I was feeling all tangled up with the many different projects I’m working on, so much so that I dreaded sitting at my computer. Outside, it was summer, and I live in a place where people come for dream vacations. I decided to play tourist for a day. I went on a long drive that ended at the beach, gathered treasures at a used bookstore, and ate crab cakes at a swanky restaurant with a fabulous view. You know what I was doing the whole time? Writing. I filled page after page in my journal with observations, ideas and even a new poem. Suddenly the tap was wide open, all because I took myself out of my usual setting and my usual schedule. I also got away from the Internet, which was a big factor. I had forgotten to charge my phone, so I had to turn it off. And my brain said, “Yippee! let’s play.”
At lunch, while I was scribbling in my notebook, I couldn’t resist writing a description of a woman sitting at a corner table by herself. She wore casual clothes and her hair up in a ponytail. She had her laptop open in front of her and was eating with one hand and typing with the other. What really got my attention was that she was drinking champagne. As the bubbles rose in her glass, I wondered what she was celebrating and whether she actually tasted the champagne or saw the incredible view just outside the window. What’s her story? My imagination is still toying with that picture, which I would not have seen from my desk at home. You might want to play with it, too. Who is she? Why was she drinking champagne alone at noon in an expensive restaurant at the beach?
I’m taking the month of August off from this Writer Aid blog. More sunny days and other projects need my attention. My assignment for you is to take your notebook–I mean the paper kind–and a couple of pens or pencils and take yourself on a mental vacation. Turn the phone, tablet and computer off. Write down whatever comes to you. Don’t worry about marketing or any of that. You’re creating raw material. If nothing comes, just breathe, just live life for a while. The words will come when it’s time.
While I’m on vacation, you might want to look at my updated list of resources for writers. I welcome suggestions for things I have missed and alerts to links that don’t work.
See you in September. Let’s go write.
A tiny moptop dog greeted me at the door of Robert’s Bookshop in Lincoln City as I stepped into one of the biggest used-book shops on the Oregon Coast. Room after room after shelves and stacks of all kinds of books: mysteries, old Zane Grey westerns, literary classics, poetry, essays, cookbooks, history books, everything you can imagine. I even found a whole room full of books about war. It’s Disneyland for readers.
As I stacked up my treasures, all priced well below what a new book would cost, I thought about how the authors of these books would not make a cent off these sales. Whatever they were going to earn, they received in the original sale. That’s it. No residuals like actors in TV shows that keep airing as reruns. As an author, I find that a little daunting. After our first sales, for which authors usually get royalties, our books are completely out of our control. They’re passed on to friends and family or sold at garage sales, flea markets, secondhand stores, and online venues like Amazon where you can buy some books for as little as a penny. The only people making money off these sales are the vendors, especially if the books get old enough to be antiques.
Here on the Oregon Coast, we have more stores selling used books than new ones. Why? People don’t want to pay full price. And most of us who like to read pile up so many books we have to give some away or trade them for other books at places like Robert’s.
As authors, there’s nothing we can do about this. We have to let go our our creations and just be glad if someone is reading them. Maybe someday someone like me will be wandering the aisles of a crowded used-book store, see your book and smile. “Aha! I always wanted to read that.” Or, “That looks like a great book, and it’s only $2.” They’ll take it home to read and to treasure.
Ideally we would all buy new books at independent bookstores so authors get paid well and the stores stay in business, but let’s be honest. As readers, we just want to read the books, and we’ll take them wherever we can get them. After a certain point, books are just not about money.
If you are ever in Lincoln City–seven miles of beach and books, books, books–you should go to Robert’s, but you can also visit Robert’s sister store, Bob’s Beach Books, which is full of shiny new books for full price.
But there aren’t any new books if we don’t write them, so let’s go write.
Wherever you are right now, you can find a story. I’m at a Starbucks in Santa Clara, California, the heart of Silicon Valley, and I can tell you it’s way different from the Starbucks where I live in Oregon. The clothes, the people using computers and smart phones simultaneously, the ethnic diversity, even the drinks they order . . . I could write about how Starbucks stores cater to different geographic areas or how the people are different or why the smallest drink they have is called a “tall.”
What makes your hometown unique? What do tourists come to see? What people, places or events stand out? What problems face your town? Scan the newspaper, take a drive, ask around, gather enough information for an article query, an essay, a commentary or a poem. What seems ordinary to you might not be to folks who live elsewhere. Start looking around with the eyes of a writer. What catches your attention or makes you ask, “What is that all about?” For example, in northern California along I-5 between the Oregon border and Yreka, there’s a metal cow in a field next to a barn with a big sign that says “State of Jefferson.” When I looked it up, I discovered that years ago people tried to secede from Oregon and California to form a new state. It didn’t happen, but there’s a story in it. And where did that cow come from? Another story. There may be other regions that tried to form their own states. If you can find out about them, you could expand this into a piece for a national publication.
Also look locally for publications to write for, especially if you’re just getting started. You can find copies in your local libraries, bookstores and coffee shops. The editors are nearby, so you can meet in person, and the subject matter they cover is close at hand. They may not pay a lot, but whatever you write for them can be resold as is or revised for other markets. One of my favorite stories in recent years was a roundup piece about the salt water taffy makers on the Oregon Coast. It ran in Oregon Coast Today, and I earned about $200. I could easily reslant it for Northwest Travel, VIA, newspaper travel sections or candy-making trade publications. I could also write about research being done on wave energy, our mayor who is also an artist, our tsunami preparations, the glass floats manufactured here, and lots of other Oregon coast stories.
What’s happening your neighborhood? There are lots of stories just outside your door. Look around.
And then, go write.
Please forgive my delay in posting. We are having a family emergency this month, and I don’t know when things will get back to “normal.” Also, my online classes scheduled to start Oct. 30 will be delayed until next year. If you want to get started by reading my Freelancing for Newspapers: Writing for an Overlooked Market book, Amazon has a pretty good discount right now.
One piece of advice that especially hit home was Appel’s suggestion that we set our fictional stories in places we know very well, places where we have actually lived. With a guilty twinge, I thought about a novel that I drafted a few years back that I set on the other side of the country in a city in Massachusetts that I had visited for a few days. Great place. I took a lot of pictures and notes and always planned to go back and do more research, but can I ever capture the heart of a city where I have only spent a few days? I can gather lots of facts on the Internet, but can I really feel the place in my bones? I doubt it. Locals will know I’m faking it.
The novel I’m just finishing is set right here on the Oregon coast. I’ve been here for 17 years. I know the history, the people, the climate. I know what used to be where Walgreen’s just opened. I know the mayor, I swap critiques with a county commissioner, I have taught at the community college, had surgery at the local hospital, I know what kinds of birds, plants and wild animals live here, and I can name most of the businesses up and down Highway 101. I’m lucky that I live in a place where the natural setting offers plenty of opportunities for drama. I could write stories about the Oregon coast forever.
I come from San Jose, California, which has grown from a quiet farm community into a huge metropolis. You have to hunt for unpaved ground. Traffic, overcrowding and high prices are constant factors in everyday life. It’s a completely different scene, but I know that one well, too. My family lives there, and I visit often. I also know the road from here to San Jose ridiculously well. I’ve got so many places to set my stories.
How about you? Where do you live? What stories can you tell? Can you look at your hometown with the eyes of a visitor seeing it for the first time? Maybe they’re armed with a guidebook that points out the special attractions, but you know more about it than the guidebook. You know where the locals hang out. You know the history, the secrets, and the dangers. You know the language. One of my problems with the Massachusetts story was capturing that distinct New England way of speaking. But I don’t have to stretch to write dialogue from the West Coast. That’s how I speak.
Everywhere can be a setting for a story. For a writer, the whole world teems with stories. With enough research, you can set your story anywhere, but know that if you want to make it real, the best place to start is the place you call home. It may also help your career to become identified with a particular place. Give it a try. Write a story that happens where you live.
Next week: How to use where you live for your nonfiction.
I’ve still got a few copies of Freelancing for Newspapers: Writing for an Overlooked Market available for $10, including shipping. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to buy an autographed copy.
Now go write.