Where do I get my ideas?

“Where do you get your ideas?” This might be the number one question readers ask authors.
My quick answer is that ideas pop into my head all the time and they come from everywhere. My personal experience, conversations with other people, places I’ve lived in and visited, the news, books I’ve read, TV, movies, perhaps a painting or line of music.
This winter, I’m editing a novel-in-progress, book # 3 of my Paula Savard mystery series, while mulling ideas for book # 4. With a series, many of the basic ideas are already there. I start with my sleuth, Paula, a fifty-five year old insurance adjuster, and her cast of supporting characters, who impact her personal life and, in some cases, her sleuthing. Paula and most of her family, colleagues and friends live in my home city, Calgary Alberta. I could send Paula to another location for all or part of the next book, but I see her as grounded in Calgary. Unlike me, Paula isn’t drawn to travel, although book # 3 presents her with a future travel opportunity. For now, I think her adventures in book # 4 will continue in Calgary.
An often deserted pathway behind Calgary’s Saddledome arena inspired my idea for the murder in the first Paula Savard novel, A Deadly Fall.
My current novel-in-progress, Winter’s Rage, ends in January 2020, with Paula at a crossroads in her life. Book # 4 will begin with her dealing with that situation. I’ve decided it will take place in spring, since Paula’s first three mysteries happened in fall, summer and winter. But which spring will this be? January 2020 was right before COVID-19 changed the world. Will we next meet Paula in spring 2020, as she grapples with the start of the pandemic both personally and at work? Or will it be spring 2021, when the the pandemic is (we hope) nearing its end? I could jump over the virus and set the novel in spring 2022. This would make the time frame more contemporary to my publication date, although I find it hard to envision the post COVID-19 world. What things will return to the old normal and what will be the long term changes? The year I choose for this fourth novel will affect my ideas for it. Thoughts to mull during the winter.

Calgary’s annual Stampede parade prompted ideas for a major character and an inciting incident in my second novel, Ten Days in Summer.
While Paula got into solving mysteries as an amateur sleuth, I decided her subsequent ventures would come from her insurance adjusting work. Ten Days in Summer starts with a suspicious death resulting from a building fire. Paula naturally becomes involved in the course of investigating the property fire insurance claim. In Winter’s Rage, she adjusts a hit and run collision and gradually suspects the fatality was no accident.
This quiet, suburban Calgary street plays a large role in Winter’s Rage.

For book # 4, I’m thinking that burglary could make a good cover up for murder. Last spring, my husband and I bought e-bikes at a local bicycle shop. I was intrigued by the store’s booming business. With most of their usual activities shut down for the pandemic, Calgarians sought outdoor activities and many of us updated our old bicycles. That store and the two guys operating it are giving me ideas for the crime that will launch Paula’s next mystery.
I also want to include a ghost in book # 4, because ghosts both interest and frighten me. At the end of Ten Days in Summer, Paula’s office moved to Inglewood, Calgary’s oldest neighbourhood. Many ghosts lurk in Inglewood, a location for Calgary’s haunted walking tours. The ghost rumoured to haunt her historic office building will challenge rational Paula, who doesn’t believe in other worldly happenings.
A ghost walking tour of Inglewood inspired my choice of  this “haunted” building for Paula’s office.
All of these bits and pieces, swirling in my mind, will converge into the start of a story, when I eventually sit down and write the novel. As the story moves along, it will pluck more ideas from my usual sources. That’s the plan, anyway, and it’s how I get my ideas.

E-biking last spring triggered ideas for my next novel

New Ideas

In my BWL author blog post for the new year, I discuss how how I get my ideas for my stories.


Happy New Year

I hope your Christmas celebrations were happy this year, despite the difficulties. Calgary was fortunate with its weather. A few days before Christmas, we got a huge dump of snow, which made for a pretty holiday season. The weather turned relatively mild after that. High temperatures slightly above freezing and abundant sunshine continue into January. I find our city parks crowded on weekends, with people making the most of what’s available during Calgary’s lockdown. Between writing, reading, clearing out my basement clutter and outdoor activities, I expect to have plenty to keep me occupied this winter. Best wishes to you all for a healthy and happy 2021.

Lake turned skating rink in Carburn Park, Calgary

Deer wades through snow in Carburn park

Snow shoeing on our neighbourhood golf course

Happy Soltice

I write this minutes after sunrise in Calgary, at 8:37 am, this shortest day of 2020.

Sunrise in Calgary

My clutter clearing project continues (see my recent blog post). Yesterday, in a box of old papers, I stumbled upon an article from Writer’s Digest magazine, ‘How to know when workshop criticism is useful or destructive, irrelevant or priceless.”  The article published in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s shows how times have changed. Among irrelevant criticism, author Nancy Kress includes comments from people with a political agenda.  She writes, “I have heard stories condemned for their negative portrayals of a woman, a union organizer, a military officer, a high school teacher and a wolf (the latter condemnation came from a wildlife advocate).  None of the criticism dealt with literary concerns (“This portrait isn’t convincing”). Instead, each centered on a political concern (“When you show a woman as weak and manipulative, it just reinforces stereotypes”).” I don’t know if Kress’ comment was controversial at the time, but I doubt today she’d advise writers to ignore a critique centered on insensitivity to a particular group.

Clearing Clutter

One of my projects for this winter of COVID-19 is to clear clutter from my house. I’m starting with boxes of writing stuff I’ve accumulated during the past 30 years. So far, I’ve filled several recycling bins with papers, although I’m still holding onto more than I should.

Easy to dump are old query letters to publishers and their form rejection letters. I’ve never understood writers who talk of papering their den walls with rejection letters for inspiration. My instinct is to shove the depressing messages out of sight, although rejection has prompted me to write better, and still does. I am keeping the occasional rejections that complimented my writing and place them in a binder with other encouragements I received on my journey to publication.

I’m also throwing out critiques of chapters from novels that I subsequently revised and published, since there’s no point in rereading the comments now. In the pre-digital days of writing classes, we had to print copies of our submissions for each of our classmates to scrawl comments on. That’s a lot of paper for my recycling bin. Now and then a page of positive remarks by an instructor or writer-in-residence jumps out at me. I add these to my encouragement binder. It turns out this de-cluttering project is partly about jettisoning negative and irrelevant memories, while preserving ones that boost my spirit.

Stuff I can’t bring myself to toss out includes notes and newspaper clippings that might have value for future writing projects. I file these in boxes and folders with labels so I can find them easily when I want. If I ever move to a smaller place, I’ll instantly get rid of my folder for the mythology workshop I didn’t understand at the time, and still find baffling from my perusal of the notes. For now, these folders and boxes don’t take up much space on my shelf, where they’ll stay until I’m ready to dive into them or downsize.

The best finds are bits of clutter that might have an immediate use. I created folders for my current novel-in-progress, my next three story ideas, editing, and book promotion and tuck relevant notes and clippings into the folders. For instance, my germ of an idea for next mystery novel includes a ghost in ways I haven’t figured out yet. This prompted me to hold onto a comment by a creative writing instructor about Shakespeare’s Hamlet. ‘The ghost is a catalyst, and is the ghost telling the truth?’ When I sit down to write this novel, this question about Hamlet’s ghost might or might not trigger thoughts about the ghost in my story. If it doesn’t, I’ll send the instructor’s observation to the recycling bin or to another folder, where it might apply.

Also useful in the near future is advice for presenting my work in public. I’m collecting my scattered notes and handouts on this topic into one labelled box, along with printouts of past readings I’ve done. One tidbit of advice that I’ve taken to heart is to not read from the book itself. A printout of the scene enables me to enlarge the font for easier reading, revise the scene for audience interest and engage better with listeners than I can with my nose in the book. The next time I’m called on to do a literary reading I can leaf through printouts for a scene that suits the occasion and refresh myself on the advice, conveniently located in one place.

Nowadays, advice for public presentation tends to focus on Zoom and similar platforms. A couple of months ago, I attended an excellent webinar on this subject and made handwritten notes. The ‘Readings’ box will be the logical place for the notes, if I can find them in my recent piles of writing clutter.

Happy Holidays, however you celebrate this year!

Early New Year’s Resolution

Today I write about one of my winter COVID-19 projects on the BWL Author blog.

Happy Holidays

Do Short Stories Sell?

Some years ago, I participated in a reading event at a local bookstore. The theme was short stories. During the question and answer period, an audience member asked the bookstore owner if people bought short story collections. He answered, “No, even when the author wins a major award.” His example was the recent winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s glitziest literary award for fiction. A Giller win typically results in a huge boost in book sales, but his customers weren’t interested in buying the winner’s short story collection.

Giller Prize glitz

Short stories used to be popular. In the 1950s and 60s, writers could make a living by publishing them in magazines. When I started writing around 1990, big mainstream magazines like Redbook and Seventeen included a short story per issue. Neither magazine now publishes in print. A friend who writes short stories says that today online magazines provide many opportunities for short stories, but they often don’t attract readers.

My writing has focused on novels, but I got into short stories in my first creative writing class. Short works suit a class or workshop structure better than novels do. I suspect the proliferation of classes is one reason the short story genre has survived. A student can write a story in a week, the class critiques the whole work in an evening, and then the student revises and submits the story to journals that exist to publish the work of emerging writers.

I’ve enjoyed writing short stories for reasons other than the relative speed from start to completion. They’ve been a chance to experiment with styles, characters and locations I couldn’t sustain in a novel. I’ve written short stories with magic realism, a sociopathic narrator, and settings I’ve visited but don’t know intimately. Other stories have led to novels. My series mystery sleuth, Paula Savard, had her origins in my short story, Adjusting the Ashes, about an adjuster dealing with a wacky insurance claim.

The best explanation I’ve heard for the decline in short story readership is that television killed it. People in the mood for a short fictional experience have the option to relax with an evening drama or comedy. I’m guilty of choosing these over reading. I wonder if short story writing has responded to the drop in readership by shifting away from popular fiction toward poetry, which tends to be less satisfying to general readers.

Short story exceptions that prove the rule include Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam. Sales of the book took off after it won the 2006 Giller Prize. A literary pundit noted that this collection of linked stories about medical students reaped the Giller benefits because the writing is accessible, the characters relatable and the stories have plot. Another exception is E. Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, a long short story that had enough going on for it to be adapted into a hit movie, although I don’t know how many people read the excellent short story.

My home province of Alberta, Canada, played the role of Wyoming in the movie, Brokeback Mountain

Enterprising authors say the practical value of short stories today is to use them to draw readers to your novels. You can produce and sell a short story e-book online for 99 cents or offer it for free. If readers enjoy the story, hopefully, it will lead them to buy your novels. I’d like to try this one day with a couple of my longer works. Perhaps foolishly, I would also like to gather the stories I’ve written and published over the years into a short story collection, even if nobody reads the book.

Canadian-American actor Eric McCormack hosted the online Giller Prize show on                  November 6, 2020. The Will and Grace star explained that he grew his moustache for a movie.

Souvankham Thammavongsa was surprised in her apartment when she won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her short story collection, How To Pronounce Knife

Short Stories & The Giller Prize

Monday evening, I watched the live streamed Scotiabank Giller Prize show. Today, on the BWL Author Blog, I ask the question, Do Short Stories Sell?

I’ve published ten short stories in the past twenty years. Payment ranged from copies of the magazine to $1,000 to perks like broadcast on CBC radio and having my story turned into art displayed in the Calgary Public Library.  One change I’ve noticed since I started writing almost thirty years ago is that short stories have shrunk in size, unless you are Alice Munro and can publish in The New Yorker. In 1991, my creative writing instructor told us to bring in short stories of about 5,000 words for critique. He said anything less wasn’t really a story. Ten years later, when I aimed to get my work published, I researched magazines and determined that 2,500-3,000 words was the ideal length for a publishable short story. Not long after that, I found it harder to find markets over 2,500 words. I’m not in the short story publishing loop now, but I hear a lot about flash fiction. The shorter the better is probably the way to go if you want to publish short stories.

Calgary Public Library display of my short story artbook, "When a Warm Wind Blows Off the Mountains," produced by Sylvia Arthur

Souvankham Thammavongsa won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her short story collection, How To Pronounce Knife

Canadian-American actor Eric McCormack, star of Will and Grace, hosted the online Giller Prize show

Can an online writers’ conference work?

In August I attended the inaugural online When Words Collide Festival for Readers and Writers. Before COVID-19, the in-person WWC had been going strong for nine years in my home city of Calgary. I’d attended each year, but had doubts the online version would provide the same energy, networking, and learning opportunities. As a result, I didn’t give the weekend my best effort, but it made me see the potential for such online experiences.

My first inkling an online festival/conference might work came during the Zoom test for presenters. I had volunteered to sit on two panels. Like most of the festival, they took place on the Zoom platform. At the test, I recognized familiar faces in the screen boxes, many of them people I only see yearly at WWC. One of them sent me a private ‘hello’ through the chat feature. She added that she was excited about the weekend. I replied with a less enthusiastic, ‘It will be different.’

Different it was when I checked into my first panel on the festival weekend, 10 minutes ahead of time, as advised in the presenter guidelines. The virtual Zoom meeting room was already full of people discussing brain chemistry as related to writers’ block. This wasn’t my topic. Had I received the wrong meeting invitation? Then an attendee in one of the squares started rambling incoherently. The Zoom host said the person was a troll and deleted him from the meeting.

Trolls, I learned, are people who join pubic Zoom meetings solely to be disruptive. Anticipating this, the WWC organizers posted meeting links only one day ahead, but trolls still found them. This year WWC made the festival free and available to everyone, largely because they were new to the online game and didn’t know if the whole event would tank. If there’s an online event next year, they’ll be more confident of the quality and will charge a fee, to discourage attendees who aren’t serious.

My computer isn’t able to give me a virtual background on Zoom – this one would be fun!
Once my panel began, I found it comfortable to answer questions, which were channeled through a  moderator. Her face filled the screen, making me feel like we were having a conversation, although I missed looking out at an audience of people to get their responses. It’s hard to read faces in small boxes, plus most attendees turned off their video, so only their names appeared, and some Zoom hosts preferred to show only the panelists.

A Zoom panel might look like this

A benefit of online festival/conferences is attendees and presenters can come from anywhere in the world. One of WWC’s most popular presenters zoomed in from Greece. If you’ve always longed to attend a conference held far away, you can go without the cost of airfare, hotel and meals, which can add up to far more than the fee for a conference weekend.

Another benefit of the online WWC is that most of the sessions were recorded. The organizers are gradually reviewing them and posting them on Youtube and other formats.

At the festival, WWC held several Zoom socials and parties, which I stayed away from. This was a mistake. People who went said they were fun and sometimes broke into into smaller groups, so everyone would have a chance to get to know a few people well. As with most things, you get back what you put in. If you sign up for an online conference or festival, I’d advise treating it as though you were there in person. Get involved with as much as possible, including evening parties, which you can now attend dressed in pajamas from the waist down.

The WWC online festival was a huge effort and accomplishment to pull off. Feedback was positive. Some attendees said it was the best online writers’ conference they’d been to since COVID-19 began. Others said they liked it as much as the previous years’ in-person festivals. WWC is committed to hosting a festival next August and and are hoping to return to an in-person event, but with online components. Based on this year’s experience, a hybrid event would combine the best of both festival worlds. But if COVID-19 is still fully with us, WWC will be ready with an improved online version, hopefully without trolls. I’ll be there with enthusiasm, because I know now, if I give it my best, an online writers’ conference or festival can match the in-person experience.

Happy Thanksgiving

Arethusa Cirque, Kananaskis, Alberta

Happy Thanksgiving.

October 12th is also my day for the BWL Author’s blog. Today I write about attending my first online writers’ festival, which was the first online version of When Words Collide Festival for Readers and Writers.

Fall in the Canadian rockies

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