Personal Becomes Universal Through Research

Guest Post by Novelist Donna D. Vitucci

Book cover

Donna Vitucci’s new novel, Salt of Patriots, published on Earth Day 2017.

The answer to my question, How long does it take to write a book? is fifteen for the novelist Donna Vitucci, who has just published Salt of Patriots after fifteen years of research, writing and revision. In this guest post, Vitucci describes what motivated her – and kept her going.

Origin of Salt

At my mother’s wake in the summer of 1999, the reminiscences we’d heard through the years got dragged out and enlivened by re-telling. The time all Uncle Bobby’s hair fell out when he was working at Fernald. The spills and inherent danger of any other kind of factory, but Fernald was processing uranium. A different kind of plant, in the early atomic days, in the 1950s.

Fernald closed after dust collectors failed in the 1980s and leaks into the Miami Aquifer hit the press. A class action lawsuit helped shutter the plant and place it on the Superfund Cleanup List. A Public Information Center was established as an aspect of remediation activities—eureka! I’d write my family Fernald stories infused with true and accessible information.

Research

To write it, I needed to understand it, and I’m no scientist. I dashed daily to the Information Center, reading and trying to understand what Fernald workers did. What were their jobs? What might Uncle Bob have done once he clocked in for 2nd shift? What made his hair fall out?

I read The Atomizers, the Fernald company newsletter. I studied processes the Fernald scientists developed, and the chemistry and metallurgy that had men in various buildings turn out uranium ingots or rods. I sought the secrets and security, the rumors in the community, how everybody had a relative or friend who worked there, or lost their acreage, or got sick or died. Newspaper articles on microfiche announced the building of the “new plant” and how it was going to bring hundreds of jobs—which it did. The nuclear industry was in its infancy. They were playing with dice and hoping for the best in beating the Russians.

Interviews

Uncle Bobby was my eyewitness, my conduit to the past, to the plant, to the human aspect. At the time, I’d envisioned the book completed and published to celebrate Fernald’s 50th anniversary—2001. I really had no idea.

I questioned Uncle Bob: “What about losing your hair?”

“That was nothing.” Same closed-mouth attitude from interviewees and others beholden to their government, their employer, and their own promises.

“Loose lips sink ships”—caution right there in The Atomizer. I don’t believe the workers were afraid. I believe they were patriotic. I believe they believed the government wouldn’t ask them to enter a dangerous work situation. And as long as a man was working he was doing the right best thing–echoing Uncle Bob and dozens of Fernald employees in their interview transcripts.

Striving for Authenticity

What did Uncle Bob do at Fernald, what it was like, what were his buddies like, did they understand the danger, and did they care? I took notes; I had a binder of industry and government papers I’d copied. I studied these like I’d be tested. Above all, I wanted to write with authenticity, and I knew it would be so hard. Till then, I’d only written stories that emerged from inside me. This story would have to be, on many counts, outside of me. I would immerse myself in research until I was busting with the Fernaldia I ingested.

Writing, Revisitng, Revising

A year and half later, nowhere near finished mourning my mother, and now her brother, Uncle Bob, was dying. Feed Materials, as I called the book, was where I poured this loss, revisiting my loved ones, revising them, and being among them, seeing them so clearly in memory and then freshly relevant in the stories where I cast them. No wonder it took me 15 years to complete. Writing this book kept them alive, and I didn’t want to lose them twice.

Donna VitucciDonna D. Vitucci is a life-long writer, and was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize in 2010. Her second novel, SALT OF PATRIOTS, shines light on the nuclear industry’s early days at the Feed Materials Production Center (FMPC) by focusing on ground level workers in this rural Ohio uranium processing plant. Characters and events are inspired by her uncles, who worked at the FMPC, and imagined from hundreds of true interviews conducted as part of lawsuit remediation activities in the 1990’s. Donna lives, works, and shares the best of urban living with her partner in the Historic Licking Riverside District of Covington, Kentucky.

Deborah Lee Luskin has been a regular contributor to Live to Write – Write to Live since 2011. She blogs weekly about Living in Place, Lessons from the Long Trail, Middle Age, and Vermonters By Choice at www.deborahleeluskin.com. Hope to see you there!

Can We (as writers) Have Too Many Journals or Notepads?

Small sampling of my journals and notebooks

Small sampling of my journals and notebooks

I enjoyed all the responses to my post last week about personal libraries and how many books we have, don’t have, need to get rid of, and so on.

On a similar track… I’ve always enjoyed journaling and my mom and friends know that, so I’m always receiving beautiful journal books for special occasions.

I can use journals for:

  • Personal thoughts
  • Notes about individual novels I plan to write (someday)
  • Short stories that need to spurt onto a page
  • Travelogues
  • Trip planning
  • Story idea collecting
  • 5-year journal for brief snippets of my day
  • Morning pages
  • Poetry
  • Personal growth (some journals come with daily exercises)
  • Wines I’ve tried
  • Books I want, are recommended, have read, have reviewed…

I also have a collection of various types of notebooks and note pads and use those for writing workshops, writing group exercises, conferences, and so on. It’s difficult to pass up back-to-school specials on some spiral bound notebooks or pads of paper – so I have a lot!

Do you find different uses for different types of journal books, notebooks, and note pads? Do you have a favorite type of journal or notebook that you use most often?

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Force Quit

Martin, Bernie & Norman

These three men have been friends for over 80 years. My dad’s the youngest (in the middle); he turns 90 next month.

While I’m hiking The Long Trail, I’m reposting old favorites. This one originally published on June 23, 2015.

Sometimes, when you have too many programs open on your desktop, the computer freezes, and the only remedy is to perform a Force Quit and shut the machine down. Well, last weekend, I learned that this works for writers, as well. My gift to my dad this last Father’s Day was to drive him from Vermont to New Jersey, so he could attend a friend’s ninetieth birthday. Even though it was a quick trip – if you can call ten hours in the car quick – it necessitated an overnight.

I brought enough work for a week - at least.

I brought enough work for a week – at least.

I packed my computer, research materials for one project, and writing assignments for another. I also brought along a novel for pleasure reading, and the issue of The New Yorker that just arrived in the mail. Realistically, I figured the least I could do was catch up on Revise With Confidence: Self-editing for the Serious Writer, the free on-line course I’m taking with Joan Dempsey.

With an old friend. We talked hard and laughed harder. Great visit.

With an old friend. We talked hard and laughed harder. Great visit.

While Dad and his friends partied, I met an old friend for dinner. We talked hard and laughed harder for a three-hour visit. Then Dad and I checked in to our swank hotel. It was late; I was tired; we had to make an early start the next day. I figured I could at least log on to the self-editing course, so I fired up my computer and ran into a ten-dollar firewall the hotel wanted for twenty-four hours of wifi. I was outraged. As far as I’m concerned, connectivity in a hotel is as important as hot water and a bed. And this was no chain-by-the-side-of-the-road affair, but an historic hotel smack in the middle of downtown with a price tag to match. In fact, if they’d buried the internet fee in the price of the room, I would have paid it. I just didn’t want to be nickeled and dimed.   I looked at my bag. There was plenty I could do without the internet, though I frozen computercouldn’t decide which project to tackle. In fact, I was stuck with my brain wheeling around without traction, just like the swirling rainbow when my computer gets stuck.hotelbed I looked from the desk to the bed, remembered I had a mini bottle of cognac in my toiletries bag and a novel to read. I showered and crawled between the starched sheets. In the end, I’m grateful for the ten-dollar internet fee. It was just what I needed to initiate a Force Quit. Instead of working, I slept like the proverbial log. I even slept in, till a little past six. But when I awoke, I felt rested and ready for the drive back. But first, I sat down at the desk with paper and pen, and I drafted this blog. nip

Even though Deborah Lee Luskin is currently attempting a through-hike of Vermont’s Long Trail, you can still receive An Essay Every Wednesday emailed directly to your inbox by subscribing on her website, www.deborahleeluskin.com  It’s easy, it’s entertaining, it’s educational, and it’s free.

Always Writing and Shareworthy Reading and Writing Links July 17

ocean sky

Go ahead – stare out over the ocean. It’s still writing.

When I sat down to write this post yesterday, I wound up spending a good hour beating myself up because I couldn’t think of anything worth writing. I set the time aside, as I do each week, to come here and write a post; but I ended up just typing and deleting, typing and deleting. I tried four different ideas, but nothing would stick. While I’m not one to rely on the muse, it was clear that I just wasn’t feeling it (whatever “it” is).

 

We all have these days. Part of my problem is that I didn’t, as I typically do, take the time earlier in the week to do preliminary brainstorming and mind mapping for the weekend edition. This means that I came to my desk without a plan – a speed bump, to be sure, but not usually a deal breaker. Despite my lack of preparation, I expected that something would pop into my head. (It usually does.) No such luck.

It has just occurred to me, that the bigger issue at hand is that I’ve let myself get worn out. I’ve been extremely busy with freelance projects for the past couple of months and keeping up has required a sustained level of hustle that’s a bit more intense than I like. It’s no wonder I’m having trouble finding a writing topic! Not only am I physically and intellectually exhausted, I’ve also been running at top speed for so long that I haven’t had any time to think. And, writers need time to think.

Sometimes we need a gentle reminder that some of our most important “writing” time has nothing to do with keyboards or notebooks. When we sit down at the computer or pick up a pen, that moment is the culmination of many hours engaged in the non-writing part of writing. It’s the moment when all the internal work that we’ve been doing – daydreaming, questioning, ruminating – is transformed into words on the page. It is the moment that our work becomes tangible to someone living outside of our heads.

But don’t be fooled. Those words on the page are only the tip of the iceberg. The real work of writing includes everything that brought you to that point where you felt ready (and inspired!) to put those words down. So, don’t beat yourself up for a lack of “inspiration” if you haven’t given yourself the opportunity to do all the work that must come before the words. Slow down. Step back. Give yourself the gift of stillness and solitude and time to think. Breathe for goodness sake!

And then see how creative and inspired you feel. I bet you’ll see a world of difference. Good luck!

_jamie sig

 

 


My Favorite Blog Reads for the Week:

CRAFT

PUBLISHING & MARKETING

INSPIRATION

THE WRITING LIFE

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Finally, a quote for the week:

pin cleese play.jpg

Here’s to giving your creativity some TLC by making time to play. 🙂 
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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Read Up

READUPLast fall I interviewed Elizabeth George at the New England Crime Bake.  It was a wonderful conversation, with a lot of advice to ponder. One piece of advice I think about is to “read up”. My friend Michele Dorsey and I were talking about it at Malice Domestic. (Michele is the author of No Virgin Island, a wonderful mystery set on St. John.)

“I’ve taken her advice,” Michele told me. “I’m reading authors who inspire me to write better.”

As writers, we need a balanced diet. We need books that inspire us. We also need craft books and articles (and blogs) that help build strong bones and muscles. But we also need an occasional guilty pleasure–low in nutrients, but high in pleasure. Pleasure books are just that–read purely for pleasure.

When I read craft books, my brain is retaining, categorizing, filing for future use. When I am pleasure reading in my genre, I am watching another writer’s craft at work. The critic “Julie” is also reading aspirational novels, trying to absorb tips and tricks that I can use. But once in a while, I stop analyzing and start zoning in on the storytelling.

Some pleasure books break through to become aspirational. Some aspirational (well written) books are torture to get through. The balance between the two is the sweet spot.

I hope that each book I write is better than the next. Sounds simple, but it is tough to do.

Friends, what are your “I wish I wrote that” books? Which writers do you aspire to write like?

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Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series. She also blogs with the Wicked Cozy Authors.

 

Writing Process

writingprocessSMALLBack in college, I had an English professor who talked about her “process” all the time. She talked about slaving over a piece day and night until worried friends finally took the type-written pages from her sweaty hands and turned them in for her because she never felt like her writing was good enough. Of course, once it was submitted, it was accepted and praised. The message my eighteen-year-old self took from hearing a semester’s worth of this kind of talk was that a writer’s process was necessarily difficult and even painful. I didn’t take any more English classes during my undergraduate career.

For years I thought all writers had the same process and I thought it was more difficult that a career in medicine.

Now, many years later, I realize each writer has their own process, and it’s up to each writer to figure out what process suits them best. Over time, I have come to see when and how I write best. Not just whether or not I’m a “seat-of-the-pants” writer or a “plotter,” although that’s good to know. (I’m more of a “seat-of-the-pants” writer, although I have been known to outline. Every writer has a different process and what works for one writer doesn’t work for every writer.

Here are some aspects of “process” my English teacher never mentioned:

Environment: What kind of environment do you like to write in? I write best at my desk in my home office, but if I have an idea and a few minutes, I can write almost anywhere. I like cafés unless there is a very loud conversation going on right next to me. Many conversations are much better than just one as they all become background noise. I also need to be physically comfortable—not too cold, especially. If a café is so cold I don’t want to take my coat off, I get my coffee to go. Driving home takes some time, but sitting in a cold café focusing on how uncomfortable I am takes a lot more time—and energy—that I could have used on writing.

Timeframe: Do you have to plan out your writing or can you just dive in any time? I write my best when I’ve given myself a chance to think about my topic over a few days (or a few weeks.) Then I take the pressure off by telling myself “I’ll just write about this for 15 minutes and see what happens.” If I carve out a big block of time to write on “this,” (whatever “this” is,) I will stall until I’ve wasted the precious time and have nothing to show for it. Even if I know I have two hours to write, I’ll tell myself I’m only going to spend 15 minutes on “this.” It’s my version of Anne Lamott’s “*&%$ First Drafts.”

Time of Day: What time of day or night works best for you? I know I do my best writing early in the day, but I now often write in the evenings, too. I just don’t rewrite and polish at night because my brain isn’t at its sharpest then. If I have thoughts or ideas waiting to be written, I can spew them out onto the page in the evening and rewrite in the morning.

Rewriting: How do you approach the rewriting process? Once I have something down, I can go back in and rewrite and add to the piece without feeling the pressure. My fascination with words, from grammar to style to creativity, kicks in and I can keep going. I always enjoy returning to a piece because I’m usually surprised at how much I like and want to keep. Even if I don’t like what I’ve written, I can usually see what’s wrong after a break from the piece. I recently came back to a blog post that wasn’t coming together and immediately saw that it had two major ideas in it and needed to be broken into two different blog posts.

Managing Distractions: How do you do it? At last fall’s New England Crime Bake (a mystery writer’s conference), a best-selling author I admire said her latest book would have been published a year earlier if it wasn’t for Facebook. Since that comment, I’ve been much more careful about eliminating distractions. I sit at my desk and use the Post-it Note method. If I think of something that needs doing while I’m writing, I just put it on a Post-It note (or, if I’m at a cafe, I put it on my phone under Reminders.) Once “buy toilet paper,” or “pick up salad greens” is out of my head and on a note somewhere, I can get back to writing.

Knowing how and when I work best has helped me arrange my day better to increase my output as a writer. It also gives me permission to put my laptop away and move on when, say, a loud conversation starts at the table next to me in the café.

Do you know what your ideal writing process is?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: is a writer, blogger, master life coach, and family physician. I just discovered Bookbub and immediately downloaded six books to my Kindle app. Is this yet another distraction I’m going to have to manage?!

Weekend Edition – Am I Too Organized and Boring to Be a Real Writer?

Via @thoreaupage

Via @thoreaupage

My ex-husband would tell you I’m a control freak. My younger sister would likely agree. To illustrate her point, my sister would tell you about the time I tried to – in her words – “strangulate” her after she poked at the covers of my recently made bed. In my defense, she deserved it. I admit that I was maybe a little overzealous about keeping my room neat (in contrast, you could easily lose a small dog in my sister’s room), but I did tell her – only moments before my fingers closed around her neck – that if she touched anything in my room, I’d kill her. I gave her fair warning.

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My Type-A (sometimes bordering on OCD) behaviors have mellowed with age, but they are still undeniably a part of who I am. As a writer, I have always worried that my neatnik/organizer/planner self was somehow intrinsically at odds with (and potentially smothering) my free-spirited creative self. My desk is neat. My files are put away. My books are shelved (don’t judge) by topic and genre. I use spreadsheets and Scrivener and To Do list apps to manage my writing projects, and I schedule my days in half-hour increments on Google Calendar.

In other words, I do not fit the “artiste” stereotype at all.

I’m not particularly rebellious or at all flighty. I don’t wander off on muse-fueled walkabouts or check out of conversations mid-sentence because I’ve been struck by a deep insight about my story.  I’m not moody, overly solitary, or prone to benders on mind-altering substances. Though I’m thoughtful, I wouldn’t call myself “pensive.” Instead, I’m reliable and – though I hate to admit it – pretty predictable.

Looking at my mostly methodical approach to life and writing, I have to wonder – Is my love of order and process keeping me from accessing some mysterious source of creative genius? Does my need to herd cats and put ducks in rows undermine my authenticity as a “Real Writer?”

Though I do periodically worry about such possibilities, I believe in my heart that my organizational tendencies are more an asset than a liability.

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Quick Point of Clarification: I’m not here to convert you. If you’re a naturally “messy” or “freeform” creative type, that’s cool. I don’t want to tame your wildness or shame you for having a cluttered desk. I don’t believe that there’s any one “right” way to create art. I’m just here to battle my own insecurities about being that unlikeliest of creatures, a “neat artist,” and to do my best to reassure any other Type-A writers living mostly drama-free lives that they’re perfect and authentic just the way they are.

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It can be tough being a straight-laced writer. Being drama-free is not romantic, and being organized is not particularly sexy. These traits do, however, make it easier for you to get things done – often with less stress and in a more timely manner than if you were just “winging it.” The trick is to balance your analytical left-brained self with your imaginative and intuitive right-brained self. Embrace your systems, but don’t let them put you in a creative straightjacket. Do what you need to do to keep your chaos-averse self sane, but remember to let your mind take off on flights of fancy now and again.

Creating balance is about knowing when to access the different parts of your writer’s mind. You need to harness a variety of tools and skill sets for different parts of the writing process – brainstorming, creative “concepting,” researching, outlining, writing the first draft, revising, editing, marketing (yes, you need to do that, too) and so forth. Each step in the process requires a different ratio of analysis:imagination.

If you’re like me – naturally (almost compulsively) responsible and prone to following all the rules – you’ll need to make a conscious effort to color outside the lines, goof off, and consider “crazy” options and possibilities both in your stories and in your writing life. If, on the other hand, you tend to pay more attention to your muse than to deadlines, you’ll want to sharpen your project management and organizational skills.

Speaking to those of you who, like me, worry that your creative spark will be snuffed out by too much structuring, organizing, and good behavior, I urge you to take heart. The reality is that success as a professional writer relies heavily on your ability to play by the rules and deliver on promises. While natural creative genius is lovely, it won’t take you very far unless you can pair it with a strong work ethic, an efficient writing process, and a sterling reputation. Sure, there are a few renegades out there who will “make it” despite being completely unreliable and burning bridges all over the place; but they are rare anomalies.

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So, please, don’t let anyone make you feel like you’re not a “Real Writer” if your writing process includes more dedication than daydreaming and more planning than pantsing. Don’t let anyone knock your love of spreadsheets, index cards, or character dossiers. Don’t feel guilty about your goody two-shoes habit of meeting deadlines and taking editors’ feedback sans indignant outbursts. These things don’t compromise your artistic integrity, they help you strengthen and preserve it. And, I can guarantee that they will make you a more sought-after team member/contributor/writing resource.

So, go forth and own your bad-ass, organized writer identity. Wear your reliability like armor, and wield your left-brained skills like a righteous sword of getting-things-done. Love your muse, but don’t undervalue everything else you can bring to the table.

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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