About Helga Bolleter

My friends know me as world traveler, fiction writer, music lover, passionate cook, ex-gardener and hopeless romantic. My glass is always half-full unless it’s a chilled NZ Sauvignon Blanc, in which case I can’t help myself.

When Life Gets in the Way

Cri-kee

Helga’s Post # 124   Maybe I got my mojo working again. At least I hope it’s not just a writer’s unfounded optimism. We writers have a tendency for that.

Time will be my judge. At any rate, it feels good to wallow in that precious groove after a lengthy absence. Sort of like coming back to the fold after drifting aimlessly without any idea of a destination.

From my periodic scanning of fellow writers’ blogs I know that I was but one of a legion. Does it make me feel any better? Not really. Every single one in this motley crowd has legitimate and sound reasons for shelving the one activity they like best, for ignoring that itch that can’t be scratched. Yet, we dropped it. Abandoned, betrayed, or put on ice if we are unwilling to call it by its real name.

Much has been written about the reasons why writers suddenly turn into deserters. The term writers’ block is pulled out whenever a writer is stuck for any reason whatsoever. Mostly when well-meaning friends and family inquire what might be the problem. “Why can’t I find your book on the bestseller shelf in the front of the bookstore?”

It’s the most über-used term in the writers’ universe.

I will not write yet another piece on writers’ block and the predictable parroted answer, ‘because life got in the way’. It’s one of the most widely touted reasons for abandoning writing. Of course life gets in the way. Otherwise we’d all be dead.

In this post I will go in the opposite direction. I will try to understand the forces that motivate a writer’s to return to the fold, to pick up where they left, and do so with renewed passion.

So, putting this argument on its head, what are the forces that make some writers return after a long bout of writers’ block? What does it take to truthfully look friends and spouse in the eye and say, “I am a writer.” No wordy explanation needed. They may believe it or not. What counts is that you know deep down it’s true. You have reached a turning point.

So, yes, life gets in the way. It stops us from being writers, apparently. But it’s exactly that which makes us writers again: Life. Simple as that.

An unexpected event. Something totally unplanned catapults us in a direction we never intended. Gets us out of our comfort zone. Makes us take risks. Perhaps after a long period of misery that has started to define us, that has made us forget that life can actually have joys waiting for us. Joys long forgotten and buried. Suddenly the world looks different.

No, it’s not. It’s us who are looking at the world with different eyes. It need not even be a hugely significant event. It can be as simple as adopting a pet. Anyone who has ever done that will agree that it can enrich your life beyond words.

Or you find a new passion. A career change that allows you to express some long-buried or never developed talents. Perhaps you suddenly discover you can draw. You pursue it and find you can paint too. Any number of such things can transform you and change your perspective.

Or, perhaps the most sure-fire reason is you meet someone new and start a relationship. Someone who was never on your radar screen suddenly takes your heart by storm. (There is a reason why the market is glutted with romance writers and readers)

All of these events give rise to positive emotions that can be so overwhelming that there is no room inside you any more. You need to find an outlet, you need to give these raw and tender emotions a voice.

Welcome back to writing!

And once you get back to your keyboard you will suddenly find it’s a different style of writing. You read over some of your previous work that you abandoned because ‘life got in the way’. You notice it sounds flat, possibly boring. You realize this new writing is different. It’s stronger, more powerful. It’s edgy, and deep, and it resonates the new ‘life that got in the way’. It mirrors your newfound passion. And it needs to find expression or you fear you will burst at the seam.

It’s not an option. It’s a gift that cannot be squandered. And every writer who has been there knows. As for myself, I am carefully wading in those positive waters, after a very long time of grief and loss. Life simply got in my way, in a good way, and the transition leaves me no choice but to put it into words.

Will it last? Stay tuned. And don’t forget to leave your keyboard occasionally and let life take you where it should. You may be surprised how much power you have to give it direction. Only you can choose to take that positive fork in the road. To push the reset button. And let that awesome writer inside you come on stage.

 

Dare to open that vein

images_006

Credit: Soulsonpage

Helga’s Post # 123:    Whenever I am afflicted with writers’ block (a frequent occurrence), I am reminded of a quote that uses a chilling metaphor to describe the difficult process of composition: The famous quote, one that most writers are familiar with, is this:

‘There’s nothing to writing. Just open a vein and bleed.’

I would think that a good many wannabe writers would rush for the razor without hesitation if taken literally, if that were all it takes to write a good book.

Replacing the metaphor with more realistic tools, what does it mean? At the danger of over-simplifying the quote’s meaning, the more life experience a writer has, the better the chance he/she will write a great book, perhaps even a bestseller (assuming a certain level of writing skills). But not just ‘experience’. Anything is an experience, lining up at the super market, taking the dog out, whatever. Life challenges might be more accurate. And the steeper the challenges, the deeper the valleys that life has carved out for you, the more likely you will be able to ‘open a vein and bleed’. Not always, but there’s a good chance that writers who took it on the chin for much or part of their life will write stories that resonate, stories that readers will remember. Not only remember, but they’ll be chewing their fingernails waiting for your next book to appear in their favorite bookstore.

Take these examples:

One writer leads a straightforward, uncomplicated life. He has travelled widely. He has a decent job but is bored because it doesn’t really challenge him. There are no conflicts in his daily routine or only minor ones, no complicated relationships. He has never had to worry about money and he has never been betrayed, simply because he doesn’t feel close enough to anyone that it would matter. Never felt much passion for anything, never felt the agony or ecstasy over falling in love or being abandoned or watching a loved one die. He thinks he is happy by the sheer absence of calamities in his life, but he has no way of measuring it. Such a person could become a reasonably good travel writer or write a suspense story based on a simple plot and lots of action rather than interesting, three-dimensional characters. But he would be hard pressed to ‘open a vein and bleed’ in his writing.

Another writer lives a life full of contradictions. She has glimpsed heaven and hell in equal measure (or better yet, has lived through more hell than heaven). She has suffered difficult relationships, has experienced delirious happiness when falling in love, and felt the heart-wrenching agony of losses when she was abandoned or lost a loved one to illness. She has experienced financial calamities as well as betrayals. She has a checkered past that would make Lady Chatterly blush and therefore hasn’t shared it with anyone, even her closest friends. But she has no regrets. Everything she does, she does with passion, or she won’t do it at all. She has learned from mistakes, of which there were many. Instead of wallowing in misery and turning bitter she has chalked them up as necessary training ground to become stronger and more independent. She leads a roller coaster life without ever a boring moment.

Who has more to give to their readers? Who is willing to open a vein and bleed profusely, making it part of their story?

All this is self-evident. So, what’s the point?

For one, it’s a great tool for readers to choose quality books. Books that not only entertain while we are reading them, but that stay with us long after we have read ‘The End’. Sometimes years after we’ve read them. Books that have the potential to change us, that’s how deeply they touch us. Stories that we can’t stop thinking about, because their characters are so real we feel we have met them in person. Relationships between them have depths of emotions we may never have known exist, let alone experienced. Or else we have experienced something similar to the story and can relate to the author’s version, remembering and identifying with our own past. With our own bleeding vein.

When choosing your next book to read, take a look at the author’s bio. Does he/she know about their subject matter from their own life experience? We are all familiar with Hemingway’s illustrious life and how he managed to mirror that in his writing. Or, take Sean Slater, a bestselling author and personal friend (in fact he was the original founder of our writers’ group). A police officer in real life, his books are brimming with events that ring true because many of them are. He has lived them and he effectively weaves  them into his stories.  Another example is one of my pet authors, John LeCarre. He has lived the life of a spy, so he knows how to write about it with authority and authenticity. It helps that he is a man of great intelligence, passion and awesome writing talent. He is well in his eighties now but you wouldn’t know it from the way he writes those wonderful love stories that are always an important part of his books.

I think these are pretty good criteria for selecting your next good book. (Depending of course on what kind of reader you are). Better yet, why not write one? If you are reading this blog it’s likely that you too have chalked up a lot of interesting life experience that can be mined for your next writing project. And if you are not in a hurry to get published so you can pay your next months’ rent, you will add more material to your arsenal for later use. Meanwhile, live those passions that we so love to read about, regardless of your age, because we are never really too old for that.

Oscar Wilde got it right when he said, ‘To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.’

 

Banish the beast

0deeb621a3144513fb2e81ec8d986702

Helga’s Post #122 —  The start of a new year is upon us, the symbolic signal to push the reset button. It’s an opportunity to let go of last year’s failures and disappointments and to embark on new beginnings. As Joe put it so succinctly in his recent post, whatever happened last year, simply ‘fuggetaboudit’.

New beginnings are always good. Imagine if we wouldn’t be able to have them. It would feel like being in a swamp with your feet stuck in mud, unable to move forward or back. Just stuck in untold misery and boredom. Even those who lead a satisfying life or believe they have a happy life, would do well to push that reset button. Just like nature, we all need renewal of some kind to keep us engaged in life and to experience it to its fullest potential.

I too have pushed that reset button on a number of levels. Getting used to single life in all its implications, for one. On a practical level it meant to acquire skills I never had, and to learn them in a hurry. Using tools that I never held in my hand before, learning about the mechanics of running a house, and chasing elusive plumbers, electricians, and my all time favorite, cable technicians. I am not complaining (too much) though. In fact, I get satisfaction from becoming self-sufficient and realizing, hey, I can do this too, on my own.

A new writing project is also part of the reset button. It started last year, but I decided to abandon it after the first three chapters. The characters were one-dimensional. They were in their mid-thirties, which is the age of a high percentage of characters in commercial fiction. I decided to start something different. More mature characters. That too is a reset button. I spoke to the local librarian recently, asking about the demographics of patrons. Not surprisingly, it’s people over sixty and up. And what kind of books do you think they most likely want to read about?

Romance. Yes, romance, was the overwhelming answer. Not necessarily strictly books in the romance genre, but any book that has romance as an important component. It can even be a mystery, or a suspense novel, no matter. To my mind come John LeCarre’s books. Inevitably, his novels have a beautiful, intense love story embedded in his hard-hitting espionage theme.

This caused me to reconsider my choice of demographics for the main characters in my work in progress. No thirty-somethings this time. Aside from the cookie-cutter cliché, at that age people haven’t yet acquired the hard life experience that shape and define more mature characters.

Have I made the right choice? I will know as I continue writing the story. I realize it’s risky, but to quote George Burns, I’d rather be a failure at something I enjoy, than a success at something I hate.

With that in mind, I will keep my post short so I can get back to real writing.

I wish you all a successful reset for the year ahead. Above all, don’t forget to live. Dance as if no one’s watching; sing as if no one’s listening, and live every day as if it were your last. And write as if no one will ever read your work.

Banish the beast, your internal editor. That’s when we can truly write with abandon.

Gifts from the heart

 

_0017

Made from greens collected on Cypress Mountain, Vancouver

Helga’s Blog #121:

Gifts, gifts, gifts… can’t sleep because we still haven’t a clue what to give Aunt Nell, cousin Bill, the neighbour who pet sits the cat, and let’s not forget that friend who gave you a gift last Christmas while you had nothing for him.

Time has run out, shipping deadlines are past, stores running low on merchandise. We are doomed, sure to lose friends, certain to be snubbed by family members near and far.

There are always scented candles of course, they are stocked in every drug store, gas stations even, in a myriad of fragrances. A last option. A better one is to give nothing. Far better.

Alternatives?

Indeed. Likely the most helpful, most valuable gift you will ever receive, or give. And it doesn’t come from a store. I won’t cost you a dime. You don’t even have to leave your home, no need to elbow your way through throngs of shoppers, lose your temper fighting over a parking space, or any of the myriads of inconveniences called Christmas shopping.

That’s right. You can do this entirely from the comfort of your electric recliner chair if you so wish. Such is the privilege of people who love to read, and because of that love, may have turned into writers.

Because these people, lucky souls, know how to be creative. Like pulling a rabbit from a hat, they create something from nothing. No trip to the ATM is needed, no wrapping paper either. So perhaps it’s time to share this secret recipe of enduring Christmas success for years to come.

There are two options, depending on the preference of your gifting recipients. One assumes he or she is a foodie, the other that she or he loves books. Maybe you are lucky to have friends or family who embody both, so if you cater to their twin passions, you may have a fan for life.

Let’s deal with the foodie angle first. Until a year ago, I would delight family and friends with Christmas baking created from recipes handed down through generations. One that stands out has a special history. It’s a recipe for Dresden Christmas Stollen by one of Vienna’s premier patisseries. I will not indulge you with how I got my hands on this coveted recipe, but in the spirit of Christmas sharing, I am gifting it to you. If you follow the instructions as given, you will produce the best ‘stollen’ available. You don’t have to gift the baked product; a more classy option is to print the recipe on good paper and send it off with your Christmas card. (Recipe is in PDF,  measurements are in metric)

The second option is for the lover of books. No, you do not need to purchase any, your recipients can do that all on their own. As any avid reader knows, buying books is the easy part. Finding good titles is far more difficult. Your recipients will be lucky to get your carefully crafted reading list.

That’s it, you say?

Yes. That’s it. But this is no ordinary reading list. Sure, you can find excellent lists of great new titles at the New York Times Book Review or similar sources. What you, the gifter, will offer is a list of titles that you and your friends have come to appreciate and enjoy beyond published reviews. Not by commercial reviewers, but by avid readers who deemed these titles worthy of sharing with friends. You will offer a list compiled with love and honesty – a gift of passion.

So in the spirit of sharing, here is a short list of random titles (fiction and non-fiction) that trusted friends have recommended and enjoyed. They may not be your genre, but are well written and I am sure worth reading. I have read only a few but will make sure to work my way through the entire list.

Fiction:

Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Secret River, by Kate Grenville

Avenue of Mysteries, by John Irving

On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry

Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbough

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

A Name of Blood, by Matt Rees

Elemental, by Amanda Curtin

Non-Fiction:

One of Us, by Asne Seierstad,

Dead Wake, by Erik Larson

Between You and Me, by Mary Norris

A Fighting Chance, by Elizabeth Warren

The Almost Nearly Perfect People, by Michael Booth

River Town, by Peter Hessler

The Shelf, by Phyllis Rose

River at the Centre of the World, by Simon Winchester

Dust of Empire, by Karl Meyer.

Happy Holidays to you all. May the muse stay with you and follow you into the New Year. And thanks for being our steadfast followers.

IMG_1210

From my Austrian recipes

 

Historical thrillers anyone?

maxresdefaultHelga’s Post # 120:

Those of you who have followed my blog posts know that I am a writer and devoted fan of reading fiction. Especially historical suspense fiction. British author John le Carré’s espionage novels have long topped the list of my reading pleasure.

But writers need to be flexible, casting their nets wide in search of worthwhile morsels for their own stories. With this in mind, I thought I should check out a non-fiction title on the list of my on-again-off-again book club: ‘Dead Wake – The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson.

The WHO? I was intrigued by the subject, admittedly unknown to me. What would motivate me to read a four hundred plus page book about a passenger ship (other than the Titanic) going down during WWI? Not that there is ever an event where lives are lost that is insignificant. Every one of them is. But in the overall scheme of history, aren’t there just as many, or more, sensational events to read about?

I was curious. There must have been SOME reason for my book club to select this particular title. When I brought it home from the local library I researched the author who at this point was unknown to me. My eyes widened. He’d written at least six highly acclaimed books, most notably In the Garden of Beasts – Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. Most of his books had garnered solid five-star reviews.

In terms of Dead Wake, according to The New York Times Sunday Book Review, few tales in history are more haunting, more tangled with investigatory mazes or more fraught with toxic secrets than that of the final voyage of the Lusitania, one of the colossal tragedies of maritime history. It’s the other Titanic, the story of a mighty ship sunk not by the grandeur of nature but by the grimness of man.

I continued researching other works of the author. His next title, Thunderstruck, was equally starred. That story too had me going. Here, Larson gives us history, stranger than fiction, brought to life by his attention to detail and skilled writing:

“The saga of how the lives of the inventor of wireless and of Britain’s second most famous murderer (after Jack the Ripper) intersected during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time. The inventor was G. Marconi, the young Italian genius; the killer was Hawley Harvey Crippen, who murdered his overbearing wife and fled Britain with his mistress, unaware that Scotland Yard was hot on his heels. The book—an instant New York Times bestseller—brings to life a host of forgotten characters, including spirit mediums, ghost-hunting physicists, Scotland Yard inspectors, and one of the great pioneers of forensic science. The climax occurs during a trans-Atlantic chase which, thanks to the miracle of Marconi’s invention, was followed by millions of people around the world—with Crippen and his mistress completely unaware.”

History, told at its best. History that reads like the best of thrillers.

Larsen captured four more historical events that, by themselves, may hold little interest for the average reader. But with his meticulous research and skilled writing, he was able to forge these events into fascinating, richly coloured stories. His books are truly hard to put down after the first page or two.

What fascinates me about these non-fiction books is the way they are written. They lure me to keep on reading, even though I have never heard of the Lusitania before. It’s the detail that has me snared from the get-go. And this is what I would like to do in my own writing, in historical suspense fiction. Take Larsen’ first paragraph of Dead Wake:

“On the night of May 6, 2015, as his ship approached the coast of Ireland, Capt. William Thomas Turner left the bridge and made his way to the first-class lounge, where passengers were taking part in a concert and talent show, a customary feature of Cunard crossings. The room was large and warm, paneled in mahogany and carpeted in green and yellow, with two fourteen-foot-tall fireplaces in the front and rear walls. Ordinarily Turner avoided events of this kind aboard ship, because he disliked the social obligations of captaincy, but tonight was no ordinary night, and he had news to convey.”

What news? I had to keep reading. And the suspense increased with every page. And yes, the devil is in the detail – Larson made good use of archives and cleverly weaved in those seemingly unimportant and gossipy snippets of dialogue and letters that readers are so fond of.

In all, a good, no excellent, example of how skilled writing, with attention to detail – especially small detail – and relationships between various characters can propel a story to bestseller status. Even better if the context of the story is a true historical event. In a previous post I wrote about this topic between a captured Russian spy and his American defender (Tom Hanks) in the movie Bridge of Spies. Here too the actual event is overshadowed by the characters’ relationship and the small details that made it so memorable.

There is no moral to the story, to my post. Just random musings about how we writers can harvest useful morsels from a variety of sources – and enjoy ourselves in the process. Readers love to read about characters, their relationships and conflicts, interesting dialogue, colourful settings and detail, and especially if the context is a historical event.

Add a good dose of suspense and readers will be along for the ride. From page one to The End. Fiction or non-fiction.

151026_r27186-867

Wheat or chaff? It’s all about relationships

Image

Helga’s Post #119: What makes a story really and truly tick?

We all know the answers, so no point preaching to the choir. What does get overlooked more often than what’s good for us writers, is this:

The power of relationships.

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Yet it’s so common to forget about it and rather focus on getting characters right. Powerful characters that we hope will keep the readers turning the pages of our story. In fact, it’s the relationships between these strong and interesting characters that is the make-or-break aspect between a flop and a bestseller.

Sure, a good plot helps. Suspense and pacing is crucial. Setting will frame the story. Credible, three-dimensional characters are all-important. But interesting characters by themselves are not enough to make a book roar.

It’s how the characters relate to each other that defines the story – and may well determine the book’s future success or failure.

This was brought home to me again after watching the movie Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks.

Never wanting to miss a Steven Spielberg flick I expected much and was not disappointed. In fact, I was quite shaken, not because of the plot, setting or acting, all of which were exceptional, but by the superbly acted and unusual relationship between the Russian spy and the American lawyer assigned to defend him. I will not do a spoiler here, rather I recommend this movie to any of you writers out there. Go and watch it with a view of judging what makes this film as powerful as it is. Then go back home and try to weave these aspects into your own story.

The plot and genre also acted as a huge attractant for me, so please keep that in mind about my starry-eyed review. The setting of the film is late 1950s Brooklyn and later East Berlin, height of the Cold War scare. Height of the hysteria and hatred around Soviet Russia. Spies working each side of the two worlds. Time of the apocalyptic fear that gripped America during the dark days of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’. Based on the 1960 U-2 incident during the Cold War, the film tells the story of lawyer James B. Donovan who is entrusted with negotiating the release of Francis Gary Powers—a pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union—in exchange for Rudolf Abel, a captive Soviet KGB spy held under the custody of the United States.

I loved it for its excellence but also as it reminded me of my novel Closing Time (unpublished), the manuscript collecting cobwebs under my bed for the last five or six years. Its setting is 1958 Vienna, the story based on true events but with fictionalized characters (other than President Eisenhower and Nikita Khruschev). Its focus is also the Cold War, the topic negotiating the limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the superpowers. It was the second novel I wrote. At the time I thought it was pretty good but a number of rejections from editors and literary agents made me doubt my earlier enthusiasm. And so it lingered since.

Watching ‘Bridge of Spies’ however made me rethink my own story. Perhaps it’s worth dusting off the cobwebs. Sure, it needs a total re-write. I may have to change my protagonist and the antagonist, but these are relatively small details. I have the setting nailed, because that’s where I grew up. A little later than the time of the story, but I can relate.

The major part of the rewrite will be my characters’ relationships to each other. My mind is going into overdrive as I write this.

Thank you Steven Spielberg, not only for a great movie, but also because you have done me a great favor. Maybe you have spawned a book worth publishing. Thanks for the memories.

 

Down, sometimes, but never out

IMG_0080Helga’s Post # 118Reading back over our posts it seems the 5 writers are in constant motion. Traveling motion that is. How on earth can we ever hope to produce a novel within the confines of our restless lifestyles?

But we try. And from what I glean checking in on my writing buddies, everyone hunkers down, making progress on our manuscripts, the due date February 5, 2016 not so far away suddenly. We have recognized some time ago that the only way to produce a decent (and hopefully marketable) manuscript is to commit publicly to a deadline. Miss it and you’ll chance being tarred and feathered in the public arena of social media. So even with all of our erratic lifestyles all of us are determined not to be the one publicly shamed come February 5 next year.

Easier said than done. Speaking strictly for myself, I have been battling a gruesome schedule, leaving no time to add pages to my draft manuscript. Life has a way to push us in a corner when we least expect it. An aging mother overseas who really needs to hug us, or a commitment that takes priority over all else in our lives, something that absolutely cannot wait because we owe it to someone special, these are the things that tend to trip a writer, even the most serious.

Just a few days after returning from a trip to Europe (almost entirely family-oriented), I embarked on a long road trip, solid three days of driving with two overnight stays, from Vancouver to Palm Springs. A close friend offered to be my escort or co-pilot, plying me with snacks and stories throughout. While no progress was made on the writing front, ideas were hatched during the long journey, ideas that may well become part of a larger story.

So now that my immediate travels are behind, my writing life will start in earnest. But wait, not so fast. Arriving at a house that stood empty for over 6 months creates its own challenges. No WiFi, no cable, no phone (other than my trusted cell phone, equipped with a US-friendly SIM card once I had crossed the border from Canada). It was, symbolically and in a real sense, arriving in a desert landscape.

My to-do list stretches across three pages. None of the issues are remotely related to writing my novel. And every single day our deadline gets nearer. Every day not writing means I will have to do much of it towards the end. Writing partner Paula talked about binge-writing not long ago. I am now officially an honorary member of the concept. Never mind writing three pages or whatever, every single day. It may well come down to writing thirty or more in a day, and let’s not forget nights. There may not be much sleep during the last crucial weeks.

Yes, I’ll get to the writing. After I have run the vacuum cleaner through the house to get rid of all the dead (and not so dead) crickets that have taken residence in the last six months in my house. And after I manage to get that dreaded service provider, Time Warner, hook up my services. It has only taken a dozen phone calls with extensive waiting periods to get it into the pipeline.

Not easy times for writers who mean it. Writers whose characters are keen to get back on stage to be heard. Characters that are bursting at the seam to do what their creator has in mind for them.

All will get their pound of flesh. After the fridge is filled with necessities, after the car is washed after driving over 2,200 km, after I’ve put my face to the sun, even for a day, to get rid of that pasty northern pallor.

After that, I will bid my characters to come on stage, to dance to the tune I will have composed for them.

A writer’s life. A writer’s privilege. Not so bad, eh?

Postcard from the past

Helga’s Post #117:  Writing this post during a three-week visit from my hometown, Vienna. Not much about writing as such, but paying tribute to the craft with this picture of one of Vienna’s public libraries

imageScant progress on the writing front. Family members, especially those from the ‘old country’ have a way of monopolizing visiting relatives’ time. Not just a day here and there, or a couple of hours every day or two. Oh no, not my family. They go all out: 24/7 with a scant allotment for sleeping.

Trying to catch up on my blogging commitment too is a tricky undertaking. My beloved 94-year old mother hovers over me, checking as I write on my iPad. More than once am I reminded that I will lose my vision, and besides, all this time spent on the Internet is a dangerous habit akin to drug addiction.

But I do have my ways. With Houdini-like skills I manage to free myself from well-intentioned maternal shackles and go on the odd escapade. I head out, ready to rediscover my roots and my city. With an eye towards gathering morsels for my novel in progress I start walking down memory lane….

First stop, my grade school on Grubergasse. The first four years. The building looks smaller now, the street more narrow. This is where I got my first taste for the pleasure of writing. A teacher publicly praising an essay I wrote in Grade two or three. A small gesture, a lasting passion for a young pupil.

Next stop the dance school my parents signed me up for. This is something most teens in Vienna used to attend, regardless of social and economic background. Not only to learn the basics of ballroom dancing, but to get acquainted with social etiquette. The girls, usually at age 16, lined up on one side of the long wall, facing a row of shy pimply boys across the room. The boys had the privilege of choosing a dance partner. Before the first dance, they had to entertain their girl with polite and charming conversation while promenading her around the hall. I seem to recall my partner’s attempts as something like “My name is Fritz and I live in the third district.”

Tracing my steps back through the Volksgarten I look for that hidden alcove. That special bench, the first kiss. Alcove and bench are gone as is the memory of the boy’s name. Onwards along the Ringstrasse to the opera house, recalling my first opera, Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. Not a good choice to spark a passion for opera.

Thankfully, opera is not the only choice of entertainment in the city of music and dance. I was introduced, early on, to jazz by boyfriend du jour, a jazz musician of considerable charm (footnote: he later became a character in my Cold War novel ‘Closing Time’). The venue, a damp cellar deep below St. Ruprecht church. Fans used to sit on roughly hewn benches sucking straws from coke bottles filled with a devilish mix of coke and corn brandy, the drink of choice for jazz aficionados. The place still exists today, many decades later. It’s now the popular Jazzland, the oldest jazz club in Vienna.

Jazz, corn brandy and a musician boyfriend inevitably lead to heartbreak. That too is part of growing up, part of life’s unavoidable experiences. We had better become experts in dealing with it. Losses of one kind or another will become routine throughout our lives, mounting as we get older.
Memory lane is nearing its end. I am getting close to that all important point in time, my life-changing decision to leave my native country for Canada.

But a few more steps remain.

My dad had planned out my career path for me early on. After graduating from business college he ‘pulled strings’ with the Socialist party to get me a job at the nationalized funeral office. ‘You will never be out of a job’ he reasoned.

What? A young ambitious fun-loving woman working in the funeral industry? I had different ambitions.

My departure for Canada was not without drama. And a romance that may have played a part in my decision.

More in my next post.

My 3 am brilliance

3amHelga’s Post #116:  The gauntlet, ah, that gauntlet… It wakes me up at 3 in the morning and keeps me thinking about my plot for the 5/5/5 novel writing challenge. Snippets of brilliant scenes for my new book take shape in total darkness. I commit them to memory so I can write them out at the crack of dawn.

Back to sleep for a bit. Morning arrives. I sit down at my Mac with my first Nespresso and open a new page on Word. I am ready to start writing, recalling those clever 3 AM images and ideas.

But wait, nothing emerges. How can it be? All these ideas made so much sense during the night and I visualized them clearly. Where are they now? Why do they hide from me?

I am sure this is not only my debacle. What’s more, I am finding that it happens during the day too, when I witness some sort of event or observe an interesting person or scene. What helps is to just point and click with my iPhone, or at least write a note to myself if it’s too obvious to take a snapshot. That way my memory can’t play tricks on me later.

We writers are always on the lookout for unusual images. With our senses constantly on alert, not much escapes us that could be worth including in our stories. Often it’s a small detail that triggers an idea for a scene. Take this for instance:

I was walking out of Walmart (one of my least favorite stores, though it’s convenient), behind a couple of forty-somethings. He, wearing Bermuda shorts, caught my attention. His hefty calves sported prominent tattoos, in heavy, black ink. The left calf showed two large numerals, ‘14’, the left one the number ‘88’. I had never seen this before. Curious, I googled it once I got home.

I had no idea that these numerals are hate symbols.

One website, ‘Hate on Display’, shed light on the mystery. They have an extensive hate symbols database and define ‘14’ and ‘88’ as follows:

“14 is numerical shorthand for the white supremacist slogan known as the “14 Words”:  ‘We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.’ The numeric symbol 14 is used even in those countries where the translated version of the slogan comes to fewer or greater than 14 actual words. Because of its symbolic significance, white supremacist groups use the number widely, either by itself or in conjunction with other numeric symbols, especially 88 (which stands for “Heil Hitler”. ‘H is the 8th letter in the alphabet. A variation is the number 18 for Adolf Hitler, with A being the first letter in the alphabet). Thus white supremacists may incorporate the number 14 into the names of groups or publications, into screen names or e-mail addresses, or virtually anywhere else.”

Bingo. I just discovered what might become an interesting character in my novel. An insignificant one to be sure, but he could show up at the right time and add a useful detail to a scene. It would be perfect to ‘show’ that character rather than telling my readers what an abomination this guy is. As well, the fact that supremacist groups use the number 14 as code to identify themselves to likeminded haters virtually anywhere, could make for a timely and fascinating plot about that most repulsive underbelly of human nature and society.

So fear not, fellow writers, if your brilliant 3 AM ideas evaporate at dawn. There’s plenty to observe during your day that can be mined for your novel. All you need to do is keep your eyes wide open and senses on high alert. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll find.

I for one will have my eyes even wider open in about a week from now. That’s when I am leaving for Vienna, my hometown, for three weeks. It’s no coincidence that Sigmund Freud opened shop in that city. Beautiful, neurotic and with more contradictions than any other city I have visited. So stay tuned for progress reports, though I can’t promise blog posts while I am there. You see, Vienna has sort of not quite kept pace with many other places. They do have some of the best musical performances in the world, yet the Internet still spooks them in many circles. It means I have to take the metro and bus to get to a Starbucks in the city center if I want Wi-Fi.

But I am sure to notice some eclectic, novel-worthy characters on the way.

5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:

 New pages written:  0 (that’s all?)

Characters created: 5

Outline written: A partial (doesn’t count. See quote below)

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing. ~E. L. Doctorow

7 deadly serious writers

hand-7-sevenHelga’s Post # 115:  If you have been following our blog you know that seven crazy writers are now fully committed to writing a novel by the deadline of February 5 of next year. Some of us start from scratch (myself included – I need the challenge) and some continue or re-write a work in progress.

Why are we doing this? Especially since the writer’s complaint bag is stuffed full with blights of our trade. Rarely do you hear one of us telling how incredibly lucky writers are, how fantastic the pay, how short our work week, how our friends believe in our success even if we are yet to be published after untold years of trying.

What makes us persist, year after miserable year, in this (on surface) least rewarding profession? Do we really have to be masochists to become writers? Why are we stubbornly clinging to the lofty goal of writing that novel that’s been playing havoc with our peace of mind for so long? The stories that take over much of our daily routine and then keep us awake at night.

That’s what this post is all about.

We have our novel all worked out of course, in vivid detail, with countless brilliant scenes and larger-than-life characters. We have a protagonist no reader is likely ever to forget, no, even fall in love with head over heels, and an antagonist that is beyond evil and so chilling he gives us nightmares.

Except for one slight problem… this wonderful, unforgettable epic novel exists only in our head. It resides there squarely, but try as we might, once we are ready to tease it from the recesses of our brain and put it in words, on screen, the story has turned nebulous. It even may elude us entirely. Perhaps we lose our self-confidence in the plot; the story suddenly has no legs (a writer’s biggest nemesis). Any of these could defy our attempts to make it real, to share it with the world.

Well, not all writers are equally challenged. We use different tools and tricks to make our stories real. Some of us are outliners, some are pantsers (what’s more, there’s even a hybrid: plantster) Whatever works. But there is another trick most of us use, even subconsciously.

We write autobiographies. I am willing to go out on a limb on this. We don’t simply invent characters. We create them in on our own image and the image of people who have touched our lives. Inventing characters based on real people allows the writer to go deeper than they’ve gone before emotionally. In fiction, writers aim to move our hearts. Not only the readers’ hearts, but our own hearts too. And I believe that herein lies much of the motivation for writing fiction:

Because it gives us a measure of power and control over our lives. It lets us create and recreate a life of our choosing. Fictional, yes, but we learn from it. The creative process may guide us in our real lives as well. In our stories we can reward the people we love, and take brutal revenge on those who have hurt us. With a click on the keyboard we can annihilate enemies. We are able to bestow everlasting happiness on those characters we love in real life (including, or especially, ourselves). We can bring people back from the dead and send others to hell. We enable our characters to master one of the toughest challenges of all: Learning how to forgive. Ultimately they will teach us.

Is there a greater power?7-strikethrough