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How Not Just Setting, but Sense of Place Influences My Writing

My Sidra Smart mystery series is set in Orange, a small Southeast Texas town said to carry its own gravity. You either get out early or you don’t get out at all.

I got out early—shortly after high school—and that was many years ago.

When I started writing the first draft of Dance On His Grave, (number one in the series) my husband was adamant. Do not set the book in Orange, Texas.

You see, he isn’t from Orange. Isn’t even Texan. His hometown is in south Florida. Add to that, he traveled the world during his thirty years in the Army. So Orange holds no magic for him—gravity, either. He jokes he would only move there when he lost the will to live. He further jokes that everyone who lives in Orange and can read—all ten of them—has copies of my books. (Good thing my hometown folks know he’s kidding!)

However, when my muse stomped her foot and refused to work with me if I didn’t follow her lead, I learned real quick to do what she says. I set my books in Orange and never regretted that decision.
In case you are not familiar with that part of the world, traveling east on Interstate 10, Orange is the last get-off before crossing into Louisiana.

Mystical swamps, bayous and the Sabine and Neches Rivers meander through a part of the state that sleeps under the threat of hurricanes. Where mosquitoes seem as big as dragonflies. Where crawfish boils and Cajun music entice and entertain.

Setting is not just important to my writing. It is the backbone of the work. It encapsulates both my characters and my plot. When I fail to capture the flavor of that setting my writing seems bland, watered down—an imitation of story.

If I do setting and sense of place well, I put the reader there like nothing else can. It makes the difference between telling a story and taking my reader on an exciting journey.

Some writers start with a plot or with characters in mind, and then decide on the setting. My setting comes first, and the other comes later.

The key ingredient is to be in love with the setting, whether it be a real place, or one I create in my mind, or a mixture of both. If I can’t fall in love (or hate) with my chosen setting, I go back to the drawing board.

My goal is to capture a sense of place and weave it into the setting by tapping into the senses. I judiciously lace snippets throughout the story in such a manner that the reader isn’t even aware that is what I have done. Too much too quickly and I create an info dump that ends up boring the reader—the last thing I want to do.

Setting is important, but equally so is a sense of place. It sets the stage. It confines the characters. It forces interaction.

If you struggle with how-to, try having your character reflect on their surroundings. This can fire up the character’s passions and fuel their actions. The story and the theme grow deeper and richer. And as always, practice, practice, practice.

Check out these sites: Orange, Texas Visitors Bureau

Stark Cultural Venues

THE DAY OF THE IGUANA

(This story is a re-run, but it always makes me smile.)

Nothing unusual happened today—unless you count that thing with the iguana…

There I was, sitting on my front porch, staring out at a desert full of cactus, creosote bushes, and Joshua Trees, minding my own business, mellowed out, my feet up and a cancer stick in my mouth, when the dang thing wandered on the porch. He stood staring up at me with his long skinny tongue darting back and forth like he thought I was the most delicious thing he’d seen all day.

Now, if you’ve never seen an iguana before, those suckers grow big! Not like those little pets you see in stores plopped down in big, plastic buckets. This guy must’ve been five feet long, including that yardstick tail he drug up the steps behind him. I thought I was gonna mess my britches before I could get on the other side of the screen door. But soon as I did, he gives me this pitiful little look that says he’s lost his best friend. And I swear a tear run down his scaly face.

Never one to hurt a guy’s feelings, I says to him, “Baby, it wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t so god-awful ugly. Look at that skin! You done look like you been out in the sun way too long. And those fingernails! Honey, what you really need is a manicure.”

So up I get to the bathroom, collect my little basket of clippers, and emery boards, and cuticle scissors, and march right back out on that porch. Sure enough, he’s still there, still looking sad and forlorn. I open up my basket and get to work.

I’m here to tell you, that iguana spread-eagled on that porch and lay there just as patient as if I was his mama fixing him a bowl of Ramen Noodles and tossing in three ice cubes to cool it off!

In no time, I finished my job, and put my things back in my little basket. I could a sworn the prissy critter smiled as he turned and ambled off the porch with the brightest, prettiest Jungle-Red toenails you done ever seen.

And that was my day. The day of the iguana.

The Painted Ladies

5h Book in the Sidra Smart series.

LAUNCHES NOVEMBER 1, 2018 AVAILABLE IN ONLINE BOOK STORES SHORTLY THERE AFTER.

Old houses . . . do they celebrate happy times with us? Do hurt when we hurt? Or do their have their own stories to whisper in the night, their own dark secrets to hide?

In this 5th book in the award-winning Sidra Smart mystery series, slightly psychic private investigator Sidra Smart has a young female client who has inherited not one but three mysterious Victorian houses in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

The moment Sidra walks into the Painted Ladies, she senses something is off kilter. Is it just that the houses were commonly known as brothels in the early 1900s, in the days when the likes of Al Capone and other ne’er-do-wells spent much wanton time in the resort town?

As autumn transforms to winter, Sidra needs to protect her client, young Belle Anderson, from getting drawn too deeply into a tangled web of odd stories, spectral visitors, unsettling mysteries, and possible evil deeds committed.

As the snow falls, the two women, with their faithful sidekicks (dogs Slider and Jenkins), must try to get to the bottom of what lies beneath the facade of the beautifully painted Victorians.

Sassy Alligator Pickles

I never expected to author books and here my eighth book will be released on November 1, 2018. I also never expected to create my own label pickle. Thing is, when you listen to the universe there’s no telling what you might do. Sidra Smart came into my life and guided my words in her Sidra Smart Mystery series. As she found her voice, I found mine.

Then she told me to make Sassy Alligator Pickles and sell them along with her books. Well, dang it, how can you tell your protagonist no. Hence, I now make sweet and spicy pickles. They soon became my husband’s favorite, so I sell all those he can’t eat. They will be available for purchase at the Holiday in the Park in West Orange, Texas on November 3, along with the newest Sidra–called The Painted Ladies — or maybe The Three Sisters–soon to be decided. It takes the reader to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Come buy books if you can, and don’t forget to get a jar of pickles.

What Is Writer’s Voice & How Do I Find Mine?

It can be a struggle for a writer to find their voice, regardless of whether they are writing a novel, a short story, flash fiction or memoir. Many even ask what is Writer’s Voice? A writer’s voice is unique to each individual writer much like a voice is unique to singers. It has to do with the way a person writes, and is as natural as is our speaking voice. Readers learn to recognize the author of a book by their writing style or voice. In this workshop writers will discover their raw voice and how to use it to create unique characters.

A writer’s voice is something uniquely their own. It makes their work pop, plus readers recognize the familiarity. You would be able to identify the difference between Tolkien and Hemingway, wouldn’t you? It’s the way they write; their voice, in writing, is as natural as everyone’s speaking voice. Your voice should be authentic, even if you borrow a sense of style from your favorite author. But don’t forget, style and voice are different.

When you find that unique voice, you might not even be able to explain how it came about—let alone describe what it is. That’s the beauty of writing and discovering as you write. Sometimes the best things just happen naturally.

 

You are the only one who can write your stories. Discover how.

 

Voice is the style of an author, that element that makes her or his writing unique—different than any other. It communicates the author’s character, their attitude, their personality most powerful tool a writer has. Learn how to hear the voices that are uniquely yours alone. Learn how to discover raw voice, voices from childhood, colloquial voices, personal and private voices. Learn how to use your voice to create characters. .

Voice Definition: Voice has two meanings as it concerns creative writers:

  • Voice is the author’s style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author’s attitude, personality, and character; or
  • Voice is the characteristic speech and thought patterns of a first-person narrator; a persona. Because voice has so much to do with the reader’s experience of a work of literature, it is one of the most important elements of a piece of writing.

Also Known As: Persona

Voice is something that emerges naturally as a writer develops.

Getting Started

Your audience determines what you write, what examples and details to include, what to emphasize, word choice and tone.

  • Your purpose for writing determines what you write, the point of your writing, and how you will make your point.
  • Knowing audience and purpose gives your writing focus.

What is Voice?

When I began teaching, I had no idea how to teach voice. I wasn’t even sure what it was. I asked several colleagues “How do you teach voice in writing?” I’ll summarize their answers: “Voice, you either have it or you don’t. You can’t really teach it.” Translation: “I don’t know what it is either.”

Well, here is what I teach about voice now:

  • Each writer has a distinct personality.
  • Each writer has passions, opinions, prejudices, and information.
  • Words should capture the writer’s personality.
  • Writers with strong voice capture the reader’s attention with individuality, liveliness, and energy.
  • Strong voice makes the writer’s purpose clear.
  • Strong voice helps readers experience the emotions of the writer and understand the writer’s ideas.
  • Careful word choice, punctuation, paragraphing, and style help strengthen a writer’s voice.

An exercise for finding your voice

Not sure where to start? No problem. Most of us need help understanding our voice. Here’s a short exercise that can help you — just follow these 10 steps:

  1. Describe yourself in three adjectivesExample: snarky, fun, and flirty.
  2. Ask (and answer) the question:“Is this how I talk?”
  3. Imagine your ideal reader. Describe him in detail. Then, write to him, and only him. Example: My ideal reader is smart. He has a sense of humor, a short attention span, and is pretty savvy when it comes to technology and pop culture. He’s sarcastic and fun, but doesn’t like to waste time. And he loves pizza.
  4. Jot down at least five books, articles, or blogs you like to read. Spend some time examining them. How are they alike? How are they different? What about how they’re written intrigues you? Often what we admire is what we aspire to be. Example: Chris Brogan, Seth Godin, Ernest Hemingway, and C.S. Lewis. I like these writers, because their writing is intelligent, pithy, and poignant.
  5. List your favorite artistic and cultural influences. Are you using these as references in your writing, or avoiding them, because you don’t think people would understand them. Example: I use some of my favorite bands’ music in my writing to teach deeper lessons.
  6. Ask other people: “What’s my voice? What do I sound like?” Take notes of the answers you get.
  7. Free-write.Just go nuts. Write in a way that’s most comfortable to you, without editing. Then go back and read it, asking yourself, “Do I publish stuff that sounds like this?”
  8. Read something you’ve recently written, and honestly ask yourself,“Is this something I would read?” If not, you must change your voice.
  9. Ask yourself: “Do I enjoy what I’m writingas I’m writing it?” If it feels like work, you may not be writing like yourself. (Caveat: Not every writer loves the act of writing, but it’s at least worth asking.)
  10. Pay attention to how you’re feeling.How do you feel before publishing? Afraid? Nervous? Worried?  You’re on the right track. If you’re completely calm, then you probably aren’t being vulnerable. Try writing something dangerous, something a little more you. Fear can be good. It motivates you to make your writing matter.

Why do you need a writing voice?

Finding your voice is the key to getting dedicated followers and fans and that it’s the only sustainable way to write. If you’re not being yourself, you’ll eventually burn out.

Once you’ve found your voice, make sure you continue to develop it. It’s a discipline, one that can’t be overlooked if you’re going to have the impact you desire and that your words deserve.

The bottom line is that there’s a lot of noise out there in the world. If you’re going to get heard, you can’t just raise your voice. You’ve got to set yourself apart, showing you have something special to say, and that you have a unique way of saying it.

What does your writing voice sound like? Have you found it yet, or are you still searching? If so, keep going. One day you will find it and be surprised that you knew it all along.

 

 

 

 

 

**This article is a result of my own experience and of others whose names have been lost over time. For that, I apologize.

 

 

Writing With Purpose

WRITING WITH PURPOSE

by Sylvia Dickey Smith

“Cat: Where are you going?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
― Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

When we write, our purpose is not to get to a certain place in the book (or poem or article). It’s to enjoy each step along the way.

Annie Dillard says, “One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it all, play it all, right away, every time… give it, give it all, give it now.”

  1. CIRCLE THE QUESTIONS:

There are countless ways into our writing. These ways usually involve innumerable questions.

How do I start?

Where?

Who are the characters,

What shall I name them?

What’s my plot going to be.

These are fantastic questions—Why? Because they create cracks. Fabulous cracks—the beauty of our story is often in the cracks created by those questions, not in the questions themselves.

I want to invite you to circle those cracks made by your questions.

The answers often change, but we keep circling the questions. How do we do that? By writing. By examining the different sides of the questions, the angles, the cracks.

Tim O’Brien says, “Fiction’s purpose is not to explain the mystery, but to expand it.” (1946, Austin, MN) The Things They Carried:

A classic work of American literature that has not stopped changing minds and lives since it burst onto the literary scene, The Things They Carried is a groundbreaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling

Lots of people write from answers. We’ve discovered some truth and want to share it. Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis for example. They take us by the hand and walk us through a process to learn the truth they learned. That’s not bad. Often those are important truths…but…

I challenge you—and me—to read and write, not books that lead, but books who don’t lead, but allow me to join them on the search, who utter unanswerable questions, who expand the mystery.

Authors like Annie Dillard, Elie Wiesel, (Night) Henri Nouwen (Life of the Beloved)

  1. FACE THE GHOSTS

Ghosts are fleeting, subtle entities, which make them more terrifying.

Sticky haunts

Vague images of disturbing ideas.

When a ghost shows up, we usually run away. Click on the TV, pour another drink while trying to convince ourselves we didn’t see it.

Writers can’t afford to avoid them. We choose to be haunted.

Break into a haunted house. Eyes wide.

Walk through a cemetery late at night.

Call out to spirits and phantoms.

THEN, when we discover a specter, don’t run…..write.

Grab the details….fast…knowing how quickly they spook.

We give it life, sinew, we give—er…lend it our skin.

We ask its name and wait for it to whisper why it exists.

Do not ignore the lessons of the Ghosts….

  1. FIND THE HEART

“It’s funny. No matter how hard you try, you can’t close your heart forever. And the minute you open it up, you never know what’s going to come in. But when it does, you just have to go for it! Because if you don’t, there’s not point in being here.”
― Kirstie Alley

Sometimes it takes us a while to learn what our book is REALLY about. We think we know—maybe we think we are writing a book on…say… ….class distinction or environmental crimes—but then, in the process, we find, or sometimes our closest readers reveal to us—that the hot center is the relationship between two characters. Once you find it—the hot heart of your piece—tend it.

How do you tend it? Feed the fire! What? Details, secrets, characters, props to exacerbate the dramatic situation.

Sometimes the best way to increase the heat is to feed the fie with details, secrets, characters.

The fuel you add can be a memory, a person, or an environmental element. It can be traumatic.

A drunk sitting in a bar in a drunken stupor, persistent mosquito buzzing around his head, hot, humid ringing phone. Often the heart of your story is hidden under the fire, that you keep piling kindling on top of, while it smolders.

Writing with Purpose is not an easy trail to follow. Take time to circle the cracks within the questions of your work, delight in the discovery of purpose. Face the ghosts that show up, give them air-time, follow their trail, and Find the Heart of your story—and exploit it.

WOMEN AS MYTH-MAKERS

Aphrodite

Story—myth—is what holds societies together. It creates full-spectrum color out of what would otherwise be a black and white world. Story adds meaning, excitement, hope, focus, inspiration, commitment, dedication, renewal, and foundation to our life. (To name a few. The list is endless)

We create not only our present, but also our future, by the stories we recount to others, and sometimes to ourselves, about who we are and where we are going.

Nancy Baker Jones says, “Told long enough, or granted enough significance, stories become myth and myth become the psyche culture, the commonly held knowledge by which a culture defines and describes itself and its members.”

These myths do not develop overnight. Betty Sue Flowers is quoted to have said, “Myths do not emerge full-blown, like Athena from the head of Zeus. They’re made up of bits and pieces of other myths…”

In our historically patriarchal society, myth has been male dominant. Over the generations, men sat around campfires and told their tales (or wrote their books, sold them, and received rave reviews as if only men were authors.)

However, times are a changing. As more women find their voices, they begin telling their own stories, redrawing our psyche culture, altering the commonly held knowledge by which our world defines and describes itself.

I encourage women today to find that sacred place. Gather your memories around you, invite the stories of your life to unfold, and then write then down. When you do, not only do you discover your own stories, but you also help create a new mythology for us, for our daughters and for our granddaughters.

And as you write, let the words of golf champion, Babe Erickson Zaharias inspire you.

“It’s not enough to swing at the ball. You’ve got to loosen your girdle and let ’er fly.”

 

 

PAY ATTENTION

Pay attention? To what, you may ask. Pay attention to everything.

Learn how to tune into life and the world around you—the seen and the unseen. There is so much more to this world, and to those who people it, than we realize.

Pay attention to the weary-looking clerk checking your groceries. Strike up a conversation with her by asking how her day has been. If she’s tired, how many hours she’s worked that day. Find something to compliment them on. Pay attention to how their eyes light up and their backs straighten.

Smile and greet a stranger. Strike up a friendly conversation and enjoy their presence.

Pay attention to the trees blowing in the breeze, or the layer of frost on the ground. Walk outside at night and look up at the moon.

Notice if someone looks like they need help and offer it.

Pay attention when that still small voice says, “Slow down, don’t drive so fast.” Or, “let that person in line ahead of you.”

Pay attention to your significant other. Hear what they say and make sure you understand it correctly. Every day, tell someone you love them.

Pay attention to your own needs and the difference in how you feel when you take proper care of your body.

In other words, wake up to your world. Participate in it. Interact with others. Give of yourself. Care about each other and care about our planet.                

 

Copyright: Sylvia Dickey Smith

BLUE EGG ON MY FACE

I jumped out of the shower that morning, threw on my clothes and rushed to the grocery, not bothering to dry my hair or apply makeup. It’s early, no one will recognize me, I told myself. A few minutes into shopping, a voice over the PA system requested “the driver of a Blue Honda Fit, with a Purple Heart license # XXXX please come to customer service.”

Blue Honda Fit, Purple Heart License plate—pretty dang specific—and they described my car! Had someone hit it? What?

I left my basket and headed to the front. On the way, I decided there was no reason to go all the way to Customer Service, but to go straight to my car. That’s where the problem existed.

As I approached, I saw two men standing at the rear of my car. “Is there a problem?” I asked. The first man said, “No, I don’t have a problem, but this guy can’t get out,” pointing to the second man.

“What’s the prob…” I started, but then stopped mid-sentence as the problem came into view. Although my small car was well within the lines of the parking space, his car, in front of mine, headed the same direction, was parked at the front of the space, and a truck on the other aisle meant his car was what you might call land-locked.   Somehow the lines were really long, and both our cars had fit in the same parking space. The problem was that his vehicle was in front of mine—and he couldn’t get out!

Talk about red-faced. After we both had a good laugh, I apologized profusely.

“By the way,” he said, “how do you like the Fit. I’m thinking about buying one.”

I gave him our experience with the Honda Fit — we love it!” I moved the car and continued my shopping. Meanwhile, he backed out and drove out of the lot–on his way home to tell his wife about his adventure–and the crazy, wild-haired woman!

And as usual, when a story is too funny to keep, I don’t, even when it is on me!

“Hawkish” Hillary Clinton

GUEST BLOGGERJanet Christian: JANET CHRISTIAN

I’ve avoided political topics on my Facebook wall because I don’t want it turning into a sh*tfest. But my son and I were chatting this morning and I realized something he doesn’t “get” simply because he did grow up as a white male in this country.

Hillary’s (likely) nomination is a HUGE step forward for women. Yes, she’s pretty “hawkish”. And as my husband Eric put it, she’s worked hard to be “badder than the boys” — pretty much like Margaret Thatcher was.

Here’s the thing most men don’t get — but any woman who has ever fought her way up the corporate ladder (as I did) DOES get, in spades: Women who don’t act like “one of the guys” will NEVER break the glass ceiling — not in politics, not in corporations. Period.

It is going to take some “ballsy” women to break that ceiling, so other, more “progressive” women can have their chance and follow behind them. That’s just the way it is. Look at how Hillary’s been attacked for “raising her voice” (how DARE a woman “yell”).

So I’m proud to see a potential woman president in my lifetime, after years of struggling in the male-dominated corporate world and being overlooked and stepped on time after time simply because of my gender. This is a HUGE milestone for women.

I like to think that younger women will now have so many more opportunities to make it WITHOUT having to sell out and act like “one of the guys”. They can be their proud female selves.

***

Janet posted this on her Facebook page today, and it so described why I celebrate recent events–well, really one reason. I also support Hillary Clinton because she is far and away the most qualified.  Hillary is a perfect fit for my theme of Writing Strong Women. So is Janet Christian for voicing the truth so well.

~Sylvia

 

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