Inspire Me!

“Where do you get your ideas?”

If there’s a frequently asked question for writers, it’s that one.

(I’m rather partial to the author that joked about getting them on mail order from a little old lady in Schenectady.)

I could simply say, “Anywhere and everywhere.” Look around you, see things differently or picture them placed in an unfamiliar situation. The dumbest most ordinary things can prompt a writing idea. You just have to use your imagination and wonder what if and how about and maybe.

I’ll give you my clearest example. In August 2002, I was on a trip in British Columbia with my parents after a family wedding. On the long ferry ride to Vancouver Island,  I could just barely see this odd little island from my vantage point. Then driving towards Sidney and its bookstores, I realized the island was home to a lighthouse.  Consulting a map, I discovered it had the intriguing name of “Trial Island”.  What was it like to live out there? I half wondered on the drive. And of course being a sf/fantasy writer, I immediately pictured a sorceress protecting the harbor from evil-doers. That initial inspiration provided the start of my first Nanowrimo novel, Trial by Light.

And that’s all I had. I used Vancouver Island map as the basic geography, but I developed the world building from scratch. To date, it’s the first and only Nano with a beginning, middle, and end. I someday want to rewrite Trial and release it into the greater world.

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But the road to story ideas is not always that simple.

Take that 1920s story I mentioned in my goals. The initial inspiration was not reading Great Gatsby or listening to jazz or even staring at old photos. Those came later in research. Jewel Tones was inspired by this random photo used in a writing prompt.

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I was intrigued by the riot of colors on display and the skill needed to create them accurately. I also happen to be in the middle of reading several YA series with secret worlds hidden in our every day existence. I love those crypto worlds. I know vampires and werewolves have become popular, but I’m partial to magic. Mine were crafters, all specializing in particular old arts, like spinning and weaving and dyeing. The 1920s storyline came much later as I was trying to map out a particular family and their bloodline.

Some Nanowrimo novels develop muses by accident as I’m collecting material. Last year was the first time I heavily used tumblr to record my inspiration, whereas this year was more Pinterest based. What I like about platforms is they’re so visually based. They’re like music playlists for me in a way, where I can get into a certain mood by looking at the right photos or images.

This novel Two Princesses was originally inspired by Grace Kelly and her death, so I was looking at old photos. Then I fell in love with 1950s/1960s era fashion photography and how it conveyed a certain style. As I was writing, I wound up two very different young women — one was pretty and blonde (and a pastry chef! Don’t ask.) and the other princess designed sports cars for a living. I was having a harder time getting her, but I noticed as I reblogged fashion photography I loved of the 1950s/1960s, I was drawn to a particular model — a statuesque red-haired bombshell named Suzy Parker. Parker was one of the earliest super models. Oddly her sister Dorian Leigh is closer to the original model to my Evelyn — shorter and dark haired. But Parker conveys a lot of the style I wanted for the book.

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The last Nanowrimo novel has a rather longer history. I started The original story after seeing this photoshoot of Cate Blanchett in Harpers when she first appeared as Elizabeth. Thinking I was oh-so-clever, I loosely modeled my fantasy universe off the conflict surrounding Wars of the Roses (“but with magic!”). Yes, ahem, I’ve written a chunk of that story and then like many of my writing ideas it lapsed for awhile.

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When Nanowrimo rolled around again last year, I started fumbling for ideas, when I remembered an old idea I’d written down that might work. Initially I liked the idea of perhaps an Elizabethan inspired world, since that was a period I was familiar with, particularly the politics and espionage involved, but as world building developed with new religion and backstory, it was hard to use. I hadn’t intended the two stories to be linked,until I needed a kingdom and ruler to use. I imagined extending the timeline down the line and seeing what happened after my intial story. Suddenly I had expanded out my obscure little kingdom to see all its neighbors and their problems and struggles.  How will all these world-building changes impact what I’d already developed? Will it all fit? (Magic eight ball says “Future is uncertain. Check back later.”

I found this final inspiration photo was when I was searching bracelets and arm bracers, part of world building ideas I had in mind. (They’re actually from the Roccobarocco Spring 2012 collection in Milan.)

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What I’ve discovered over the years is there is no magic answer with inspiration. I can be inspired by a photo or a piece of music or an interesting turn of phrase. The trick isn’t finding what you’re inspired by, but finding ways to expand it further. Many writers will tell you you don’t need just one idea, you need many. But you also need to see when they fit together properly and when you need to adjust your story.

2014 Writing Goals

I honestly did have plans to update this blog more often. Unfortunately plans never seem to work out that way with me, even at the best of times.

November was the usual madness of Nanowrimo with the added bonus of an office move and extra workload. I still prevailed, but I’m left where I usually after Nano – a partially written novel and no idea where to go next with it. Fortunately the Nanowrimo site has stepped up with a “Now what?” months and the local Nano group has promised some pestering too.

So my goals for 2014:

Edit the last Nanowrimo with the eye towards the June deadline for Createspace. I’ve done some of the initial prep work, formatting and outlining what I had originally. Figuring what stays and goes or whether this gets split into two books is the next act in my three ring circus.

Finish writing the prequel story and make sure changes from Nano synch up properly. The backstory of the war didn’t change, but the religion/worldbuilding did significantly and some characters will as well.

I’m debating whether to submit something to SwoonReads. Over Christmas I was working on a YA historical fantasy (1920s New York) that I realized fit their requirements storywise – the only thing I’m concerned about is length. I haven’t plotted it out completely, so I don’t know if it’ll be long enough. (Maybe a Rebel project for Camp Nano?)

So… too much? Should I only focus on the Nano revision?

Nathan Gunn at the Kennedy Center

My mother has always had a soft spot for Lancelot’s “If Ever I Would Leave You” because of Robert Goulet. I half-remembered the early 1980s HBO broadcast of Camelot, but I’ve never quite liked the musical as much as Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady or Gigi. I was influenced heavily by the movies and unfortunately the movie Camelot is nowhere near as dazzling to my young eyes.

In 2008, the Lincoln Center did a semi-staged version of Camelot, featuring Gabriel Byrne as Arthur, Marin Mazzie as Guinevere and Nathan Gunn as Lancelot.  I was left wishing Arthur had been written as good a singer as Lance or Gwenevere. But the speech singing is part of the Lerner & Loewe style and I imagine it was written with Richard Burton’s abilities in mind, so there you have it. With this production, Gabriel Byrne was a serviceable enough Arthur, but not particularly musical. Marin Mazzie had a lovely rich and creamy voice I could have listened to for hours.

But I proved I am my mother’s daughter in some ways, because Nathan Gunn had me from the opening notes of “C’est Moi”. The black leather pants helped a little too. For an opera singer, he did a damn good job hanging out in musical theatre. I wasn’t that familiar with his opera career, so I hadn’t known he was as known for his good looks as his baritone voice. I did manage to find both of his albums. American Anthem was filled with Americana like “Shenandoah” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” while “Just Before Sunrise” veered more light pop, closer to Audra McDonald or Kristen Chenoweth’s albums, picking either lesser known songs or newish songwriters. But I still I regretted I hadn’t really heard him in his element singing opera, even in a recital setting.

I was presented such an opportunity when Nathan Gunn appeared at the Kennedy Center on Sunday afternoon. Washington National Opera (WNO)’s Celebrity Concert Series featured Nathan Gunn performing along with tenor William Burden and soprano Emily Albrink.

The day was gorgeous. I went outside to the terrace during the intermission into the sunny warm September late afternoon. I could see the spires of Georgetown’s Healy Hall in the distance and a ship cruised down the Potomac.

A ship cruises down the Potomac. View from the Kennedy Center terrace

First I need to mention the seats. When I picked them, I was thinking off-center orchestra would be fine, it’s not like I’d looking over set decorations. What I hadn’t realized was how close I was – only four or five rows back! Sometimes I was looking around the cello section or I was seeing entirely too much of the concertmaster’s crotch, but otherwise I had a dynamite view of all three singers. They moved around quite a lot, either to interact with each other or the audience. If you imagined a dry recital with a singer standing behind a podium, that was not the case here.

Nathan Gunn entered to Rossini’s “Largo et factotum” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Barber of Seville). (Those whose opera knowledge is limited to Bugs Bunny might recognize it as the “Figaro” song in “Rabbit of Seville”.) What struck me was his natural charm and humor, playing off the audience throughout, lighting up when a knowledgeable member knew the response. Then he performed the first duet with Emily Albrink, a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program alumna dressed in a bright red paneled strapless ball gown.

Then Gunn took the microphone to explain a little about the program he’d put together, a little of opera mixed with a little American musicals. He wanted to show their similarities, how they dealt with big epic stories and torturous/unrequited romances. Each section was organized along certain lines, so the opening had the Barber of Seville and the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The back half showed a lot of royalty and Shakespeare and princes (and a knight!). Gunn sang the lovely “Johanna”, while Albrink trilled through the darkly ominous “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”. I’d heard both years ago during that “Sondheim at Carnegie Hall celebration”. The second one sounded like a perfectly innocuous little operatic song until you listen to the words about caged birds.

The Kennedy Center terrace at intermission with patrons enjoying the sun.

I was not as familiar with most of the operatic pieces included in the show, nor do I have technical expertise to offer a real critique. I didn’t really care for the selections from Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”, but enjoyed “Don Giovanni” quite a lot. If I had a gripe with Gunn’s voice, he didn’t seem to fill the arena as much as I expected; the Kennedy Center Opera House is a big place. I have to wonder how it would have sounded from the upper rafters. I was hearing it fairly close in.

Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” aria from Romeo et Juliette wasn’t supposed to be a comedy exactly, but it wound up one unintentionally with the lights suddenly going out on stage, leaving the orchestra in the dark. Gunn lightly admitted that this had happened to him in several performances already. The lights went on, they tried again, and the lights still had problems, giving us some weird spotlights. The house manager apologized but apparently the lights were on computer timers, so they were managing as best they could. Gunn tried to keep it light bantering with one audience member that joked about it being the Phantom of the Opera. (I checked for a chandelier, just to be sure.)  Maybe it was faeries, but eventually they made it through that aria.

The standout of the evening, besides Gunn, was possibly William Burden. A silver haired tenor, Burden was indefatigable, bouncing off Gunn with ease. Their duets were delightful. The “Lily’s Eyes” duet from Secret Garden was quite moving. But it was outdone after the intermission when they did the “Agony” duet from Into the Woods, featuring Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince. I adore Into the Woods; I’ve seen it twice live and have memorized great gobs of the lyrics. Now the Princes are usually played by nearly identical looking men in the stage performances I’ve seen, so it was odd casting at first, like seeing the Prince singing opposite the Narrator, but Burden took care of any doubts I had. Burden played Rapunzel’s Prince to the utter limit, especially mimicking her ahahaahaa singing. In some ways, Gunn was more understated as Cinderella’s Prince than as say Lancelot. Then again Lancelot is actually more noble than that Prince.

Of course I was pleased Gunn included both “C’est moi”and “If Ever I Would Leave You” from “Camelot” in the program. While he performs the romantic pieces quite well, I think he’s better in the lighter fare. “C’est Moi” and “Largo et factotum” let him showcase his charm and personality more. It was a little hard to see how he handled the big dramatic roles he does on stage.

The singers and orchestra received a standing ovation, prompted the most unusual of encores. At some point in his life, Nathan Gunn had gone through a phase where he’d developed a love for American cowboy songs. His wife Julie Gunn arranged them in a set so we heard classics like “Don’t Fence Me In” and “Home on the Range”.  The show ended with more hearty applause.

All in all, the concert was well worth the money. I heard Gunn perform some favorites, along with some operatic pieces, which was more than I could have hoped for.

JetPens Sample: Cute but Functional

Recently I was introduced me to the infinite joys of Jet Pens. They’re an online retailer for hard-to-find unique Japanese pens and stationery. I have always had a weakness for unusual notebooks and pretty fountain pens. (And bags, always appreciate a good tote bag, even if I already have a zillion.) So it’s safe to say I was categorically doomed when I looked through their website.

Ohto fountain pen and Kokuyo notebook

A few months ago, I took my initial plunge, ordering an Ohto Dude fountain pen in a lovely purple. What I discovered startled me. I’m used to needing a few strokes to get a fountain pen started after loading an ink cartridge, but the Ohto already wrote smoothly, making me an instant fan of Japanese fountain pens. Plus the pen can use the ink cartridges I already own. The only complaint I have (and it’s nitpicky) is it’s hard to pull the cap off the pen. Sometimes I wind up unscrewing the pen pieces instead.

I also acquired a batch of Kokuyo Buncobon Dot Cover notebooks. I’d become fond of writing on graph paper lately, but growing disenchanted with the almighty Moleskine. I actually liked the Picadilly graph notebooks, but I’ve had a hard time finding more locally. So I took a chance on the Kokuyo. The main thing to keep in mind is they’re tiny (4.1″ X 5.8″), closer to Moleskine’s pocket size (3.5” X 5.5”) than its full size ones.  They have soft bound edges and the dustcovers include index sections so you can keep track of projects or assignments. The graph paper is nice and actually handles the Ohto’s fountain pen ink fairly well. As thin as it was, I was expecting the ink to bleed more.

I was overall pleased with my first order and plan to acquire more soon. Sooon. All the pens will be mine, muhahah…. Oh, sorry about that. But I was really pleasantly surprised with the speedy service, especially considering I’m located on the opposite coast.

So when they announced JetPens was doing one of their sample giveaways, I quickly signed up. Who knew what strange office supplies would show up in my mail? As it was, it was completely the perfect choice for me. As I’ve mentioned in an older entry, I’m a proud University of Alabama graduate. Our mascot is one Big Al of the pachyderm variety. So when this cute Iwako eraser showed up in my mail, I was instantly charmed:

 

 

 

 

 

 

(I will admit I nearly confused the poor elephant with a koala when I saw it without its ears. Iwako actually makes a koala, but the ears are completely different. Yes, they actually have an Eraser Museum. How cool is that?)

The eraser is very cute. The trunk comes as a separate piece that you can attach. They’re supposedly very eco-friendly and non-toxic, but because of the small parts, I wouldn’t recommend them for small children. The eraser part itself is functional; it works very well on my ultra boring Ticonderoga Number 2 pencils with no noticeable smearing.  (I haven’t quite succumbed to Japanese pencil madness. Give me time.)

The only drawback I can see to such an adorable eraser is it’s almost too cute to use for its stated purpose.  If that’s the only problem, though, I think JetPens will do just fine. My bank account may disagree on this point.

Elephant with regular eraser

Nanowrimo

October is when the weather starts to change and the mind starts to think about writing. Truth be told, I should be thinking about writing every month, but October is when it becomes almost a fever or compulsion. Suddenly I must have an embarrassing array of office supplies (because you can never have too many pens or legal pads), when I start thinking “What do I feel like writing this year?”

To the uninitiated, November is National Novel Writing Month when people all over the world try to write 50,000 words in thirty days. The theory is that everyone has a novel inside them waiting to be written, but they always claim they’re too busy or there’s not enough time. Nanowrimo hands you a set deadline and forces to decide if you’ll find the time to write.

This will mark my ninth year of participating in Nanowrimo. Every year I’ve crossed the finish line with 50,000 words. Only one year did I actually have a beginning, middle, and end of a novel, but the rules are not specific on the complete point. The dread “middles” are usually my problem.

I started in 2002 when I had just moved to a new apartment and neighborhood. I signed up on a lark, thinking there was no way in heck I could do this. But I had just returned from a cool trip to Vancouver Island with this idea percolating in my brain and thought “why not?” I also found a local writer’s group to encourage me along the way. Each successive year, with 2009 off for carpeting and a sanity break, I signed up and blazed through, still figuring things out as I went along. Most books were genre or mish-mash of genres, whether time travel romance or 1940s super-heroes or straight-up epic fantasy. Each year was a different challenge, but I had the little voice in the back of my head that said, “You’ve done this before. You can do it again.”

Some years I was more organized than others. I am not by persuasion an outliner. I have yet to figure out how to outline in a way that doesn’t make me feel like I’ve written/told the story. That said, I do need some planning, whether it’s location or characters. I used to write up a series of story questions for myself and outlined briefly the first couple of chapters, so I had a starting point. Some years I get through the first week and realize that initial plan wasn’t working. I promise you, there will be those moments too.

Some years I had different goals than others. Last year I willingly admit what pushed me over the edge was the Scrivener writing software coupon. Sometimes you need little things like that. Sometimes you just need to be surrounded by other people working on their novels to spur you on. But it’s not a competition or it shouldn’t be. I like the community aspect of Nanowrimo, but only in a Three Musketeers “all for one and one for all” type way, not “I am your nemesis and I will destroy you, bwa-haha-hah”. I will cheer you on just the same if you’re 10K ahead of me or if you’re behind me. We’re all in this together.

A writer that appeared at my former writer’s group used the phrase “stealing time” when he was struggling to find time to write around his busy schedule. And the fact was you had to steal time. You had to find those spare moments in the day, wherever it could be found. I scribbled a little here and there on my commute to and from work. I’d squeeze in hours after I came home. Even when I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about that story and what needed to be written. That way when I sat down at the keyboard I knew which scene to work on.

And that I’m sorry to say is the biggest tip for Nano. There are any number of word count tricks you can find in the Nano forums, you can plot and outline to your heart’s content, you can scowl at the pretty Excel spreadsheet, but the fact remains you have to do the time. I hate the blog posts that boil down advice to “a writer writes”, but in this particular environment, it’s very very true.

I won’t kid you. It will be difficult. There are days/nights you just don’t want to open up your writing file. You will lose the plot (if you had one to start with) or you will meet some character you never expected to write. You may stumble in those opening weeks. You may even hit the Great Wall of Despair. But once you hit that 40K mark, dear god, is it a sweet roller-coaster ride down.

Don’t worry. I’ll be there too.

Designing Tomorrow

Washington DC is filled with museums. The Smithsonian is the one everyone thinks of immediately with its sprawling complex of buildings around the Mall, but smaller quirkier ones can be found in DC as well. One of my favorites is the National Building Musuem, located across the street from the National Law Enforcement Memorial. The building itself is quite a treat in itself, a rusty brick color covered in friezes. I still remember a memorable pre-dawn morning I came out of the Metro stop and saw the building against a reddish sky.

Until July 2011, the National Building Museum has a lovely exhibit called Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s. I toured the exhibit on my lunch hour one day. The exhibit covers all the 1930s era World Fairs from Chicago through New York, showcasing everything from the architecture and art through to the science and transportation exhibits. I’ve always adored the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair with the Trylon and Perisphere, but it was interesting to learn about the others as well. I did however have a thoroughly unexpectedly geeky moment as a comic book fan when I encountered the massive Elektro, the Westinghouse robot. In DC Comics’ “All Star Squadron”, based at the fairgrounds, they had a similar robot named Gernsback.

If you’re interested in one particular World’s Fair, you might find the exhibit frustrating, since all the Fairs are mixed and mingled together, so you learn about all the architecture together. But it’s equally fascinating to see the different styles side by side for comparison. The emphasis was architecture and interior design, but there were also sections on technology and transportation. Major industries  used the World’s Fair to show off their latest and greatest or try to predict what would come next. There seemed a heavy emphasis on speculating on the future.

I loved the aviation section. I’d known that the Graf Zeppelin had visited Chicago for the 1933 World’s Fair. The exhibit even had a cancelled mail envelope from that trip. However I hadn’t known that the Goodyear Blimp was on the fairgrounds itself. Or their massive Sky Ride, a tramway that crossed the lagoon. That would have terrified me no end. For all my interest in airships, I don’t do well with heights.

What struck me most was the scale involved and the amount of work and preparation that must have gone into each one. In the heart of the Depression, they provided much needed jobs, but I could also see someone asking “What’s the point?” The Fairs were a strange source of hope, an escape from the everyday. You could wander around them and see all the wonderful gadgets and cars and houses and forget all the problems. You could imagine living a different life in a prefabricated house with fancy new appliances.

We still don’t have flying cars or robot maids (or personal airships), but we can still dream, can’t we?

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

I love musicals, movie or Broadway. And yet I’ve had a spotty relationship with Stephen Sondheim. I can quote vast tracks of “Into the Woods” by heart and have seen several productions of it, yet I’ve never quite warmed up to some of his other repertoire. I can’t tell if it’s the productions I’ve tried to listen to or the actual material itself. That may be why I loved the “Sondheim at Carnegie Hall” celebration from 1992. I listened to that cd set to death when it was first released. The songs were performed divorced from their show context and sometimes even remixed or combined with other songs from other sources. The show also showed how wide Sondheim’s influence stretched from the classically trained singers to the Broadway divas to alt-pop singing groups. Listening the whole two cd set again tonight, I noticed some of the same old favorites — Daisy Egan charming everyone in “Broadway Baby” or Karen Ziemba slinking her way into “Sooner or Later” or the Tonics’ “Good Thing Going”. I was also struck by the ones we’ve lost along the way from Michael Jeter’s “Love I Hear” to wacky Madeline Kahn as the doomed wannabe bride Amy or Dorothy Loudon wondering if she was “Losing My Mind/You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” I appreciated the humorous songs better than the big dramatic ones.  But there was the caustic wit of “Weekend in the Country” and the bitterness of “Ballad of Booth”. The best songs for me showed Sondheim’s real flair for words, his ability to turn a phrase around. And yet there was “Anyone Can Whistle” in a spare piano accompaniment that affected me more than say “Being Alive”.

I do want to give “Sunday in the Park with George”, “A Little Night Music” and “Company” second chances. Maybe I can appreciate them now that I’m older.



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