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The Making of a Novel

March 9, 2014

I’m delighted to have Sandra Parshall as a guest this week.  Sandra is an active member of Sisters in Crime, an outspoken defender of animals, an amateur photographer, and, probably most important to the readers of this blog, the author of the Rachel Goddard mysteries. The first book in the series, The Heat of the Moon, won an Agatha. The sixth, Poisoned Ground, was released earlier this month. Not surprising, given Sandra’s love of animals, her protagonist, Rachel Goddard, is a veterinarian. One of the things I like best about the series is the way Rachel has grown over the course of the six books.

By Sandra Parshallweb photo

Whenever a new book comes out, I have to fumble for a coherent answer to the inevitable questions: What inspired you to write this novel? Did you base this or that character on a real person?

I make jokes likening the creation of a novel to making sausage: it’s best that the customer not look too closely at how it’s done and what goes into it. Surely all the reader cares about is the finished product and whether it’s entertaining and satisfying. Right?

But I’m constantly amazed at how many readers do want to know exactly how it’s done and are curious about the inspiration for this character or that plot line. So I struggle to make sense of my chaotic “process” and describe it in terms that make it sound like logical, intelligent work and less like voodoo.

I know I’m not alone in this. Many writers say they have no idea where some of their best characters and plot developments come from. The stuff they wrestle onto the page with brute force turns wooden, the characters lie inert, refusing to get up and breathe. But if something comes to a writer out of the blue, or in a dream, often it’s golden. The characters who walk unbidden into an author’s head and take up permanent residence are the ones who seem to write their own dialog while the writer rushes to record it.

All this sounds a little crazy, and non-writers don’t always understand it.

Now researchers have confirmed that creativity is a kind of voodoo. Furthermore, it works the same way in all humans, whether they spend their time dreaming up fictional stories or solving mechanical problems or baking pastries. All of us depend on our unconscious minds to guide and inspire us.

The study of creativity is relatively new but has produced some startling breakthroughs now that brain imaging allows researchers to see what’s going on inside our skulls when we appear to be idle. Scientists used to dismiss daydreaming and sleep as low-level brain functions. Wasted time. After all, what could anyone achieve when they weren’t focused on a specific task? A lot, it turns out.

A neurologist named Marcus Raichle gets credit for discovering that our brains are madly busy all the time, its various zones exchanging information, indexing everything we’ve taken in. This activity, dubbed dark energy, serves up answers and inspiration when we’re quiet enough to listen — in the moments just before, during, and immediately after sleep, and when we’re wide awake but letting our minds wander.

Now when someone asks what inspired Poisoned Ground, I don’t have to limit myself to the snarky and pretentious answer that I read a Poisoned Ground 300bestseller with a similar theme — big business running roughshod over a small rural community — and thought I could improve on it. That was the original inspiration, but everything else, the characters and subplots and subtext, came from my unconscious mind. In the end, I wrote a novel that is less about a fight over development than a story of intertwined lives, buried grudges, and the kind of old secrets that can explode into the present and destroy people.

I’ve often wished I could write in a more “businesslike” way, doing a detailed outline up front, knowing everything that will happen before I begin. Now, after reading about the latest research, I’ve come to accept that writing doesn’t work that way for me, and I’m better off leaning on my “dark energy” for inspiration.

The research results raise a troubling question, though: What will become of our creative lives in an era when we sleep less, take less leisure time, and don’t allow ourselves to slow down and daydream?

Good question, Sandra. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the creative process with the readers of Birth of a Novel.

For more about Sandra Parshall and her books, please check out her website:

The Road Ahead

February 24, 2014

Guest posts are always special to me. I understand how busy everyone’s life is and am appreciative when someone takes time to share their thoughts and ideas with me and with the readers of Birth of a Novel. As special as all my guest posters are, I have to confess this week’s guest holds a unique place in heart. We share the same heritage.Linda-Abstract Edit

Meet my cousin, Linda Ballou – Linda is a mother, a grandmother, an involved member of her community, and an accomplished artist, both as a painter and a photographer. Linda is ten years younger than I am. I watched her grow from a cute little red-headed imp into the accomplished and deeply spiritual woman she is today.

Here’s Linda:

Today Psalm 46 is my favorite psalm. Perhaps it will always be. Perhaps it is because I am such a fearful child of God, child of the Lord of Hosts . . . who is with us. Having memorized this psalm, I hoped to remember it when I faced difficult circumstances, you know, like the earth giving way or the mountains falling into the heart of the sea, but maybe even in the midst of ordinary threats others face without dread, like driving on interstate highways or in city traffic. I chose to do that yesterday, and I am ashamed of it, but I was truly frightened. Psalm 46 came gently to mind, helping me.

I grew up on a country road that dead-ended at my house, a lane really, narrow and obstinate. Daddy worked hard to keep our little road from falling back into obscurity. He hauled gravel from the river and spread it in the gullies on a hill that stubbornly refused to hold it. He spread gravel at the base of the hill when potholes grew deep enough to swallow our axles. And it was there and on roads like it that I learned to drive. It is still where I feel most at home behind the wheel.

A couple of months ago, I went to see the well-preserved ghost town of Bode, Nevada. The dirt and gravel road leading to it is wide and long but filled with those familiar potholes of my youth. My driver was upset and fearful. Such a road could ruin his car. We proceeded at a baby’s crawling speed. As complaint upon complaint wormed their way into my jangled nerves, I resolved to do the driving on the return trip. It was a wonderful drive. In my mind, I was back on my little farm road, dodging the holes, looking for the safe spots, weaving all over that road, with smiles and laughter and joy and delight that only a brother or sister who grew up in the little farmhouse at the end of our lane could have shared.

But now, this morning, I face bigger threats than those posed by negotiating city traffic. The loneliness of the long road ahead to my future, to the end of my days here, feels more like a super highway than a friendly country road. A widow I am, and one who loves to share every bump in the road, every bird that sings along the way, every flower that grows on the roadside. Yes, Psalm 46 may always be my favorite for the Lord of Hosts is with me on the mysterious way ahead, my refuge and strength, a very present help.

Thanks, Linda.

Just for fun, here’s another picture of Linda. I’m in the middle, happily flanked by Linda on the right and her sister, Mary (she was a cute little blonde imp), on the left.


Sparking the Flame of The Art of Falling

February 16, 2014

Kathryn CraftMy guest this week is Kathryn Craft, a fine writer, a champion of writers in general and an example of what it means to be part of the community of writers.

Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, which was released on January 28 and has already gone back for a second printing, and While the Leaves Stood Still (due Spring 2015). Her work as a developmental editor at, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New YorkState, leads Craftwriting workshops, and speaks often about writing. She lives with her husband in Doylestown, PA.

Now, here’s Kathryn … 

Writing The Art of Falling was not at all like striking the match of inspiration, holding it to the candle of story, and taking care that the fire never went out. Birthing my debut novel was longer and messier, like surrounding the candle of story with a bunch of flints and striking my steely resolve against them time and again until the sparks were strong enough to arc to the wick and ignite it.ArtOfFallingSmall

Here are the aspects of my life that comprised those flints:

1. Motivation. I turned to writing fiction after my first husband’s suicide, sixteen years ago. I had a lingering need to use my writing to form a more hopeful story from the chaos of those events. Anyone familiar with the stages of grief knows of its anger, and with our sons only eight and ten at the time, I had a slow burn of it that for years I just couldn’t purge. I sensed I needed to forgive him, and that the path to forgiveness lay in empathy. Yet I’d always been an optimist, looking for the silver lining in every situation. I had no way to relate to someone getting so low that they’d consider self-destruction. Penelope Sparrow was my path.

2. Permission. When I met my first husband I was a 24-year-old dancer with many aptitudes but no idea of what she wanted to do with her life. The offered job as dance critic allowed me to get free tickets to the performances I frequented, to quickly accumulate bylines, and get paid for it. I was thrilled. My husband was less than impressed, and derided my “career” as “volunteer work.” But when I met my second husband I was a 42-year-old writer. He’d had poetry published, and knew that writing this book and seeking its publication was good for my soul. He loved it right into existence.

3. Three ideas. I usually need three unrelated elements to spark the kind of creative leaps that will start a story percolating. In this case those were 1) a newspaper account of a woman who walked away from a 14-story fall with only a broken arm; 2) an anecdote about a man with a never-say-die spirit whose body was failing from heart disease, but whose hospital roommate was a young man with a flagging spirit whose body would not succumb when he put his head in the oven, blinding him instead; and 3) our society’s intense obsession with the body beautiful. I put those notions in the mental pot and let them stew.

4. Mentors. I needed living, breathing role models. Great literature to show by example. Mentors unknown to me but whose books on writing guided me. Dead writers whose lingering wisdom adorns my writing space, such as this from Howard Thurman: “Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

5. Feedback. To be published presupposes a public, so the art of literature is not complete without a consumer. I needed test consumers—a lot of them. Through critique groups, manuscript swaps, professionally guided workshops, and an independent editor, I collected the feedback I needed.

6. Pressure. I took on leadership opportunities that allowed me to create the programs I needed, while helping the writing community at the same time. As time went on, I wanted to succeed not only for me but for us all. And I wanted to succeed for my sons, to show them that we need not wallow in our personal hell but can create the life of our dreams. And I wanted to succeed for Dave, to bring to fruition his belief in me.

7. Yearning. Yearning is that tug on your heart that keeps you going when logic cannot provide another argument for it. Thank the Great Creator for it, because the arts could not exist otherwise—without its pull, the work is just too hard. We create because we yearn for something we need that does not yet exist.

8. Faith. I do not believe that life is chaos—I believe it is story, but that while in this earthly realm we only have access to a part of that whole. We may never know how, or why, because we can’t see the way the big picture fits together, but I know we’re all important characters. I have faith in this story that allows me to elevate the use of my allotted talent to the importance of a calling. Faith allowed me not only to write The Art of Falling over its eight-year journey, but to picture its success. Okay that part about going into a second printing when the novel was only six days old threw me, but you see the point: I had thirteen years of preparation for this “overnight success” and I can’t wait to see where else this crazy ride takes me!

I can’t wait see where it takes you either, Kathryn. Thanks so much for visiting Birth of a Novel. I have no doubt your words will inspire other writers, some who may be on the verge of giving up on the dream.

Finding the Right Publishing Path

February 10, 2014
My guest this week is E. A.  Aymar. I met Ed (well, cyber-met him) through Sisters in Crime. Yes, we Sisters welcome Brothers too or, as sometimes call them, Misters in Crime. Call him what you will, I’m delighted that he agreed to share his publishing journey with the readers of Birth of a Novel.
A little bit about Ed:
E.A. Aymar studied creative writing and earned a Masters degree in Literature. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers and SinC, and he and his wife live with a relatively benign animal menagerie just outside of Washington, D.C. For more information about his work, and to see the new animated trailer for I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, please visit

Publishing Paths

As soon as the door to being a professionally-published writer opened for me, it abruptly slammed shut. A small publisher had just acquired the rights to I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, my debut thriller, and I was elated. This was my third novel and the first to be published, and I set about doing all the important things a writer needs to do (and should have already done): I put up a web site, created a blog, added Ed's BookFacebook, Twitter and GoodReads accounts, started drinking too much, etc. Times were good.

Then, three quick months later, I received word that my publisher was shuttering.

I felt awful when the news hit but I was lucky. That publisher had just put out books by other writers and, although those writers had the rights to their books returned, a new publisher is unlikely to reprint a book that has already been in the marketplace. Conversely, no work had been done on my book (in fact, I hadn’t heard from the publisher since my contract was signed), so I was free to market my work elsewhere. Again, I was fortunate: my next round of queries produced a half-dozen offers, and I had the rare luxury of choosing who to publish with. I chose Black Opal Books.

This isn’t meant as a promotion for Black Opal, but for the purposes of this post, I’ve had a terrific experience. Black Opal does a lot well: they encourage conversation among their authors, the editing is top-notch, they keep a constant eye to the changing marketplace and they’re happy to work with you on the cover. Additionally, they’re recognized publishers with the International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America, and both of those organizations are helpful to debut writers in my genre.

It’s tough for any small business to succeed but, of the three publishing paths most discussed – self, small, legacy – this was the one I wanted. Unlike most writers outside of the legacy world, I actually don’t have a problem with Big Publishing; you hear horror stories about them, particularly from midlist authors, but most of the books I’ve loved have come through a big publisher. By all accounts, the process needs improvement, but the products are often impressive.

(I’m the kind of guy who loves hot dogs, but doesn’t like to think about how they’re made.)

Self-publishing has loud defenders and detractors, but it wasn’t right for me. For one thing, it’s tough to stand out in the crowded self-published market and, outside of that market, it’s tough to get respect. A number of stores won’t carry the books and a few organizations won’t accept self-published writers as full members. But it’s hard to argue against the idea of complete control, especially when you hear legacy-published authors gripe about the industry.

With a small publisher, I had some control over my book and, more importantly, guidance in a complex marketplace. A year after making the decision, and despite the first publisher’s demise, it was still the right decision for me.

No matter what you hear about the industry or how strong someone’s arguments are, truthfully, there’s no one correct path. Just the right path for each book.

Ed, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your experience. I think you’re right; there’s no one right path. We all have to find what works for us.

EA. A. Aymar’s website:

The Elusive Muse

February 3, 2014

BARSHNIKOV  “The essence of all art is to have pleasure in giving pleasure.”

That quote from the dancer, Mikhail Barshnikov, comes as close as anything I can think of to expressing what writing means to me. It captures the exhilaration of creating a world out of words and sharing that world with others. I completely identify with the statement, but there are times when the exhilaration is hard to find, when it’s almost suffocated by doubt and frustration.

Does that mean that my writing isn’t really art? That’s not for me to say (or even know). I can only do my best and hope. What I hope most is that it gives pleasure.

Do I have pleasure in writing?  Depends on when you ask me. When the words flow easily–definitely. When I’m struggling to find the right words–not so much. How about when I’m stumped for a way to extricate my characters from the dilemma I’ve created for them? The answer to that is mixed. Part of my brain says, “Give it up. Turn off the computer. Make a cup of tea and have a brownie.” Another part says, “Keep going. Dig a little deeper. Your muse will show up.” I wish I could say the latter part always wins. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. More often than I like to admit, the call of chocolate is louder than my muse. When that happens, sometimes I go back refreshed and everything falls into place. Other times, problems seem to have multiplied in my absence. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that I do go back, because if I do, I know eventually I’ll work it out. And that knowledge is pleasure.

Right now I’m deep into edits for Lethal Journal, the next book in the Jennie Connors Riverview Manor mystery series. Editing is usually the most enjoyable part of writing for me. I say usually because this time I’m having trouble finding exactly the right note for one of the characters – a very important one. I want the readers to know this person, but I don’t want to hit them over the head by telling them what makes him tick. So, I tinker with different things he might say that will inadvertently (to him) clue readers that he’s not quite what he wants everyone to think he is. How does he dress? To impress? Or to disarm? What little tics of behavior does he display? Maybe I can work in a scene where he doesn’t think anyone’s watching. How will his behavior be different? I don’t need much – just a little bit, but at the moment that little bit is eluding me. It’s not time to panic. I’m confident if I follow my own advice (Keep going. Dig a little deeper), my muse will show up. Actually, that may not be quite true. Most of the time my muse doesn’t just show up. I have to go looking for her.  I  intend to keep looking until I find her. When I do - pure pleasure.  At least for me and I sincerely hope for the reader.

What about you?  What do you find pleasurable in writing? Or reading? Or whatever you do that both exhilarates and frustrates you?

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Finding My Writer’s Calling

January 27, 2014

Two Towels and a Stick 053-008My guest this week is Thomas Mark Zuniga, a self-described twenty-something tutor, author, and restless wanderer. He currently resides in Orange County, California, but will probably find himself wandering elsewhere before too long. He blogs regularly at, writing about traveling and trials, faith and frivolity. His first book, Struggle Central, is now available on Amazon and other online retailers. You can tread further with him on Twitter @thomasmarkz. I heard about Tom from his aunt, Marielena Zuniga, a good friend of mine and one of the founding mothers of this blog. I read his book, Struggle Central, and was impressed by the honesty with which he approaches his life and his writing. I believe it was Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates would definitely approve of this young man.

Tom’s Journey:

 I first found the light of a writer’s calling late into my freshman year of college. Though I’m unsure why the obvious took so long to realize.

After all, I’d been filling giraffe-spotted composition books with fictional creations since I was seven. I “published” a book before my tenth birthday – a handwritten story which my incredibly gracious father printed and stapled for my large family.

Additionally, I’d kept a journal since I was eleven. Written words were always my outlet, my very essence, and yet I never “discovered” my writer’s calling until college. Upon becoming a sophomore, I finally ditched the logic of a “safe degree” and declared myself an English major.

An English major who yearned to be an author. An author of fiction.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Writing a Novel

Upon graduating with an illustrious English degree, I immediately set to work on a novel inspired by personal events. I had no idea what else to do with my life; I was just so excited to write.

As I wrote, I posted teaser videos on Facebook, cluing friends and “fans” into my novel’s content. I kept a white “tally board” tracking my novel’s building word count. I even filmed my thrilling jump from 49,995 words to 50,000, as it happened, live.

I was something special. Or so I thought. Despite eventually amassing 80,000 words and seemingly 80,000 subsequent rounds of editing, my ambitious novel remains unpublished four years later.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Starting a Blog

Two years into my fictional craze, I finally started a blog. I figured every author needs one. While I did intend to feature fiction occasionally, I knew blogs aren’t generally fitted for fiction.

Readers visit authors’ blogs, after all, to know authors better.

When I first started my blog, I didn’t quite know my “shtick.” I knew I was a Christian and a traveler and someone unhealthily obsessed with Walmart culture. But how would that mess of my interests and personality translate into a coherent niche on the Web?

It took many months of regular blogging, but I gradually narrowed my blog’s focus. I found life in themes of personal struggle and redemption.

Out of that renewed focus, a bizarre book took form. It was a project I’d never envisioned writing.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Publishing My First Book

Struggle CentralLast spring, I self-published my first book – well, the first book that my dad didn’t print for me. It was called Struggle Central: Quarter-Life Confessions of a Messed Up Christian. As you might assume from the title, the book was not, in fact, a fictional creation.

My first book was entirely nonfiction – a vulnerable collection of my “messy memoirs.”

For years, I’d naturally assumed my first book would be that novel. I’d filmed all the videos and sculpted thousands of words, and I didn’t have an agent or a publisher, but by golly I had passion and that would be enough.

Maybe someday it will be enough; I’d like to think so. Somewhere along my zig-zagged path from fiction to nonfiction, though, I learned something.

It’s important to find your following before stepping toward publication.

After two years of forming my intimate little following, I realized my blog’s readers resonated with my real stuff. The more vulnerable, the more true to my writer’s calling, the more “fans” have emerged to support me from the shadows.

I’m not saying I’ll never publish my novel; indeed, it remains my dream to publish both it and other fictional projects waiting in the wings of my hard drive.

But for now, I’ve found contentment in this nonfictional writer’s calling. I would be foolish and arrogant not to give my readers what they want to read from me.

It’s all part of the crazy winding writer’s journey. Once you find your following, your tribe, the journey really starts. You might not know where your writer’s calling eventually leads, but rest assured, your tribe will be with you 100%.

And really, what else could a budding author ask for?

What kind of writer are you primarily: fictional, nonfictional, or both? Do you have a blog? Post your links in the comments; I’d love to connect with fellow writers!

Bill Bentrim Helps Kids Cope Through Reading

January 20, 2014

I’ve said it so many times: One of the pleasures of being a writer has been getting to know other writers. One such writer is Bill Bentrim, an author of children’s books that are both laugh-out-loud funny and seriously helpful to his young readers and their parents. I’ll let Bill tell you about himself in this quote I took from his website - “As a parent, grandparent, teacher, guidance bookshelf J-approved  smallcounselor and room parent for 9 consecutive years I have often seen troubled children.  Likewise I have seen far more well adjusted, happy,  delightful children. My hope is that my words might move some children from the troubled category to the well adjusted category.” Okay … doesn’t that sound like the perfect person to be writing for kids?

Enough from me. Here’s Bill -

Why I write.

Pause for a moment and ponder your childhood.   Honesty should compel you to realize there were many times in childhood when you were confused or even frightened.   Many times that confusion or fear could have been easily addressed if noticed.   Parenting is hard and earning a living while getting progeny to gymnastics, Scouts, choir, church or whatever they are in, is enormously time consuming.   Kids and their feelings can be flying under the radar of the most conscientious parent.

I guess that rather laboriously details why I write.  My writing tries to identify and simplify complicated life situations that often face children.  I work diligently to not trivialize whatever the child might be feeling.  “Oh, you’ll grow out of it,” may be true but certainly doesn’t deal with whatever the child is currently experiencing.wicked front cover

My passion for literacy is found in many of my blog posts.   I know how much reading molded my life.  George Orwell helped me generate a what about me 300dpiskeptical perception of authority.  The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek by Evelyn Sibley Lampman captured my love of the unique unknown.  Eleanor Cameron’s Mr. Bass’s books enthralled me with science and it’s wonders.  Heinlein introduced me to philosophic musing and Tolkien to a fascination with fantasy.  Tom Swift’s adventure novels emphasized science, invention and technology.   So much of my life has been molded by what I read.

Those stories infused me with a strong sense of justice, that good should be rewarded and evil should be punished.   I feel the weak should be nurtured and protected, that bullies are bad and girls are just as good as boys.  These are core principles that form when you are young.

As an author I want to provide healthy role models who try to live a positive life.   I want to help kids understand front cover 300dpithings like discrimination, domestic abuse, bullying and Internet safety.  Preaching to kids is counterproductive and often encourages them to rebel against what ever topic is being rammed down their throat by well intentioned adults.   However if you can present a topic in a palatable manner with an understanding of their feelings, kids may actually learn.

mommy cover 300dpiPositive reinforcement promotes further writing.   I received an email from a woman telling me she used my book, Mommy’s Black Eye to initiate a discussion on domestic violence with her teen age daughter who was in an abusive relationship.  That email provided me all the feedback I needed to want to write more.  I am hoping to change the world, one person at a time.  If my writing helps one single person,  I am satisfied.

Topics for new books pop up nearly every day.   Short or Tall, Doesn’t Matter at All was motivated by a short coverdelightful young lady who was the shortest girl in fifth grade and dreadfully tired of short jokes.   What About Me was motivated by the frustration of a healthy child wondering if he was loved as much as his sick sibling.  Jack’s Diabetes followed my meeting of 12 year old Jason who had just gotten his insulin pump.  He was indignant over the lack of knowledge of his peers and even his own lack of knowledge on a disease that changed his life.

Hardy Belch’s stories are mild adventures that hope to instill fair play and positive virtues.   Hardy Belch and the Predator is currently in illustration.  Hardy and his cousin Mardi, learn that the Internet can be dangerous.  My goal isn’t to frighten kids about the Internet but to instill in them a smidgen of healthy skepticism.   Hardy’s dog, Tiny is an enormous telepathic dog,  who is a frequent purveyor of common sense.  greenman color cover with titleTiny doesn’t see a monster in Hardy Belch and the Green Man, he sees a frightened, disfigured person hoping to find a friend.  The Hardy Belch books are meant to be fun to read and provide good role models.

A child who feels good about themselves will be better coping with the many, many stressful situations in today’s world.  The small part my books may have in helping kids understand the world around them provides me with enormous satisfaction and all the impetus I need to continue to write.

Thanks, Bill for stopping by Birth of a Novel.

One more quote from Bill’s website (love, love, love this): “Sometimes I write merely to keep my head from exploding with ideas.”

Bill Bentrim’s blog –


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