Thursday, July 24, 2014

Some Views on World Building

This October I’m giving a seminar on world building at a writer’s retreat. That has got me thinking.

My first thoughts on the topic brought to mind a traditional image of authors writing a speculative science fiction novel and creating their own completely imaginary worlds. You know, the kind where you have to do copious research on the internet so that when you introduce two suns, or multiple moons, or green skin, you had better make certain you have all the details correct. You don’t want outraged readers pointing out that your creation would have thousand foot tides and continuous volcanic activity. Unless, of course, you wrote it deliberately that way.

I guess that is why I write mainly fantasy. I could easily lose myself in research. I want to get right into writing the actual story so that I find out how it ends. But even there, while you can blame magic for some of your world’s quirks, you have to always be consistent, and somewhat logical. What do your people eat? Where do they live? What does the neighborhood look like? I have one still unpublished “what-if” story where I spent a lot of time creating the back-story and background surroundings. I used very little of that in my 140,000 word tale, but I can defend my assumptions, and I know what is happening elsewhere in that world. The background, set out properly, can give your story a depth it might not otherwise have.

In thinking about world building, I’ve decided that it certainly applies outside of the above forms of fiction. No matter what you are writing, a proper world setting adds to the enjoyment. In horror, the haunted house becomes almost another character. In a historical romance, the details of the time period add to the enjoyment and believability of the adventure. Consider something as ordinary as a family history or memoire. Does the author capture the surroundings and background events of the story? If not, does it just become a flat recital of the facts without any context which would make it far more interesting?

I’m not certain where the line comes between my broad definition of world building, and the setting. Is world building the broad background picture, and setting the immediate scene? Probably, but I’m going to ignore the hair splitting. The readers will forgive a few sins in your manuscript if you get the little details right. Someone far clever than I, whose name has of course escaped me, once said that if you can include three facts about something in your story, the reader will accept you as an expert on that topic. So, when you are writing that whatever-kind-of-tale, set in your backyard community, be sure to include those little trifles that bring the place to life. Your story will be the richer for it.


The Dark Lady - February 2012 published
Dark Days - March 2014 published
Dark Knights – coming August 2014

The Queen=s Pawn - April 2013 published and working on book two of three (I think)

The Housetrap Chronicles Volume One - Jan 2014 published and includes the first three in the six novella series. Currently working on novella #7

Monday, July 21, 2014

Still crazy after all these years

Oh no! I’m late! I feel like the white rabbit with his pocket-watch, rushing from one thing to another, and can only ask myself how I can be so busy and still so short in funds.

The short answer is that I’m busy with much work entailing only delayed rewards, and much on-spec work, like books I can’t sell until they are written, and currently a Kickstarter project for a new card game, Buzz.* Wearing my artist-hat, I put in many hours’ work creating the cards and readying them for print (and a download version), and will only be paid for that time if the Kickstarter succeeds. This is the first time I’ve tried running this sort of fund-raiser and I can tell you it’s raising more anxiety than funds.

The anxiety, like many unpleasant sensations, at least counts as fodder for the writer’s mill. It leads me to examine my underlying feelings: am I even worthy of success? Maybe all I deserve is to eke out my existence like a dog under the table at the feast of love everyone else in the world enjoys. Can I only be successful if enough people like me? Why don’t people like me?

I’m not claiming that these feelings are based on anything realistic – indeed, I’m warmed to the point of getting misty-eyed by how supportive some of my friends have been – that doesn’t mean the anxieties won’t go ahead and creep in, twisting the view to show off all the worst angles. 

Why doesn’t everyone like me? Why am I not the sole and central focus of everyone’s lives? Didn’t it used to be that way once? (Obviously a first-born child). Don’t I deserve to be as celebrated as anyone else in the world (more than any Kardassian at least) or anyone who’s accomplished as much as I have? Why can’t all the authors be best-selling authors? (Again, no claims for logic or consistency here.)
Okay, having taken due note of my rich crop of anxieties, like a good writer, I can scramble into a

position of some perspective. Hey, look at that: feelings of inferiority and superiority all mixed up together with helplessness, and fear, and longing, and an egocentricity capable of overlooking billions of others who have suffered and struggled, feared and longed throughout human history. Amazing really.

I can’t say gaining some perspective has solved any of my problems, but I do feel better armed to write believably about characters going through any similar circumstance – and hey, when I’m writing it, I can give it the happy ending I can never be sure of for myself.

* Fun for the whole family! Deets here:

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Perfect Place

photo courtesy of Wikimedia
As I write this, I’m about to go on a trip to New York City. I love New York—it’s brash and classy and never does anything in a small way. There are world class theaters and sports teams, any sort of food you can imagine, and buildings so tall you have to strain to see the top of them. There are people of all shapes and sizes, a cacophony of culture and language in a heady mix flavors the streets.   

The main character in my work in progress, Georgette, is a daytime television star.  She’s gorgeous, she’s got style and panache, and she’s more than just a little bit dramatic. In short, she’s a lot like the city where she’s lived and worked for nearly thirty years. New York sets the stage for her story, not just because of Georgette’s work at Rockefeller Center, but because the atmosphere of the big apple creates the perfect pitch for the tone of the book.

My new release, Confessions of the Sausage Queen, is set in the imaginary small town of Kassenberg in western New York State, not too far from Buffalo. It’s the kind of place where they still have a sausage festival every summer. There’s a Carnegie Library with a marble façade and Greek columns and a portico on Main Street. The building sticks out like an overdressed relative on the otherwise quaint street, but it still somehow fits in. There’s a Moose Lodge, a funeral home with a gigantic fountain, and, on Thursdays, there’s meat bingo at St. Stanislav’s church hall.
photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Mandy, the Sausage Queen herself, has lived in Kassenberg nearly her whole life. She wouldn’t have it any other way. And any other setting wouldn't do for the story she has to tell. Kassenberg is three hundred miles and about a thousand light years from New York City.  Yet, it too, strikes a perfect tone.


   The settings I choose are as important as the characters I create. Whether it’s a small town, a big city, or a galaxy far, far away, place influences the characters, sets the tone, and helps to shape the narrative. How do you choose the places in your stories? 

'Til next time

Friday, July 18, 2014

What I Learned From Throwback Thursday

You’re probably familiar with the term ‘Throwback Thursday.’ Old photos and the stories they tell overtake Facebook. I generally find myself digging through photographs and looking for something fun to post. Last night it dawned on me as I browsed photos depicting my past how much of my past, my history, influences my writing today.

Some of my books take my characters on a journey, frequently to places I’ve visited and enjoyed. In Love, Sam, my heroine, Trish, spends time in Sedona, Arizona, a place that captured my heart when I first visited there. In Wake-Up Call, my heroine is a social worker living in Pennsylvania—my home state and my profession. A Falling Star is probably one of the most representative of the way my own history influences my writing. The book is set in my hometown of Brownsville, Pennsylvania, under the fictional name of Clarkston. But I reference several landmarks in the book that are throwbacks to my own youth and life in a small town.
Small towns are settings for many of my stories. I guess I’m a small-town girl at heart. Another throwback to my younger years in Pennsylvania is that of Ohiopyle State Park where Rylee first meets Josh in Shooting Into The Sun.

I believed I could be a cowboy and I had the outfit to prove it--a Christmas gift from my parents who allowed me to believe and imagine. I like to think that freedom in childhood to exercise my imagination gave me the confidence to do what I do today. Tell stories.

I’ve come to see Throwback Thursday as a time to recall and revisit those memories and moments and people and places that meant so much to me. They creep into my books in very subtle ways. I don’t always hold to the philosophy of ‘write what you know.’ But I do think that when you write from what is a part of you, the fiber of your life, it makes the writing so much more personal and meaningful for the reader.

Throwback Thursday has become a time for me to reflect upon and cherish those moments I might otherwise take for granted. How about you?

Linda Rettstatt
Facebook:  Linda Rettstatt, Writing for Women
Twitter: @linda_rettstatt

Thursday, July 17, 2014

High Tea In Sweet Grass

In keeping with the recent series of how we writers get our ideas, I would offer up the improbable scene of three girls having an English high tea in a hotel room in an obscure Montana border town.  Oh, and the girls are spirits with no real corporal bodies.

This is a sample of my creative process as I craft the next novel "Storm Child" in my Hobohemia series.  Those who've read "Tracks", my first stop in this fantasy universe of hobos and rail barons, will quickly recognize the ladies as steam children - those free spirits who help knit Hobohemia together.  We are in the unlikely stub of a town of Sweet Grass, Montana.  The question to be answered is how we got here and why.

Things started out with a simple plot requirement – I had to get my main character “Red” up into Canada, as part of this story involves the famous “spiral tunnels” through which mile-long trains wind their way past an otherwise dangerous incline in the Rockies.  Red has anger management issues (see title) and I realized that she couldn’t be trusted to go up north alone.  Red has a mentor, a “steam mother” if you will.  That would be Midtown, who had decided to take Red north to both cool her temper and meet with another steam mother who knew how to handle Red’s tantrums.  The intended new teacher is Whimsy.

So, first of all, I need to find a way up to Canada by rail.  Google maps comes to my rescue as I find a turnoff from the “Empire Builder” train route that skirts the northern region of the United States.  Sure enough, we have a track that will lead to Calgary where Whimsy calls home. 

But we’re talking about two rare “steam mothers” meeting – surely this is a special occasion, yes?  Also, is there not some amount of territorial concerns honored by two powerful steam children?  Sure, why not?  So I figure that Midtown (who hails from North Platte, Nebraska) would meet with Whimsy at the border.  Enter a small stub of a town out in the middle of nowhere called Sweet Grass.  This is where we have a border station sitting astride both a highway and set of tracks. 

The idea of having a nice little get-together rather than “Here, take her off my hands” appealed to me, and since there is a Victorian flare to most steam children, it didn’t take too much prodding of the imagination to see the three girls indulging in a tea.  In this case, a proper high tea.  There are problems to deal with, of course, as neither of these three ladies could physically lift a tea cup under normal circumstances.  Nor could they consume the contents.  I decided they would have to have a pretend tea, albeit with all the proper utensils (they will make good use of a steaming teapot to fully take form).  The only correlation I had was when little girls set up a cute little tea service and let their imaginations supply the cakes and tea.  This meant an appropriately dainty décor not to be expected in the pickup and truck driver atmosphere of Sweet Grass, but every small town has a general store.  The steam children came in on a locomotive whose crew was more than happy to temporarily outfit one of the local hotel rooms.

And now we have lace and high tea in Sweet Grass, Montana.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Writing advice? Love the monster that is your story

Are there tips and tricks for becoming a successful writer?  Sure.  The most common tip is the one that really counts:  Get your backside into a chair and write.  It’s also the advice that is sometimes the hardest to follow, especially when you’re feeling tired or stressed or inadequate.  We’ve all been there.

But I have another important tip:  Write the story you love.  If you don’t love your story, if you’re not invested in your characters and what is going to happen to them, you won’t persevere.  Writing a novel is not for the faint of heart.  It’s a marathon, not a sprint.  You are going to spend hundreds of hours agonizing over plot and character motivation.  You will be on the brink of despair as you invest yet another block of your precious time struggling with an awkward paragraph, rewriting and reordering sentences, perhaps in the end to discard the paragraph entirely.  You might spend a whole week on a chapter and be proud of your efforts, only to go back to it later to decide that it’s total dreck.

That’s all part of the deal, the way that writing a novel works.  Perhaps there are some writers out there who are consistently serene and always productive, but I don’t know any.  Writing a long work is agony.  It can also be tremendously satisfying, which is why we writers even attempt it, but I can guarantee that there will be times when you will question yourself and the worth of your work.  Sometimes, your story-in-progress will be a monster.

Which leads me to my point:  You have to write the story that engages you on every level, about characters who charm and infuriate you, and you have to send those characters into situations that are terrible and terrifying.  Write the story you are compelled to write because in spite of all the drudgery and discouragement, it’s the story that speaks deeply to you and you just can’t abandon it.  Write the story that you can embrace wholeheartedly in spite of all the difficulties.  Write the story you love. 

Visit Stephanie Joyce Cole on Facebook and at  
Enter to win a paperback copy of COMPASS NORTH on Goodreads.  Entries taken until August 31, 2014. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Idea's the Thing

While racking my noggin for today's topic, I reviewed current and upcoming posts on TWV, something I always do to make sure I'm not repeating what has been discussed ad nauseam and to try to stay within the tone of the the rest of the group (I've not always accomplished this, but I do at least make an effort).  

Anyway, as I perused posts, I was struck by Mike Davis' (published on July 11) review of all the
work that goes on behind the glossy (and at times tawdry) covers of the completed book. It was interesting and informative, and, even better for me, got me thinking about the whole process from conception to delivery, to borrow a totally unoriginal metaphor (so unoriginal, I'm pretty sure I've used it myself in my own blog). 

So, I thought I'd discuss the conception of the idea, which as all writers know, is the hardest part: how to come up with something mind blowing, wonderful, quixotic, and never been done before. What, your mind doesn't come up with such wonders? Sad to say, mine doesn't either. Normally, I come up with an idea for a story, that either gets changed so many times it no longer resembles the original, or I get so bored with the whole thing, I tear it up into a million pieces (usually only figuratively not literally since all my work is on my laptop and I'm way too cheap to print a manuscript merely to tear it up). I don't think I'm unusual in this, the other writers I know well enough to have such discussions, seem to have the same experiences. 

Sometimes, though, a writer pulls it off, and creates magic. The other day I watched the movie Stranger Than Fiction (yes, I realize it's been out since 2006, I just didn't get around to seeing it until now. Writer Zach Helm did what I yearn to do, write a completely unique story without relying on
special effects, martians taking over the planet, gratuitous sex or violence. He wrote a simple, quiet, complex plot and I loved it. When the movie ended, I wondered if I could create such a wonderful thing and, the sad answer was (and is) I'm not sure it's in me. 

Still, hopes springs eternal and all that, so keep my mind open to new ideas, new thoughts, new experiences and maybe someday, I too will catch lightning in a bottle. 

And since developing the idea truly is the hardest part of writing, I've added a link to Coldplay's "The Hardest Part" just because I want to. Be warned that there's an interesting couple performing, so prepare yourself even if it involves an octogenarian and a guy in a speedo. Don't worry it's PG.  Coldplay The Hardest Part

Oh, and frightening as it seems, it looks as if one of the women introducing the performers is wearing shoulder pads. Yikes, I thought we'd shed those horrid things a decade or so ago. Please don't tell me they're coming back. 

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Building the Fieldstone house, Story by Story

What is a novel but a series of stories linked by a central theme, plot and characters? When asked are you a plotter or a pantster I used to confess to being a pantster, but it’s not that simple.

Remember the days of writing a novel without a computer? Lewis Grizzard, former columnist and comic memoirist of Don’t Bend Over in the Garden Granny Them Tatters Got Eyes taught me a clever way to cut and hand paste: tape and scissors, primitive but effective. Grizzard used a long refectory table pushed against a wall in his office to lay out his chapters in order. I had to use my king sized bed. Nowadays that takes three seconds. Sigh. We were a determined bunch back then, so much typing, so little time.

So, where does the fieldstone house come in? Think of your chapters or scenes as rough stones gathered in the fields of your imagination. When you’re inspired, write them down, even if they haven’t been foreshadowed or worked through. Once you’ve done a quick overall edit of your WIP, go to the beginning and search for the keyword that inspired you—usually while driving or sleeping. Find it and insert the scene.

When you do your penultimate edit, determine if the brilliant fieldstone flashing at you from the past fits where you have it now. If not, move it to a more appropriate place or drop it onto the very last page to save for another time—maybe for another book. Gems/inspirations, must never be lost, but never misused either.

I think of these gems as fieldstones. They’re all of a piece, but can stand alone or in the POV of one of the characters thinking or speaking.

Here’s a short example from my WIP: Cinderella Sister

Main character, 17-year-old Sissie has been her older sister’s best friend, bone marrow donor and ignored sibling all her life. Her sister dies after years of struggle.

Sissie is in a bereavement group with other teens. Their wise counselor sees a change in the girl as she processes her grief and her new position in the family: the anger the counselor had hoped for emerges: Cinderella is angry.

Later that day the counselor makes an opportunity to talk with Sissie in private. Neither she nor this this writer knew what the counselor (Her POV) might say. I put myself in the counselor’s shoes and went for it:

We walked over to the campfire, now cold and smelling woody, and sat on the bench side by side.

“You asked an interesting question in group today,” I began, not knowing how I was ever going to get this into one teen’s ears. “I thought we should explore it. You asked what the point was, why would your mother allow your sister and you to suffer if the cancer treatments might not work? This would be a hard question for your mom to answer for one so young as you were then, but maybe I can help you understand now.

“We see license plates and bumper stickers that say in big letters CHOOSE LIFE. Did it occur to you that those words are not just about abortions and euthanasia?"

“They're not?”

“Every old person you ask about life choices will tell you to choose life. Where there is life there is hope. For your mother, she chose life, yours and Simila’s, because she wanted both of you to be her children. She knew the best life her children was for her not to marry a man she didn’t love just to have babies. She also didn’t want to select a man at random and face him with the fact he was only a stud and to get lost. She’d be taking a chance on not only hurting him, but setting herself and you up for a legal battle. She wanted a planned family for which she would be responsible. She got her parents and brothers on board and went for in vitro.

“Right before you were born, she discovered there could be a flaw in her carefully orchestrated decision. Simila’s illness would require a lot of time, money and energy. You wouldn't get the attention from her that you should have. But once again, she chose life. She continued with her pregnancy and you came out the delightful girl we all know and love. Following that she had many more choices to make.

"She’d maneuvered herself into an endless cycle. Realizing you two could have been raised in a normal two-person household with a Mom and Dad, one that didn’t have a predisposition to cancer, she felt, rightly or wrongly, that she must do everything in her power to help Simila live. That kind of decision is progressive, like buying a warranty and renewing it over and over. She must have suffered watching you growing up normal and relatively uncomplicated despite her frequent distractions while Simila struggled, and yes, suffered. She didn’t do this to either of you, it happened to you both. It’s made you a better person, more compassionate and empathetic. That’s the up side. The down side is that it developed in you this hyper responsible, hyper vigilant, guilty soul.

“These are good traits, but learned too soon as circumstances dictated. Your mother got onto life’s merry-go-round and couldn’t get off, nor did she want to. The longer Simila survived, the better the chance she’d get 'the cure' . Sissie you were not the cure, you were the extension cord to the cure. Two years after Simila’s death, there is still no cure. That has to be heartbreaking for your mother and you.”

Sissie’s shoulders fell, and her eyes rimmed with tears long held back. She fell into my arms. I sat on the bench holding her and weeping with her… While I helped Sissie forgive herself and her mother, I began to get let go of my guilt. I was starting to forgive myself.

The Choose Life theme came to me as a gift from the Muse. That fieldstone mined from blips in imagination and recorded without over thinking might not have fit in my WIP. But it did.

Find Julie at:
Twitter: @JulieEPainter
Julie is a regular blogger on , and feature writer for!issue-14 an online slick. Her flash fiction appears under
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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Cherish the Moment: A Lucky 13 Reminder

On the thirteenth of each month, I use my own author blog to host a guest blogger (or write a piece myself) about the role luck plays in writing, and in life. This month's planned guest blogger needed to reschedule. She's dealing with a young son who has a serious illness.

Two nights ago, I ran into a friend who had just lost his teenage son to an apparent suicide. And the day after that, my mother helped move her beloved husband of the last four years to a care facility, as his brain tumor makes it impossible for her to continue to care for him at their home. 

A double rainbow in the sky over Ellensburg,
just before a summer storm swept through.
So in their honor, I'm giving this month's lucky blog (and this contribution to the Writers' Vineyard, since they fall on the same day) over to a plea to us all to cherish each moment we have with those we love. 

After all, as writers and as humans, being given someone to love is the best luck we can have. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014


Summer is when I write. I work the other three seasons, and writing time is difficult to find. This summer, I’ve stopped writing, haven’t written at all in the past week. I have four books in progress just to prevent what has happened from happening. Usually if idea thread dries up in one work, I just switch to another WIP. Not this time. Now, as an excuse I can say I’ve had bronchitis all week. Where I was exposed I have no idea, I’m rather reclusive in the summer. But truthfully, there is no desire.

One manuscript in progress takes an enormous amount of research. If I get one thousand words a day done, I’m lucky. It seems I’ll write a few paragraphs and come up against something that needs described or investigated which means research. If research is needed, it takes a chunk of time, and sometimes, (thank God for the internet although I’ve bought some books almost as ancient as the period in the story) because I love history, I get lost in that research.

On another manuscript, I keep wondering if the reader will be interested, or am I caught up in minutia? Where is the action, the drama, the emotion tension, the physical danger? Is there enough, not enough? How can I make the action more visceral?

It’s not writer’s block. I know where these two plots are going. My mind just doesn’t want to go there right now. Perhaps it’s giving me a subliminal message. Usually, at times like this, a new idea comes to the fore demanding I work on it, but not this time. When I sit before the computer screen and pull up my WIP, I just sit staring or go exploring on the Internet. Avoidance techniques have been at play. I’m completing projects unfinished for years, even cleaning. It’s amazing the things I think up to do. The doll house made for my daughter has now been finished for my granddaughter whose probably too old to enjoy it. The fabric collected over the years has been made into some useful household items and I've freed up storage space. Have I reached crazy? Don't answer. Every writer is half way to crazy.

I’ll get back to my writing projects. I know I’ll work out what needs to be done. I will. Or I'll dump these projects and start a new ones. I'm compulsive that way. In the meantime, I’m sidelined and I have all these imaginary timelines bearing down on me.