Author Archives: Karen Whalen
February 21: I’ve been known to announce—incredulously?? nonchalantly??—that the weather report in Arizona is boringly the same, at least for the period of January into May that we usually are here: blue skies, sunshine, slight variations in temperature, rain measured in hundredths of inches, if at all.
El Nino has decided that he’s heard enough of my bragging, and probably my friends and family back in New Hampshire have encouraged him, for this year I can say we are having a real Arizona winter. As I write this, we are expecting up to an inch of rain today, with a high of fifty degrees. Up north around Sedona and Flagstaff, the first few inches of a projected one to three feet of snow have started to accumulate and roads are closed, a possible record-setting storm. As we are in the middle of a long-term drought, Arizona welcomes precipitation in any form.
Three times in the last month I’ve had to cover the annuals that I insist on planting in containers, though the selection is disappointing, mainly geraniums, pansies, snapdragons, stock, and marigolds. I haven’t packed the sheets away as the Weather Channel is forecasting Friday and Saturday night lows of thirty-three degrees.
On Sunday we finally made it to our favorite trail in the Usury Mountains: Blevins to Cat’s Peak to Cat’s Peak Pass then back to Blevins. The weather was cool and cloudy—perfect for hiking! Lots of nice people with dogs on the trail. And there’s a benefit to this wet weather: spring wildflowers! The desert is going to be a mass of color very soon, possibly the best in over a decade. Another bonus is we didn’t have to watch for rattlesnakes sunning on the rocks.
With weather like this I don’t feel guilty hanging out in our basement suite with just my laptop for company while my husband golfs, not bothered in the least by frost delays. Wouldn’t it be great if I used all of this alone time to work on my novels???
March 12: Disappointingly, not much has changed weather-wise in three weeks. More rain yesterday and today, with funnel clouds nearby. A bonus: the grass is New Hampshire green. Temperature highs have fluctuated from the sixties to the seventies.
The good news is that starting Sunday we will be in the eighties. Finally, we are transitioning out of winter in Arizona. And the year-round residents are praying we don’t skip spring.
Two Sundays ago we traveled to Bartlett Lake in Carefree where the wildflowers were the main attraction. With our phones we took many photos that are good but, not surprisingly, don’t adequately capture the beauty we saw firsthand.
I don’t think I’ve been living under a rock as far as reading suspense novels goes, yet somehow I’ve missed the books of Clare Mackintosh, my newest favorite author. In the past few weeks I’ve read “I Let You Go,” “I See You,” and “Let It Lie.” I’m still amazed at how many times in “I Let You Go” I was wrong. Wrong about which POV character I was reading, wrong about who did it, wrong about motive. Wrong in an absolutely great way.
In the process of looking for an interview I recently read with Clare Mackintosh and another writer, whose name unfortunately escapes me, I found an interview with Mackintosh and Ruth Ware, an English writer I’d never heard of. Now I’m reading Ware’s “The Death of Mrs. Westaway” and I’ve added “The Woman in Cabin Ten” to my list.
In the interview, Mackintosh states that she’s a detailed plotter. Yet she works out what the story is as she writes the first draft then discards 70% of it and basically starts over from scratch. Sounds somewhat organic to me. Ware plots a bit in her head and then writes the story in the order that the reader will read it, from beginning to end. Definitely organic.
I won’t regurgitate the entire interview–you should watch it.
I’m also reading Steven James’ “Story Trumps Structure.” He’s an organic writer, aka a pantser, and his advice about writing that way is inspiring. I’m underlining and starring information I want to come back to, which is approximately the entire book.
Before starting James’ book, I thought I had made a momentous decision. After rereading my most recent writings for “Anne,” I decided that all it had been was a very long, drawn out writing exercise. It was too much of a romance gone bad story with a murder thrown in to resuscitate. However, James has inspired me with some ideas on how I can make the novel work by keeping some of my old themes and just trashing everything else.
One area that I struggle with is how much information to reveal to the reader and when to reveal it. James says: suspense requires that we reveal, not conceal, information. I’m going to take that approach with this current “Anne” rewrite and see where it leads me.
Now I’m bursting with ideas and constantly turning to my phone or yellow pad or laptop to make notes about “Anne.” I’ve even produced a satisfactory opening paragraph. That alone is a major accomplishment!
Is all of this renewed energy and enthusiasm the influence of the wise words of Steven James? Or is it the mind-blowing twists of Clare Mackintosh? Probably.
NaNoWriMo 2018 starts in two weeks. I’ve participated five times since 2011, with four winners and one loser. Last year I skipped it. My rationalization: “. . . the best use of November is figuring out what I am going to do with all of those drafts I have spent years crafting. With any luck, that might include producing one completed novel.” That didn’t happen and neither did much writing.
History will likely repeat itself. With or without a NaNoWriMo draft, I won’t produce a completed novel. But over a span of thirty days I’ll have written fifty thousand more words than I would have without participating.
NaNoWriMo was on my mind on Saturday when I took a forty-five-minute drive. As I often do when I’m traveling alone in the car, I turned opened the voice memos on my phone, anxious generate some ideas for NaNo. This trip, I had a companion. My muse? My alter ego? Or just me being me.
Here’s the condensed version. (The full one is available upon request.)
A new project is hard because I know my Woodbury characters so well. But it’s an opportunity to develop new characters.
How about something revealed when someone dies? Already done that with Alexandria. That sucks.
Secrets? It’s always about secrets.
A mystery? Oh, heck yeah. Why would you even ask that?
I could throw some darts at the dart board. But there’s no dart board yet. Why can’t you just start a new project and finish it? That’s me being indecisive. Procrastinating. I think its laziness. Not procrastination. It’s hard work. You may be right. May be right? I admit, I can always find something better to do. Better? You mean easier. NO! More urgent, pressing. Writing isn’t urgent. It’s important to me but it isn’t urgent. So, you put out all those fires and then you don’t have any energy or time left to do the creative things. Yeah, that’s about right. Let’s figure out what you’re going to do.
SILENCE. Throat clearing. Thinking. Glad you told me because I wouldn’t have known. Do you have to think to talk? It always works out better for me when I do. You’re being creative, do you need to think?
Here goes. I’m driving along 302 on my way to Whitefield to pick up garbage along the highway. I could write a mystery about someone who kills a DAR member. The DAR mysteries? That would be fun! It would need some history. Someone is going to reveal that someone else isn’t really descended from a Revolutionary War patriot. Wait, doesn’t that already belong to someone else in your writing group? But it could be something to do with ancestry…someone buried in the wrong place, two families? Less than satisfactory.
Let me think about this. No. No thinking. Just say whatever comes to mind. What about the downfall of a man. And? Isn’t that enough? Big fish, little pond. He and his wife seem like the perfect couple. But there are cracks in the façade. He’s in the state legislature and has ambitions. He’s not important, he just thinks he is. He acts as the town’s unofficial mayor. His wife is always by his side, except for when she isn’t. Where is she? She has a life of her own, one that allows her to be gone from town. Daughter in college, son working in a city. Daughter is about two hours away and the wife visits often, but she doesn’t stay very long. Her husband hasn’t figured this out yet. What is she doing? She’s a freelance photographer. She’s getting money, we don’t know how, he assumes it’s photography. He doesn’t care what she does as long as she is there when he needs her. Who ends up dead? Her? Him? It’s too early to say.
This is hard, trying to get out of the Woodbury mode. I know I need something fresh, but I can’t think of anything that excites me. Are you giving up already?
Time to bring you up-to-date on everything that’s kept me away from here since April 23.
Turns out that leaving Arizona a few weeks early this spring was a good idea. Within two weeks of our return, my ninety-year old mother was in the hospital with a compression fracture and three weeks later she died. With lots of help from family, we cleaned out her apartment in two days then sold the things we couldn’t keep (along with lots of my things–another good idea) at several yard sales. Her graveside service followed a few weeks later; the extra time allowed us to plan a very special service to honor her memory.
My husband and I have always said that once my mother passed, we would sell our house and move. Somewhere. That moment suddenly was upon us. We worked like crazy getting our house ready to put on the market, had lots of showings, and less than two weeks later we were under contract. That was pretty much the extent of our summer.
Except for the fantastic trip to Utah, Jackson Hole, WY, the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks that we took with our Arizona crew in the middle of July, that is! We were fortunate to take our nine-year old grandson from NH with us, for a total of twelve. He loved his cousin time and the bears, bison, elk, Old Faithful, white water rafting, horseback riding, and pool time.
Amidst all of that, we worked feverishly on plans for a small apartment over the garage of my daughter and family in a town about twenty miles north of us. When the contractor calmly suggested cutting the roof off the garage to put in a shed dormer, we knew it was time to regroup. My daughter suggested we look down instead of up. Her finished, wide-open, walk-out basement makes much more sense–it’s larger than the first house we built back in 1975 and will cost twice as much to make it into an apartment.
We are now at a point that I never thought I would be at again: picking out kitchen cabinets, flooring, appliances, bathroom fixtures, paint colors, new furniture. I’ve managed to push as many of the decisions as possible onto my daughter. It is her house.
Our closing date for the end of October fast approaches. We have categorized our remaining furnishings as keep, sell, or give away. My husband says get rid of everything and start fresh. He may get his wish. After this weekend’s yard sale (the fourth of the summer!), we may be left with just the essentials: our bed, couch, television, coffee table, and coffee maker.
Starting fresh is my new approach on Gabby, one of my Woodbury trilogies. Though I’m not scrapping everything I’ve written, I have made some major changes. I’ve moved the beginning of the book back a few scenes, setting the murder a few chapters into the book. Gabby has a new background and family. If I can pull it off, the third act will include different points of view. Borrowing a memorable line from one of my favorite movies, we think you got a lot of potential, Gabriella.
Packing day—to return home—is never long enough. (Packing to go to AZ should be a piece of cake. It starts as soon as I stop wearing my summer clothes. That can be any day from October 1 until the second. Of October. I am not kidding you. That’s when summer ends in New Hampshire, which gives me almost three months to fill two suitcases. Does that mean I start packing on October second? You already know the answer to that if you have been following this blog. Just search “procrastination” and you’ll have a good idea of what day I start packing.)
My largest suitcase (my LARGEST suitcase lost a wheel in Australia and is unfortunately sitting in a landfill) was packed three days ago, though I did struggle. Whittling my wardrobe down to three days worth of clothing was difficult, especially when you consider everything we packed into these last three days.
Saturday we watched a grandson play two games of a basketball tournament; they won both! (The most fun was when the grandmother from the other side of the family and I agreed to collaborate on a book together!) By seven p.m. we were at Rawhide Western Town and Event Center for a granddaughter competing in the Regional Level 7 Gymnastics competition. The other regions represented were Utah, Nevada, Southern California and Northern California. She did extremely well and brought home three medals.
Yesterday the ladies of the Arizona family (two daughters, three granddaughters, and me) dressed up for lunch at the English Rose Tea Room in Carefree. So much fun!! The Tea Room is in a plaza of cute shops with a gorgeous Southwestern garden area. Elephant Bluff and Skull Mesa were visible to the north.
Last night some of the men (my husband and two grandsons) joined the ladies at San Tan Flat for a farewell dinner. Margaritas, outdoor tables, rancher tips and steak, two vicious games of Uno (my granddaughters are sharks), s’mores cooked over our own fire pit, and dancing to live music. We couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff (unless our sons-in-law were not tied up with work obligations and could have joined us)!!
See you in New Hampshire!!
I’ve never considered myself a short story writer. I read them—and enjoy them–but I never feel as satisfied when I’m done with them as when I read a novel.
Yet here I am, reviving a short story that I’ve been working on for a few years. I have twenty-six saved versions of this story (with four different working titles) on my laptop. When I originally wrote it—back in 2014—the total word count was eleven thousand words. I’ve condensed it to five thousand words. As you can imagine, it doesn’t read like the original story. (And that’s a good thing–I’ve reread the original story.)
Why revive this project if I couldn’t finish it in 2014—or 2016—or 2017?
The need to complete a piece of writing is driving me, not exactly insane…more like to write. Something that I can submit for publication. Or rejection. Going back and forth working on the novels of my Woodbury trilogy without making any discernible progress has left me frustrated, unsure of my ability to write and revise, over and over, until I can say it is as good as it gets.
Just possibly, I’m finding that writing a short story is good practice for writing a novel. (Or just for learning how to write.)
With my short story, I can revise the entire piece in a day less than a week, submit it to my group for critique, and, within six days, I can produce another revision. Of the entire story. I can keep track of the changes I’m making from the beginning to the end of the story. I can reread the entire story each time I work on it. Try doing any of those things with a novel.
A major problem I am facing with my short story is fitting in all the scenes and dialogue that I need with a limited word count. I believe the story can be told in five thousand words. But I am beginning to suspect that I need more words than that to write it. It’s easier to take words out than to have to add them in. Or so I’ve been told. Maybe I’ll just ignore that nagging word count on the bottom left of my screen and write.
Does this mean I will abandon my trilogy for the pleasure of writing short stories? Doesn’t strike me as likely right at the moment. Though I can envision always having a short story in progress to turn to whenever I need the instant gratification I can’t get from writing a novel.
We are home from our journey down under. While we miss our room-service breakfasts, our tea at 3 p.m., our mouth-watering dinner menus with four courses and multiple desserts for my husband, our nightly towel animal on our turned down bed, and a new destination to explore every morning, we are happy to be home in Arizona.
The long flights to Australia and home from New Zealand were miserable–if you planned on sleeping. I used my flight time to Australia to read books (fourteen in total during the entire trip) and watch movies (four during the flight home), interspersed with a nap or two. Surprisingly, the jet lag was minimal, similar to a minor hangover. I struggled with eating dinner at 1:20 a.m. on the flight to Australia. No one could provide a satisfactory explanation on how that would help us adjust to the time change versus allowing us to go sleep and serving breakfast in eight hours.
You may be wondering how my clothing worked out. Quite well. Only a few staples were worn more than once while numerous articles were never worn….I may have packed more clothing than necessary. My suitcase lost a wheel before we checked in at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix yet it managed to survive the trip thanks to a roll of duct tape.
Everywhere we journeyed in New Zealand, locals told us how lucky we were that the weather was sunny, warm, and dry. (Whereas in Australia, we were reminded how lucky we were that it wasn’t blistering hot.) I needed my rain jacket once, the morning we cruised Milford Sound in the Fiordland National Park. We set our alarms to watch the 6 a.m. sunrise–through the rain clouds. The rain brought temporary waterfalls, making the scenery even more beautiful. A school of dolphins performed close to our balcony that morning also.
A few highlights of our trip: snorkeling in stinger suits at the Great Barrier Reef; touring the Sydney Opera house; observing kangaroos, emus, and koalas in their natural habitat in the You Yangs near Melbourne; watching Tasmanian Devils devour a fresh wallaby leg; feeding kangaroos out of our hands; feeling sad at the Port Arthur convict prison with their memorial to the thirty-five victims of the 1996 shooting; crossing the Tasman Sea without getting sick; loving the beauty of the Milford, Dusky, and Doubtful Sounds; being entertained by sheepdogs herding sheep (twenty-eight million in New Zealand); visiting the Penguin Place, a sanctuary for penguins, fur seals, and birds, with a gorgeous beach that’s off-limits to humans; learning about the Maori culture; enjoying the Napier Art Deco Festival; reveling in the gannets at Plateau Colony at Cape Kidnappers; kayaking through a cave of glow worms on Lake Rotoiti; appreciating the cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Wellington, Dunedin, and Auckland; meeting interesting people from around the world.
While on our ship, the Holland America Noordam, I came up with an idea for a story: four single women troll single, older men on a cruise shop. In a nice way. No one dies an unnatural death. Except for this story.
And lastly–my journal. I wrote twelve pages during the first three days of our trip, mainly while we were waiting in airports or in the air. If I had been able to limit myself to a few comments each day, I might have been able to document our entire trip in words. Instead, we took photos. If a picture is worth a thousand words, I have a journal of one million words. That just might be the right length for our fantastic trip.
Thursday is finally here and we are on our way to another adventure–one, I’ll be honest, I’ve been dreading. What??? Dreading a twenty-five day (more or less) trip to Australia and New Zealand? How is that even possible?
First, the length is daunting. We have never been on a vacation quite this long. And it is really hard to figure out how long the trip actually is. In three hours we fly from Phoenix to Los Angeles, wait seven hours (ugh) then board the plane for Brisbane at ten tonight. The flight is fourteen hours long and they are sixteen hours ahead of us. We land in Australia two days from now. When we fly home from New Zealand, we land in Phoenix before we left Auckland. How’s that for time travel??
And then there’s the packing for this trip. (I just realized that the clothes I’m wearing right now will be the same ones I will be wearing in two days. More or less.) I bravely limited myself to one large suitcase. Everything I need to take fit into it. Unfortunately, everything I need to take weighs more than fifty pounds. I offloaded shoes and clothes to my husband’s suitcase and to our carryon and voila! My suitcase is now a svelte forty-nine pounds.
One issue with packing for this trip is the inconsistency in the weather. In Port Douglas, AU (“you better see the Great Barrier Reef while it is still here”), it’s going to be tropical weather. Sydney and Melbourne should be warm (high 70’s to low 80’s) but then we cruise to Tasmania before making our way to New Zealand. That’s when the temperatures may drop and we may have rain. Every day. And because the majority of our time will be spent on the cruise ship, I needed to pack some dressier outfits–not jeans–for evenings. So that’s a lot of clothes–that will be worn, by necessity, more than once or twice. Each.
I was told by a fellow Thursday Night Writer that my trip would provide me with twenty-three days of uninterrupted writing time. Of course, we both know that she is wrong. I did commit to developing an idea for a short story that takes place on the cruise ship. Since I told her this, two people have fallen from cruise ships and died. In one week. “It was not immediately clear if any foul play was involved in either of the incidents.” Depending on your perspective, the real world either steals our ideas for potentially great fiction or presents us with the perfect situation to write about.
I am bringing a brand new journal in which I vow to record every detail of our trip!! At least for the first two days…
Returning to Arizona after eight months away–our fifth season of snowbirding–still feels as though we are embarking on a long vacation. You’d think we would have visited all of the tourist attractions by now. Yet we’ve hardly made a dent in everything this extraordinary state has to offer.
A few weeks ago, we spent a leisurely Sunday at Kartchner Caverns and Biosphere 2, both relatively close to Tucson though not anywhere near to each other. This thirteen-hour day was immediately followed by three (out of ten) of us sick with the flu. While my writing friends in NH struggled with severe colds over the holidays, I remained healthy, only to succumb to the foreign Arizona germs.
While in Arizona my plan is to hide out in the theater room with my laptop and work on my current project, “Anne.” (If you are confused as to which project is my current one, you are not alone. It reminds even me of a tennis match.) The score is 0 writing sessions to 3 movies (Dunkirk, Atomic Blonde, and The Zookeeper’s Wife). Writers take note: of the three movies, Dunkirk was the only one not based upon a novel.
Due to our trek to the Tucson area, we missed watching the 75th Golden Globe Awards live. The extensive news (more political than entertainment—who knows where the line is anymore) coverage has brought me up to date on what transpired. The highlights of the evening for me would have been when Big Little Lies and The Handmaids Tale won their awards. Both television shows are based on books of the same name by Liane Moriarty and Margaret Atwood, respectively. As a writer I want to believe that the success of these shows is due to the novels they are based upon. Looking for inspiration, I reread “Liars” as I recuperated from the flu.
To have someone—many someones—love your book so much that they would want to make a movie or television series based upon it would be unbelievable. (Though according to the panel of authors at the New England Crime Bake 2017 who had movies made from their books, it’s not guaranteed to be a positive experience for the author.)
Would the prospect of a movie or television series adapted from one of my (currently unfinished) novels motivate me to write? If my pinkie swear with Eleanor (to finish “Anne” over the winter) doesn’t motivate me, I doubt if anything will.
You may notice that I didn’t say writing “in” December? The only thing I’ll be writing this month will be this blog post, addresses on envelopes for Christmas cards, and checks as gifts. I don’t even need to sign my photo Christmas cards—our names come pre-printed.
As luck would have it, this poem (mostly) popped out of my mouth while I was in the basement bedroom sewing Christmas presents. I believe this is the first poem I have written since grade school, over fifty years ago. And that one was better than this one.
I apologize in advance—the use of “poem” in reference to what is written below is hyperbole at its best/worst. I blame the poem and my willingness to post it to our esteemed blog on the stress I have been under as a result of December and Christmas.
Most wonderful time of the year. Kids must behave and adults gear Up. Up. And up. Photos to scour for cards and calendars. Hurry before Snapfish wants more of your dollars.
Envelopes to address. Stamps to buy. Cookies to bake and apple pie. Presents to make. Who spends time crafting presents anymore? No one! That is what Amazon is for.
Who gets what? How much? Oh, to heck with it. Everyone gets a gift certificate. Secrets to keep. A tree to cut and lights to string. Decorations. Carols to sing.
Parties to attend and surprises to hatch.
Parties to plan and Hallmark movies to watch.
Do not forget
The Hallmark movie drinking game,
Carrots to leave for reindeer tame.
Stockings filled by Santa before milk and cookie, Smiles of children at presents placed under the tree, Make it worthwhile. Christmas night all is calm, the gifts put away. We’ll do it all over, come what may.