Paint Like a Writer–Write Like a Painter

I used to enjoy painting landscapes with watercolors. I find the creative process of painting is very similar to that of writing. A good painting does not come from a recipe, formula, or set of instructions. A good painting does not spring from prescribed colors laid down on a pre-constructed, numbered pattern. It comes from the successful transference of thought to canvas.

A painting likely starts with a few light pencil strokes to make a rough outline of the major objects intended. However, in a form of Japanese ink painting called Sumi-e, the artist is encouraged to sit before the intended subject and meditate before making any brush strokes in order that each one then fully captures the essence of the subject. No pencil outline is needed.

Writers vary as to whether they use an outline, or write from the seat of their pants. In either case, I think most writers have at least a mental outline of where the story is headed, and I think major story ideas have been tried out in the writer’s mind. I like to think story outlines are tentative suggestions to help the writer get started. The creative work comes later.

 If the painter is satisfied with the rough outline on canvas, the painting begins. Heavier, bolder strokes begin to express the intended subject. Suddenly, there is a spark of life to the work. There is form, shape, even the suggestion of movement, if needed. Each stroke is critical for they express the concept the artist is attempting to communicate. They cannot be blotched, too heavy, too tentative, or shaky rather than confident and knowing. They must be just right.

Once the subject has been determined by these initial strokes, the background, shading, and form can be layered-in. Shapes are completed, objects are given greater depth, details are added to give the work authenticity. This is like the middle work of a story, the details that support the plot events and character-defining statements of the story are layered in to support the main plot and character points. The desired object is fleshed out and the work approaches closer to completion.

With details in place and the desired form and shading accomplished, there is still more work to be done. This is a particularly delicate stage because a single stroke too many can ruin the intended effect. An accent stroke left out can leave the final work lacking. A bit of hesitance, a sloppy addition and the work is ruined. But, amazingly, these few, final brush strokes bring the work to the point of perfection. It is finished, and nothing more can be done to improve it. Similarly, in a written story, a small wording change can bring a desired thought or action into bolder view. A single line of dialogue can better capture the intent of the conversation from the writer’s point of view. A stubborn sentence can be reworked to get rid of an awkward expression or fix a tempo-robbing pace. Beyond that, nothing can be improved. Of course for many of us writers, the written work is never completed to perfection. We are always tempted to try another minor word change. And that says nothing of the myriad changes an editor is likely to suggest, but the ideal remains.

So, the story must spring to life with the major plot elements. Our hero’s character must be developed and nuanced with meaningful dialogue and thought description. The plot must unfold as a live experience. It cannot be accomplished by forced and clumsy assertions and explanations. When you view a finished painting, every element is simply there, awaiting the viewer’s emotional reaction. A good story is simply felt. It is not necessary for the reader to first dissect the work to understand and experience the writer’s intent.

I think one can paint like a writer, and write like a painter, but how about living like a work of art. Is that even possible? I think some people do it. I ask myself whether my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro’s life would be like that. What are your thoughts? Now, I’d better get back to work in the garden while the sunshine lasts.

The Soul of the Writer

Last weekend I visited an area I had lived in for many years. As always, the roads and highways were the same but somehow looked unfamiliar as I passed through towns and villages along the way. New houses and businesses, new shopping strips and renovated or expanded commercial areas, gave the waysides a very new look. Fortunately, the beautiful character of the area was retained. This was Connecticut, and I remember the state as being very attractive. It still is. And, I enjoyed driving while also listening to some great blues music on the car radio. Of course, this produced a sweet-sad emotional reaction to seeing former stomping grounds.

As I thought about my experience, I first chalked up the emotional bit as simply being nostalgia. However, the guest on the program I was listening to, Guy Davis, happened to be talking about playing music associated with another artist. He said that you don’t want to simply play the same notes, or even attempt to capture the style of another artist. Instead, you need to capture how that artist affects you. And when you do this, it lets the audience see into your own soul a little bit as well, and this should be a goal of the musician. I found his comment very thought-provoking. And, it occurred to me that Guy’s take on music might relate both to my nostalgic experience and to writing as well.

As to the nostalgia bit, revisiting places that brought back memories was like viewing a moving tableau of my own past. The roads were essentially the same, and some of the scenes familiar and even pretty mundane, but they offered me a connection both to past experiences and my emotional reactions to them at the time. It gave me a little glimpse into my own emotional life, or putting it another way, a glimpse into my own soul.

As to how Guy’s comments relate to writing, a compelling story is not simply a bunch of scenes cobbled together with technical skill, it is a glimpse into the characters being written about. It is also a bit of a glimpse into the soul of the writer. Just as a piece of music may be interpreted in many ways, the scenes of a story are created and told with words and a rhythm that is uniquely expressive of the writer herself, or himself. I find this difficult to explain when asked how I come up with ideas for the stories I write. The ideas are relatively easy. However, creating the glimpse into Bobby Navarro, the hero of my mystery series, is more difficult, and more important than coming up with a story idea or coming up with a clever plot twist. But ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. When Bobby is caught-up in solving a mystery or points his Harley down an open highway, I’m telling another, and hopefully more poignant, story than “who dun it”. I’m sharing a bit of Bobby’s soul with my readers along the way, and maybe even a little of mine.

Driving through New York

 

Springtime in Upstate New York

We’ve been hearing Canada geese flying overhead, mostly in the mornings and evenings. They come in low, in two’s and three’s, circling toward the pond nearby. I don’t know if they are early arrivals, but they don’t seem to be part of the larger flocks we saw in the fall heading south. In any case, their sounds are welcome. I’ve missed their music over the winter. One large goose was in the creek, taking a bath the other day, apparently enjoying a clean-up after a long flight. Robins are back in healthy numbers hunting worms in the yard and crows are out and about. I assume the crows have been here all year. A couple of days ago I saw about a dozen large birds circling over the village. I think it was a kettle of migrating hawks, vultures, or both, circling to gain altitude and then moving on.

We’ve been here two weeks now, and it’s a joy to see the birds coming back, as well as all the plants coming to life. I’ve already mowed the yard twice, and it needs it again. That will have to wait, though. It’s promising to rain for the next several days, and threatening snow sometime during the next two. Springtime in upstate New York. Time for boots, sweaters and waterproof jackets, putting away the shorts and summer clothes we started off with when we left Florida. I’ve been busy setting things straight, like cleaning the back room where we store a lot of things we need to move inside when we leave in the fall. Then, there was the light switch I had to replace on the stairs, aka puttering about. There’s always work to be done after a move, even a seasonal one. I need to get back to my writing.

Speaking of writing, from time to time I’ve asked myself why I had my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, living in New York even though his debut book was set in the Southwest. So far, no one has asked that at a program or signing. Hopefully I can make it understandable when I get to the next story, set in the Adirondacks. There are times when the forests of Upstate impart a feeling that Bobby could readily capture in the open, lonely stretches of highway in the Southwest.

If you can put up with or avoid the blackflies, Upstate is an area rich in woods, rural farm scenery, ponds, lakes and streams. Lesley thinks my enjoyment of the cold and rainy weather can be attributed to having too much of the North Sea in my DNA. I even like the bleak scenes from Wallander  or Shetland. I think they offer a mood rich in possibilities for murder mysteries. But, that’s another story. Anybody else like spring rains and gloomy days? Assuming, of course, there aren’t too many of them in a row.

A Taxing Time

They say nothing is certain except death and taxes. Of course, progress is being made on the mortality thing. This year I am using a tax accountant to do my taxes. That means I had to send in my materials, which I did yesterday, which is much earlier than usual. I believe in procrastination, after all. The good thing is, it’s done and in the mail. The bad thing is, I just discovered a number of additional deductions  I could have claimed, but missed. You see, if I had just waited…

Last night I tried to picture various fiction heroes facing tax time. I came up with Mickey Spillane pulling a forty-five and emptying a magazine into his scribbled-up tax forms. And, how about Jessy Stone? Trying to keep control over one’s drinking and tax time are two incompatible forces. From my own experience this past week, I know which force wins for me. And my own hero, Bobby Navarro? What better reason to take off on one’s Harley than a bunch of tax form instructions telling you to add this and subtract that from the who-knows-what-that-means reported figure from the previous year? Fortunately, I’m an ex-sailor, and have the appropriate vocabulary needed to curse my way through tax season.

Now, if I were just wealthy enough, I could have all my assets off-shore and not have to pay any taxes. Not that I would be figuring them myself if I did. I’d have my accountant handle all that.

“It’s tax time, sir.”
“Don’t bother me with that nonsense. Take care of it.”
Would that approach work for death as well taxes? I could designate an off-shore undertaker to handle everything.
“I have some bad news for you, sir, I’m afraid you’re dying.”
“Don’t bother me with stuff like that, take it up with my off-shore undertaker.”
No, I don’t think that would work.
As a sociology professor, I taught a wide range of students, including prison guards, prisoners, some former prisoners, police officers, probation officers, an internal affairs police officer, a private investigator, and an IRS auditor. Guess which one I thought was the most terrifying? I was so relieved when the IRS auditor earned a high grade. I never saw him smile. Not once. But, at least he didn’t leave my course with any threats of future contact to be expected in the mail.
I think I should write a new series. I’m not sure whether to call it a horror series, suspense, or mystery. My protagonist would be a tall, dark tax person, dressed in an impeccable black suit. He could be known as 00-1040.
Or, maybe she could be a female protagonist wearing leathers and carrying a whip. “Hello, I’m-Audrey-the-Auditor. Want to feel some pain?”
Well, fortunately, I’ve survived quite a few years of tax preparation, and hopefully will continue to do so. But, I do have to consider whether I should inflict the tax thing on my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro. After all, I make him confront death and violence in other forms, why not taxes? He does have his own business as a blaster. Hmm, would he use dynamite to get through those troublesome tax forms? I wonder.

A Time to Cheer

I had hoped to finish the rough draft of my current novel by Christmas, but I told myself and others my goal was to finish by New Years, because you never know what might pop up to get in the way. Happily, I have finished the rough draft. It’s a great feeling. Of course, last time I finished the rough draft of a manuscript, I ended up completely rewriting the whole thing. I had lost my voice. I had been reading Robert Parker, one of my favorites, and started sounding like a cross between Parker and me. I don’t think that will be a problem this time, but it’s always nerve-wracking to await someone’s response to what you have written. Of course, until then, I have a lot of work to do editing and tuning the present manuscript. Nevertheless, I’m excited to be on track for getting this Bobby Navarro sequel out this coming spring/summer. And, for a few days, it’s time to celebrate.

Of course, when the draft was finished the other day, I enjoyed glass of scotch. That was the official celebration. One of the things I’m aware of when I come to the end of a manuscript is that I feel eager to finish it, but reluctant to let go of the characters and the story. Afterwards, there is a mixture of feeling relief, accomplishment, and loss. The nice thing about writing a series, is that I will be able to work with the main character again. Last night, I had ideas running through my head about another Bobby Navarro story when I was supposed to be getting to sleep, but that’s not what I meant about looking forward to working with my protagonist again.

I remember a Kathy Bates movie, Misery, when a writer celebrated the end of his manuscript with a single cigarette and a glass of wine. Of course, if you saw the movie, you know what came next. I wouldn’t want to have been in his shoes.

Now, I am taking a little time to let the manuscript cool off before beginning the editing process. In the meantime, I have the chance to ride my own motorcycle, play a round of golf, and maybe do some hiking. That’s the advantage of finishing a draft while in Florida. Yesterday, I took a ride down an unfamiliar road that turned out to have a wildlife management area, Du Puis Management Area along one side of the roadway. The area offers hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, and even camping. It’s not far away from where we are located, so I’m looking forward to visiting there again.

Over the past months, I have enjoyed hearing from some of you who have visited my blog, and I look forward to bringing more news of Bobby’s travels and adventures in the coming year. Thank you for your support.

 I wish you all happy holidays, and a great year ahead.

Glenn Nilson

A Writer’s Lament

A Writer's Lament
I cannot think of a thing to write,
And here it is, Saturday night.
Something for my blog is due
And I’ve not one idea that I can use.
My mind is empty
I’m drawing a blank
I couldn’t turn a phrase
With a platinum crank
All I’ve done
This week and last
Is to work on my novel
To get it done fast.
I’ve still fifteen thousand
Words yet to go
But, I’ve forgotten what happens
At the end, and so
I’m stuck.
 I had some ideas, at first,
And a plan
For a story exciting
In a setting so grand.
With characters you’ll never
Want to forget
And an ending that will blow
Your mind to bits.
That was then.
This is now.
If I can’t get moving
I’ll soon have a cow. 
And, I still have my holiday
Shopping to do.
My credit card is maxed-out
And the bills are due.
I know people say, ‘tis a time to be jolly,
Hang up a wreath,
Some bells and fake holly.
But, Lord, if I weren’t brain dead,
I could finish my blog,
Have a drink,
Go to bed.
So, before I conclude
This writer’s lament
Let me wish you great joy
And a holiday well-spent
From me and my protag
Bobby Navarro


A Mystery for the Times

We spent this past week making final preparations for, and then completing, our semi-annual trek south. The first day out was unusually warm and pleasant. Although we got on the road no earlier than in past years, we both felt it had been less stressful this time. Better organization. We enjoyed a beautiful fall drive through the hills of New York and Pennsylvania to reach our first night’s destination. Then had snacks, a drink, and a pleasant dinner. By that time, we were curious how the election was going, and spent the evening transfixed by the unexpected results. Well, not completely unexpected in that this election seemed beyond belief all along.

Since election night, I have found it impossible not to dwell on the whole, arduous affair. That’s why this blog is so behind my expected posting date. It took time to gather focus. Now, we’ve largely unpacked and settled into our place in rural Florida, and I’m thinking I need to get back to my current novel, another in the Bobby Navarro series. It’s a story with a victim, a killer, and an amateur detective, and you can be sure good will win out in the end. After all, it’s not a Greek tragedy—it’s a murder mystery.

I love a good mystery. I don’t consider them merely entertainment, escape or, as some do, a lesser form of literature. Of course, a good mystery is entertaining, and can take us away from the cares and stresses of the day. That’s a plus in my book. Good mysteries can also inspire us to think about things we might not have even known about before, or introduce us to a setting with which we are totally unfamiliar. Mysteries do include meaningful depictions of bad deeds and events, and often of bad people, but are not usually filled with gratuitous sex and violence intended merely as cheap thrills. They are neither simplistic, nor hopefully, duplistic, while presenting a cast of characters to be sorted out as to who’s guilty of the murder, and who is not. But, there’s always more to the story than simply whodunit. That’s what makes them worth reading.

A good mystery can make us think about social issues and the morals and values we believe this country has struggled to achieve. I’m glad I’m a writer—a mystery writer. Writing good mysteries is one way to oppose bigotry, hatred, violence and greed in a format in which good ultimately prevails. Something for the times.

Village Bookstores and the Green Toad

I hear bookstores have become a rarity. For a writer, this is not a good thing. For a reader, it is saddening as well. I still like small bookstores—village bookstores. This Saturday, Lesley Diehl and I did a book signing in the Green Toad. It was fun bringing my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, in my latest publication, Murder on the Mother Road, to both new and returning readers via the signing.

The Green Toad is a bookstore in nearby Oneonta, New York, and is a terrific instance of what a village bookstore can offer. Next door to the Green Toad, is the Latte Lounge, a coffee shop. The two businesses made a large opening in the wall dividing them, allowing customers to drift from one to the other. The Green Toad has some very comfortable easy chairs as well, and you can bring an espresso, latte, or whatever, from next door, sit down and start reading the book you just bought, or are thinking about buying.  It’s a comfortable, homey, and thoroughly inviting setting.

In addition to a great selection of books, the Green Toad carries an array of perfect gift objects. Of course, books make wonderful gifts, too. One man bought a book from each of us as gifts for his mother. As a people-watcher, I was interested to see who visited the store, and how they went about locating a purchase. Oneonta is a college town, and I was delighted to see a large number of young people, who appeared to be students, at the bookstore. There were older people as well, and a few parents with their children.

As the days turn chilly, and people are less likely to take coffee, snacks or lunch sitting at outdoor tables fronting some of the eateries along the street, the Green Toad will become even more inviting. What better way to spend a little time, than cozying up to a good mystery and a cup of coffee where you might also bump into a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Village book stores, like village libraries, are a treasure, both in fond memories and current busy lifestyles.

Cooking With Aching Muscles

I’ve been working hard to give one of the bedrooms in our house a makeover. The house is nearly a hundred and fifty years old, and nothing is truly level or plumb or straight. You can’t just nail in a panel or board, everything has to be custom fitted. Makes a lot more work. It also guarantees muscles that ache at the end of the day. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that it’s an old house, even though it means work. I find it fascinating to see what materials were used. They made-do with whatever they had. Makes me wonder what they had to eat at the end of the day. Without a nearby grocery, I assume they made do with whatever they had on hand, but even then, no microwave or quick solution to the question of what to eat? Open a can of beans? Only if they had canned food. Thaw something from the freezer? Only in the winter, I suppose, and only after a good fire was blazing. I’ll bet pancakes and a few slices of bacon came into play on occasion.  An omelet might do well. In my case, I’ve been fortunate to have a meal cooked by Lesley, but I still think about those on their own at the end of a long, hard day, even my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro. He likes to cook, but a long day on a motorcycle can produce it’s own set of tired, aching muscles. I think soup, fortified with beef jerky would be a good bet for Bobby. Now, what about others? What works for a writer who has written past a reasonable hour and forgot to take anything out of the freezer?

Old friends bring new writing insights

I recently came into contact with some friends I hung out with in high school, but haven’t stayed in touch with since then. It’s been great. An unexpected and exciting adventure. To me, as a writer, it’s fascinating to learn what the other three have done all these years. I still remember them as they looked and were back then, so it’s like seeing our life stories play out with all the surprises revealed that we never dreamed might happen back then. I could never have predicted much of what my life has been like, let alone the others.

And, this morning I read a great piece in the paper written by a young woman about how people have asked her what she wants to be when she grows up or what she wants to major in when she gets to college. Like many of us at that age, she just wishes she knew the answers. Well, my friends and I didn’t have the answers then either, but our lives have played out pretty well anyway. I think the important ingredient was the underlying values and strengthening experiences we acquired without even realizing it. Those were the essential determinants in the stories that have played out as they have, even though they were only vague shadows in the backgrounds of our consciousness at the time.

Again, as a writer, I find it fascinating to reconcile those vague shadows with the lives that evolved. I also think the characters in the books I love best are presented to us readers with those shadow indications of what underlies our heroes personalities, and makes them real and interesting. Also, capturing those shadows in our own writing is an essential challenge to us writers.