between the clear shower curtains hanging on either side of the self-checkout and quickly passed milk, eggs, apples, bananas, and a loaf of bread over the scanner and into her backpack. On her way out the door she nodded at the person spraying down carts for the next patron to use, then made her way back to her small apartment.

The sun was still up, but she felt an odd sensation, a desire to play, to laugh, as she stepped over the threshold into her tiny space. When she’d been preparing to leave, she’d wondered if the universe was laughing at her. Now it seemed that the energy was inviting her to laugh with it.

She opened the refrigerator door to put the milk away. 

“Aaaah!” Her eyes went wide. For there on the top shelf sat a strange sculpture. Her clogs, buffed clean, sat side by side, the missing ruler standing tall between them like a spine. Tied to that with her phone’s power cord, the spoon and water bottle lid formed an odd pair of eyes, the paperclip hanging between like the bridge of a nose under which her purple bandana was wrapped to form a cowboy-style mask.

“Where did you come from?” Emma asked the strange figure as she pulled it out of the refrigerator and set it on the counter. 

“You seemed lonely.” The voice might have come from under the mask, or it might have come from behind her. In such a small space it was hard to tell. “I’m here with you, Emma Gem.”

“Gram?” Emma said, incredulous with a touch of hope. “You’re haunting me?”

“I guess I am at that,” the voice agreed. 

She felt the sensation of humor around her as her grandmother hooted with joy. This time, Emma laughed, too.