Research, Reality, and Reaching Out to Other Writers

Have you ever been “done” with research only to find that you are just getting started? Over the past few months I’ve read several books (two of them around the 500 page mark) and watched about 30 hours of documentaries on various historical aspects of the time periods my WIP covers (or will cover if I ever get done researching). I felt I was done.

Then I went out to dinner with my friend Valerie.

While waiting to be seated at a restaurant, we wandered over to Schuler Books & Music and perused the used book section, where I found (with her pernicious help) two more l-o-n-g books to read as background research. Mind you, I was not looking for these books. They were looking for me. Nothing from these books will actually end up in my novel, as the time periods they describe are not covered in my story, but the background knowledge they promise to provide is really essential for understanding some socioeconomic and cultural realities in a particular place and time that will be covered in the book.

All this to say, I’m not ready to write as gung-ho as I would have to be in order to do NaNoWriMo. Beyond that, I have not been able to finish November’s short story this week as I had hoped, so I will have that to do next month as well. Releasing myself from NaNoWriMo madness also allows me to work on that nonfiction book about intentional writing I mentioned. So I’ll still be writing, I’ll just be switching the order that I work on two of my projects.

In addition to that, I will be a contributing editor to the Women’s Fiction Writers Association‘s newsletter and I’ve been asked to prepare a feature article for their first issue. I’m very excited to have the opportunity to reach out to other writers beyond those of you who read this blog through my involvement with WFWA and through the writing book (which I hope to release in January now).

So the plan for the rest of 2013 will be to finish up my last two short stories, finish my nonfiction book for writers, start writing and editing for WFWA, and really finish my research. And that is plenty for just two months. In January, once the writing book is released, I’ll work on formatting my collection of short stories for a print edition for all you non-techies. And then, once those other items are off my plate, I will have the time and mental energy to devote every free moment of writing time to my novel.

So that’s how my year is wrapping up. What about you? What do you want to finish before 2014 rolls around? Tomorrow begins a new month. Thirty days to work toward the finish line of whatever goal you have right now. What are you going to do with the time you have?

Wildflower Wednesday: Canada Goldenrod

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Common Name: Canada Goldenrod

Scientific Name: Solidago canadensis

Habitat & Range: dry, open fields and prairies

Bloom Time: summer and fall

About: Did you know there are many kinds of Goldenrod? This one is probably the one you see most, but it has many relatives throughout Michigan (over 20) and the rest of the continent (over 100!). A member of the aster family, Goldenrod blooms in August and September and its fluffy white seeds can hang on up into November.

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Lots of insects are attracted to Goldenrod, including these guys who are busy procreating:

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And Goldenrod seem to be a favorite plant for insects who create galls–those bulbous growths in which the insect then lives and sometimes “farms” its food. Here are three in a row on a Goldenrod stem on Mackinac Island:

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Reference: Wildflowers of Michigan by Stan Tekiela; Adventure Publications, 2000

How 12 Ordinary Photos Became 12 Eye-Catching Ebook Covers

Over this past year, a few different people have asked me about the covers I’m creating for the short stories I’ve written. Some have wondered how I create them. It occurred to me that it might be fun to show you all the original photos I started with and the finished covers side by side so you can see how I decided what to keep, what to chop, and what to change in order to make a photo into a cover. This is going to end up a pretty long post, but I hope a pretty interesting one as well.

If I had been really smart, I would have tracked all of the changes I made to the photos so I could tell you exactly how to achieve particular effects in Photoshop. Alas, I did not do so. But messing around in Photoshop and seeing what you come up with is half the fun anyway. I didn’t really know what I was doing in several of these, so if I can end up with something compelling, so can you, even if you’re a newbie. (Also, it helps to have a husband who actually does know what he’s doing and can answer all my questions.)

Without further ado…

Beneath the Winter Weeds

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Super simple because I started with a great photo. Crop, sharpen, layer one effect (don’t remember which!), and add text. You’ll see I kept the same fonts on every cover in order to give everything a family look, despite all the different colors and images.

The Door

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Another one I didn’t change much beyond cropping. You’ll note that in all of these, I selected colors that were in the photo as the colors for the text. That’s one of the simplest ways to create more cohesion in a cover. If you choose colors form a chart, you’re going to get things that aren’t quite matches. Use the eye-dropper tool to select colors that are already in your photo to then color your text. Also, watch out for high contrast photos where it’s hard to find enough room to put a title that will be readable. In this photo, it was hard to find a spot for the already very short title where I could have it all one font color and yet still readable. I think I was pushing it on this one. “The” is very easy to read, while “Door” is a bit harder.

This Elegant Ruin

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I hadn’t planned on putting my model on the cover at all–I only wanted to have the violin in the proper playing position. But Corissa had such an enigmatic look in her eye and I love this girl’s hair. With some adjustments for lighting and a warming filter, the whole cover has a very warm, honey glow to it. I smudged the background to create that rounded light (rather than have the straight windowsill) and created the illusion of movement on the bow using the same tactic. I remember having trouble placing the words, and even changed the title from its original (An Elegant Ruin) to achieve the right balance for the words. I then played with triangles in placement. There are three triangle shapes in this cover. Also, notice how much of the photo I didn’t use. Cropping is absolutely the most basic and effective way to turn a mediocre photo into a good one.

Also, this was one of only two photos I actually took after writing the story, for the purpose of a cover image. All the rest were photos I already had, some of them many years old.

We Shall Sometime Come to Someplace

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I loved this rabbit. Problem was, the rabbit in the story is a wild one, not a gray domestic one. Wild rabbits are brown. This took a LOT of tries to get the right brown for the rabbit and the right brown for the background and those two layers were manipulated separately first, then together. It was hard to keep this from becoming just too dark.

Clean

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Look how dark and crooked that original is! I did so much to this photo, I can’t even begin to tell you how I did it. Lots of strategic lighting adjustments, layer by layer, bit by bit. This was the other cover for which I asked a girl from church to model after I wrote the story. Elise didn’t bat an eye about getting in that dryer in full view of a number of people washing their clothes at the laundromat.

One Endless Summer Day

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I knew I needed a ladybug for this. But she couldn’t be on a rock. I knew I needed a green plant for this. But it couldn’t be boring. So out came the lasso tool and a lot of patience, twisting and turning and shrinking and shadowing so it would look semi-real. I like the way it turned out in the end.

10 Degrees Cooler in the Shade

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This was an image/title pair that preceded the story and I wrote the story to fit it. Not a lot of edits on the image. It was already quite eye-catching.

The Astonishing Moment

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This may be the image that was worked over the most. When you see the original and final side by side it may not even see like the same photo. The cover image was cropped from the left side (see the lighter almost vertical line between the clouds?) and then I used several different artistic filters to make it look more illustrated, which fits with a bit in the story (although I didn’t realize it until I wrote this post). See the Mackinac Bridge in the distance in the original? Don’t let that fool you. The story actually takes place on Lake Superior.

The Beginning and the End

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Cropped, flipped, brightened, and a little fun with the text. Not much more to say, except that this was one of the first images I shot with my macro lens when I got it.

Drive

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This image was obviously cropped and brightened and I upped the color saturation. I also used an artistic effect (perhaps watercolor?). I didn’t have to blur it to make it look like there was movement down the road as I took this from the passenger seat one day when we were driving Up North.

Memory Man

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This photo of the undergirding of a train bridge over the Lansing River Trail also serves as the basis of the background on my husband’s website. I needed something urban looking, but didn’t want the graffiti to compete with the words on the cover, so I rotated the photo 90 degrees and cropped out my cover image from what is really the top of the original photo (note the dark strip of rivets to orient your brain). Then I enhanced the colors, brightened, increased contrast, and added effects to make it less photoreal and more like a painting. I put the words vertical because of all the dark rust and even dropped an article because it didn’t really fit the design (it used to be called The Memory Man). A real graphic designer could have made it work, I’m sure. I also removed distracting dots of rust from beneath the words so that the title and author name can be easily read.

Water & Light

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Lastly, another very simple one. Just a matter of cropping, brightening, and placing text. This one I haven’t written yet, haven’t started at all, and have barely thought about. It may or may not end up with some subtle tie to Christmas since it will be coming out in December. The title simply came from the building that is featured in the photo (and may or may not have anything to do with the eventual story), which is the Lansing Board of Water and Light building downtown. Built in the 1930s, it is a gorgeous place with Art Deco lines and stirring murals on the lobby walls. Modern public buildings just don’t compare. Anyway, we’ll see what story I can come up with to fit the cover and title.

And that makes twelve. Twelve photos, twelve covers, twelve stories. I’m busy working on Memory Man right now. This has been such a fun year-long experiment. I highly recommend you try it if you’re struggling with consistent writing. As you write you will hone your skills and short stories are far easier to finish than novels, thus giving you that satisfying feeling of typing out the last sentence far more often. We’re getting close to the end of the year. It may be time to start thinking up some writing goals for 2014…

Wildflower Wednesday: False Solomon’s Seal

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Common Name: False Solomon’s Seal

Scientific Name: Smilacina racemosa

Habitat & Range: deciduous woods

Bloom Time: spring and summer

About: We’ve been out in the fields for months, but there are plenty of wildflowers to be found in the woods. Most tend to bloom in spring when there is more sunlight getting through to the forest floor, but in the summertime you can spot lots of them by their leaves and berries. False Solomon’s Seal is an easy one to identify. Long, bending stems look a bit like palm branches with simple, alternating leaves that are even attractive when they’re dying:

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If your local nursery stocks woodland plants like Trillium and Hepatica and Jack-in-the-Pulpit, odds are they will have this too. That’s where I got mine. Solomon’s Seal is also sold in attractive variegated varieties and can brighten up a shady, tree-filled backyard.

Reference: Wildflowers of Michigan by Stan Tekiela; Adventure Publications, 2000

New Release: Drive

I pleased to announce the release of October’s short story, Drive. I got the initial idea for this story last year and this is one of the first covers I designed when I decided to write and self-publish a short story every month of 2013. However, it was not until last weekend when the last piece of the plot puzzle fell into place.

Writers, this is why you always want to capture those little ideas on paper. If I hadn’t written myself a note saying “guy goes to collect U-Haul-type trucks that aren’t returned” I might not have even remembered the premise when I came across a news story last weekend about a guy who was legally dead.

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So there you have it. Nearly a year in the making and here it finally is! Buy it here for Kindle. For those of you with other e-readers, I plan on releasing all of this year’s short stories on Smashwords in every conceivable format next spring. And for those of you who prefer traditional books, also coming in the spring will be a printed collection of all of this year’s stories. I’m so excited about it! So hang tight, stay tuned, and hold fast–your day is coming!

Should I Really Get Myself into This?

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I’m sure that some of you out there know what this is. For the rest of you, go here and then come back.

Are you back yet?

Last year I participated in NaNoWriMo and started writing a novel that I still intend to get back to at some point, but I didn’t finish out the month. I actually don’t really remember why I dropped the project.

But this year the timing is just right. My research for my next venture is nearly complete, I’m chomping at the bit to get started, and I really want to commit to consistent writing to get a huge chunk of this sucker done before the end of the year and keep the momentum going. My husband is also ready to start his next novel, so we can write together every night just like we did a couple years ago.

I do have my last three short stories to write. October’s should be done this week and I think I could get November’s started up as well so I wouldn’t be doing the entire thing next month. But another reason for me to go gung-ho on the novel during November is because early next year I want to put together my short story collection, which will require time to do interior design, and I want to write an ebook about my experiences with more intentional writing this year that will contain lots of great advice about finding a writing rhythm, dealing with problems and blacks as the arise, and self-pubbing.

So I figure if I have 50,000 words of the novel’s first draft written before December…well, I’d feel pretty dang good about myself.

What about you? Have you ever participated in NaNoWriMo? Ever thought about it? Think you could give yourself over to your writing for one month? Imagine what you could come out with on the other side…

Kill Your Smart Phone

Tomorrow afternoon I will be leading a workshop at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference on developing a writing rhythm. I’ll talk about the importance of carving out consistent time to write and a space (or spaces) in which to do it. But the most crucial part of the discussion will be on what I’m calling creative sustenance, what others may call “feeding your muse.” And I realized in the course of preparing for this discussion that I have developed a holistic hatred of cell phones in general and smart phones in particular.

I’ve never enjoyed talking on the phone to anyone beyond my husband when we are apart (which really doesn’t happen nowadays, but it certainly did back when I was still in high school and he was off at college already) and I do enjoy an occasional call from a far-flung friend.

Honestly, though, it’s not phone calls that irritate me so much. It’s constant texting, email checking, and web-surfing rather than a.) paying attention to the real person who is talking to you right now, showing just how anti-social social media really makes us, or b.) paying attention to the world around so that you don’t, say, get hit by my Explorer or, heaven forbid, notice the way the trees are swaying or that lonely old man sitting by himself in the corner. Also, there’s that incredible phenomenon of people watching movies on phones or tablets, in public, without headphones. When did that become acceptable?

But for the writer the danger is really point B, and not necessarily because of the possibility of getting run over. It’s because to write about real life you need to pay attention to real life. If it hasn’t already happened, I’m sure someone will make a literary splash at some point for writing a novel entirely in texts, but for most real stories populated with real characters living in a real setting (all of which need to be conveyed in precise words on a page/screen) you have to PAY ATTENTION to the stuff that is real.

If you’re an artist of any kind and you find your well of creativity is running dry, it may be because you’ve been looking at little beyond a screen for too long. Get out in real life and engage. Talk to that old man in the corner. Something he says or the expression that crosses his face will likely inspire you to write a novel or a screenplay or a short story. Look at the tops of those trees swaying in the breeze and imagine what happens on a day where wind blows and leaves wrench themselves from branches and go skittering down the road.

Readers need you to notice for them (because they’re all staring at their little electronic idols too). And you can’t point out beauty and sadness and truth to them if you don’t see it yourself.

Wildflower Wednesday: Bee Balm or Wild Bergamot

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Common Name: Bee Balm or Wild Bergamot

Scientific Name: Monarda fistulosa

Habitat & Range: dry, sunny fields and roadsides

Bloom Time: summer

About: Do you like Earl Grey tea? The distinctive taste comes from Oil of Bergamot, derived from this native wildflower. If you like growing native plants for tea, this is a must-have. A part of the mint family, tea made from the leaves of Wild Bergamot is supposed to aid in digestion and treat respiratory problems (just like mint tea). Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds love these flowers, but beware that it is a fairly aggressive spreader–great if you’ve got a large butterfly garden, but it may take over less pushy plants in a cottage garden. I have both the wild version and a showier cultivar (below) with bigger leaves and big, fuchsia flowers, but less of that essential oil you want for your tea. It is definitely taking over its spot in the garden. In fact, the species and the cultivar apparently cross-pollinated last year and this year I had a deeper purple plant as well. I’ll have move my poor crowded coneflowers elsewhere as I love these flowers that bloom when a lot of other stuff in the garden is looking kind of ragged from the summer heat. They are completely carefree practically the moment you put them in the ground.

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Reference: Wildflowers of Michigan by Stan Tekiela; Adventure Publications, 2000

October Is Almost Half Over–Don’t Miss It

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Along the drive to my son’s school is a block of city land devoted to nature. Surrounded on four sides by homes, a highway, and a golf course, it is nevertheless a patch of peaceful ground. This little enclave of trees and cattails and wildflowers is the haunt of ducks, herons, songbirds, rabbits, muskrats, turtles, and frogs, as well as senior citizens out on walks and health nuts getting in a run. It is lovely much of the year, but like all wooded areas in temperate zones, never so lovely as in fall.

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During our frenetic and emotionally taxing week last week, I stopped for twenty minutes one morning after dropping the boy off at school to take some pictures and breathe the cool October air. I took the photos you see in this post of Great White and Blue Herons, colorful sumac leaves, mist dancing above the water, and reflections of trees in the ponds.

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When I picked my son up that afternoon, I convinced him that visiting the ducks at the park would be far preferable to playing a video game or watching a TV show. We had a grand time greeting the ducks we knew (like Tucky, who is any female Mallard we encounter anywhere in the city) and naming those we were meeting for the first time (Caramel, Buttercup, Oreo, Splashy, Ducky, Woody, Shaky, etc.). We saw two muskrats and chipmunks with cheeks stuffed full of seeds.

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These two stops at the park took up less than an hour of my day. But that hour did so much good to my spirit. I saw so many different species of plants and animals living in such a small space. A compact and yet complex ecosystem.

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So much is packed into our lives. So many people, activities, responsibilities, diversions–all vying for attention. But in this little park nothing vied for attention. Everything waited quietly to be noticed.

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The silent rabbit I saw retreating ahead of me on the path did not need to be checked off my to-do list. Berries of every hue waited patiently on the bushes for me to note their presence or to pass them by without a glance. And while it’s fun to know the species of the trees or the birds or the flowers, it’s not necessary in order to enjoy looking at them.

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Surely there were creatures attempting to escape my notice entirely, like the cautious wading birds or whatever creature ducked underwater at my approach and created ringlets of tiny ripples retreating out into the pond.

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I try to make it a practice to notice nature. But when life gets so terribly busy it is easy to forget that there is a world out there that is unconcerned with deadlines or what happens on the next episode of insert-show-you-obsessively-watch. A bird is only concerned with eating. A plant is not concerned about anything at all! And while I wouldn’t want to be a heron or a maple tree, no matter how carefree their existence might be, I don’t want to miss what they have to teach me about patience, silence, and stillness.

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I hope you take the time for a little stroll in the woods or along a shore or in a nature center this week. The leaves are falling and this season will not last. Your project will be there tomorrow. Go take a walk.

October Morning Mist

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OCTOBER by Robert Frost

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.