Procrastination and the Perfect Writer’s Guide

There’s something alluring about reference books for writers. You know the ones, lining the shelves at your favorite local bookstore. They beckon, encouraging us to come closer, to flip through their pages to discover their secrets. They promise to teach us everything we need to know about creating compelling characters, powerful plots and revealing dialogue. They offer to give us a glimpse into the writing life as experienced by those who have earned some modicum of success. These guides are filled with information, tips, anecdotes and motivation. They are filled with promise.

They get me every time.

StevenKingCoverI’ve always been a bit of a research geek. When I want to learn something new, I tend to go all in, diving into the topic quickly and deeply. Some would claim this fascination serves as a distraction, a way to procrastinate from the hard work of putting words to paper. I’ve read many blog posts cautioning us to abstain from the allure of the writer’s reference book. You must practice the craft, not read about it. “These books are yet another way to put off the actual work. Research isn’t writing.” And I agree with this sentiment.

To a point.

I believe that any activity that lures us away from honing our skills falls in this category. My weakness is weeding out closets. When I’m stuck–or afraid to tackle a project–I tackle a drawer instead. I’m a master at this method of delay. If I’m engaged in de-cluttering the closet, it’s probably because my mind is too cluttered to move my story forward.

It is the writing reference guide that actually draws me back to the page. These books become the bridge that helps me return to the work at hand.

My current favorite is Alexandra Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. I keep Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing and Stephen Pressfield’s War on Art on my desk, close enough to guide me through a tough stretch of writing. They keep me pushing forward when dealing with the messy middle of my manuscript. I confess to sometimes spending too much time searching for that perfect  formula when I should be discovering the path through my own practice. Still, I rationalize this habit as one that encourages me to come back to the work rather than giving up on it entirely. And isn’t that what these books really offer? The hope, the gentle push to continue our efforts. And if they serve as a crutch now and again, well, that’s okay.

I just call it research.

What are your experiences? Which writer’s guides are your favorites, and do they help or hinder your daily word count?

–Laura Oles

Morning Pages: Don’t Speak. Don’t Judge. Don’t Fall Asleep.

Karleen Koen

Karleen Koen

The first day of last summer’s Writer’s League of Texas retreat, author-instructor Karleen Koen told students that every morning before class, we must do Morning Pages: Wake up, don’t speak, take pen and paper–not computer–and, while still drowsy, write “three pages of anything.” Don’t judge. Keep the pen moving. In her course notebook, Karleen listed the following:

Stream of consciousness, complain, whine, just move your hand across the page writing whatever crosses your mind until you get to the end of page three.

Karleen stressed that she didn’t invent Morning Pages. The technique, minus the name, came from the book Becoming a Writer by teacher Dorothea Brande, published in 1934 and reissued in 1981. Author John Gardner, in his foreword to the reprinted edition, states it was “astonishing” that the book had ever gone out of print.


Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

Ms Brande advises aspiring writers to “rise half an hour, or a full hour, before you customarily rise.” She continues,

Write anything that comes into your head: last night’s dream, if you are able to remember it; the activities of the day before; a conversation, real or imaginary; an examination of conscience. Write any sort of early morning reverie, rapidly and uncritically. (Brande, p. 72)

Julia Cameron, in her bestselling The Artist’s Way, published in 1992, named the process Brande advocated Morning Pages and made them the cornerstone of her Artist’s Way program. Cameron considers them a form of meditation.

Why do Morning Pages? To quiet the internal critic; to tap into the subconscious; to discover what you know; to remember and to capture the present; to build fluency, the ability to “write smoothly and easily when the unconscious is in the ascendant.” (Brande, p. 72) And, as Koen notes, to whine and complain.

When I do Morning Pages, I like to focus on whining and complaining. Words of discontent virtually flow from my pen when I follow Brande’s instruction to rise early. To wit:

The morning after Karleen assigned Morning Pages, my roommate and I woke to my cell phone alarm at seven rather than the previous day’s eight. (I think that was the morning the phone flew from the nightstand and landed on the concrete floor.) I propped myself up on a couple of pillows, gathered the pen and the notebook I’d placed on the nightstand before retiring the night before, and started to write.

While I wrote, my roommate sat on the side of her bed. Instead of picking up her notebook, she spoke. I reminded her we weren’t supposed to talk. She told me she didn’t care what we weren’t supposed to do. After violating the rules once or twice more, she started on her Morning Pages.

Roommate drinking tea and smiling

Roommate drinking tea and smiling

In my usual all-or-nothing fashion (a tiny bit of OCD), I wrote through hand cramp and shifting pillows. Halfway through, I fell asleep. When I woke about a half-hour later, I resumed scribbling.

My roommate had already finished her Pages. She had dressed. She had sat on the porch and drunk a cup of hot tea. She was smiling.

Sometimes it is better to bend the rules.

At break time, I quoted to Karleen the first sentence of my Morning Pages: I don’t like Karleen any more. (I said it in bold font.) She laughed uproariously and asked if I knew how funny I was. I didn’t tell her I was dead serious. Before the end of the day I would like her again, and if I told the truth now, I would have to apologize later, and I just didn’t have the energy.

Since I’m confessing, I might as well admit that, while I was scribbling, I figured out a fool-proof way to make Morning Pages a positive experience: Use a notebook with little tiny pages. They fill up faster.

Looking back, I’m ashamed of the thought, but at the time it seemed a darned good idea.

Anyway. Having griped about that miserable experience, I’ll also admit that Morning Pages work. I’ve done them off and on since 1998, when I heard Julia Cameron speak at the Austin Whole Life Festival. A small group of young men stood outside Palmer Auditorium holding placards and begging attendees to abandon chakras and crystals and choose reason instead, while inside, Cameron shared the most reasonable ideas on stimulating creativity.

So I read The Artist’s Way and, although a 17-cent spiral notebook would have sufficed, I bought a copy of The Artist’s Way Journal. (The Journal had enormous, narrow-ruled pages that took forever to cover, but having the proper tools is important to OCDs.)

Then I wrote. And whined. And complained. As I did, the garbage in my head moved down my arm, through my hand, and onto the page. By the time I got to page three, my mood had lightened. When I turned to other writing, the garbage stayed trapped inside the Journal.

Once the brain has been cleared of debris, words can flow.

That’s my experience. Others have their own reasons for writing those three pages per day. But those who engage in the practice swear by it.

Adequate sleep

Adequate sleep

As I said, I’m not consistent. I’ve done Morning Pages for months at a time, then skipped one day and failed to resume the habit.* Nearly every time I’ve given up,  fatigue has been the cause. A long commute before and after an extra-long day makes rising early unpleasant if not impossible. The same thing goes for getting to bed too late. Morning Pages require adequate sleep. But so does good health. So does good writing of any kind.**

Before leaving the retreat, I bought a special notebook for my return to Morning Pages. The signature on the cover looked like Dickens but turned out to be Darwin. No matter. Darwin and I are friends, too, and I wanted the green one. I’ve not yet made peace with going to bed at a decent hour. I’m trying. But when I stay up into the wee hours working on a blog post, my morning edges toward afternoon.

Oh–I’ve just remembered: A situation unrelated to fatigue once interfered with Morning Pages. It involved the repaving of twenty miles of FM20, a wintry cold house, and a new box of cat litter.

But that’s a story for another post.

Charles Darwin's signature on elegant green notebook

Charles Darwin’s signature on elegant green notebook


*Morning Pages is about the only habit I’ve ever managed to break.

** I’m not sure about sleep being necessary for good writing of all kinds. I suspect Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald might have stayed up past bedtime. But I bet Willa Cather kept regular hours. And, as people with any discernment at all recognize, Cather is at the very top of the American novelist pecking order.



Kathy Waller blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write ( and at the group blog Writing Wranglers and Warriors. She’s set aside her novel manuscript for a while to concentrate on writing short stories.

AMW Writing Retreat- AKA Babes in the Woods

I’ll be honest, I’ve never been on a writing retreat. So as the days got closer to October, my excitement grew. What all is involved? What is expected of me?

Like most gals (I think), I thought about accessories. What do I wear? Which made me think about my suitcase. I hate using the same old black blah suitcase so  I went shopping. I’ll also be going to a conference in November so I’ve been thinking about this. I went to JaCque Penney and found exactly what I was looking for.  I love this color of blue.


I also got so excited that I asked a talented friend to make something to “mark” the occasion. She made AMW book markers and magnets. Aren’t they cute? Book markers








(I think we should have more of these for prizes at future AMW events)

Friday finally came around, time to get to the cabin! I gathered my notes, computer, and supplies.

My notes







I got my directions and I was on my way! I arrived in no time at all and was the first to get there. I hunted around for the key, found it and let myself in. It was a gorgeous day so I opened all the windows. Let the magic begin! Cabin

While I waited for the others to arrive I unpacked. I heard a vehicle approaching. Yay! They’re here! Nope, a truck pulling a large BBQ cooker was arriving at the property next door. About ten minutes later I heard another engine. Yay! Nope, another truck pulling a large cooker, followed by a few more trucks.

By the time my cohorts had arrived, five more cookers had passed by. They were planning on some serious BBQ next door.Turns out there was a cook-off planned for the same weekend.

BBQ Sign

That’s okay because nothing was going to stop us!



We visited, relaxed, and had a nice time that first night.

Gale on couchKathy on couch


The next morning we awoke with a sense of business. Time to write! At first this was all I could think about, a keyboard staring back at me.Keyboard

I’m so glad I have an outline to keep me on track. Once I got started, I was in the groove and made some good progress. Throughout the day, we wrote in writing sprints. They were usually about 30 minutes long with breaks in between. During the breaks I’d go outside and enjoy the cool weather and listen to the music from the cook off next door.  Yard (We never did bet brave enough to see if they needed more judges.)


By the time we left on Sunday, all three of us had made quite a bit of progress on our projects. Mine was definitely more than if I had stayed at home. It was nice to share a creative space and have that extra discipline.

I declare the 2014 retreat a success!

Have you ever been on a writing retreat? Please share your ideas and experiences.


Tai Chi and the Writing Life

For me, Tai Chi is the perfect complement for the writing life. A meditative, do-it-anywhere physical discipline that builds strength, flexibility, coordination and balance, Tai Chi is just the right tonic for a profession that involves a lot of solitude and sitting.

Tai Chi

Warning: More than one person, including yours truly, has been sucked into Tai Chi for life by this video.

But the study of Tai Chi also promotes a character and frame of mind that supports the writing life. At Master Gohring’s Tai Chi and Kung Fu, where I’ve studied for five years, we remind ourselves at the end of each class that we follow the Five Hearts: Faith, Respect, Patience, Perseverance and Humility.

The five hearts work for writers, too.

Faith is not about religion; it’s about committing to your choice of discipline. In writing, it’s not indulging doubts about whether you should even try to write.

I take it a step further and strive to keep faith in the book I am working on. It’s hard, when you’re struggling, not to go haring off after another idea entirely. Set aside the questions; have faith that you are meant to write, and meant to write this book.

Respect: In Tai Chi, we respect the masters and teachers and students who have gone before us and from whom we learn. As writers, we respect the craft and the great writers who have gone before us, as well as other writers and other genres than our own.

We respect readers, too, and opinions different from your own. We should even respect our own negative reviewers—or am I going too far? Just kidding. Respect is an attentive attitude, the antidote for carelessness, dismissiveness, and stagnation.

Patience is remembering that you can’t do it all or learn it all in a day, or even a year—or many years. Your first draft is not a masterpiece. Of course not. Patience: give yourself a chance. Tai Chi and writing both take time and work.

Learning sword from a friend

Learning sword from a friend.

Perseverance goes without saying. Setbacks and disappointments are unimportant. Those who quit cannot succeed.

Humility: In Tai Chi, there is always more to learn, more that you don’t know. Same with us. Every book is a fresh challenge.


The five “life skills” are affirmations with accompanying Kung Fu movements. They help build the attitude we strive for in our study of Tai Chi, and they work for writing, too.

The path of self-mastery requires balanced emotions; balanced emotions do not yield to negativity. You don’t lose your motivation or confidence when you get a tough critique, a bad review or rejection, or when someone casually says something devastating about your efforts and goals.

The path of self-mastery requires a courageous heart; a courageous heart shows strength in the face of fear. What are our fears as writers? Failure, scorn, bad reviews, the risk of putting ourselves out there. We resolve to meet fear with strength.

The path of self-mastery requires a focused mind; a focused mind sees no obstacles. This isn’t about putting your head in the sand. An “obstacle” does not prevent you from getting to your goal. It’s just a challenge, a thing in the road, a problem to be solved so you can reach your goal.

The path of self-mastery requires persistent action; persistent action achieves a goal without quitting. See perseverance above! Writing, like Tai Chi, is a discipline.

The path of self-mastery requires a creative spirit; a creative spirit has no self-doubt. For us, this affirmation applies when we are doing the purest part of our work, when we are creating and letting it out. I love these words by Martha Graham:

It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions… You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. [See the whole passage.]


Elizabeth Buhmann is the author of murder mystery Lay Death at Her Door and has a black sash in Tai Chi. She also maintains an online Tai Chi Notebook. She studies Tai Chi at Master Gohring’s Tai Chi and Kung Fu in Austin and practices with a group of Chinese friends on the weekends.

The Pomodoro Technique: Writing a Novel 25 Minutes at a Time

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACan a technique named after a tomato serve as the answer to your time management woes?

For those writers who dream of having several uninterrupted hours to write a novel but find those hours never arrive, maybe it’s time to consider another approach. It’s that fantasy that often keeps us from ever getting started–the common but sometimes detrimental belief that writing a novel will only happen if we have six hours a day of quiet time. I know that particular expectation derailed my own efforts more often than I’d like to admit. Between my work, my husband’s demanding schedule, and three kids who all play sports, the chance that I will have several interrupted hours in a row will only happen if I catch the flu and wind up in bed. This is true for most of us, isn’t it? The fantasy of writing all day colliding with the reality of a jam-packed schedule with the result being a persistent frustration surrounding why we can’t get this novel finished?

Why can’t we get to THE END?

I finally realized that I would need to figure out a method that would best work within the structure of my own life. For me, that meant searching for successful authors who juggled day jobs, kids and other demands. I’m a bit of a time management and organization geek anyway, so I used the opportunity to seek guidance. When I came across the Pomodoro Technique, I felt it might be just the tool to push my project along.

Francisco Cirillo created the Pomodoro Technique in the 1980s and it has since become one of the most popular time management techniques used today. The word ‘pomodoro’ means tomato in Italian and the name came about because Cirillo used a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato when developing the concept. Here’s how it works: you simply write in a 25 minute block of time, called a pomodoro, and then you take a five minute break before starting the next pomodoro. After four completed pomodoros, you then take a 15-20 minute break. To keep your motivation up, mark each pomodoro on your calendar with an X or a circle. As you see these marks add up, they 1) help build momentum for your project and 2) show you just how much work you can do in short blocks of time.

I found this strategy has helped me move my own work forward. In times past, I would discount even a fifteen minute block of time for fear that it wouldn’t make a difference. I realize now that I was wrong. I actually convert my pomodoros into 15-minute blocks because it keeps me from disregarding any small block of time. It often leads to 25 minutes of work, but only expecting 15 minutes means I’m more likely to give it a shot.

This approach has changed my entire mindset when writing fiction. I no longer believe I need an eight-hour day of solitude to be effective (although I still dream about it). It does require some advance preparation on my part–keeping papers together, taking notes regarding the next scene to be written–but I am now working with my editor on my first book while writing my second. I am moving forward with my fiction, and if it happens 25 minutes at a time, that’s just fine with me.

What about you? How do you balance your writing projects with your daily demands?

–Laura Oles

The Gardiner Chronicles

SINC August Meg Gardiner 002By Gale Albright

portraits 004 (5)Part One of the Gardiner Chronicles, wherein we learn about Big Dogs and Big Ideas. Meg Gardiner presented the August 10 program for Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas chapter in Austin at Recycled Reads.

In order to complete a 95,000-word novel, Meg Gardiner needed a compelling main character and a big idea to hang her story on. “It only took me decades to learn that,” laughs Gardiner, the Edgar-winning, best-selling thriller author of Phantom Instinct.

Gardiner’s parents were teachers who encouraged her writing in a pragmatic way. “My dad’s car was full of books, the trunk and back seat. I thought everyone lived like this. Dad said go to law school so you can pay bills while you are writing. Pay the rent. So I went to law school.”

Years after law school, when she came up with her first series character, Evan Delaney, Gardiner was married with three children. She could relate to Evan Delaney, a “girl lawyer,” although Evan was “more athletic than the author. My first attempt was horrible, deadly, nothing happened in it.” The book was shelved.

Her next novel got up to “thirty good pages” with a hit and run scene. The scene was long and slow. It turned out there was no reason for the hit and run driver to hit and run over anybody. In short, there was no plot. Project shelved.

Gardiner finally finished a novel with a cast of thousands. Although she called it a murder mystery, a friend pointed out that no one had been murdered. You guessed it—shelved.

When her children were out of diapers, Gardiner was living in London and trying to get an agent with only three chapters written for a new book. She found Giles Gordon, an agent in London.

“With thirty years in the business and lots of professional experience, I learned when he gives advice, it’s wise to listen.” Gordon said her first chapter was not working. She protested that it was funny, shiny, and clever. He said it was a cliché. It took her a long time to start listening, but she finally saw the light. “He didn’t have to come to my house and hit me with a two by four.”

She redid chapters but still got rejections. “I hope you’re feeling tough,” said Gordon on one memorable occasion, when he showed her a publisher’s reply to her submission. The two-page, single-spaced letter said the manuscript was horrible.

Giles said, “Read it, burn it, drink a glass of whiskey, then get back to work.”

Finally, China Lake, the first Evan Delaney novel, was ready for prime time. A British publisher made an offer and China Lake was published in London, translated into other languages, and sold in Europe.

But United States publishers did not want it.

When she wrote Mission Canyon, the sequel to China Lake, the land of her birth didn’t want that one either. It was snapped up by European publishers. This happened five times in a row with the Evan Delaney series. She could find a copy of her books in Singapore, but not in California when she went home for a family visit. She joked that her relatives probably thought she was fibbing about being published.

Then along came good ole Serendipity, AKA Stephen King.

“King’s got a closet full of books people have sent him. In preparation for a long airplane trip, he saw China Lake in his closet and took it with him. Why? It had nice big print, so he figured it was good for an overnight flight.”

And he liked it. He said, “This was good. Do you have any more?”

Gardiner’s British publisher gave copies of all her books to Stephen King, who mentioned her in a column he wrote for Entertainment Weekly and encouraged people to read her thrillers. Almost immediately, she got offers from about fourteen different U.S. publishers.

“Sometimes you need a very big dog with a very big bark to be in your corner.”

Had Gardiner been languishing with a hanky, worrying about not getting U.S. publishers all this time? She had not. Like any serious writer, she was working on new material, a series featuring Jo Beckett, a forensic psychiatrist. She took an offer from Penguin to have the first Jo Beckett novel published, The Dirty Secrets Club. “You must be ready when opportunity knocks.” You never know when Stephen King is going to turn your world upside down.

Gardiner thinks her very early writing attempts were “crap.” But, “If you believe in a book, keep trying to jump over the bar.”

Stay tuned for Part Two of the Gardiner Chronicles, wherein we learn about Writer Work Ethics and Plotting 101. Coming to a blog near you in a few weeks.

SINC August Meg Gardiner 004SINC August Meg Gardiner 010

Celebrating Mystery Author P. D. James

0kathy-blogWho’s your favorite mystery author?

A Sister in Crime recently posed that question.

I told her my favorite mystery author is–

Agatha Christie / Donna Leon / Josephine Tey / Margery Allingham / Ngaio Marsh / Ruth Rendell / Mary Roberts Rinehart / Sarah Caudwell / Sophie Hannah / Ellis Peters / Elizabeth Peters / Elizabeth George / Dorothy L. Sayers / Patricia Highsmith / Minette Walters / Mary Willis Walker / Kaye George / Terry Shames / Karin Fossum / Cammie McGovern / Laura Lippman / Anne Perry / Ann George / Joan Hess / Faye Kellerman / Daphne DuMaurier / Carolyn Keene . . .

And others too numerous to mention.

That’s typical. When asked to choose a favorite, I come down somewhere between wishy-washy and overwhelmed. There are so many writers whose books I enjoy, each for a different reason.

I like Josephine Tey for her ability to keep readers feverishly turning pages of a mystery in which there’s not even a hint of murder.

I like Sarah Caudwell for her wit and for her erudite narrator, Professor of Medieval Law Hilary Tamar, who couldn’t solve a crime if the answer jumped up and bit her.

I like Donna Leon for her vivid depiction of Venice, and for Commissario Guido Brunetti, increasingly cynical about the possibility of dispensing justice in a corrupt society, who finds refuge in his home and family.

I like Ruth Rendell for her complex and amazingly tight plotting, and her ability to drop in one more revelation when the reader thinks all questions have already been answered.

I like Daphne DuMaurier for–well, for the reasons everyone else likes her.

My Sister, however, pressed me to give her only one name. The reason? She had an idea for a SINC ~ Heart of Texas Chapter (HOTXSINC) program focusing on a mystery author, a celebration of that writer’s life and work.

To that, the answer was both immediate and obvious: P. D. James, acknowledged by both critics and readers as the premier writer of mysteries in the English language.

I like James for her complex plots, and for characters so fully realized that their lives seem to extend beyond the pages of the book. I like her because she plays fair with the reader, hiding clues in plain sight. I like her for her clean, elegant prose and her literary style. James feels no need to start with a murder on page one, but takes her time, introducing characters, establishing relationships, orienting the reader in time and place. Her pace is leisurely, and the reader who tears through a James novel, intent on learning the identity of the villain and moving on to the next title on his To-Be-Read stack misses half the pleasure her mysteries offer.

In addition to the skill and stature that make James a perfect choice for HOTXSINC’s program is the fact that a television adaptation of her latest novel, Death Comes to Pemberley, based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is scheduled for airing on PBS Masterpiece Mystery! at the end of October.

Finally, there’s the fact that on August 3rd of this year, James celebrated her ninety-fourth birthday. The birthday of a favorite mystery writer certainly merits a party.

The Sister who came up with the idea for the celebration is Sarah Ann Robertson, past president and treasurer/membership coordinator for HOTXSINC. As is only fair, since it was her idea, I asked her to coordinate it. As always, she’s done an excellent job.

The program will feature presentations by members on James’ life and work, including Youtube videos of interviews with the author. Special guests Maria Rodriguez, Director of Programming for KLRU-TV, will present an overview of KLRU/PBS “Mystery!”, based on mysteries by female authors, and Linda Lehmusvirta, KLRU Senior Producer for Central Texas Gardener and a P. D. James enthusiast, will speak about P. D. James’ televised mysteries on KLRU/PBS.

sinc teapots web 2014-08-27 007 After the program, members and guests will be treated to a traditional afternoon Texas-style English tea.

The celebration will take place at Recycled Reads, 5335 Burnet Road, Austin, TX 78756, from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m., on Sunday, September 14. The meeting is free and open to the public.

Please join us.


For a bibliography of P. D. James’ publications, click here.

To read about the traditional English afternoon tea, click here.


Kathy Waller blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write (



Interview with Tim Bryant, author of Spirit Trap

I recently met author Tim Bryant at Book People’s Lonestar Mystery Discussion. He’s such an interesting person, I wanted to know more about him, his creative process, and his path to writing. Thanks for letting me interview you, Tim! Tim Bryant

AMW – When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

TB – I’m not entirely sure I ever wanted to be a writer. I just was one. My grandmother probably knew I was a writer when I was ten years old. It took me at least thirty more years to realize she was onto something. I dedicated my first novel to her. I was happy that she was able to see it before she died.

AMW – What was the first creation of yours that got published?

TB – Well, I had had music published because I came to fiction writing after many years as a musician. The first piece of fiction I got published was my first Dutch Curridge short story. It’s called “Bob Wills Is Still The King,” and it was published in REAL Regarding Arts & Letters Literary Magazine. I had written several other Dutch short stories and a lot of non-Dutch stories too, of course, but that was the one that pretty much started everything.

AMW – How long did it take for you to write your first novel?

 TB – The first novel was DUTCH CURRIDGE. It took close to a year from start to finish, although the real meat of the writing probably took four months. My original idea with it was that I would take the collection of Dutch Curridge short stories— I think there were six or seven of them at that point— and weave them together into novel form. It was a fine idea in theory, it just didn’t work. I finally ended up setting all of those stories aside and writing the novel from scratch. Some of the earlier material worked its way into it, but only here and there. The story about the migrating squirrels and that parts about Dutch’s marriage and divorce, to name two examples. The bulk of the story was new material and was much better for it.

AMW – Did anyone help you? Did you belong to a critique group?

 TB – Unfortunately, I didn’t have any kind of group during the writing of the first novel. I wish I had. That did come along almost immediately after, and a couple of the people are still with me today. My friend Brett Gaffney has been a huge help with workshopping and even helped co-write the book THOSE WHO KNOW US BEST DON’T KNOW US AT ALL. It’s a book of free verse, but it also has a dark, mysterious edge to it and actually shares a character with the Dutch books. Brett’s my first go-to with things, and I do think writers need that. My good friend Jen Moody edited “Doll’s Eyes,” which was part of the Subterranean Press anthology IMPOSSIBLE MONSTERS. She did such an amazing job on that, I asked her to edit the newest Dutch novel, SPIRIT TRAP. She’s top shelf when it comes to editing, and she’s a great fiction writer too. They’re both invaluable secret weapons to have as a writer.

AMW– Do you currently belong to a writing group?

TB – Yes. In addition to Brett and Jen, I have a local writing group that meets regularly. They’re librarians and teachers in addition to being writers, and they’re great motivators, supportive friends, and I owe them a lot as well. I also hang out with Joe Lansdale from time to time, when he’s in town. I’ve certainly learned a lot from Joe. Writing is such a solitary endeavor, I find I really need those connections, just to keep me focused…and sane.

AMW – Your recent book, Spirit Trap, is the third book in the Dutch Curridge series. Tell us a little something about Dutch.


TB – Dutch is a private eye in 1950s Fort Worth who worked with the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department until he realized he was too bad to be a good cop and too good to be a bad one. He identifies strongly with the down-and-out citizens of Fort Worth. He sees himself as one of them, where maybe the other guys on the force didn’t. Dutch has always been an underdog. He’s fought for everything he has (which isn’t much), and he’s ready to fight for every other underdog he meets up with.

On a personal level, he likes Jack Daniels and Dr Pepper, western swing and jazz music and a young lady who writes for the local newspaper. He has a bad ear, which is a leftover from a childhood illness, and a good friend named Slant Face, who hails from Manchester, England.

AMW – The series is set in Fort Worth in 1955. Why Fort Worth and why 1955?

 TB – Having a background in music, I wanted to extend some of that to the Dutch stories, and Fort Worth just has an extremely rich musical history. Especially, in that era of the 1940s and ‘50s. WBAP radio was broadcasting all over this part of the country. Bob Wills and Milton Brown were breaking down musical and racial barriers. Jazz clubs were hot, especially in the African-American neighborhoods. Fort Worth was a wild and colorful place, with Hell’s Half Acre downtown and Jacksboro Highway to the north. Dutch belonged in a place like that. He was right at home.

AMW – I’ve been reading the book and I can honestly say it’s what I call a “total immersion experience”. I can hear the music, the voices, and noises of the time. Did you have to do a lot of research to capture the era?

TB – Yes. I’ve done tons of research, and that research continues. I enjoy it so much, I hardly think of it as being research. I love reading about the history, personal accounts, pouring over maps, watching films and listening to recordings from that era and area. I’ve joked that I probably know more about Fort Worth than most people who live there, but it’s true. I’ve only visited a handful of times, believe it or not, but I’d love to spend more time there.

But yes, I did work to get the full effect of the time and place. The feel and the sounds. Fort Worth is much like a character in the books, so it was essential that I get it right.

AMW– Do you write other kinds of stories besides mysteries?

TB – Absolutely. In fact, I’m not sure I really write standard mysteries at all. The second book in the Dutch series, SOUTHERN SELECT, is probably the most straight-forward mystery I’ve written, and, although it’s quite important in the series, it seems to get overlooked a little. I tend to think of mystery in the larger sense. Not so much cases of missing heirlooms and dead bodies, even if those things do show up from time to time. To me, the best mysteries are the ones that are never solved. They get people thinking and talking. They’re the ones that draw them in, keep them up at night. So I like stories that ask questions more than I like stories that answer them. I think most of my stories ask the questions that intrigue me most.

AMW– You mentioned you’re a musician. What instrument and what kind of music do you play? Is your music available online?

TB – I’ve played music for most of my life too. I’m primarily a piano player, although I can fake a few other things enough to fool a few people. I play totally by ear, by instinct. I’ve been lucky enough to play music all over New Orleans, around Texas, on the same stage and in studios with some of my heroes.

My music is available on iTunes, most places you find music. It’s under either my name or 2Take Tim, which is a nickname I got down in New Orleans, or Ramshackle Day Parade, a cool international band that I put together. That band featured Steve Wickham, who plays with The Waterboys and Tatanka Ohitika— Strong Buffalo— a Dakota-Sioux poet. Almost all of my music  is available at

AMW – What are the next projects you’re looking at? Another Curridge book? Something that’s been on the “back burner” you’ve been dying to get to?

TB – SPIRIT TRAP was the last major thing I wrote. Right before that, I wrote a non-Dutch novel called CONSTELLATIONS. A publisher in New York City is looking at that one. I have two other non-Dutch novels that I’m working on. I tend to alternate between the Dutch books and non-Dutch books, so I’ll most likely finish at least one of them before I return to Dutch.

One is indeed that big one that’s been simmering on the back burner. I think it might be time to bring it forward now. It’s set in the Philippines during World War II, and I’ve been researching that one for a good while now. I was going to say it’s one of those mysteries that’s not really a mystery. I think it would be closer to say it’s a non-mystery that really is one. Everything about life is a mystery, right?

I’ll return to Dutch though. He’s a friend too at this point. He always comes back around, and I’m always happy to see him. There should be at least two more Dutch novels. I think I’ll be back to him in 2015.

AMW – Thank you, Tim and good luck with the new book!


Flashback, Backstory, and Parallel Storylines

Elizabeth BuhmannA certain kind of story appeals to me above all others. It’s my archetype for mystery: A crime is successfully hidden for many years. The story begins when something sets off a chain of events to expose the old wrong. In the end, justice, so long denied, is restored.

In my writing, I’ve gravitated to this kind of story three times now: in my first published book, in a second manuscript that I hope to publish next year, and my current work in progress, called Blue Lake.

  • In Lay Death at Her Door, an innocent man takes the fall for a murder. Twenty years later, he’s exonerated, and the crime comes unsolved.
  • In Monster, an ambitious embryologist abandons a deformed child when his rogue experiment fails. Eighteen years later, the child goes looking for her birth parents.
  • In Blue Lake, a death in the distant past was once briefly suspected of being a murder, then written off as an accident. A family is destroyed and a crime goes unpunished for decades.

In each case, I have two stories to tell. What really happened a long time ago? And how does the truth come out all these years later? One entire story takes place in the distant past.

Any writer who attends workshops or belongs to a critique group (and that’s just about all of us) is frequently admonished to avoid or minimize back story and flashback. How, then, can you tell the old story in a book like mine? This worried me no end the first time around.

Flashback: In the midst of the present story, we shift briefly to a past event, then resume where we left off. A little bit is fine: At the start of Blue Lake, Regina has been refusing to go home to her estranged family, but she has learned that her father is dying, and she finally changes her mind. [FLASHBACK:]

Mary had called again the night before.

“Just wanted to keep you informed,” she’d said.

“I’m not coming.”

“You don’t have to. It’s okay.” And knowing Mary, she meant it. But it wasn’t okay. She’d have to go, and soon.

Just a few lines—a tolerable interruption, but you can’t do too much of this without fatally chopping up your present storyline.

Back story: We are filled in with information that explains how the characters and plot got to be where they are. In Monster, Detective Gil Tillier is at a crime scene for the first time in a couple of years.

He felt an itch of excitement, like an old racehorse snorting in the pasture at the sound of a starting gate. [BACK STORY:] Not that he was old. On the contrary, he’d been something of a wunderkind: lieutenant at the age of thirty, head of CID at thirty-two. Quit at thirty-three.

That’s one sentence of back story—about as much as we want before we get back to the body on the floor.

The way I think of it, flashback is dramatized, while back story is not. Flashback shows, while back story is told. Both are short interruptions in the story line. Neither technique is adequate for telling the past story in the kind of book I want to write.

Parallel Storylines: I want two full stories, interwoven. Both stories have to be fully dramatized. The excursions into the past must be of sufficient length to pull us all the way in. Often, entire chapters will be committed to one storyline or the other, alternately.

The past and present stories must be equally interesting. In Lay Death, the young Kate’s adventures in Africa and Massachusetts, and her love affair with Elliott in college, have to be worth reading in their own right.

At the same time, the reopening of the investigation into Elliott’s death twenty years later has to be compelling, too. Neither story can be left to languish too long. They have to feed off each other and collide at the climax.

It’s not for me to say if I succeed in these complex plot structures, but I find this kind of book most rewarding  when it works. I want to fully understand how the world got knocked out of balance in the distant past. And then I want to watch how truth and justice win out in the end.

Cover-Lay-Death-BuhmannAmazon Top 100 and B&N Top Ten Bestseller Lay Death at Her Door is on sale for the first time in 2014, this week only. “What an ending! All the threads that seem to be unrelated weave tightly together at the end. I can’t wait to read more by Elizabeth Buhmann!” – NYT Bestselling Author Kate Moretti

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rules

Alpine 2014 137Rules for writing?

Outline? No outline? Seat of the pants?

Karleen Koen, instructor for That Damned Rough Draft at the Writers’ League of Texas summer writing retreat at Sul Ross University in Alpine, says there are no rules for writing. And she never said the phrase, “We don’t need no stinkin’ rules.” That’s my inner child cutting up.

She said she wouldn’t teach us to write, but would help us learn how to play. If you play, your inner child, your subconscious, will make itself known and your writing will be the richer for it.

And another thing. Writing a novel is hard–real hard.

We are adventurers, embarking on the quest of a lifetime, daring everything on a wild, reckless throw of the dice. Fame and fortune. Or maybe no one will pay attention at all.

According to Koen, a writer’s tools are her words. An artist has brushes and canvas, a sculptor his clay. We have only words to bring a whole new world to life, a world of our own creation. We must lure and seduce readers to enter our world with our use of words.

Not Rules but Suggestions:

Don’t talk your story away. Energy you need for the story goes out at the mouth.

Writers are looking for affirmation. We never get enough.

Grant yourself permission to write badly. The point is to be writing.

Poetry helps writers with their voice. Karleen Koen always reads poems before class begins.

Writing the rough draft is not a time to perfect your prose. Let your subconscious work with you. A rough draft is not linear. The novel is hard. You have to willing to commit to the marathon. Not the sprint.

Alpine 2014 135You have to pay attention to anything that excites you as a writer.

Nobody can see our hard work if we’ve done our work right. It looks slick. Bumps come with writing novels.

Our suffering is invisible to everyone but us.

Magic and alchemy are part of a story. They take the reader to another world.

You need time and space to create.

Don’t compare. Everybody feels bad when you compete

I need to know what I don’t know. I want to get the story finished. Have I bitten off more than I can chew?

What makes a novel? Hook, plot, tension, character, dialogue, scenes, ending, middle, beginning–magic.

Painters have color

Sculptors have clay.

All writers have are words.

Karleen suggests these daily exercises to tempt forth your magic, muse, subconscious, inner child, whatever makes you tick.

Keep a writer’s diary and write about your writing self every day.

Write three longhand morning pages first thing when you wake up every day, no editing. Don’t think. Just write whatever comes into your  head.

Alpine 2014 114Take photographs and write about them. Take pictures of whatever “pings” in  your gut. Write about why.

Don’t let your editor subdue your creator, even in revision.

Don’t share writing with just anyone. Writing is part of our inner child. Too much criticism shuts you down.

Your first reader is very important. All you want to ask the first reader are three questions about your manuscript:

  1. What did you like?
  2. What do you want to know more about?
  3. Where did I lose you?

This will help shape the novel and show where you are off pace.

Cool down between drafts.

Learn to play with words. Be creative and loose.

Find a niche that’s well calibrated to your interests and your talent.

You can only develop your voice by writing.

Enter your story and take us with you.

Know how your hero/heroine is going to be transformed by the end of the novel.

Sometimes revision can lead to beating a dead dog. You’ve been to the well too many times.

You adventurer,  you.

Alpine 2014 206My inner child likes murals. Is there a novel in them?

By Gale Albright