Thursday, October 30, 2008

Guest Blogger Donna Andrews On: "If You're not Using That"

I love hanging around with fellow writers. Nothing more fun than comparing working methods or swapping industry gossip. But I try to make sure I also spend a fair amount of time with non-writers. (I almost said "real people," and then changed it to "normal people" before settling on "non-writers.") If I’m with a bunch of writers and something interesting happens, we all look at each other, and sooner or later one of us will ask the inevitable question: "Are you going to use that? Because if you’re not . . . " Much easier with non-writers, who aren't going to fight with you over a choice bit of book fodder.

We writers all mine our own lives and the lives of those around us for material. Sometimes we play the "what if" game. What if that noise in the night wasn't merely the cat? What if the skeleton we found wasn't a cow’s bones but the remains of a murder victim? What if that horrible person at work turned up dead one day—shortly after one of our noisiest clashes?

Other times we use an event just because it just works for a character. I did something like this in Six Geese a-Slaying—the tenth book in my Meg Langslow series, in which Meg finds herself in charge of her county’s annual holiday parade. In one scene, Meg’s nephew, Eric, not quite thirteen, confesses to Meg something he’s done that he’s feeling guilty about. When I began writing the scene between Meg and Eric, I realized I could put one of my most vivid Christmas memories to fictional use.

I don’t know how old I was. And I can no longer remember what toy I wanted so badly that when I woke up on Christmas morning, well before dawn, I didn’t think I could stand the wait to go downstairs. And that was the longstanding rule-- we kids had to wait upstairs in our rooms until our parents woke up, so we could all walk into the living room together to see what Santa had brought.

I couldn’t wait. I crept furtively downstairs and into the living room to see if Santa had gotten it right.

Horrors! Not only was the object of my desire missing from under the tree—so were all the other presents. No toys, no books, not even any clothes. The stockings hung by the chimney in limp, mute testimony to how bad my brother and I had been. Because clearly we must have done something pretty awful to get absolutely nothing for Christmas. Mom and Dad hadn’t noticed, apparently. And I was a little puzzled myself—my conscience was no heavier than usual. I could think of a few minor transgressions, but nothing big enough to warrant this. But Santa knew all—and no doubt once our parents got a look at the emptiness under the tree, they’d start an interrogation that would bring all our sins to light.

I slunk upstairs and crawled back into bed. No doubt my parents were greatly puzzled a few hours later when I proved so hard to rouse. And when I finally saw the bounty around the tree, they probably mistook my intense relief for the usual excitement.

I figured out later that I must have gotten up so early that Santa hadn’t yet finished his rounds. I was lucky I hadn’t interrupted him in the act of putting the tangerines and Hershey’s kisses in my stocking. And apparently he’d forgiven my minor trespass of sneaking down early. Perhaps he knew that I would never, ever do it again.

Strange to say, that has always been a favorite Christmas memory. And while I was writing Six Geese a-Slaying, I realized it was also the perfect memory for Eric to have, one that he can share with Meg before confessing that this Christmas he—but that would be a spoiler!

Now if I can just find a plot in which I can use the story about Dad and the beehive . . .

Donna's latest, Six Geese A-Slaying, was just released October 28th. Run out a buy a copy!


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Donna--you're so right! (Okay, as usual.) I've definitely had that moment with other writers where someone says something..and then..the silence. As everyone realizes they've just heard a really good plot idea. Or snippet of conversation. Or even a good name. (("I'm Tinsley Brown, I'll be your waiter tonight." Hmmm..we all say. Tinsley Brown. Great name. Then, the silence.)

I'm a reporter, and it happens with us too, in my other world. Which is just all congenial, and just as competitive. We'll be all be chatting, and someone will say something--and we'll all realize that's a lead into a potentially hot news story.

So--who gets to write it?

But usually? In both worlds, it all works out.

Can't wait to read your latest!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
G.M. Malliet said...

Hi, Donna! How wonderful to have you as our guest today!

Pretty much everything that happens to me during the course of the year it takes to write a book ends up in that book, but in a form unrecognizable to anyone but me. Conversations, observations, things I've seen or it goes. I never ask permission because it's not necessary - the end result is so far distant from the reality.

It is a very strange process, and the reason I don't need to keep a diary. It's all in the book.

Great blog topic here. Looking forward to your latest!

Felicia Donovan said...

Donna, it was so nice meeting you at Bouchercon. Thanks for taking the time to visit with us on InkSpot.

I really enjoyed chatting with you about the challenges of working with both technical and non-technical folks. Hmmmm... I think that concept might just end up in my next Black Widow book. It could be about a programmer named Tinsley Brown.

Best of luck with the new book!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

No no, I'm using Tinsley Brown!

Not really. :-)

Though I wonder, now, when we'll see her...

G.M. Malliet said...

Wow. To go through life with a name that's very nearly Tinsel Town.

Whoever ends up stealing this name, the character has to be an actor who is just waiting for "the call."

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Welcome Donna! LOVE the title of your latest book.

So true about having great and not-so-great memories waiting in the wings to use in future books. I just put a very painful one of mine in the book I'm currently working on, and managed to play it for laughs.

jbstanley said...

Donna's tales are always good for a laugh! If you haven't read any of her books yet, you're in for a treat. I can never get through one without laughing out loud at least once! And I'm a grump!

Terri Thayer said...

Hi Donna,

Thanks for stopping here. I just asked a man yesterday if I could steal the line he was using. He was carrying a huge bag of stuff around the International Quilt Festival for his wife. She bought my books and said. "Give them to the CEO." He said, "That's me. I Carry Everything Out."

What a guy. And he probably works for a lot less than most. Without a golden parachute.