Bending Fiction, Serving Reality

Stephen King, one of my favorite writers, once said about writing, “You can never bend reality to serve the fiction. You have to bend the fiction to serve reality.”

He also said, “You may be entranced with what you’re learning about flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the IQ potential of Collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.”

So how does one get at just the right dollop of reality to serve their fiction? Research, of course. Sometimes this means a face-to-face experience, like attending a Citizen’s Police Academy as Lisa Jackson documents in her blog postings for Sisters In Crime New England.

But more and more we writers can do our research on the Internet. And sometimes the Internet even makes it possible for the author to simulate an actual experience. For instance, my husband, David, writes suspense. Recently he wrote a scene where a lifeboat is lowered down the side of a container ship. A YouTube video showed him that these lifeboats aren’t lowered at all. Instead, they sit on sloping rails and, when released, shoot down the rails and skim across the water. He even found a YouTube video shot by a passenger inside one of these lifeboats as it thuds into the water.

At other times the Internet lets us check the facts with honest-to-goodness experts. Like D. P. Lyle (, the medical doctor who wrote “Forensics For Dummies” and who will answer certain simple, specific questions like, “In my story the police find a paper coffee cup at a murder scene. If the killer drank from this cup, can his DNA be obtained from it?” In addition, his website provides a list ( of experts in other technical areas such as crime-scene analysis, handwriting analysis and the law.

And then there amazing online data mines such as Infoplease ( or Refdesk ( or the Internet Public Library ( Or currency converters sites, such as Or, sites that help writers portray a unique culture more realistically. For example, recently I needed a name for a character who belonged to a specific Native American tribe–the Algonquins. No problem. I just went to and found what I needed.

What are some your favorite ways to get at the truth to support your fiction?

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Boston Book Festival: Author Arlene Kay Weighs In

The Boston Book Festival, a virtual paradise for readers, writers, and the intellectually curious celebrates the power of the written word to entertain, educate and transform lives. Copley Square comes alive as throngs of book lovers attend seminars, sample different literary genres, and chat with authors and fans about their work. Last year over 30,000 people attended the festival.

Our chapter of Sisters in Crime (New England) enthusiastically supports this event, which is now in its seventh year. In 2014, SINC-NE members displayed unexpected talent for improvisation in a widely praised interactive session on “The Whydunnit in Crime Fiction.” A capacity crowd gained new insight into the creative process and the febrile minds of mystery writers. For some audience members it was an eye-opening experience, for others it was a bit daunting but for everyone, it was a lot of fun.

Although there are many activities to enjoy, my favorite is the street fair itself, which organizers describe as a “literary market place.” Circulating among the rows of publishers, non-profit organizations, and vendors reinvigorates one’s creative juices. Many passers-by are passionate readers very well versed in our craft and eager to discuss crime novels. Our members staff the SINC booth, answer inquiries about the organization; introduce (and often sell!) their own works. It’s a terrific way to connect with readers and other writers too.

The BBF’s objective is “To promote a culture of reading and ideas.” That worthy goal is one that all of us can celebrate. This year’s event takes place October 23rd and 24th.

Arlene Kay is the author of INTRUSION; DIE LAUGHING; THE ABACUS PRIZE; & the SWANN SERIES (SWANN DIVE; MANTRAP; GILT TRIP & coming soon: SWANN SONGS. Visit her online at

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A Back-to-School Cheat Sheet for Writers

Where or where has the summer gone? If you, like me, are unable to believe that it’s coming to a close let’s pretend it’s not. We’re writers after all! Let’s use our imaginations.

This post will be a sort of back-to-school prep: some great writing tips, tricks and resources from around the web just in time to fire up your September inspiration. Enjoy!

Have other articles, tips or advice you’d like to share? Please do so in the comments.

J.P. Choquette reads, writes and makes junk art from northwestern Vermont. Denying the fact that summer is nearly over, you’ll likely find her in a warm-weather dress sipping iced tea and mumbling about the beach on the back deck. 

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Great Summer Reads

What’s in your TBR pile this summer?

Ah, summertime: the hallowed period of four short months (for us northerners) when the sun shines merrily, the sky is blue and the world is verdant green. It’s the perfect time of year to do lots of things: travel, host backyard barbeques, garden, and of course, read.


Having just finished an excellent book for this month’s book club, I’m at a loss at what to begin reading next. I start by trolling Goodreads, looking in my list of “Recommended Reads.” Jotting down some titles, I stop by the library later in the afternoon and peruse the shelves. None of the books I’m looking for are there … but wait. What’s this? And this? Shiny, plastic-wrapped hardback covers call to me, “pick me! pick me!”

So I do. Three titles, all equally interesting looking, none of which I’d heard of before entering the cool stacks. Will one be The Summer Read? Will they be duds? Will I be back tomorrow, trying again to find that July just-right-for-me book?

What are you reading this summer? What is your favorite summer read of all time?

J.P. Choquette reads (not enough in her opinion), writes, and enjoys long walks and chocolate in any form from her home in upstate Vermont. She’s currently reading, Wicked Autumn, by G.M. Malliet, and hoping that it will be The Summer Read of 2015.

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The Beauty of Imperfection

Perfection doesn’t breed creativity.

Raise your hand if you were raised by a parent who was a perfectionist. OK, now raise your hand if you had an older adult in your life sometime in your childhood who was a perfectionist: maybe a grandparent, a teacher, a coach, an aunt or uncle that you looked up to. What about in high school? Did anyone ever compare you to “Miss Perfect?” or did you do it yourself?

Most of us have been influenced by a perfectionist at some point in life, intentionally or unintentionally. As creatives, I believe that we are more prone to the influence of a perfectionist’s message (whether or not it was directed at us). Those messages can live on long periods of time in our memories. Sometimes longer than the person who gave us the message is alive. Sometimes forever.


It’s not all doom and gloom though. Perfectionists are necessary. As Seth Godin pointed out in this recent blog post, we certainly want a perfectionist for a heart surgeon or managing compliance at a nuclear plant. He goes on to note though, that creatives have no business worrying about perfection.

“Perfect is the ideal defense mechanism, the work of Pressfield’s Resistance, the lizard brain giving you an out,” says Godin. “Perfect lets you stall, ask more questions, do more reviews, dumb it down, safe it up and generally avoid doing anything that might fail (or anything important).”

All of us are writers. All of us are creatives. The ones who write the (imperfect) books, the (imperfect) short stories and the (imperfect) poems are the ones brave enough to accept the challenge of imperfection … and maybe, hopefully laugh along the way.

J.P. Choquette writes imperfect mystery and suspense novels from her office in northwestern Vermont where she also enjoys walking in rain, snow or sunshine and eating chocolate in various forms. 

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What a Capsule Wardrobe Taught me About Writing

In a recent post on my site, I talked about writing simply and how changes in my real life (exploring minimalism) caused changes in my writing and editing.

About a year ago I started to follow blogs like Becoming Minimalist and Be More with Less. While in my younger days I was somewhat of a spendthrift, I fell in love with living more simply and the benefits it brought (namely, being able to write for a living instead of working at a job I hated). While I was comfortable with the concepts of simple living and had drastically changed my spending habits over the years, I wasn’t as familiar with minimalism.

In fact, like many people, the word brought to mind images of all-white living spaces with maybe a single bowl for decoration. I abhor clutter but an aesthetic like that was too stark for me. Luckily, I learned, there were lots and lots of different ways to “do” minimalism. At its core minimalism simply means cutting out the extraneous to focus on the priorities.

Embarking on a minimalist clothing experiment last year left me with just under 40 pieces of clothes in my closet. (Note: I don’t count pajamas/loungewear/workout stuff here.) 40 pieces is still a lot but compared to how my closet looked before, it was practically bare. I donated bags of clothes and some accessories to Goodwill. And when I next opened my closet door, I caught my breath. Instead of feeling empty, the area felt spacious. I liked it!

Fast forward one year: While a few items have crept back into my closet, putting me over the original number, I’m weeding through once again and keeping only what I like, actually wear, and pieces that work well together. I’m fascinated by capsule wardrobes and love to see how creative people can get in putting together so many outfits from so few items.

image credit

image credit

But what does all of this have to do with writing?

I learned a few important lessons from having a pared-down, capsule wardrobe that relate to writing. I’ll share them here in hopes that they might resonate with you. Feel free to add your own comments or questions below.

Lesson #1: More isn’t better. When we have a ton of stuff in our closets it makes sense that we’d have more options, right? Not necessarily. Oftentimes our closets are filled with clothes that don’t fit anymore, don’t feel good, have stains, or are buried behind other pieces and get lost in the shuffle.

It’s the same with our writing. You don’t to go on a week-long retreat to write a book. You don’t even need a four-hour window of writing time. You can do it in small pieces. In fact, making the habit of writing in small chunks of time is a wonderful way to make progress on your goals without feeling overwhelmed.

Lesson #2: Know what you love and stick with it. You’ve probably heard that statistic—we wear 20 percent of our clothing 80 percent of the time. When building a capsule wardrobe it’s easy to start thinking, “well, but what if I decide I need to change it up? What if I become a speaker and need this suit? What if I decide—even though I’ve never worn it once—that this scarf really is made for me?”

We all basically have a style: we love comfort and live in jeans and t-shirts. Or we enjoy going glam and like to rock spiky heels and leather bomber jackets. Or we feel more capable in a power suit. You know what you love in writing, too. Better to focus your energy and time on a handful of pieces, pouring your heart and soul into these, than writing a little bit of everything just to cover the bases. If you like writing short stories, keep it up! If you prefer to work on a full-length manuscript, focus your time there.

Lesson #3: Prioritize your clothes (and writing). When you have less in your closet, you tend to take better care of it. And when you love everything hanging there, it’s easier to get yourself pulled together in the morning.

Likewise with writing. You know what writing makes your heart thump more loudly and your fingers nearly shiver in excitement. But too often we allow the “must do’s” to crowd out that little, creative voice pleading for playtime. Make your own writing a priority. Do it first, before any other writing/job/career/family responsibilities for the day if at all possible. Stay in bed and type or write away if need be. Just get in that priority writing time as part of your regular morning routine. It’s important. And it’s a way to show yourself and others that writing matters. 

*** J.P. Choquette writes novels in 15 minutes a day from her home office in Vermont. She’d love to share a free 7 Ways to Find Time to Write guide with you—it’s free when you sign up for her writing newsletter. It comes out twice a month and is packed with information, inspiration and education to empower writers.

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Writing Time and an Open Mind

Last week I had the pleasure to teach at the Burlington Writers Workshop, a very cool nonprofit organization in Vermont which helps writers to grow in the craft. My workshop title was, “Writing a Novel in 15 Minutes.” I have an e-guide out by the same title and my hope was to help this small group of writers really recognize what it was that was holding them back from making time to write—a conundrum that so many writers share.

As we went around the table introducing ourselves, it was apparent that, yes, every writer there struggled with finding time to write. One mentioned that she felt she didn’t want to bother unless she had a three-hour window of time. Another man said that when he sat down to write he ended up doing a bit of research … only to realize hours later that he hadn’t actually written anything he’d intended. Someone else said that they didn’t feel like a “real writer.”

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How I use the method

I could relate to all of the above. What helped me the most in finally finishing that very first novel—and then another and another and so on—was this: make writing a habit. Do it every single (work) day without exception. Make the habit so small, so easy-to-manage, that it doesn’t feel overwhelming. In fact, when I tell people that I write novels in 15-minute increments, most are dubious. “You must be a really fast writer!” someone will comment, or “That would never work for me. The good ideas don’t start until I’m at least an hour into my writing session.”

Why 15 minutes?

Is 15 a magic number? I don’t think so. But because it is so innocuous it works for those of us who feel overwhelmed by the mere thought of a three-hour writing session. While I spend the bulk of my workday writing, it’s on a bunch of different projects: some for myself and my “brand,” and some for clients. If someone told me to sit down and write for three hours on my current fiction manuscript, I’d probably cry. Variety is the special sauce of my writing success.

Also, it’s important to remember that while the actual writing time can be short (15 minutes, 10, even five), there is other background work that happens before you write. Washing the dishes, going for a walk, taking a shower: all of these are good “brainless” activities where you can let your mind wander. And a wandering mind, for a writer, is a beautiful thing. Great ideas take time to show up and often go unheard in our overly busy, rush-rush world.

Find your rhythm with habit

So, while I don’t think that you must write for 15 minutes and 15 minutes only most days of the week, it is a great place to start. It’s short enough to not be overwhelming. It’s long enough to propel a story forward. And, if you dedicate yourself to making that writing time part of your normal morning routine—just like taking a shower or flossing your teeth—it’s a great way to boost your day right from the start. There is something so energizing about crossing off a priority first thing. Using a method like habit stacking will help you make the transition seamlessly.

J.P. Choquette writes novels in 15 minutes a day from her home office in Vermont. She’d love to share a free 7 Ways to Find Time to Write guide with you—it’s free when you sign up for her writing newsletter. It comes out twice a month and is packed with information, inspiration and education to empower writers.

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What do YOU Need as a Writer?

Attending writing-related events proves fruitful in more ways than one. In addition to spending time with like-minded, creative people, you also learn more about the struggles and challenges that writers face.

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • The un-published author who is feeling frustrated with the agent querying process.
  • A self-published author lamenting the cost of good cover designers/editors/marketing help.
  • The at-home parent/writer squeezing in a little time each day to write.
  • A newly retired poet who finally has time to focus on his work … but never gets around to it.
Don't let lack of time leave you uninspired ... as it does Mr. Magoo.

Don’t let lack of time leave you uninspired … as it does Mr. Magoo.

Writers who subscribe to my newsletter know that the focus this month is on nurturing yourself. Making the time and space needed to really treat yourself well and refill that sometimes drastically overdrawn creative side. Why? Because you deserve it as a human being. And because it will help you get into a good writing place eventually. Perhaps you’ll even feel charged up enough to try a writing-related challenge?

Comments from readers tell me that TIME is a challenge. Whether we’re working full-time jobs and squeezing writing in on the side, or writing full-time but never having enough oomph left for our creative writing work—time is a big issue. Note: I loved Beth’s recent insight into this new media forum. I can see Medium being hugely popular as more and more of us read hurriedly online.

Besides time, what else do you struggle with as a writer? Do you find it hard to come up with ideas, get through the second half of a manuscript or do you get distracted during writing time?

If a genie appeared right now and could grant you two writing wishes—and “become an overnight bestseller” wasn’t one of the choices—what would you choose?

J.P. Choquette lives, works and nurtures herself in Vermont. Want an ongoing dose of writer-ly inspiration and motivation? Sign up for her newsletter

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Sisters in Crime Embraces the New Hampshire Women’s Expo


Here’s a glimpse of the SinC New England team before the crowd flooded the Women’s Expo at the Radisson in Manchester, NH, this morning. We look organized and creative, right? Ready, set, let’s talk to everyone about SinC and the 2015 New England Crime Bake (first weekend of November, 3 days of bliss).

Trust me, after we packed twice as many authors into the booth and then were surrounded by a moving flood of hundreds of women, some with baby strollers, some taking writing classes in their 70s, some in suits, some in fab T-shirts, some with multiple piercings, some carrying roses, some carrying goodie-bags of handouts … it got a lot more interesting!

And adventurous (SincNE’s first time at this expo). And mysterious (how DID we fit that many people into the booth and all keep talking?). And delightful (want to see all the things I brought home as leads for future stories or presentations?).

Pres. Sharon Daynard, this was a GOOD idea!

Oh yes: Here’s the kind of exhibit you’d only see at an expo like this … encouraging the fight against breast cancer, and designed by a local (auto) body shop. Don’t you wish you were there? How about next year? We’ve got to try this one again!Women's-Expo-Mar2015

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Subscribing to a Blog: Deep Conversation on Writing and Mysteries


Beth Kanell here, writing from Vermont, where the snowbanks are shrinking in March sunshine.

Have you discovered the new media forum called Medium? It’s a sort of magazine of essays, with the very valuable addition of posting the estimated reading time next to each title — I love that part, because I can make a quick decision on whether to look at something right away, or hold it for later (like, when I’m waiting for my brain to re-boot after writing a good scene).

Today I found on Medium a conversation on today’s and tomorrow’s blogging, which got me thinking more about the SinCNE blog, especially in this statement by Noah Smith:

Blogging 2.0 will be more focused on longer posts, high-level discussions and specialized expertise, while retaining the focus on distinctive voice and free-wheeling subject matter that made Blogging 1.0 so fun. It’s a great time to have a blog.

In the long run, the rest of the piece — to me, anyway — says that a blog is a conversation, and that’s what makes it different from, say, a book or an essay or even a Tweet or Facebook feed. If a blog post just says “this is what I believe” or “here is what I know,” it’s missing the point. Where’s the invitation to get talking with each other? The awareness of the person reading being also the person who’ll write back?

Here on Pen, Ink, and Crimes, Hank Phillippi Ryan has shown how this works at its best: crafting a conversation with an established writer that’s truly a back-and-forth, and at the same time is an invitation to others to chime in, come close, add your two cents (or more).

That’s why, in my opinion, it’s worth “subscribing” to blogs like this one. The surprise of what’s arriving in your e-mail box with a blog subscription can be as intriguing as a new letter in the regular mailbox … or indeed, a new vision for a plot twist in what I’m writing.

So today, I updated my own blog subscriptions. In addition to this one, I want to be more aware of the conversations at Type M for Murder, and at Jungle Red Writers. I also looked at a list of “great blogs for writers” here, and realized I’m already involved in several of the conversations listed, through which I’ve learned to “listen” to everything Jane Friedman says about writing as a business, so I subscribed to her blog too — but as a weekly digest, which seems time-conserving to me (

Now, the whole point of pausing in my mystery writing, to write this blog post, is to say: I really am interested in your voice and experience about whether blogging is worthwhile for you, how you schedule writing your own (if you do), and which other blog conversations have become worthwhile for you. In the long run — what keeps you writing, today?

And if blog conversations aren’t in your top three answers to that question … are there other conversations that matter more to you? Your turn … write something back.

[Oh, for that quick update stuff: I spent most of my winter in revision of three books and I’m really, really glad that spring will mean plunging ahead on the two new projects, for which I wrote one chapter each, to promise myself that I’d get back to them. And I’m joining SinCNE President Sharon Daynard at the Women’s Expo in Manchester, NH, tomorrow. If you prefer conversations face to face, come see us there! — BK]

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