Writing Inspiration Destination: Deserts of the Southwest

Monument Valley at sunrise. (Photo by Susan Ruff 2016.)

In honor of April Fool’s Day, I had considered writing a humorous post about the ten places least likely to inspire writing. When I mentioned the idea to my beloved co-author, however, he quickly and correctly pointed out that any place can be an inspiration for writing, even the local landfill.

So, when in doubt, fall back on a serious topic. In this case, I chose a topic near and dear to my heart — the deserts of the southwestern United States.

The southwest has some spectacular deserts, from iconic locations such as Death Valley and Monument Valley to one-of-a-kind gems like Joshua Tree National Park and the Valley of Fire State Park. When I was a child, my family spent many weekends and school holidays camping in the various deserts in and around California, Arizona, and Nevada. I have some wonderful memories of hiking early in the morning when the world was quiet or sitting around a campfire in the evening. I’ll never forget the night long ago when we stopped by the roadside to watch the Milky Way high in the sky. I’ve never seen so many stars in my life.

My parents were both born and raised in Rhode Island, so the desert was an exotic and unfamiliar place for them. I remember a day when my family was driving through Arizona while my mom read a travel guidebook aloud to us. The book talked about the abundant plant and animal life of the surrounding area and pointed out that many people mistakenly thought of the desert as a barren, lifeless place. My parents admitted that they had always believed deserts contained little more than rocks and sand dunes. There were both surprised when they saw the variety of flora and fauna that flourished within the arid environment.

This brings me to the point in the blog where I would normally describe scenes in our fantasy novels that have been inspired by all those wonderful desert landscapes. That is, after all, why this post contains the title “writing inspiration.”

Unfortunately, when I sat down to type this blog post, I could not recall a single scene in any of our books that takes place in a desert. Certainly, small parts of our desert trips have inspired scenes, such as sitting around a campfire or watching the rising sun peek over the distant mountaintops.

Maybe the desert is too familiar for me. It doesn’t seem exotic enough to put into a fantasy novel. Forests, swamps, and medieval villages are the strange, larger-than-life places that inspire fantasy for me. Deserts, on other hand, carry the comfortable familiarity of home.

San Diego County is considered “chaparral” country, not desert. So technically, the desert is not “home,” but it is definitely part of the neighborhood. I will always love the desert, and some day John and I really should include a desert scene in one of our fantasy novels.

Susan 4/1/2022

p.s. By the way, I have some exciting news: John and I may be trying our first book promotion with a special price this month, probably around April 23 and 24. I’ll send out a special blog post to discuss the details once I know more. In the meantime, I wish you all a fun-filled April Fool’s Day!

Book Marketing Makeover Time!

The new cover for 60th Hour. (Cover art by Getcovers.com.)

Almost two years ago, on March 16, 2020, John and I published our first fantasy novel 60th Hour. That was also the day California officially shut down due to the pandemic.

No, it was not a coincidence that the book came out that day. Long before the pandemic, I had been weighing the benefits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing, but I was nervous about trying things on our own. Then, in mid-March 2020, I watched the world turn upside-down within the space of a week. Even before the official state shutdown, events were being cancelled left and right. With an uncertain future looming, a sudden increase in free time, and with my beloved co-author’s encouragement, I decided to take the chance and make us Indy authors.

There was just one problem — I had no clue what I was doing.

I should explain. My cluelessness had nothing to do with the physical process of publishing. Amazon’s KDP had plenty of excellent videos to explain how to upload a manuscript, so that part was easy. KDP even had a simple process for creating book covers. I picked out one of my old photos, played with color and special effects, plugged it into the KDP cover-maker, hit the publish button, and hooray we had a book!

But just because you can publish a book does not mean you have any idea how to market a book. My initial cover for 60th Hour came out looking like this nearby picture.

Yeah, it was not exactly an exciting, eye-catching cover, but I didn’t know any better. I also didn’t know how to advertise a book, particularly after all the science-fiction conventions were cancelled due to the pandemic. John and I sold a few copies of the book to our family and friends, but that was about it.

As the pandemic wore on, we started working on new writing projects, and 60th Hour languished. (I corrected some formatting glitches in the paperback version, but never made any revisions to the ebook.)

Now, fast-forward to 2022. I recently paid for Bryan Cohen’s Author Ad School and started taking classes. After learning a ton of stuff about marketing in a very short time, I’m ready to put some of that new knowledge to use.

It seems fitting to celebrate the two-year anniversary of the publication of 60th Hour with a complete makeover of the book – a new cover, a new blurb on the Amazon page, and brand-new Amazon ads. The interior content of the book is the same, with one small exception — I changed chapter 1 to a prologue and renumbered the other chapters. I’ve been warned that some fantasy readers do not read prologues (see my blog post of August 7, 2020), but the opening chapter of the book takes place twenty years before everything else, so it really works better as a prologue.

For those of you who haven’t read 60th Hour yet and are interested in checking it out, here is the Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B085Z5YWN4

Now onto the next task — the marketing makeover for Prophecy’s Malignant Son!

Talk to you on the first Friday of April!

-Susan 3/4/2022

Fiction Writing for Stress Relief

Serpent Mound in Ohio, a scenic and peaceful place to visit.

What do travel and fiction writing have in common? Anyone who has followed this blog for more than a few posts can already guess how I will answer that question. They are both activities that I love and that I enjoy blogging about. They also share another important function for me — they are great ways to relieve stress.

Along the magnificent California coastline.

In the past, travel was usually my preferred method of stress relief. Heading to a distant (or even a not-so-distant) place with new sights to explore, things to learn, and cuisine to sample always helped to lift me out of whatever bothered me at the time, whether it was stress at work, health issues, or family troubles.

Unfortunately, for the past two years, the pandemic has pretty much grounded my beloved co-author and me. So, I’ve turned a lot more to an alternate means of stress relief — fiction writing.

As I sat down to compose today’s blog post, I considered the reasons why writing novels provides such a good means of therapy for me. I’m not a psychologist and I can’t speak for others, but these are some of the benefits that I have found from the activity:

  1. Fiction writing gives a sense of order and control in a chaotic world. I can seldom control what happens in the world around me. At times, I can’t even predict what will occur in my own home. When I write a novel, however, John and I decide what happens to the characters and their world.
  2. Writing provides a means to work through the past. It’s very easy for me to dwell on mistakes I’ve made, even long after the events are over. I’ve found that, when I write about similar things happening to the characters in a story, I can see them from a different perspective, and I become a lot less obsessed with them.
  3. Writing gives a focus for stray thoughts. If I don’t have something interesting to occupy my mind, I will invariably start to worry about things. For me, worry quickly escalates into obsession and anxiety. I’ve found that focusing my thoughts on the plot, characterization, and events of our current novel can provide a nice safe place for my mind to wander, particularly when I am trying to sleep at night.
Hiking in Washington.

And finally, the fantasy novels that John and I create take place in worlds very different from our hometown. I can write about mountains, caves, cities, rivers, and all the other places that I miss visiting. In a way, being an author provides a vicarious means for me to travel even when physical vacations are not possible. So, in the end, my two favorite topics to blog about really do have a lot in common.

Talk to you on the first Friday of March!

-Susan 2/4/2022

p.s. I hope this new, once-a-month format for my blog is working out for everyone. It has really helped to free up a lot more of my time so I can concentrate on the second draft of the new novel. I’m also taking an in-depth class on Amazon book advertising.

New for 2022 at Emerald Cove Press

Here is a copy of the ad for our shared world anthology, with artwork and design by Sue Dawe. The image above is just a photo, so the links to the books depicted in it are not live, but you can find live links on the website: emeraldcovepress.com. Of course, you can also find the links at susanandjohnruff.com.

Here is my first blog post for 2022 and my 89th post since I began blogging on May 1, 2020. It’s time for an update on the Emerald Cove projects.

Before I get to the exciting news, however, I have an announcement about this blog. Instead of writing a post every Friday, as I’ve been doing for more than a year, I’m switching to the first Friday of every month.

Why change from once-a-week to once-a-month? There are two main reasons. First, my beloved co-author and I are nearing completion of the sequel to Prophecy’s Malignant Son, so I need the extra writing and editing time. It takes a long time for me to produce these posts each week — particularly the ones with the travel pictures. At present, I really need to focus that time on the new fantasy novel.

Second, a weekly commitment can be rather stressful, particularly on those weeks when I am unable to think of a good topic for the blog. Coming up with 12 topics a year will be far easier than 52. If I switch to the first Friday of the month, it will take off a lot of pressure and ensure that this blog continues to be a fun activity that I look forward to completing.

When I first started writing the blog in May 2020, I was in a writing slump. John and I had published 60th Hour, but we didn’t know where to go from there. The pandemic shutdown had been going on for two months, and I still felt lost and insecure. I was trying to rewrite an older manuscript to use as our second published novel, but it just wasn’t working. The project did not excite me, and I was dragging my feet.

Producing this blog every week, got me enthused about being an author again. Apparently, writing about writing is a great way to get excited about writing. The blog helped “jump-start” our fiction and got the two of us talking about new story ideas. By September 2020, John and I came up with the plot for Prophecy’s Malignant Son, and we finished writing it in less than a year from start to publication. We began writing the sequel in June 2021.

Will this blog ever go back to a weekly format? Perhaps. We’ll see.

Well, so much for that. Now, on to the real news!

Emerald Cove Press has finally announced the title of its upcoming anthology. Exiles of Eeria will soon join the Cove’s line-up of short-story collections. Unlike the two previous anthologies, which included unrelated stories on a particular theme, the new book is a shared-world anthology. Although each short story is separately written, they all take place in the same fantasy universe with many of the same characters. In this case, the fantasy setting is our own beloved San Diego, a truly magical place if there ever was one.

It’s Emerald Cove’s most ambitious project to date, and we’re very excited about it. In addition to two short stories by yours truly, it includes great fiction by Danny Atwood, Sue Dawe, Stephanie Golightly, and Jefferson Swycaffer. It also features amazing artwork by Sue Dawe. You can see her great book cover featured in the picture at the start of today’s post.

Emerald Cove has not yet announced the official publication date for Exiles of Eeria, but I’ll keep you posted as soon as that occurs. In the meantime, have a great month!

I’ll talk to you on Friday, February 4, 2022.

-Susan 1/7/2022

New Year’s Resolutions of an Indy Author

The first day of 2021 fell on a Friday, the day that I write my weekly blog post. Because I wrote the post on New Year’s Day, I decided to take a chance and draft a set of writer’s New Year’s Resolutions.

Through the wonders of our 365-day calendar, the last day of 2021 also happens to fall on a Friday. Because today is New Year’s Eve, it seems only fair to review those resolutions I made at the beginning of the year and see what happened.

Last January, I made five New Year’s Resolutions. Here they are:

1. I resolved to write at least 500 words of fiction per day until I finished the fantasy novel that John and I were writing: Prophecy’s Malignant Son.

2. I resolved to learn more about advertising and marketing our fiction books.

3. I resolved to develop a marketing strategy before the next book was released to help improve its visibility and to attract potential readers.

4. I resolved to come up with a more complete outline for the next novel that John and I planned to write and to start writing that new novel before the end of June 2021.

5. I resolved to keep writing and publishing this blog every Friday for the rest of 2021.

So, how did it go? (Hint: You can probably guess that it went fairly well, or I wouldn’t be talking about it right now.)

Resolution number 1: Somehow, I managed to come up with 500 words a day until John and I finished the first draft of Prophecy’s Malignant Son. We completed the book in the spring of 2021 and self-published it in July.

Resolution number 2: I definitely learned more about advertising and marketing. I’ve taken online classes, watched training video’s, including the “KDP University” materials, and even started advertising our books on Amazon using Amazon’s marketing service.

Resolution number 3: I did not succeed at this resolution. Sadly, there was no marketing strategy in place when we released Prophecy’s Malignant Son. Despite all those videos and classes, marketing is still a mystery to me. I know far more about marketing than I did at the start of 2021, but I still have a long way to go.

Resolution number 4: I did indeed prepare an outline for our next novel, and writing began during our trip to Colorado in June. The manuscript is currently over 100,000 words and is planned for a release in the spring.

Resolution number 5: As of the writing and publishing of today’s blog post, I succeeded at this resolution. Yay!!!

Meeting 4 out of 5 of the New Year’s resolutions for 2021 doesn’t seem too bad.

Anyway, I hope all of you have a wonderful and safe New Year’s Eve and a great year in 2022!

Talk to you next Friday.

Susan 12/31/2021

Writing Inspiration in Two Very Different Rivers

Part of the Dunn’s River Falls hike in Jamaica.

In May 1999, John and I hiked up a waterfall.

We were touring Jamaica with friends during a stop on a Caribbean cruise. The group of us hired a local guide to drive us around the island. We enjoyed a day of shopping, viewing the tropical scenery, and visiting the sights.

As part of the tour, we hiked the Dunn’s River Falls. Led by a tour guide, we waded through the waist-high water of the river and climbed up a series of gradual waterfalls. I’m not usually a water-loving person, so I must confess that I felt a little nervous before we started. As it turned out, the warm air, gentle current, and good company made the excursion both fun and memorable. Everyone in our group climbed safely to the top, with no unexpected tumbles into the river. The guide even helped to keep my camera dry and safe. A couple of people (including my beloved co-author) stood under the waterfall to get soaked, but that was deliberate, not a mishap.

Any waterfall hike can provide inspiration for an author. I’ve walked beside many beautiful falls over the years. But to climb up the middle of the waterfall itself was a whole new experience. When John and I discussed possible locations for an outdoor scene in the manuscript we are currently writing, the Jamaica hike came to mind immediately. It was interesting, different, and had a touch of fantasy in it.

There was just one problem — the scene in our novel takes place in the mountainous interior of the country, not on a tropical island. The Dunn’s River hike alone would not be sufficient to set the scene properly. But what could we do to remedy that situation? We added a second river.

Mist from the rushing water slicks the wooden walkways of the Flume in New Hampshire.

Far away from the tropical beaches of Jamaica, up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, lies a spectacular feat of nature known as the Flume. The river rushes down a narrow gorge carved out of steep, rock walls.

Paths, wooden walkways, and bridges form the trail that crisscrosses the gorge, providing views of the amazing scenery. At no point on the Flume hike do you actually walk within the waterfall itself, but the paths take you close enough to feel the spray from the river.

Somewhere in the midst of those two very different rivers, a scene in a fantasy novel took shape. The imaginary body of water in the book does not directly copy either of the two real life places but was inspired by both. With luck, that fantasy river and waterfall will appear in our upcoming book release in March 2022.

However, I should warn all potential readers out there — that waterfall scene was written during the hectic scramble of November’s NaNoWriMo, so it remains uncertain how much of it will actually survive into the book’s second draft. We shall see!

In the meantime, happy holidays, everyone. Talk to you next Friday.

-Susan 12/24/2021

A small, covered bridge shelters part of the pathway in the area around the Flume.

Writing Inspiration Destination: New Hampshire’s White Mountain Region

Mt. Chocorua rises above the lake of the same name.

New Hampshire will always have a special place in my heart. When I was a girl, my grandfather owned a cabin near Lake Chocorua, and we usually spent a few days there each time our family traveled to New England to visit our relatives. I even hiked to the top of Mt. Washington back in the 1970’s.

The old Swift River Covered Bridge near Conway, New Hampshire. Cars can no longer drive through it, but I was able to walk across it during our visit.

During an October in the early 1990’s, I took my mother back there to see the “fall colors” and visit familiar sights. Driving through the region as an adult was a very different experience than seeing it as a child. When you’re a kid, you just want to play with your cousins and splash around in the lake; as an adult you can actually enjoy and appreciate the remarkable scenery.

According to the man who ran the B&B where we stayed, this beautiful tree was a swamp maple.

Not surprisingly, the trees were the “stars of the show” during the trip. The fall countryside was as beautiful as all those guidebooks claim. (One of my favorite tree pictures is included on the “fun photos” page of our website. It was taken in Maine, not New Hampshire, so I did not use it in this post.)

The trees were also my writing inspiration for today’s blog. When you grow up in Southern California, there are not a lot of forests, except in the mountains. As a general rule, if you climb a hilltop, you can see for miles. Even when you are driving out in the backcountry, you can easily tell when you approach a town.

New Hampshire was an entirely different experience. You could be driving through what appeared to be a thick forest and then suddenly, like magic, a town would appear. After going through the town, the road would head back into the woods. Then a few miles later, the trees would give way to another town. It felt as if I was driving through an enchanted forest where things kept materializing out of nowhere.

While I can’t pinpoint a specific scene in a book based on that “enchanted forest” experience, it has undoubtedly influenced some of the forest scene in my writing. As a fantasy novelist, I always appreciate the places where one can find “magic” in the real world.

As I started scanning pictures from my photo album for today’s blog post, I recalled another thing in New Hampshire’s White Mountain region that inspired my writing. In fact, it directly influenced a scene in the current manuscript that John and I are writing. That location, however, is a story best left for another day. Several different places influenced that scene, most of which had nothing to do with New Hampshire, so it deserves its own blog post. (For now, I’ll just leave the location a mystery — consider it a preview of coming attractions.)

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 12/17/2021

Fortunately, I got to see the old guy before he fell.

Takeaways from the NaNoWriMo Experience

You never know what you can accomplish until you challenge yourself. When I started NaNoWriMo on November 1, I had no idea whether I could write 1667 words of fiction in one day, much less keep it up every day until I completed 50,000 words. To my surprise, not only did I succeed, but I actually finished a couple of days early, because I wrote more than the minimum word count on most days.

During the challenge, I learned a lot about the process of writing so many words in such a short time. Here are a couple of my tips in case any of you decide to try NaNo next year:

  1. It really helps to have a road map. When you are running a marathon, you don’t have time to stop and plot your course during the race. Before I started NaNoWriMo, John and I had created an outline for each of the upcoming chapters of our new book. As it turned out, the outline was not detailed enough. During NaNo, we were constantly discussing what would happen next. Based on our discussions, I would sketch out a more detailed outline for each upcoming chapter on our dry-erase board before I sat down to write it. (I was fortunate to have John’s help. If I was trying it on my own, I would have been lost.)
  2. Understand that it will require discipline. At the beginning of NaNo, you have the momentum of excitement and fresh ideas. After about the second week, the excitement wore off for me and it became real work. I knew I had to keep up with the word count each day– if I fell behind, I doubted that I would ever catch up. There were many days when producing those 1667 words was an act of willpower, not inspiration.
  3. Don’t edit your work during the challenge. The organizers of NaNo discourage you from rewriting until after the challenge is over. They are very wise in saying that. On two separate days of the challenge, I broke that rule and went back to revise what I had written the day before. By the time I had finished the rewrite (which changed my total word count), I was already tired of writing, but then I still had to add enough new words to get the manuscript back on track for the 50,000-mark. It felt like twice as much work as an average writing day.

Am I glad that I participated in the NaNoWriMo challenge? Absolutely. It taught me a lot about my writing capability, and gave me a tremendous sense of accomplishment. It also sped up the time for completion of our next novel. Although adding 50,000 words was not sufficient to finish the manuscript, John and I are only about four chapters from the end. If all goes well, we may have it ready for publication by March 16, 2022 (which will be exactly two years after we published our first book 60th Hour).

Will I try NaNoWri Mo again next year? Ask me in six months — at the moment, I am still recovering from the last one. 😉 Going back to writing 500 words a day, four days a week, seems like a vacation. However, now that I know how much I am capable of writing in a single day, I am considering increasing my typical daily word count to 1000 words a day, four days a week. We shall see.

In the meantime, the real question for me (now that NaNo is over) is whether I should start revising the chapters I wrote during NaNo or finish the rest of the manuscript first. Knowing me, I’ll probably end up doing a little of both.

If you participated in NaNo, feel free to leave a comment about your experiences. I’d love to hear from you.

-Susan 12/3/2021

NaNoWriMo: In the Home Stretch

Writing at least 1667 words of fiction every single day makes a month pass by very quickly. It’s hard to believe that it’s already the 26th day of the November challenge. The goal is finally in sight.

In last Friday’s blog post, I mentioned that I had a full calendar of activities planned over last weekend. To my surprise, I managed to get through all those activities and still have time to write in the evening. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty, but somehow it worked. Those were definitely the hardest two days of the entire challenge so far. By the time I started week four, I was exhausted and tired of writing. I returned to the keyboard the next day, by a sheer act of will.

I also committed a NaNo-NoNo. I was so unhappy with what I had written on Sunday night, that I revised it on Monday morning before I went on to start my new word-count for the day. The organizers of NaNoWriMo strongly suggest that authors avoid revising their prior writing during the challenge. The idea is to keep moving forward and revise the manuscript later, after the challenge is over. However, I was so dissatisfied with what I had written, that I knew I would think about it until I changed it. Monday was a free day for me, which gave me plenty of time to write.

My mental attitude improved considerably when my word count for the month passed the 40,000-word mark. Suddenly, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Now I find myself counting down: “only 7,000 words to go” etc. As it turns out, I may actually meet my goal of 50,000 words earlier than November 30, because there were many days on which I wrote 2,000 words or more. Depending on what happens, I might even reach the goal this weekend.

Thank you to everyone who has stayed with me on this journey so far! It has been an interesting (if tiring) exercise. Wish me luck as I near the finish line!

-Susan 11/26/2021

Writing 1700 Words a Day: Week 3

Whew! Here I am on Day 19 of the NaNoWriMo November challenge, and I must confess that I am getting tired. So far, I have managed to keep up with the daily word count, but it is definitely more stressful. The actual words themselves are not the problem — it usually takes about 5 to 6 hours to complete the required 1667 (or more) words. On a day when I have no other plans, I can finish by mid-afternoon and still have time for non-writing activities.

The real pressure for me comes from having to do the same thing day after day, with no breaks. As soon as I finish one day of writing, I have to start thinking about the next. Writing the book has become the major activity of my life. (I’m retired, so I don’t have a full-time job to worry about.)

On the plus side, I have completed more than 30,000 words of the novel since November 1. Because I started NaNo with an already-begun manuscript, I have now passed the midpoint of the story and am closing in on the home stretch. If I manage to keep up this pace for the rest of the month, there is a good chance the book could be edited, finalized, and ready for publication by March 2022.

Of one thing, I am absolutely certain: I could not do this without the advice, assistance, and support of my beloved co-author. John has been hammering out plot and scene details with me since the challenge began. As I get ready to write each new chapter, we discuss the upcoming events in detail, often debating back and forth about background materials and character motivation.

This coming weekend will be the real test for me. I have activities scheduled for much of the day on both Saturday and Sunday. Will there be time to sneak in some writing? I hope so!

Anyway, I’d better get back to the novel. Many words await me.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 11/19/2021