The Writing Life

Questions about writing I sometimes get asked–

Where do you get ideas?
The imagination is a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. And the more you look for ideas, the more you’ll find. 

I’m particularly lucky to be a historical fiction writer. All I have to do is pick up a history book about any period, any place. Ideas fly off the pages. If I go to a museum, drive by a battlefield, travel, come across a web page or news item, or watch a historical movie, I’m assaulted by ideas. More ideas than I’d be able to use in several lifetimes.

When do you write?
I try to write every day. Sometimes I slip. Occasionally I become a time-wasting, procrastinating, Twittering sloth. But typically I write every day. Some days are better than others. My personal rule is: spend at least a few minutes each day writing, or doing something directly related to writing such as researching or plotting. Which is a version of Roger Zelazny’s rule (via Doyce Testerman), “four small bites of writing a day.” During the work week I use my lunch hour, when I take one, for writing, and afterwards, in the evening, I try to write for an hour or two. For brainstorming, I like walks. Weekend mornings are sacred to writing–no errands allowed. Working on a piece every day helps keep me primed and the creative engines running. Just 250 words (one double-spaced page) a day for 365 days is a novel in a year.

How do you organize your research and writing?
I use software. A couple of years ago I went entirely digital and now I use Scrivener, (for writing and organizing my writing) Zotero, (for managing, organizing, and storing my historical research materials), Microsoft OneNote (for organization, to do lists, for managing and organizing images and other kinds of research material), and Dropbox (for cloud storage of my writing).

The one exception to my digital workflow is an 8.5 x 11 physical notebook I use for brainstorming.

Do you revise?
Oh, yeah. A lot. Constantly. You sometimes hear writers express the fear that they’ll lose their voice through revising and editing. I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about; revising helps me refine the voice.  BUT, every writer’s different. For me, writing the first draft is the relatively easy part; revising is the crucial, and to me, painful, part. I spend a lot of time revising. Examining every word. Scraping off extra words. Reading aloud.  Reverse outlining (outlining after you’ve written). Printing out many versions and marking them up. Taking long breaks between versions so that a work can be seen with fresh eyes.

Do you belong to any writing groups and organizations?
Oh, yeah:

International Thriller Writers (ITW)
Sisters in Crime (SinC)
Mystery Writers of America (MWA)

Short Mystery Fiction Society (SMFS)

Historical Novel Society (HNS)
Codex Writers
Strictly Genre: Ithaca Fiction Critique Group (founder, leader)

Have you ever taken a writing workshop?
Yes, lots. I can’t recommend them enough. There’s a lot mythology about writing such as that it should come easily, you either have talent or you don’t, that it can’t be taught or learned. I don’t believe that. I believe writing requires skill and technique. To be an excellent writer means acquiring a toolbox of skills and techniques. Developing those skills is difficult on your own when you’re writing in isolation. I owe my development as a writer to workshop teachers and fellow students. Some of my recommendations and experiences are described here.

What’s your critique group like?
Simply the best. If you’re insanely brilliant and naturally talented, and you don’t need a group, more power to you. The rest of us can use all the help we can get, especially in these highly competitive publishing times. Seek out feedback. Listen to everything anyone will tell you about your work. Don’t get defensive. Listen, thank them, then go home and consider. I learned those lessons the hard way. Don’t repeat my mistakes.

Who are your literary influences?
Cecelia Holland, Ruth Rendell, Martin Cruz Smith, Elmore Leonard, and a lot of other writers.  I learn from pretty much every novel and short story I read.

What do you like to read?
Part of being a writer is reading a lot.  I mostly read crime fiction, mysteries, historical fiction, thrillers, short fiction, and historical mysteries.  In recent years, I’ve become quite addicted to audiobooks. Listening to them in the car or when I’m taking a walk or occasionally even doing a house project like painting allows me to read a couple extra books per month.  Audiobooks have also been great for helping me develop my writer’s “ear.”