Friday, October 29, 2010

Where do you get your ideas?

By Jennifer Coburn

One of the questions fiction writers are often asked is how we come up with story ideas. And if you ask ten different writers, you might get ten different answers.

At a writer’s conference, the keynote speaker said her best ideas come from newspaper headlines. A writer friend of mine scours Dear Abby and other advice columns because they are filled with human conflict, the driving force behind any good story.

Stories are all around us

Many of us get our best ideas from snippets of conversation we hear. My first novel, The Wife of Reilly, is about a woman who secretly tries to find a new wife for her soon-to-be ex-husband. That idea came about when a friend was having a bad husband day, and said, “I wish I could leave him, but he wouldn’t be able to function without a new wife.” A new wife? “Yes” she sighed, “But I’d have to find her for him, just like I do everything else around this damn house.”

I knew she was kidding but was intrigued by the thought. How would one do that? Put an ad in the paper? Host a single’s party and auction him off? What would it look like if someone really tried to do that?

Sometimes, a story idea can stem from a misunderstanding. My family stopped at an In ‘N Out Burger that was packed with Boy Scouts, undoubtedly on their way to a jamboree of sorts. At the sight of them, my daughter, Katie remembered a conversation she’d had earlier at her Brownie meeting. “Lindsey’s brother tried to join the Girl Scouts,” Katie reported.

I called Lindsey’s mother, who set me straight. Still, it was a funny idea: a boy trying the join the Girl Scouts. What type of shitstorm would follow if a boy tried to join Girl Scouts? And speaking of setting straight, what would happen if the boy was gay and his father was a traditional, macho firefighter? Hence, the birth of Brownie Points.

Smaller ideas can come from misunderstandings of offhand remarks as well. I was at a writer’s workshop when an older woman raised her hand and said she was having trouble with her project. “Halfway through my memoirs, I lost interest,” she said. I suppressed a laugh. Losing interest with one’s own memoirs is a bad sign indeed. It was also a great line, I thought. So I recycled it as a line of dialogue that one of the prospective new wives told Prudence Malone, the current wife or Reilly.

Ask for input

I could not have sent Prudence on more than 50 blind dates without a little help from my friends. I sent out an email asking for worst date stories and had dozens by lunchtime. My friend Deborah told me about a med student who reached across the table and pulled at her lower eyelid. He claimed he was checking the color for anemia because he was concerned about her vegetarianism. You simply cannot make that stuff up. Nor do you have to if you ask for input. People love to share their stories.

Open the newspaper or go online

For character development, I always check the personal ads. Reading people’s self-perceptions really reminds writers how complex we all are. Or are not.

When I was invited to contribute to Jane Green’s holiday anthology, This Christmas, I decided to do a gender swapped sequel to the The Wife of Reilly about a woman trying to find a new husband for her current husband’s ex-wife. A such, I spent a lot of time cruising internet dating sites. Most guys were decent looking with a benign bio (“loves spaghetti and sunshine!”), but some were real material. “If you got an attitude, don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out the door!” one man wrote in his bio. The rest was equally angry ranting.

Story ideas, characters and snippets of dialogue are all around us if we just keep our eyes and ears open to it. Start every day reminding yourself that you are open to the stories that are all around us. The start gabbing with friends, reading the newspaper and eavesdropping at Starbucks.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Chin-wagging In My Jimjams

By Georgeanne Irvine

G’day, mates! I’m just back from an adventure to a magnificent land that has become like a second home to me over the past 20 years: Australia. I’ve traveled Down Under well over a dozen times for all sorts of reasons, such as learning and writing about koala conservation issues, attending conferences, exploring wild places, and visiting the new friends I’ve met on earlier trips. This latest journey across the Pacific was as leader of a San Diego Zoo WorldWild Tour that focused on the wondrous Aussie wildlife. Whether we were hugging wombats in Tasmania, watching fairy penguins parade up the beach to their nesting burrows on Phillip Island in Victoria, waking up to the giggles of kookaburras in New South Wales, or riding camels on the beach in Queensland, we were always hanging out with some kind of critter.

So, what do I love about Australia besides everything? I’m enchanted with the people as well as fascinated by its unique animals, and as a writer, I’m enamored with the language! Whenever I hear someone speaking “Strine,” it makes me very happy and brightens my day!

Aussies and Americans may both speak English, but it’s amazing how different our everyday expressions are from theirs. Since the grass is always greener on the other side of the ocean, I find Australian words and phrases far more colorful and fun than ours and I love their accent. Each time I return home from Australia, my sentences are peppered with Aussie words, and often, people have no idea what I’m talking about!

In my early years of traveling in Australia, I needed a lot of translations. The first time I went to a bar, my friend said she was going to “shout me” a drink. I whispered that she didn’t need to yell my order to the bartender. I wasn’t desperate for a drink and could most certainly wait for the server to drop by—but she really meant she wanted to buy me a drink!

Another time she mentioned putting the car “in the pozzy,” and I immediately thought of the sheriff and his posse—yet she was really telling me that she parked her car or put the car in position, as they say over there. Many Aussie terms are shortened words: mozzy for mosquito, cocky for cockatoo, kooka for kookaburra, champers for champagne, roo for kangaroo, doco for documentary, and prezzies for presents.

Some words are uniquely Australian to me—we don’t use them regularly in the United States—such as fair dinkum (the real thing), crikey (an exclamation of surprise or amazement made famous worldwide by the late Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin), billabong (pond), and tucker (food), but there are words we share in common that have totally different meanings. Pissed in Australia means drunk, not angry; a biscuit to them is a cookie to us; and when I ask for potato chips over there, I’m given French fries—so I learned to ask for potato crisps instead. Bloody means very, a billy is a tin can used to boil water over a campfire, a sheila is a woman, and the phrase, get the shits, is not diarrhea, it means getting angry or upset. Also, a jumper to me is a dress—and you might be guessing it’s what the Australians call a kangaroo—but no, it’s really a sweater.

My biggest word blunder occurred when I was telling animal tales from my children’s books to a grade school class in Queensland. At the end of the talk, I said I needed to find my fannypack. The kids giggled and the teacher looked horrified—I later learned that fanny is the Aussie word for vagina. Yikes! I should have been looking for my “bumbag”!

Of the heaps of Aussie phrases, I have an all-time favorite, or at least one that makes me smile the most. A dear friend told me she had spent the morning with her sister “doing a chin-wag in her jimjams.” Translation: she was sitting around in her pajamas having a conversation with her sister!

Now that I’ve been home for nearly two weeks, the Aussie words are slowly fading from my vocabulary, but every once in a while, a crikey still slips out when I’m chin-wagging.

Friday, October 15, 2010

What We Do For Love

by Kathi Diamant

Love, in this case, being the act of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, with the desired result of a publishable piece of writing.

Few writers are able to get by on their writing alone. Even in our own San Diego Writing Women group, most of us do other things to keep the bills paid and the lights on. Georgeanne works for the San Diego Zoo, Jen for Planned Parenthood. Sharon is a veterinarian. Judy, Kathy and Laurel are academics. Caitlin, Karen and I teach college extension courses.

I’m not going so far as Karl Marx, who, according to the National Writers Union, once said, “Better a galley slave in Turkey than a freelance writer in America.” But, the fact is, as we have all been saying in our blog posts, it’s not easy to make a living as a writer.

For example, I finally got my first San Diego Magazine gig, a 400-word piece for the upcoming November 2010 issue. The magazine pays a relatively respectable 50 cents per word. That’s $200. For several days work. See my point?

The subject of my SD Magazine article is telling: my title was “My Life as an Extra.” True, it was only one day, my brief career working as background on “Terriers,” a new television series set in Ocean Beach, but it is illustrative of the things I do to keep the title writer behind my name.

Because I am not a fast writer, or a particularly efficient one, it takes me a long time to produce the work closest to my heart. I am currently working--or rather, because of various other time-consuming, income-producing projects, NOT working--on a memoir entitled “108 Coincidences.” I am also regrettably not working on a screenplay treatment about the last months of literary genius Franz Kafka’s life, a story of redemptive love in the face of death.

I am working, though not nearly as much as I should be, on writing two grants for the Kafka Project, my non-profit research effort to find the missing papers of Franz Kafka in Eastern Europe. If the grants are successful (and there is certainly no guarantee of that) then I’ll have funds available to work in the future. But there’s no pay for the time it takes now to write the grants.

So, in the meanwhile, what’s a writer to do? Especially one with a taste for Single Malt Whiskey? In my case, various and sundry things.

I teach a beginning Tai Chi class at the YMCA Hazard Center. Of course, that job won’t fund my affinity for Highland Park Scotch. I teach courses on writing and Kafka for the Osher Life Long Learning Institute at San Diego State University. I lead monthly book discussions for both Osher and the Kensington Library. I give talks about my book, Kafka's Last Love. (My next one is November 17 at 6:30 pm at the Encitinas Library.) I’m a moderator—the most recent was a discussion on Religion in America, sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Studies Department at SDSU. I am an actor, and occasionally get cast in a play. As a member of Equity, I do get paid for rehearsals and performances, but everyone knows that acting is not the way to make money. I did work one day as an extra, and at $140 per day (AFTRA scale) I do hope to do it again. My most reliable income comes from public broadcasting, where I work as an on-air fundraising anchor, coordinating producer and occasional audience wrangler for national PBS shows taped in San Diego.

As I write this, it is dawning on me: All the jobs I mentioned above are also things I do for love. None of them nets me that much money. But combined they add up to a good life of interesting, exciting and fulfilling work. And they do support my writing habit.

Kathi Diamant is a writer, actor, teacher and broadcaster, and an adjunct professor at San Diego State University, where she directs the Kafka Project, the search for a missing literary treasure. For info at and

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Kristin Rossum and a reporter-turned-author's compulsions

By Caitlin Rother

After being a newspaper reporter for various Metro sections in California and Massachusetts for nearly 20 years, I now use my investigative and storytelling skills to research and write compelling tales in books, and my deadline experience to write them quickly.

When I left The San Diego Union-Tribune in September 2006, a year after my first book, Poisoned Love, was published about the Kristin Rossum murder case, I went through a bit of an identity dilemma. Just because I was now a full-time author, did that mean I wasn’t a reporter anymore? I still felt like a reporter inside, watching cable news and commentary on TV and reading the newspaper, with that “need to know everything right now” sensibility that made me good at my job all those years.

I also continued to follow the crime stories I was now writing in book length form as if I still worked for the newspaper, meaning I wanted there in person every time the accused murderer went to court because I didn’t want to miss anything.

The thing is, books aren’t just longer newspaper articles, and eventually, I had to accept that I needed to work differently. My job is now to write narrative non-fiction, which requires me to gather information in a different form, because I’m not explaining what happened as much as I am crafting dramatic scenes. I’m also not just covering local cases these days, so when a verdict is being announced in 20 minutes, but I’m two or more hours away, I have to recreate the scene by talking to folks who were there.

Nonetheless, every once in a while, that old instinct kicks in and I’ve JUST GOT TO KNOW what happened – even when I’ve already written a book about it.

This happened a couple of weeks ago, when Rossum’s federal appeal finally got some traction, eight years after she was sentenced to life in prison without parole for poisoning her husband with a cocktail of drugs she stole from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office, where she’d worked as a toxicologist.

Now, at the time, I was already juggling a few balls: I was on deadline, trying to finish book #7, My Life Deleted, a memoir I’m co-authoring with a man who lost all 46 years of his long-term memory; I was working with a publicist to get ready for the February release of my next book, Dead Reckoning; and I was also gathering material for book #8, on the John Gardner case.
When I got a text message at 8 a.m. (I was still in bed) from a local lawyer asking me what I thought about the Rossum case, I had no idea what he was talking about, but I knew I needed to find out. Immediately.

Those old reporter instincts kicked in and I turned on the TV in my bedroom until I could find a newsbreak. Sure enough, I got a tidbit, but it wasn’t enough, so I went to my computer to learn more. I read news stories online, posted one on FaceBook and Twitter, sent out some emails, and finally got ahold of the court ruling so I could read it for myself. Because I had covered this case for several years for the paper before I wrote the authoritative book about it, people were asking me questions – Will she get a new trial? Is she about to go free? What’s your take? – and I needed to know what to say.

Once I finally figured it out, I posted a quick summary and analysis on FaceBook, which, honestly, left me wanting to write more, but here goes:

“Court says defendant’s argument of suicide by fentanyl was even more implausible than prosecution’s argument of death by fentanyl, because the medical evidence had too many inconsistencies, really, for either one. That said, the appeal is based on a claim of ineffective counsel – for not questioning the prosecution’s death by fentanyl argument and for not ordering tests on the autopsy samples for fentanyl metabolites, to see if Rossum’s husband had the drug in his system when he died, or if the samples were contaminated afterward. So, prejudice against Rossum can’t be determined without a test to prove/disprove whether samples were contaminated intentionally or unintentionally during the 36 hours they were left, unsecured, in the ME’s refrigerator before going to a private toxicology lab.

Appeals court says motive was there for intentional contamination – coworker’s jealousy and resentment against Rossum and her lover boss. (Seems like a stretch in a lab whose specific purpose is to help solve homicide cases.) So, the federal district court must now hold a hearing and allow Rossum’s new attorney to ask for the tests and then we’ll see. If you take fentanyl out of the equation for the cause of death, that would certainly change the case, but the state argues that even the absence of fentanyl should not exonerate her, because she still could have killed him other ways, i.e. the symbiotic mix of Clonazepam and Oxycodone that were also in his blood could have proved fatal, even though that was not the ME’s finding.

That aside, the prosecution’s fentanyl death argument was also bolstered with all kinds of other evidence, which this court ruling doesn’t discuss, because the appeal is focused on the ineffective counsel claim. So, once they have this hearing, and retest the autopsy samples, Rossum may or may not get a new trial. The thing is, she was a meth addict, meth addicts lie, and the prosecutor got Rossum to admit she lied on the stand for several days straight, and that had to contribute to the jury’s guilty verdict. Bottom line is that ultimately, meth is what did her in, Greg, her family, and his.”

A producer friend of mine at Dateline has since called me to say she is working on a story, so I plan to keep following this appeal online, on TV, and I’ll probably even attend the hearing because… I still don’t want to miss anything.

Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as a investigative newspaper reporter for nearly 20 years, is the author of six books, Body Parts, Twisted Triangle, Naked Addiction, and Poisoned Love, and is the co-author of Where Hope Begins. Her next book, Dead Reckoning, the story behind the murder of Tom and Jackie Hawks by Skylar Deleon and his clan of outlaws, including his wife, Jennifer, will be out in February 2011. She has two more books in the pipeline. For more information, check out her Web site,

Friday, October 1, 2010

Laurel Corona: Birthing a Daughter

A few months back I wrote the first entry in the San Diego Writing Women’s new blog. Now you have heard once from all of us, and it’s my turn again. I am really so pleased to be in the company of such remarkable women!

We’ve heard over the last ten weeks about various aspects of the writer’s life--from Caitlin Rother about the structure of a writer’s day, from Kathi Diamant about the need to be our own publicist, and from Jennifer Coburn about dealing with rejection. We heard about the vulnerable and deeply personal side of writing from Kathy Jones and Karen Kenyon, and from Divina Infusino and Judith Liu about the fun adventures writers have. We also learned from Sharon Vanderlip and Georgeanne Irvine about how their career choices (in both cases working with animals) led to opportunities to write. I can’t wait for Friday (our posting day) so I will hear something new from one of them!

Publication Day!

This blog post comes at a very special point in an author’s life, publication day! Next Tuesday, October 5, 2010, my second novel, Penelope’s Daughter, will be released from Penguin/Berkley Books. “Aren’t you excited?” people ask me, but if they really knew, they would first ask, “Aren’t you exhausted?”

I’m not complaining. It’s hard to get a book picked up by a major publisher, and I have now had four, including my non-fiction book, Until Our Last Breath (St. Martin’s), my first novel, The Four Seasons (Hyperion/Voice) and my third novel, Finding Emilie, coming from Simon and Schuster/Gallery Books in May 2011. Still, there is a mountain of behind-the-scenes work involved in being a published author.

Working with a Publicist

Many authors, including myself, get just a bit of a publicist’s time in the few months leading up to publication, and a flurry of attention in the window right around the publication date. Publicists do the best they can. They are swamped with books launching around the same time, and even in that short period when we are the “flavor of the month,” there are still dozens of others to promote.

I am very lucky to have a wonderful publicist at Penguin for Penelope’s Daughter, Erin Galloway. What a great publicist does, in part, is create opportunities for the author to help his or her book gain traction in the marketplace. One way to do this is the blog tour. Not many authors physically tour anymore. It is exhausting and disruptive, and there’s just not much bang for the buck in it for either the author or the publisher. Erin got me close to a dozen blog interviews and/or guest posts, but each one takes several hours to write. My guess is over the last few weeks I have produced somewhere between 8-10,000 words for these blogs--not tossed off writing but the most thoughtful, crafted prose of which I am capable. They’ll start appearing in a few days on websites focused on historical fiction, and if you are interested, a Google alert for “Penelope’s Daughter” or “Laurel Corona” will probably turn them up for you.

Finding a Comfort Zone

Erin has gotten me a number of appearances at book stores and other events, but with a new book it takes a while to get into the comfort zone talking off-the-cuff about it. With The Four Seasons, all I have to know is what the format of the event is and how many minutes I have, and I can produce the ten, twenty, forty minute version, as a lecture, discussion, reading, panel, or whatever, without having to think about it too much. I can’t do that with Penelope’s Daughter yet, and it takes time to prepare everything so I am not caught fumbling around looking for words.

Xanthe’s World

I am also writing my own blog now, Xanthe’s World, at, which I will talk about more in another post. I blog daily about issues affecting military children, as a means of putting substance behind my dedication of Penelope’s Daughter to “all the children left behind when fathers and mothers go off to war.” Those posts take time every morning to research and write.

Fans Are Fabulous!

I respond to a fair amount of email every day from people who have read my books and want to tell me how much they liked them (I always reply!), or who want to set up an appearance at a book club, either by phone or in person. I generate emails and Facebook posts myself to make sure I haven’t missed any opportunity to inform people about Penelope’s Daughter, what it is about and when it is coming out (next Tuesday October 5--remember?)

Whew! I’m tired already and it isn’t 9AM yet! My partner wonders aloud sometimes what it would be like if one of my novels became a best seller. Would 25 hours in a day be enough? Things will calm down by the end of the year, I know, and our house will return to the regular crazy normal it usually is. Then, around February, Finding Emilie will approach flavor of the month status at Simon and Schuster, and we’ll start all over again!