Category Archives: Karen Whalen

Me being me

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?

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Consider yourself caught up

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.

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park

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.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

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

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.

Garden at the plaza

Garden at the plaza in Care Free, AZ

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!!

 

 

 

 

 

Try doing any of those things with a novel

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.

Home from Down Under

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. 

Waterfall

Milford Sound, NZ

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.

Prison
Prison, Port Arthur, Tasmania, AU

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.

On the road again!

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…

 

 

The score is 0 to 3

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.

Was I lying??

After three consecutive years of winning NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided to take a break this year. And I’m already missing it.

You may recall that November is the only month during the year that I produce a measureable amount of writing. Is this really a wise decision?

It’s not because I won’t have time for it–there’s never enough time for it–but I’ve always managed to squeeze it in.

The problem is that I have numerous fifty thousand word drafts of novels floating around, begging to be revised and completed. Why would I want to add one more draft to those haunting me?

In 2014 my NaNoWriMo novel was It Takes a Village Store. I couldn’t remember what it was about so I quickly scanned it. Ahhh…Anne, Olivia, Christian, Emily, George, Mae. I remember them. In 2015 my NaNoWriMo was Full Circle. Anne, Olivia, Christian, Emily, George, Mae. In 1986 (I kid you not) I started Anne, which remains a work in progress. Anne, Olivia, Christian, Jeff, George, Mae.

As they are populated by the (mostly) same cast of characters, what if I eliminate all of the unnecessary stuff from each of them and create one complete novel? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that’s all I had to do? Wouldn’t I feel like a real author if I spent November doing that instead of writing a new story with a new cast of characters?

Of course I would. But. For me, there’s something magical about NaNoWriMo. It’s more than thirty days of focusing just on word count. It’s thirty days of creating lives, places, relationships, action. Without anyone criticizing my sentence structure, my choice of words, my story arc. It’s the freedom to get swept away by my characters, to ride the wave of my story, to float back to shore at midnight on November thirtieth, fifty thousand words richer.

If you’ve been following my posts, you might be wondering what happened to the murder mystery trilogy I bragged about recently. Oh, that trilogy, using the same rough drafts listed above. And adding Gabby, my 2016 NaNo winner, and Claire, my loser.

Confused?? Yeah, me, too. Maybe the best of 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.

Finally, in a 2015 post, this is what I had to say about what I learned from NaNoWriMo that year: …I am able to write regardless of the circumstances. I don’t need the perfect chair…or to be in the mood to write. I can even write while indulging in (gulp) Hallmark holiday movies…Another lesson has been that it isn’t that hard to whip out a lot of words if I’m prepared to also whip out a lot of revising. In the future. Revising that I’m actually looking forward to doing. Not lying.

Stay tuned for the big reveal: to NaNo or not?

It’s not always what you think

Recently I took my mother to the local hospital’s Emergency Department for evaluation for a possible heart attack. We remained briefly in a packed waiting room where we overheard a mumbling man grumbling because they wouldn’t let him into the treatment area. Something was going on in there and they were keeping him from it.

As soon as a nurse escorted us through the closed door into the treatment area, I sensed a tension in the air, as before a hurricane hits. The hysterical wales and shrieks of a female that erupted throughout the ED indicated it had hit.

Someone had died. Right then and there. I just knew it.

Certainly she would be escorted out of the curtained area of the ED and into a private area where she could grieve. I couldn’t stand the thought of her being alone.  Maybe the man in the waiting room was a relative. Why wouldn’t they let him in?

The nurse guided us into a private room at the far end of the ED and a team of medical professionals swooped in and drew blood, hooked up monitors, inserted an IV, and wheeled in a portable x-ray machine. Suddenly it was just my mother and me. Bloody gauze littered the floor. The monitor blazed green, yellow and blue squiggles, its beeps a reassurance that life went on.

A methodic pounding now accompanied the howling. Even my hard of hearing mother heard it. We looked at each other and started laughing.

I stood near the open door of my mother’s room, hoping to glimpse a clue as to the tragedy that had struck. A male voice—the man from the waiting room, perhaps—loud, firm, annoyed. “If you don’t stop this right now, I’m going to lay down the law.”

For just a moment my mother and I relaxed into the quiet. When the howling started again a nurse closed our door, the noise muffled but not stopped.

We never learned what had happened to the young lady, we knew only what our minds could conjure, though I’m pretty sure no one had died.

It’s not always what you think, is it? Not so different from what happens with a murder mystery. As an author, I insert clues to mislead my fictional characters as well as my readers, who make assumptions based on the meager information I’ve doled out to them. The all-powerful author controls what the reader learns and when she learns it. The reader controls what assumptions and conclusions she makes. In the end, the author has the last word when she ends the suspense and reveals the murderer. What author doesn’t revel in that power?

Prayers for those impacted by Hurricane Irma.

Author’s prerogative

Recently a fellow writer from Thursday Night Writes and I were chatting remotely about things, many and diverse. She mentioned that she didn’t “understand higher anything. Math, grammar, economics, electronics.” My immediate response? “To write we don’t need to understand higher anything. We need to feel and be able to convey what we feel. That’s it.”

Brilliant. Honest. At that exact moment, that is what I believed. I feel therefore I can write. Four days later, I still believe it.

And yet…At our weekly meeting of the Thursday Night Writes group, another member, who is on her third or tenth revision of her current (and almost perfect and so close to publishable) novel, submitted a rewrite of her next chapter for our review.

Did her submission meet my criteria for conveying what she feels? Most definitely. Did we expect her to understand “higher anything”? Why yes, as a matter of fact, we did.

Last night we quizzed her on contract law, injunctions, town government, and zoning permits. Her lawyer character is a crackerjack of an attorney and naturally we expect her to possess the same legal knowledge that she has attributed to this character.

We moved on to building construction and architecture. A discussion of whether the curvature of the building is tight or more gradual led to conjecture regarding curved-glass windows vs. regular windows placed into the curvature of the wall. I don’t even understand what I am trying to say and I was there. And how could we overlook the intricacies of contractor penalties for missed deadlines?

I have to give her credit, she did not get up and walk out, she did not raise her voice and emit words learned from Anthony Scaramucci, she did not shut down and pretend to record our comments—all things I have done or wanted to do while I was being quizzed on my writing. Instead, the author pointed out our misinterpretations and said she would consider all comments. That’s the author’s prerogative and absolutely the correct response.

So maybe I was wrong. As authors, maybe we do need to do more than feel. Maybe we do need to have an understanding of the “higher anything” that we write about. And maybe we do need an inordinate amount of patience dealing with our writing group members who don’t have the same understanding.

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