Sunday, October 19, 2014

Writing What You Know

"Write what you know" is the general wisdom offered to beginner writers, suggesting you start from your current base of knowledge. While that can be essential advice—especially to non-fiction writers, where expertise is all—as a fiction writer, I prefer to rearrange those four little words to "know what you write," which gives me the perfect excuse for trying new activities or learning new subjects. It all feeds into the fiction pot, if not in the current book, then maybe the next. It may not add much more than a few sentences to the novel, or may even just provide a trait for one of the characters, but there is almost nothing that can go to waste once it’s stored into the memory bank.
Travel provides locations and culture. Trying new sports not only increases detailed know-how of the specific activities, but can also provide interesting insights into the attitudes and confidence of other participants or spectators (not to mention providing the necessary zest to tackle the sedentary marathon of novel writing). Continued learning, whether academic or of a more practical nature such as first aid or CPR, not only boosts your knowledge, but can provide unexpected plot points as the number of threads available to weave into your story increases.
For a writer, one of the most fun ways to learn is to talk to people about their work. We may think we know what a person "does" for a living by the label applied to that particular profession, but how often do we really know what they do, why they do it or all the advantages and disadvantages of such a role? If you don’t know of someone in a particular profession that you want to include in your novel, it can take some courage to ask total strangers to give you insight into their jobs. But I find that most people like the chance to talk about their work and what it means to them. If you are willing to share a particular plot point with them, they will often go out of their way to provide useful information. 
I learned early on in this process that it can be tough–on the writer, that is. It’s uncomfortable enough describing a fictional crime to a real detective (especially if you happen to be sitting in an interview room at the time),  but even more so when your imagined police response, garnered from years of watching movies/TV shows and reading detective novels, is, politely, declared to be unrealistic. For several moments after learning one of my plot points was not at all feasible, all I could think was that my previous weeks of work had all been wasted because the realistic response would take my story in a completely different direction. But as my conversation with the detective continued I ended up not only with a solution to that particular arc of the story, but also several more potential plot points which I had never considered.
The experience taught me that there can be quite a difference between what you know and what you think you know. And while fiction allows for creative license, to wander too far from reality in contemporary novels is likely to turn off those readers who do know the subject. So maybe that advice for fiction writers should be amended to "write what you know you know" — not what you think you know!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Kindle Countdown - Ulterior Motives

Just to let you know that Ulterior Motives is on Kindle Countdown until midnight on Saturday 4 October, 2014. Only $0.99 in the US and £0.99 in the UK.  Or if you are a member of Kindleunlimited, you can read the book for free!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Rio de Janeiro - A City of Surprises

What do you picture when you hear mention of Rio de Janeiro?

For me, it used to be the enormous statue of Christ high above the city

seems no matter how far away you are, you can still see the statue

or the famous beach of Copacabana.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Day at Niagara Falls

I'd been to Niagara Falls several times before in years long past so when my brother and nephew came to stay recently it seemed like a good time to pay another visit. 

They certainly are an impressive force of nature. From a calm and quiet start:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Silent Lies - Kindle Countdown

Just wanted to let you know I'm running a Kindle Countdown promotion for Silent Lies this week. The book is featured on Kindle Books and Tips today.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Charming Small Towns - Watkins Glen, NY

As mentioned in an earlier blog, my visit to Watkins Glen in upstate New York was planned solely to see the Gorge. I knew nothing else about the town so imagine my delight to discover that there was a lot more to it than also just being a reasonably convenient place to stay for two nights en route to and from Niagara.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Weekend On The Water With The Applachian Mountain Club

Over the last few years I’ve kayaked several times while on vacation, enjoying the relaxing activity of an hour or two’s paddling on beautiful lakes while taking in the stunning scenery and imagining what it must have been like to live in a time when travel by canoe was one of the major forms of transport.

It’s an activity that I’ve often thought I’d like to follow up on so when I received an email from The Applachian Mountain Club offering a ‘Basic Canoe Instruction’ weekend, I jumped at the chance to sign up. After all, surely there couldn’t be that much difference between kayaking and canoeing?

Well, actually… yes there is.

 My kayaking had been limited to solo paddling sit-on kayaks. The canoes we used were capable of carrying two or three people and all the gear needed for an extended trip. Even empty, the boats were substantially heavier than I’d expected.

Photo by Sheldon Luberoff
Kayaking uses a double bladed paddle while that for a canoe only has one blade. In a tandem canoe (two people) each person paddles on a different side, requiring a degree of co-ordination which can be hard to achieve especially as a beginner.

Photo by Richard Breton
In a kayak the paddler usually sits with legs extended out in front, in a canoe you either kneel or sit upright. Kneeling seemed to be the preferred method, but I don’t have much call to sit on both knees in everyday life—cramp and the inability to stand back up being the usual result—so I was pleased to discover that kneeling on one knee was perfectly acceptable too. And surprisingly comfortable.   

The weekend was held at the AMC’s Mohican Outdoor Center which sits alongside Catfish Pond in New Jersey.  It started on Friday evening at our lodge for the weekend, Blueberry Cabin, when all fourteen attendees and six instructors got to know each other over dinner and an introductory chat.
Photo by Johan Martin

Saturday morning, we headed for the lake where, after a brief talk on equipment, technique and knots we hit the water. On the large, calm surface of Catfish Pond paddling didn’t seem that difficult—for me it was more a question of getting used to working in tandem rather than going solo. By lunchtime I was feeling quite confident, even felt I was beginning to understand the principles behind steering the canoe—not as easy as you would think given that the required actions for moving to the right or left depend on which side you are paddling.

Saturday afternoon proved to be a different story. In order to test our new skills, the instructors placed some buoys in the water—buoys which we were supposed to steer around.  For some reasons my partner and I just didn’t seem to be able to get it right. The frustrations level built up. We tried again and again, constantly ending up on the wrong side of the buoy. Others seemed to be able to do it, why couldn’t we?  

The answer, it turned out, was miscommunication! As we approached a buoy, if we agreed we would go right, I assumed that meant going to the right of the buoy and turning left around it, while my partner assumed we were aiming for the left of the buoy to turn right. (Just goes to show you should never assume anything.) This meant we were both working against each other which probably explains why we kept going round in circles! 

Of course, when the exercise changed to one which required us to paddle in a circle around a particular buoy… well, let’s just say we didn’t do too well with that one either. And that’s despite the help of several different instructors. I think by this point they must have been rolling their eyes.

Photo by Richard Breton
We redeemed ourselves a little on the final game where we had to head straight towards an instructor’s boat until, at almost the last minute (brave man), he lowered his paddle to indicate which direction we were supposed to go.  Three times we tried it and three times we got it right, which left us ending the day on a more positive note. Especially since one of the other tandems (they shall remain nameless) managed to capsize in the process, giving us an unexpected introduction to boat-on-boat rescues.

On Sunday we progressed from still waters to ‘moderately moving water’ in the form of the Paulins Kill River. It’s a narrow, shallow and scenic river with lots of bends, ideal, apparently, to further hone our paddling technique. To say I was nervous was an understatement. My partner and I even discussed changing partners in the hope that we would end up with someone a little more capable than we were, but our instructors assured us we would be fine—and guess what?  We were.

Photo by Richard Breton

There might have been several occasions when we were actually going backwards (our canoe seemed to have a preference for this) or had to duck to avoid low branches protruding from the riverbanks because our steering was a little off, but we twice managed to navigate narrow gaps created by fallen trees which all but blocked the route and, to our surprise, arrived at the take-out point without having gone swimming. To my mind, a successful day.

Photo by Thomas Doo

All in all, it was a wonderful weekend, lots of fun and laughter both on and off the water. A chance to learn a new skill, face fears, meet a great group of people and, perhaps most importantly, spend time outdoors getting physical exercise in a beautiful setting.

Would I do it again? When I first came off the river, I thought not. Kayaking on lakes seems an easier way to get exercise in the great outdoors. But now, having a chance to reflect on the experience, I can see that, with further practice, canoeing offers an amazing opportunity to go to places and see sights that might otherwise be impossible. And who knows where it might lead to in story lines!  

Many thanks to Richard Breton who organized the whole weekend, the instructors who voluntarily gave up their weekend to introduce us to this wonderful outdoor opportunity and all the other attendees for making it such a friendly, fabulous event.