One thing I love about writing is having the chance to explore familiar settings with new eyes. My books have, so far, been set in locations I know well around the Pacific Northwest. When I return to those areas to do research for a novel, small details and subtleties often jump to front and center. What might have blended into the background, barely noticed, suddenly becomes a focal point that will help my readers imagine the scene I’m visualizing.
Much of Mounting Evidence, the second romantic intrigue in my Mounted Patrol series, takes place at the Washington State Fair in Puyallup. (Aside: A sure way to tell a true PNWer from an imposter—should you ever have the unlikely need to do so—is to ask them to pronounce Puyallup. Be prepared to laugh at the results.) Like my character Abby, the Puyallup Fair was a huge fixture in my life while growing up. I have memories of going with my parents when I was wee: standing in long lines to buy scones, going on the dreaded bumper cars (my dad had to come out and rescue me), and visiting the animals in the livestock barns. Different memories followed as I got older: spending evenings on the Midway with school friends, eating my way through the numerous food booths, and coaching my riding students who competed in the 4-H state finals. The atmosphere of the fair is imprinted in my mind and on my heart.
But it was imprinted as “THE FAIR.” Bold, italic, quotation marks. A single entity. That’s the difference between simply experiencing something like a country fair and looking at it as an author. While I was writing Mounting Evidence last fall, I had the chance to go to Puyallup again with my sister and niece. This time I didn’t see the fair as a whole, but in individual parts. Deconstructing it, picking out the smells, sights, sounds, sensations that would be described on the page in an attempt to catapult my reader into the setting. Hopefully, when readers imagine the specific aspects, they’ll reconstruct the parts into a whole and feel as if they’re right there on the Midway with Abby and Kira.
Lieutenant Abigail Hargrove also has a lifetime of memories from going to the fair. The repetition of this annual childhood event gives her solace and an escape from her present life of disillusionment and private pain. It becomes a place where she has the freedom to get in touch with her old, innocent self, and that helps her open up to Kira. The devil, as they say, is in the details. From a drop of barbecue sauce to the wonderful clacking rhythm of the old wooden roller coaster, it’s my hope that these little particulars transport the reader to the fairgrounds and into the lives of Abby and Kira.
The other day a friend asked if I was being inspired and writing more now that I’m living in Texas. My answer was yes—the Texas weather is so hot that it’s inspiring me to stay inside and write more. Joking aside, though, I do feel more susceptible to new ideas these days. Everything is different and unfamiliar, fun and exciting. Even routine errands like grocery shopping are more interesting. Life has been shaken and stirred.
One thing that has caught my attention here is Texas pride. I’m proud of my home state of Washington—and I know many people share that feeling—but Texans take pride to a whole other level. Unless I was at a government building, I rarely saw Washington State flags when I lived there, but Texas flags are everywhere here. On shirts and mugs and furniture. Flying in front of houses and businesses (and I swear they’re sometimes an inch or so higher than the American flag).
I’m amazed by the number of things I see that are shaped like Texas. I could cater a party with Texas-shaped cheese, crackers, and chips (served, of course, on a Texas-shaped cutting board). Cookie cutters, our neighbor’s flower garden, jars of honey. You name it, and someone will make it in the form of their beloved state.
I haven’t converted my entire wardrobe to Texas-cowgirl-inspired clothing. Yet. And although I’ve written a story that takes place here (“East Meets West,” coming soon in an anthology called All You Can Eat), for the foreseeable future I’ll still set my novels in the familiar cities and wild spaces of the Pacific Northwest. I’m embracing this new culture and my new home, but I will always have a strong connection to the area where I spent so much of my life. One place is comfortable and subtle and known, the other is big and brash and slowly unlocking its secrets. I love them both
One of the questions I’ve been asked most frequently at readings and other events is where do you get your ideas? I usually answer with a list of examples from my books: they’ve been inspired by objects, by “what if” questions, by careers I’ve wanted to pursue… There’s no single source, no reliable formula that I’ve been able to discern. I believe ideas are everywhere and we all have them all the time. A book happens, in my opinion, not when I have an idea, but when I fall in love with one. In love enough to develop it into something worth writing about. In love enough to spend hours and weeks and months with the story and characters needed to bring the idea to life.
At the retreat I mentioned in my last post, in that relaxed and creative atmosphere, I fell in love twice.
For a short time after college, I had a fleeting dream of owning a B and B. I still have the picture of one wonderful old house I saw near Mt. Rainier. Although I was more enamored with the fantasy of that career and not the reality, the elements of the dream lingered in an idea. A story about a woman who operates a B and B… Hmmm… But it wasn’t enough yet. And since childhood, I had been intrigued by my mom’s stories about the old mounted police stables and public livery at Point Defiance Park, but the vague images I carried with me had never coalesced into a real story. I wasn’t in love.
I had to submit writing samples for the workshops I’d chosen to attend during the retreat. One was an action scene with two polo players—I fell in love with those characters and couldn’t get them out of my mind. I had to give Rachel and Cal their own book, so I dusted off the mounted police idea and Mounting Danger was born. I also submitted a scene that had Pam capturing the image of a tide pool with oils and colored sea glass. Because Pam was on my mind, I suddenly “saw” the other paintings she would create. They were so clear in my mind that I decided to pull out my B and B idea and hang those mosaics on the walls. Sea Glass Inn was structured around them.
Ideas are everywhere. Some are easily discarded, but some are interesting and make us pause. Some are seductive enough to make us pack our U-Hauls and move in with them. But even if you’re not instantly in love, keep those ideas somewhere tangible (if you’re like me, don’t rely on your memory!!). You never know when they’ll expand or metamorphose or combine with other half-formed ideas, and you’ll realize love was right there all the time. Tucked in a file folder, stuffed in the junk drawer, or scrawled on a sticky note.
Where were you when…? How easy to remember where and with whom we were during a life-changing event. When Harmony was published, I was in New York at a Bold Strokes Books retreat. What an amazing time! Not only did I have a chance to celebrate my first book with new friends, but I also experienced flashes of inspiration that led to future books.
An unexpected aspect of writing is the social side. As expected, I spend long hours alone—reading and researching and writing—but over the past three years my social life has changed in surprising ways. Instead of becoming more isolated the more I write, my world has expanded. That started at the retreat in the Adirondacks when I first met the great group of authors, publishing/editorial staff, and associates from BSB.
I was assigned a room in the Owl’s Nest cabin for the retreat at Garnet Hill Lodge. I remember heading back to the Nest that first evening, when it was so dark I couldn’t find the front door (thank goodness Friz had a flashlight!). I was so remote from the main house that I needed to drive there each morning. (Okay, I could have walked, but this was before my first cup of coffee.) And I’m certain there were ghosts traipsing across the moss-covered roof outside my window in the night. But despite being out in the middle of the woods, I felt connected to the people I was meeting. Storytellers, story fixers, story readers.
I’ve experienced unanticipated growth over the past three years. In my circle of friends, my life experiences, and (hopefully) in my writing. I’m grateful for all the people who’ve come into my life since Harmony went out into the world.
This August, I’ll be celebrating not only the release of my novel Blindsided, but also the three-year anniversary of my first book, Harmony. I learned today that the traditional 3rd anniversary gift is leather and the modern one is crystal. The theme for the third (who knew anniversaries had themes?) is ideas or symbols.
The publication of Harmony is, without a doubt, symbolic for me. The number of life changes I’ve faced since signing that first contract with Bold Strokes Books is staggering, culminating in my recent move to Texas from Washington State. (Scroll on down through my posts if you want to read more about the challenging experience of moving cross-country with goats.) Harmony marked a turning point for me in many ways. Without that book, I wouldn’t have made many of the friends I have today—readers and authors and publishing folk. I wouldn’t have a career I’m passionate about. I wouldn’t be in Texas, that’s for sure. What a loss!
Change. I don’t always like it. I’m not very good at it. But it keeps us alive and keeps us moving forward. It leads us places we never expected to go. I’d been stagnant for many years before Harmony, so I shouldn’t complain when change comes fast and furious. After all, I expect my characters to face life changes with dignity and open hearts. I should expect nothing less from myself.
Crystals might be the ideal choice for this anniversary. They’re built layer upon layer—following a pattern, but always unique. Like a book, or a life. We see hints of what’s to come as the pattern unfolds, but the results can be unexpected. Hmmm…Or maybe I’ll just buy myself a leather jacket.
A stressful move away from the only state I’d ever called home. A long trip that included winter storms, hotel-room goats, and frantic searches for the nearest available Starbucks (I’m really not used to them being so few and far-between). A new state that is sometimes different enough to feel like a foreign country. What I need is time to acclimate, a handful of Valium, and to get my stuff unpacked and put away. What I don’t need is another goat.
So…maybe it wasn’t a good idea to visit the Boer goat farm (Boers are meat goats) and play with the bottle-fed kid that was going to market in a few weeks. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to go back to the farm a few days later with a dog crate in my car and cash in my pocket. Then again, maybe it was a great idea. It’s kismet.
Or, rather, she’s Kismet. Soft and fluffy in her baby fur, she’s adorable and sweet. She needs time to adjust to her new home, just like I do. Instead of her huge herd, she has two big sisters who want to chase her. Every aspect of her life has changed (for the better, I hope!) from what she eats to where she sleeps and how she spends her days.
When I think of all the different threads of my life that were tugged and snipped and knotted in order to get me here, to this place I now call home, my mind reels. Fate? Random chance? Who knows. We can imagine what might be ahead of us on this journey through life, but we can never be sure until we take those steps forward. I rounded a corner and found Kismet. How lucky am I?