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

Writing 1700 Words a Day: Week 2

You learn a lot about your writing capabilities when you push your limits. After 11 days of participating in the NaNoWriMo challenge, I have learned that I am capable of producing at least 1700 words of fiction per day. It’s not easy and it takes several hours, but I can do it.

I’ve also learned that it requires a road map to get there. The dry-erase board on the wall of our game room now houses the detailed outline for each chapter as I start to write it. My beloved co-author and I are constantly in discussions about what comes next.

The hardest task during NaNo continues to be keeping up with the story. It takes approximately three days to complete each chapter, and often I start the next chapter on the same day I finished the previous one. The chapters switch back and forth between the three point-of-view characters, so I am constantly having to shift gears during the writing to get back inside a different character’s head. At times, I feel like I am racing through the book, trying to catch my breath.

Am I glad that I decided to attempt the NaNo challenge? At the moment, I definitely am. We’ll see how things are by the end of the month.

Anyway, I can’t spend too much time on this blog post today — I still have 1700 words of fiction to write!

I’ll give you another update next Friday.

-Susan 11/12/2021

p.s. Technically, you only have to write 1667 words per day to finish 50,000 words in 30 days and complete the NaNo challenge, but I prefer to round it up to 1700. On most days of the challenge so far, I have completed between 1800 and 2000 words, because I don’t like to halt abruptly in the middle of a scene.

Writing 1700 Words a Day: Week 1

As I mentioned last week, I am trying the NaNoWriMo challenge to see if I can write 50,000 words of fiction in 30 days.

Today will be my fifth day of writing at least 1700 words. (Technically, you only have to write 1667 words per day to reach the goal, but I prefer to round up the number.) So far, I have managed to do that. My word count as of last night was 7735 words, for an average of 1933 words per day.

The task has been both easier and more difficult than I anticipated. Before I started, I was worried about how long it would take to write that many words. Back when John and I first started writing Prophecy’s Malignant Son, it sometimes took me the entire day to finish 500 words. Although writing 500 words has now become much quicker and easier, jumping to 1700 words worried me a lot.

Apparently the discipline of regularly writing every day has paid off. Switching to 1700 words has made my writing day longer, but only by a few hours. If I start writing around 9:00 a.m., I am usually done by 3:00 p.m.

The real difficulty has been keeping ahead of the story. In the past, I tended to write chapter-by-chapter. I would focus my attention on the events and language of each chapter as I wrote it. At 500 words a day, for four days a week, I was usually able to complete a chapter every two weeks, which gave me plenty of time to plot upcoming chapters with my beloved co-author and to think ahead about each scene.

With the higher word count each day, I am racing through chapters. I’ve already finished one chapter this week and should have a second done this morning. I’m forced to think about the next chapter, even as I am completing the current one. John and I had prepared an outline for this new manuscript, but only a general one. Details still need to be hammered out. The two of us have been discussing the upcoming chapters constantly this week, even when we are driving or going for a walk in the neighborhood.

Anyway, I have to get back to writing. I’ve got 1700 words of fiction to produce today.

Talk to you next Friday with another update!


p.s. I hope there aren’t a lot of typos in this post. I don’t have time for much proof-reading.

Doing the NaNoWriMo?

Well, I’ve made the decision. I’m going to try the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Challenge this year. To succeed in the challenge, you have to write 50,000 words of a novel during the 30 days of November, or approximately 1,667 words per day. You can write extra words or fewer words on any given day, but at the end of the month, your word count must total 50,000 to succeed. (At least, that is the way I understand the rules. There’s an official website, if you want better information.)

The organizers of NaNoWriMo prefer to have the contestants work on a brand new novel. The rules, however, also permit an author to produce 50,000 words of an existing manuscript, as long as all the words are written in November. Any words written before midnight on November 1 do not count toward the total.

That’s good, because John and I are already on Chapter 10 of the sequel to Prophecy’s Malignant Son, and I would rather not lose that momentum by starting something new. As of today, the current word count for the new book is exactly at 41,000. All right, I’ll admit that I did a little word-smithing to get it exactly there, but I really wanted to start with a round number. If all goes well, we might have 91,000 words by December 1 and be nearing completion of the novel. We shall see!

Last November, I did not even consider personally participating in NaNoWriMo. At that time, I was still struggling to produce 500 words a day. This year, however, my life circumstances have changed and my confidence at consistently producing written words has vastly improved. I’ve never tried to write 1700 words of fiction in a single day, but I am ready to make the attempt. John and I have developed a detailed outline for the book, so I know where it is going.

Given all the time I am about to spend on writing, I doubt that I will be able to publish any travel-photo blog posts during November. I will, however, try to produce at least a short post each Friday to let people know how the writing is going.

Anyway, wish me luck! And for any of you who are also doing the NaNoWriMo this year, I wish you all great success!

-Susan 10/29/2021

Writing Inspiration Destination: Salisbury, England

(This is part 9 of the series describing places that have influenced my writing.)

If you’ve been following my blog for a while. I can guess what you are already thinking: she co-authors fantasy novels and she loves archaeology. Guess what her writing inspiration from the area around Salisbury, England must have been?

Sorry to disappoint you, but no, it wasn’t Stonehenge.

Don’t get me wrong – Stonehenge is great, and my beloved co-author and I visited there during one of our trips to England. (I’ve actually been to Stonehenge multiple times, including twice back in the 1970’s, when they still let you walk among the stones.)

Sheep grazing beside one of the stones of Avebury Circle.

I also enjoyed visiting nearby Avebury circle. While it is not as compact or as iconic as Stonehenge, it has the advantage of being much less crowded. Standing stones have a far more mystical quality when there aren’t a bunch of other tourists around you.

I’m sure that all those mysterious and marvelous menhirs have helped to spark my imagination in subtle ways. Some of my favorite authors have used them in their novels. There is no question that they can be inspiring. They are, however, not the inspiration I am specifically writing about today.

The tops of archways within the Salisbury Cathedral complex.

My inspiration from Salisbury was not the cathedral, although it was lovely and well worth the visit.

By the way, you may be wondering why this blog post did not open with a pretty picture of Salisbury Cathedral.

Well, a funny thing used to happen when you took pictures back in the mid-1990’s. You did not have digital cameras to let you know instantly how your picture came out. Instead, you had to wait until you developed the film after you got home to realize that the sun was in exactly the wrong place and sent a terrible glare across your cathedral photos. Sadly, even color restoration cannot cure that problem. So, I’ve included a far-less-pretty picture of the top of some of the cathedral’s archways instead.

All three of those sights — Stonehenge, Avebury Circle, and Salisbury Cathedral — as well as the city of Salisbury itself, are worthy of inspiring any novelist, particularly one who writes fantasy. I’m sure they have and will continue to inspire me in subtle ways.

But the most immediate inspiration came from the delightful, little boutique hotel where John and I stayed when we visited the city. I think the building was actually very old, though it may have been a modern building made to look old. (After more than 25 years, I can’t remember.) It had a four-posted bed and windows with leaded glass.

If you’ve read Prophecy’s Malignant Son, you may remember the scene in Chapter 2 where Daraline looks out the window of her second story room at the inn and sees Fabren approaching through the rain. When I wrote that scene, the boutique hotel room in Salisbury was definitely one of the images I had in my mind.

Do I have a photo of that room? Well yes, but the picture has things like luggage and soda cans in it, so it is definitely not worthy of a blog post. I invite you to use your imagination to picture the room instead. After all, that’s what readers and authors are best at.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 10/22/2021

Deviating from a Book Outline

It’s always interesting to hear from other writers about the methods they use to draft their novels. Many authors outline carefully and extensively, while others simply start writing and see where the story goes. I’ve heard about some who don’t use a formal outline, but still develop some type of framework to establish where the story is headed.

I’m still not sure which side of the debate John and I fall into. When we wrote 60th Hour, we never drafted an outline, but we had a pretty good idea of where the story was going right from the start. For Prophecy’s Malignant Son, we used a hybrid structure — we did not outline the entire book at the beginning. Instead, we wrote an outline for three or four chapters ahead of the chapter we were currently writing. We were also world-building at the same time, because it was a brand new fantasy universe for us. Obviously, the second draft of the manuscript became very important to tie everything together. Our fellow Emerald Cove writers also gave us valuable feedback. In some cases, their critiques led to multiple revisions of key chapters of the book.

When January 1, 2021, happened to fall on a Friday (the day my weekly blog post is due), I took the plunge and developed some writer’s New Year’s resolutions. One of those resolutions was to draft a full outline for our next novel before we started writing.

We met that resolution. Even before we finished editing Prophecy’s Malignant Son, John and I had already started outlining the sequel. Working together, the two of us came up with a chapter-by-chapter outline, and began writing the new book.

As of yesterday, we had finished Chapter 8 of the new manuscript and started on Chapter 9.

But an interesting thing happened along the way, as we wrote those first chapters. We started going off script. At first, the deviation was minor — a chapter was too long, so I broke it into two chapters. The chapter numbers of the outline changed, but the rest remained basically the same.

The next change was far more substantial. At some point when writing Chapter 6 or 7, an idea occurred to me, which would revise events to add a new (and I think more interesting) plot twist. It won’t change the book’s ending, but it will greatly alter the middle section of the book to add more drama. It also solves a timing issue that had worried me (split plotlines will now come together later in the book). We are still several chapters away from writing the new scene, but we need to revise the upcoming chapters to build up to it. A few of the ongoing character interactions that were originally spread across the entire book will now take place much earlier.

So, having made those changes, are we still writing from an outline? Should we revise the outline to reflect the changes or simply run with them?

Interestingly, I’ve found myself doing exactly what we did with our prior book — outlining three or four chapters ahead. So maybe that really is my outlining “comfort zone.” I guess we’ll see as the book progresses.

For all you authors out there who are reading his blog post: what do you prefer? Do you outline? If not, how much of your story’s end do you know when you first sit down to write. Feel free to leave a comment to the post. I would love to hear from you!

-Susan 10/15/2021

Writing Inspiration Destination: Hawaii’s Big Island

(This is part 8 of the series describing places that have influenced my writing.)

A storm approaches the beautiful Pu’uhonua o Honaunau (Place of Refuge) National Historical Park.

Where does an author of medieval-ish (emphasis on the “ish”) high fantasy novels find inspiration in a tropical paradise like Hawaii? Not necessarily where you would expect.

Yes, Hawaii is everything it promises in all those travel brochures. It has amazing beaches, beautiful scenery, great food, gorgeous flowers, and wonderful Aloha friendliness. Beyond all those good reasons to visit, the Big Island (Hawai’i) also has one more special attraction for me: volcanoes!

A pathway winding through Lava Tree State Monument.

When I was a child, volcanoes terrified me. Once, when I was little, our family’s camper-van broke down near Lassen Volcanic National Park in California. We had to wait several days for the parts to arrive so the local mechanic could fix the engine. During those days, I was constantly worried that the volcano would suddenly erupt. (Obviously, the concept of “active” volcano was not entirely clear to me at the time.)

A walkway near the Thurston Lava Tube.

As I grew older, fear turned to fascination. Over the years, I’ve visited other volcanic sites during my travels, including Santorini in Greece, Pompeii in Italy, and Mt. St. Helens in Washington. I even went back to Mt. Lassen a few years ago with my beloved co-author.

When John and I visited the island in 1998, there was a place where the road ended abruptly at a hardened lava flow.

Our visit to the Big Island (Hawai’i) in the late 1990’s, in addition to making me fall in love with the place, offered one unique experience that was unavailable at the other locations we visited – a helicopter flyover of an active lava flow.

Looking down at the flowing lava from the air.

I remember being surprised at the time, because the lava looked a lot different from the air than I had expected. For one thing, it was daytime, so there were no spectacular colors to light up the night sky. Instead of rivers of fire, the flow looked more like mercury. Only a few spots showed the characteristic fiery red-orange that you always see in the media.

Apparently, this flat field was an active lava lake at the time Mark Twain was on the island in the 1800’s. I’ve read that there is currently a lava lake on the island, but it was not present when we visited in 1998.

This is the part of the blog where I usually explain how a visit to a particular location influenced my writing. As you know, all those volcanoes in 60th Hour and Prophecy’s Malignant Son… oh, wait…there are none. There are also no volcanoes in our short stories in the Emerald Cove anthologies. So, you might ask, where is the influence?

The beach at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Park.

The most direct influence occurred in one of our earlier, unpublished novels. The story opens in a lava field near a volcano.

Will that book ever see publication? I’m not sure. It would need a ton of work to make it readable. It is far too long and much of it probably needs to be rewritten from the ground up. Ever since John and I started self-publishing, I have debated whether to go back and rewrite the old books or concentrate on new ones instead. So far, the new ones are winning, but who knows in the future?

Even without that unpublished book, I still suspect that the raw power of volcanoes and the colossal forces they exhibit, have influenced my writing in more subtle ways. Like earthquakes, they are forces of nature we cannot control. They remind us that, no matter how technologically advanced we may become, there are things out there far bigger and more dangerous than we are. That’s always a good reminder for a fantasy author.

Talk to you next Friday!


p.s. According to some sources on the internet, the punctuation mark (okina?) is used in the spelling of the Big Island (Hawai’i), but not the name of the state (Hawaii). I hope I have used them correctly here. If not, feel free to chastise me in the comments.