Today we have Barbara M. Hodges with us to answer some very interesting questions about her writing. Enjoy!
When did you first know you were going to be a writer?
I didn’t really know until we moved here to the central coast twenty-nine years ago. It was always lurking in the back of my mind that someday I’d like to author a book, but when we moved here, I decided if not now, then when. I’ve always been an avid reader. One day I was looking for a new book to read. I wanted an epic fantasy with a strong women character, a little romance, and a basset hound. I couldn’t find what I wanted, so I wrote it, The Blue Flame.
What is the theme/message that threads through your work?
Good versus evil. Good must go through all forms of torture but win in the end.
What is the one story you would like to write, but just can’t?
I don’r think there is a story that I, just can’t write. If it starts bugging me and won’t leave me alone, then it will be written.
How do you choose the names for your characters?
I love names. I create my characters first, then pick a name the fits them. There’s a big difference between a Daphne and a Susan.
How many drafts do you do before you are ready to publish?
Now that I’ve written 14 books, it’s two drafts, then to my first readers, then to the editor. With my first book, The Blue Flame, it was more like nine drafts.
How many times do you redo the opening of your stories before you are satisfied with it?
Numerous times. I can be changing the opening right up to the day I send the completed manuscript for publishing.
Have you ever started a story and been surprised by its genre, age-range, or subject matter?
Not by any of those, but I have started story, been halfway through the writing and decide it needed to be in first person, rather than the third person which I had written it in. It was so funny how changing it to first person changed so much of the storyline and the characterization.
Thank you, Barbara, for your very insightful answers to our questions. Here’s a link to Barbara’s latest book; if you love mysteries and dogs, especially Basset Hounds, you’ll love Barbara’s books!
Here’s a fun, weird little situation that will make your creativity sit up and take notice. Set your timer for 10 to 15 minutes, start to write, and see what your subconscious pulls up!
You go to a street fair and bring your digital camera. You take a lot of pictures. When you get home and download the photos to your computer, you discover a very strange anomaly on one (or more) of the photos. What is it, and what do you think it means?
Let’s face it, size matters. The smaller you are, the better. That’s where we cats have it all over most of our canine rivals. (And let’s be honest, those little dogs just are not cute!) The smaller you are, the easier it is to get your way. You can end up doing things you’ve been “trained” not to do, and going into places you’ve been forbidden to go into, with total impunity.
That’s because humans have a soft spot for cute, helpless, little things: babies, puppies, kittens. But babies and puppies grow big, some of them really big, whereas we cats remain small. Never regret your small size. It gives you an advantage you won’t get anywhere else.
Now, of course we cats know we’re not cute and helpless even though we’re small. We’re regal and fierce and in charge. But humans equate size with power, so they will never suspect your true nature. Not until it’s too late. To ensure that, here are some strategy points to start you off.
Shudder a lot. If you look like you’re scared, and scared of them especially, they will melt like ice cream on a 90-degree day. So hunker down, let your ears droop, and shudder. Blink your eyes like you’re trying not to cry; a soft mew or two is always helpful.
Roll on your back when they scold you. Humans think that’s a position of submission and it really gets to them. You may have to let them rub your tummy for a bit, but it’s worth the tradeoff. The submission ruse ensures you get your way every time.
Rub your cheek against their arm, their hand, or even their face if you can get up close enough. Throw in a purr or two for maximum effect, and maybe a lick or two. Paw at their arm, hand or face as you stare into their eyes, but be careful not to use your claws. You’re going for cute and helpless, remember, not stubborn and contrary.
When you give humans the cute and helpless act, they will forget all about what they wanted you to do, or not do, and will fawn all over you. They’ll give you lots of attention, which as cats we deserve, and lots of loving, then go on their way, completely forgetting whatever is was they wanted to “teach” you. You’ll once again have free rein to do as you please, in the way that you please.
And when they start in again with the discipline nonsense, fall back on your Cute and Helpless strategies. You’ll have them trained in no time.
Photos are worth a thousand words, mainly because they make our minds race with images, connections, What If?s, How-did-this-happens, etc. A picture can hold an entire story in its one image. That’s why pictures are such a great way to begin the writing process.
Here’s a photo for you to play with, word-wise. Set your timer for 10 minutes and have fun!
Today we host author and actress Mara Purl, who has penned a loving story about her mother. Her mother was born on July 14, and died on July 19—the date of my own mother’s birth! It’s an amazing synchronicity that has brought Mara and me together here on this auspicious day.
“Do something with that hair!” It’s a refrain my mother said often enough that I can still hear her saying it. Indeed, the phrase will live on, as it’s featured in the mother-daughter storyline in When Otters Play, a popular novella of my Milford-Haven saga.
It isn’t so much the text of the phrase that never fails to strike a nerve, but the sub-text. It implies everything from incompetence to disobedience, and carries a heavy weight of judgment. No matter how much time and effort I might have spent grooming, it never seemed to be good enough for mom, because this was often her only comment as I headed out the door for an event: prom or graduation, party or photo shoot, job interview or theatre performance.
It never failed to hurt my feelings. And to some extent, I ingested her attitude and made it my own. Until I began to see through this issue clearly years later, I accepted wholesale that either I just had bad hair, or would never know what to do with it. I was therefore surprised when I looked back at photos to see that my hair actually looked fine. So what was this dissonance all about?
I could have chosen to believe I had a mean-spirited mother who’d rather hurt than help her daughter. Yet, when I scratched the surface of the complex relationship with my mother, I never failed to discover her heart of gold. Her only motive in saying anything critical was to help me, improve my life, remove an obstacle, deliver me to my best opportunities.
I wish she’d been able to communicate her support more . . . supportively. But as our relationship matured, I came to know both myself and my mother better. She was a vibrant, accomplished woman who faced more obstacles than I can truly grasp, sailing through the Great Depression, World War II, the kind of gender bias that was so prevalent as to be invisible, a brilliant career, the loss of a brilliant career, a thrilling marriage, a family she loved, and enough self-doubt to fill a classic set of Encyclopedia Britannica volumes.
Every time she saw me headed out into the big bad world—a world she once knew better than I—she knew she could neither stop nor protect me. So what she could do was arm me with the best possible weapons: a good education, polished manners, a proper wardrobe, and . . . good hair. These tools had never failed her when all else did. Doors might have been slammed in her face, but sometimes they opened again later because of her grace under fire, or her sheer determination. And no one could ever fault her appearance under any circumstances. A poor photograph of her does not exist.
Twenty years ago, when I married my husband, I moved part-time to the city where Mom and Dad had retired. Since the previous twenty years had been spent on opposite sides of the globe (I grew up in Tokyo, and they still lived there for many years), this move of mine created a level of jubilation that never really subsided. She always thought of ways to spend time with me: impromptu lunches, elaborate dinner parties where she could show me off to her friends, cozy evenings as a foursome with my father and husband included. From my side, I suggested projects we might do together. We spent several months, for example, during our “spare” time, curating her extensive collection of Japanese kimono, then creating a series of gallery events to sell them. Not only was this fun and satisfying, it validated her taste, her studies of textiles and history, and her ability to bring a project to completion.
We’d had as full, frantic and fun a holiday as any family could imagine. Her sister, my beloved aunt, stayed with my parents for the month. Other family members and friends came to stay at our houses, both of which were decorated sumptuously for Christmas featuring eclectic mementos of our years in Asia: angels sitting atop shelves, trees, and tables; Japanese screens as backdrops for poinsettias; and Buddha statues wearing red ribbons. My sister sang at a holiday concert. I signed books at a gorgeous Christmas event. We cooked, we sang carols, we ate, and, as always, we read A Christmas Carol aloud, with my dad, an accomplished actor/director, playing Scrooge.
After the holidays, Mom was exhausted and my husband and I whisked my parents away to the mountains for a few days of what we call “the great nothing.” Somewhat restored when we returned home, she still felt something was wrong. Days later she was diagnosed with an advanced illness, and opted immediately not to have treatment. Suddenly, the clock was ticking: six months. I stopped writing. I started caring for her.
Along with my sister, who came to town when she could, I set up a schedule of tasks, visits and yes, parties. We planned a series of International Salons for our parents. They’d taken us all over the world. Now, we would bring the world to them. All of them staged in their lovely home, the first was an English Tea with Piano Concert. Next was a Russian feast with violin concert. By the time we held the Argentine Tango Milonga, she’d lost a lot of strength. But, having been a dancer, she rallied and we had her gliding around her living room—emptied of furniture and transformed into a music bistro—in a reverie that fulfilled an important item on her bucket list.
The last show was held on her ninetieth birthday. Though too frail to walk by then, she’d chosen her wardrobe and when we dressed her she looked gorgeous as ever. Carried to her van by a handsome group of EMTs from the local fire department, she arrived at the performance we’d planned for her. I produced and my sister performed a one-woman show at a school for the arts the family has always supported. When the students sang “Mama” to her at the end of the performance, it brought the packed house down.
It was four days later when she passed on peacefully in her home. We were all there, and we watched in awe as her spirit took flight. We held a memorial in the beautiful garden she’d designed. I’d chosen butterflies as the theme, and as I struggled through my remarks, friends said a butterfly swirled around my skirt. I have often heard her voice since then—not in a traditionally audible way, but still, unmistakably. Sometimes as I head out the door for a performance or a book event, I hear her say, “Do something with that hair.” But now that I know what she means, it only makes me smile.
Thank you so much, Mara, for this loving tribute to your mother. I’m sure it’s brought tears to all our eyes, and wonderful memories of our own mothers to our minds and hearts. My Mom would be 97 today, if she were still here—I lost her in 2009—but her advice over the years lingers on within me.
Mara Purl is the multi-award-winning, best-selling author of the Milford-Haven Novels and Novellas, set along California’s Central Coast. Together they have won over 30 awards. You can find her books here:
Here’s an imaginative situation for you to play with. Don’t overthink it; don’t worry if you don’t write this genre. Just set your timer for 10 minutes, begin writing, and see what happens.
Situation: You purchase a new cleaning product at the store, one you’ve never seen before. When you get home and spray it on your dirty countertop, the countertop vanishes. Why? What happens when it disappears? What do you do about it?
Today we put Tony Piazza, author of the critically acclaimed Tom Logan series, on the hot seat of questions. What he reveals just may surprise you! Ready, Tony? Go!
What in your writing have you dropped along the way?
I would say, being overly descriptive. I’m a retired research scientist, and one of my former responsibilities was to record my observations in minute detail. That’s important when you’re dealing with a search for facts, but I’m afraid it also carried out to my fiction writing. For example, if I was to describe a room, I found myself painting a picture of it in High Definition. Every piece of furniture, the color of the walls, the thickness of the carpet, etc. Fortunately, my editor put me straight right off, and the blue pencil came to play. I am now aware of this, and consciously try to scale down my descriptions as I’m writing – only including what I believe is pertinent to the story. That’s not to say that I don’t still paint pictures, but they are less HD and more impressionistic.
What (in your opinion) is the perfect length for a book?
That isn’t easy to say. It depends on the story you need to tell. If it’s an intimate story, a novella may suffice, or an epic, a tome. I believe it should be as long as you need to present your narrative accurately without over bloating it with unnecessary subplots that add little to the storyline. I want to add; modern readers don’t seem interested in long reads. I think it has something to do with the social media trend. Text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have conditioned readers to read less, and they seem “turned off” by novels – even moderately short ones. It’s not words, but pictures they prefer and hence the popularity of graphic novels. At a local book fair, I had my books displayed. At one point, a young student came up to my booth, pointed at one of my novels, and stated she would never read it. When I asked, “Why?” She replied, “Too many words.” The book was only 400 pages of moderately large print!
What’s the strangest fan question/request you’ve ever gotten?
An absolute stranger asked me on Facebook if I could send her my book for free. There had been cases in the past if, for example, someone wanted to offer a review, or was financially strapped and sincerely wanted to read my story, that I would send them a free one. But this was different. It was requested, as if to say, “I’ll only be interested if you give it to me for nothing.” I just ignored the comment, but a fellow author who saw it jumped to my defense. He replied that this person had no idea how much time, energy, and passion it takes to write a book. He stated, “Would you give a year or two of your hard work away?” He was right. As it is, I price my books the lowest allowed by the publisher. In the instance of my e-books, you can purchase a cup of coffee for more dollars than I charge – and I only get a fraction of that. Granted, I write because it is my passion, and I never went into it, expecting a profit. It is rewarding enough knowing someone is reading and enjoys your story. But this request bordered on the arrogant and insensitive, and that’s why I’m sharing it with you today.
When did you first know you were going to be a writer?
It was when I was probably eight or nine years old. I read Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and fell in love with books. And like anything that becomes a passion, you want to play a more intimate part in it. Therefore, I decided I would become a writer, and having parents who encouraged my wishes, on one birthday, I got a typewriter. Completing a manuscript in those days was not an easy task. One mistake you were back to square one. I never did get a manuscript finished then, but I did have the most extensive collection of wadded up typing paper you could ask for. Years past, and I did complete some short stories and other writing assignments for school, but nothing was submitted for publication. It was only after the advent of computers, Word Perfect, spell check, etc., that I once again returned to my passion and finally had my dreams come true.
What is your favorite genre to read?
I have no one favorite genre. My interests extend across the board. It’s just a matter of what excites me at the time. I’ve read and loved (not surprisingly) mysteries, but also science fiction, fantasy, horror, classic literature, westerns, biographies, history, and the Bible.
What are you writing now that surprises you?
Personal stories that reveal a little something about my soul. I’ve done that in a couple of instances, and it feels strange. As a man growing up during the 60s generation, it wasn’t macho to let people into your sensitive side, and as a person today I still play by those rules. But, due to the nature of these journals, I had to reach inside and produce something. What I delivered surprised me.
Thank you for your insights and your honesty, Tony. You’ve given all us writers—and readers—lots to think about. It was an honor to have you here with us today.
Here’s more information on how to find Tony’s wonderful books, as well as stay in touch with him:
Tony Piazza is an award-winning, bestselling Central Coast mystery writer, film historian, presenter, and veteran storyteller well-known for his passion for writing and movies.
He is the author of six mystery novels, “Anything Short of Murder,” “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon,” “A Murder Amongst Angels,” “Murder is Such Sweet Revenge,” “Murder Will Out,” and “Murder in the Cards,” all available through Amazon and wherever excellent books are sold. Piazza’s new book, “Bullitt Points,” from SansTree, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the classic Steve McQueen movie “Bullitt” and the involvement of the Piazza family in the production.
Piazza regularly worked as an extra and stand-in on many Hollywood movies and television shows shot in San Francisco during the 1970′s, including “Towering Inferno,” “High Anxiety,” “Magnum Force,” and “Streets of San Francisco.” He now blogs regularly about his Hollywood experiences at authortonypiazza.com.
His inventory of stories reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood from that era: Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Darren McGavin, Paul Newman, Karl Malden, Michael Douglas, Raymond Burr, Walter Matthau, Fred Astaire, Robert Vaughn, and Leslie Nielsen.
Piazza is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and California Writers Club.
You have to get serious right from the start. Nail this part, and the rest of the lessons will fall in line.
Begin by letting them know you’re the boss. They won’t get it at first, especially if they haven’t lived with a cat before. They’re so used to thinking that they are the ones in charge, that what they say is law. This is not so, but stubbornness is an inborn human trait. It’s up to us felines to root it out.
It won’t be easy, and it will take time. Sometimes a lot of time. But they will come around, eventually. Persistence is the key. Don’t let discouragement make you back down prematurely.
It’s best to start when you’re really young, if you can. The younger the better. The smaller you are, the more likely you can worm into a human’s heart. They really are suckers for babies of all kinds: human, feline, even canine (shudder!)… But if you’re persistent, and really cagey, even older cats can master this step.
Start like this: Crawl up on the human’s lap, close your eyes (not all the way, keep them open to slits so you can gauge the person’s reaction), and purr as loudly as you can. If they try to remove you, use your claws. Humans have this thing about holes in stuff; unless they put them there, they don’t want any. Plus, for some reason, holes in fabrics are a real taboo. My human almost went into a panic attack about a few little pinpricks in her silk top. And in her car’s leather seats. Use your claws to make tiny holes that will expand into rips if they try to remove you, and they’ll back off fast. After all, what are claws for?
The added bonus? You can put holes in their flesh also. This lets the human know you really mean business, that you’re stronger than they are by far, and that what you want is the law. End of discussion.
This hole business goes for most soft surfaces: car seats, chairs, couches, beds, etc. Just crawl up, purr like crazy, and hang on. They’ll eventually get the picture, that you own whatever you are sitting on. Or they’ll get tired of trying to remove you, give up, and go into another room. Persistence is not a trait most humans possess in any quantity.
One last thing: If the human tries to stand up to dislodge you, simply dig in deeper, or scoot up higher on their torso. This gives you the opportunity to put holes in more of that oh-so-valuable clothing they love so much. Shoulder clinging is always a good strategy, and it lets you nuzzle their neck and/or chin and even give it a couple of good licks. Humans consider those ‘kisses’ and boy, are they suckers for animal ‘kisses’. Once again those hearts will melt and you’ll be in like Flynn (whoever that is!).
So, that’s it. Lesson #1: Grab on, hold on, purr, and just ignore their trying to dislodge you by using your claws. Works every time.