Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Elephant dung and the art of critique.

During a rehearsal of the opera Aida, an elephant dropped a large, steaming pile of dung on the stage. Conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham (known as much for his wit as for his musical genius), remarked, “Its manners are abominable, but what a critic!”

Dumping a ‘load of dung’ on somebody’s artistic endeavor seems to be almost de rigueur these days. You only have to open the arts page of your local newspaper or tune into the post-Oscars commentary on red carpet fashions to find scathing remarks about somebody’s creative efforts. (I’m reminded of Rex Reed and the late Joan Rivers, here.) 

Whether the artistic endeavor be a book, a design, a piece of music, art or a poem, having your work slammed by a complete stranger has to be hurtful. While most of us creatives can hide our chagrin and put a brave face on it, few of us can walk away feeling nothing at all. Iris Murdoch’s blithe statement, “A bad review is not nearly as important as whether or not it’s raining in Patagonia,” may be a balm for some bruised egos, after the fact, but bad reviews can break even the most resilient among us, shatter dreams and smother talent before it even has a chance to develop.  

Criticism is always negative and almost always, wholly subjective. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines it as: ‘The action or process of indicating the fault or faults of somebody or something, or one’s disapproval of somebody or something.’ (After all, if it was positive, we’d call it praise and if it was indifferent, we’d likely refer to it as commentary.) Harsh criticism, however, which finds only fault, seldom benefits anyone except perhaps, the person giving it. All too often, it seems, I find critics using their rhetoric as nothing more than a platform for their own (supposed) virtuosity. 

But having said that, I should add, that not all critics focus on what’s wrong with the creative offering. By far, the majority present the good along with the bad and try to make their feedback as balanced as possible. This is not criticism, it’s critique.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines critique as: ‘the art of criticism.’ And that’s the nub – giving balanced feedback is an art. Yes, it may well be subjective but the word critique implies (to me, anyway) that a certain amount of analytical thought lies behind critic’s response – along with, perhaps, a careful choice of words.   

Never is this more important than when one has been asked to critique someone’s work. And here I’m referring to writing, since that’s the business I’m in. The way I see it, being asked to critique a piece of writing is an honor, not something to be taken lightly. You’re being entrusted with a little part of something dear to that person and it deserves the best you can do.

If you believe in nurturing talent and helping people develop and improve their craft, here’s a simple 4-step process for giving balanced and constructive critique. I call it the Hamburger Method.  


The top bun
Begin by pointing out those positive aspects of the piece that you liked and that you think worked really well. 

The meat in the middle
Select one or two areas (three at the most) that the writer could improve on. If there are many faults with the piece, don’t try to list them all – this can be very disheartening, not to mention confusing, for many writers. If you’re going to point out problem areas, be sure to explain why they are problematic and offer possible solutions. It doesn’t help anyone to hear about what’s not working in their writing if they aren’t shown why it doesn’t work and what they might do to fix it. 

The bottom bun
This is where you point out what strengths the writer has shown and how he/she can possibly use those strengths to correct or improve on the weaker areas. Don’t assume that every writer can see their own strengths. We can’t. It can be extremely helpful, not to mention encouraging, to have those strengths pointed out.
The sauce
This is your opportunity to sum up the positive aspects of the piece and to say what you liked about it, as a whole. It’s the time to make an encouraging statement. There’s no need to get soppy or wax lyrical about a piece of writing. Empty flattery seldom fools anyone. If you’re going to use banal generalizations – like the word ‘nice’ – at least explain what you mean by that. A final statement can be simple: ‘What I especially liked about it was…. and I hope to see more of your work.’ 

And finally, I’ll leave you with this thought: If you cannot find anything positive to say about someone's creative effort, the fault does not lie with that person.

*     *    *

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Cloth dolls and character development.

Life, in my tiny patch of Africa, is never dull.

A couple of months ago, I had coffee with a friend who runs a play-therapy group for abused and abandoned children. Laugh out loud, I should have known something was up when she ordered a large slice of chocolate cake for me. (If you want to win me over to something, cake needs to be involved.) I was forking up the last mouthful when she delivered her pitch.

She needed cloth dolls for the play-therapy group and, since I sew, would I be willing to make a few? Now, despite having three daughters (all grown up) and having made countless outfits for Cabbage Patch, First Love and Barbie et al during those halcyon pre-teen years, I’d never made a cloth doll. So, of course, I said ‘yes’. (It was the cake talking!)

Let me tell you, this whole cloth doll making business is not nearly as simple as you might imagine. By the time my hubby came home I’d downloaded and printed a heap of free patterns from the net. He stared at the sheets of outlined limbs, torsos and cut-on-fold half-heads. “Working on a new murder mystery, are you?” Funny man! I think I’m going to sell him on e-bay. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

 My daughter, a graphic designer, stopped by two days later. I showed her the first completed doll and asked for her artistic opinion. The side of her face twitched as if she were chewing on a sour nut, she blinked several times and then proceeded to give me feedback that included the words ‘Chernobyl’ and ‘baby’ in the same sentence. Shock-horror. But I have to admit, it did look like a teeny humanoid thing that had evolved without the benefit of either gravity or calcium. Sigh.

A lot of re-drafting and pattern-tweaking later, a doll emerged that I thought a small child might like – if he or she were not too picky. Stitching limbs together, sewing on faces and endeavoring to make each one an individual, got me thinking.
What lies behind that bland smile?

This is not unlike creating characters for a story. You start out with an idea of who these people in your story are and then proceed to ‘flesh’ them out. But, like a cloth doll, once you’ve got all the parts attached, you’ve still only got a flat, two dimensional character. This is where I went wrong in my first novel. Oh, my characters had personalities and motives for their behavior but they lacked substance – the hidden depth that makes a character intriguing and memorable and who lingers long after you’ve finished the book. Mine were little more than cloth dolls without the stuffing to hold them up.

In his excellent article, David Mesick* describes this need for characters to have hidden depths. (‘3 Things that will make your characters deeper.’) Mesick states these as being a world view, a dream and a secret. I think he’s right. These elements will definitely contribute to the making of a realistic, believable character. With regards to the world view, I’ve added a fourth element, drawn from Thomas Anthony Harris’ book, I’m Okay, You’re Okay. It’s what the author refers to as ‘the four Life Positions’. A life position is, perhaps, a little simpler than the complexity of a world view and consists of four basic positions from which an individual interacts with others.

The first life position - I’m not okay, you’re okay – portrays the individual who feels inferior to those around him. How that manifests in his interactions with others becomes part of your character’s unique persona and whether or not your readers will love him or hate him.
A character with the second position – I’m not okay, you’re not okay – is the quintessential pessimist for whom the glass is always half empty. I’m reminded of many fictional ‘defective’ detectives who’ve been sketched along these lines and, far from being a bore to read, their innate negativity can be a wonderful counterpoint to other characters in the story. 

The third position – I’m okay, you’re not okay – often portrays the utterly arrogant and unlikeable character whose profound sense of superiority can provoke the sincere desire to knock him down a peg or two. But that doesn’t mean your readers need to despise him. I can’t help thinking here of Harlan Coben’s Windsor Horne Lockwood III, arrogance personified but very, very funny.
The fourth, and possibly the least interesting life position, from a character development point of view – I’m okay, you’re okay – is the generally well-adjusted, respectful, affable type that generally gets on well with everyone else. You may be happy for your daughter to marry him but is he going to make fascinating reading? Perhaps, if you give him a deep, dark secret and some interesting methods of hiding it.

Once your character has a life position, it permeates everything he says or does and it will take a life altering event to cause that to change. But your protagonist must change. He must grow and develop as the story progresses and emerge at the end a better, wiser soul. What better way to achieves this than to facilitate the shift from one life position to another? The intense pressure to solve the mystery, rescue the girl, find the holy grail, save the world, or whatever mission your protagonist is on, should be this catalyst for change. As a reader, I find it satisfying when the protagonist has achieved some personal growth, and as a writer, I work hard to create it.
Using these life positions has helped me give my characters more ‘stuffing’, plumped them out a bit and added a set of core beliefs which, I hope, will make them more memorable. It certainly has made them easier to create and they practically write themselves. A lot like making cloth dolls, only simpler.

Disclaimer: No dolls were harmed in the making of this blog. In fact, after some brief counseling, they were handed over to the kiddies, where they will possibly do some good.



Wednesday, 18 February 2015


Happy New Lunar Year!

May the year ahead bring you good health, happiness and great success.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Jumping Genres

Well, okay. Yes. Switching genres would be a more accurate title for this post, but you know me – can’t pass up an alliteration, even if it does imply tales of  skipping ropes and trampolines. But jumping, in the literary sense, is pretty much what I’ve done, without the safety of a cord and yelling ‘bungee’ like a mad thing.

Having finally finished writing the non-fiction book, in little over four months, you’d imagine that I would’ve been over-the-moon with happiness and a sense of achievement. Nope. I felt about as exuberant as a lead-lined pancake. Those seventeen weeks of intense, focused writing pretty much hijacked my mind. I know we had Christmas because there were a lot of brightly wrapped gifts under a cheerfully decorated tree and everyone was happy and hugging each other.

And I know that I cooked dinner sometimes, though how I didn’t chop up my fingers along with the carrots and potatoes is still something of a mystery. I know that I did put a plateful of chicken bones in the fridge and toss a perfectly good fruit salad into the garbage but only because my immensely patient hubby presented me with said chicken bones and asked if they should be served with ice-cream or custard. (Silly question. Both, of course.)

Once I’d hit the ‘send’ button and the manuscript, for better or worse, was in the hands of the publisher, I was left with…nothing. A great big gaping void. There was suddenly all this free time and didn’t have a clue what to do with it.

Oh, I did all the usual stuff, like clean up my badly neglected home and study, file away the gazillion or so books, papers and post-it notes and remove the fascinating etymological specimens that were flourishing amongst the piles of accumulated dust. But housework, as you know, is like stringing beads with no knot on the end. You can only do it for just so long before your brain putrefies into a mess of green jelly. I needed to get back to fiction writing, so I took to spending hours every day on AbsoluteWrite, hoping for some inspiration.

I must pause here, for a moment, to give accolades to all the writer-folk on that website. Not once, during my ‘end-of-book-blues’ did any one of them comment adversely on my numerous nonsensical, and sometimes downright vacuous, posts. It’s a testimony to the generosity of spirit in those forums. (Of course, they could all have had me on ‘ignore’ but let’s not spoil a good tribute with probabilities.) In fact, it was while reading an article via a link from an AW’er, that… drum roll please… a plot bunny miraculously appeared on my horizon.

A plot bunny, for my non-writer friends, is a story idea that simply refuses to go away until it is written. I haven’t had a good plot bunny in years – non-fiction doesn’t count and neither do those romance shorts I wrote for thingamajig magazine because I’ll never admit to them. (Well, not in public anyway.) So when this plot bunny arrived it was like opening the door to find Simon Baker standing there with rose between his teeth. Oh, yesssss. Get thee in here and proliferate.   

The story required that I do quite a bit of research, which was great (I love researching) but it soon became evident that things were heading in a rather dark and disturbing direction. Now, you know me, I’m into mysteries. I read them, I write them, I immerse myself in them and I totally love them. But this was rapidly turning out to be… Horror. Ack!. Vampires, zombies and all creepy things that go thump in the night just don’t excite me. But here I was, writing one - until a writer friend kindly pointed out that my story did not fit the horror genre. Indeed, he said, it was quite obviously science fiction. I was stunned.

When I think of science fiction, I tend of think of mother ships, lizard-skinned creatures, great big metal things stomping all over the place sucking up hapless humans or slimy, slithery organisms bursting out of someone’s gut. Don’t get me wrong, I like Sigourney Weaver but you’ll need a couple of very strong cranes and a plethora of sky-hooks to suspend my disbelief long enough to keep me awake through most of her Sci-fi movies. But science fiction, of course, is a vast genre with so many facets that are neither gory nor fantastical and my writer friend was right, (can an undead Chihuahua ever be wrong?) my story sure fit. So I let the plot bunny just do its thing and take me where it wanted me to go. And what a journey it’s been!

Writing has always been enjoyable for me, but never have I had as much pure, unadulterated fun as I’ve had with this story. No surprise it turned into a novelette. Where all the words and characters came from, I have no idea. I was a spectator watching the drama unfold, laughing at the main character’s odd mannerisms, appalled at the hideous potential of the dark side of science and wondering how on earth it was all going to end. What a blast!

This switching genres seems to have propelled my writing into a whole new dimension and opened up a universe of possibilities. My imagination is running wild. Regardless of whether or not this story ever sees the light of day in a publication, every moment spent writing it has been an education in not limiting my thinking, not sticking to the redundant advice of ‘write what you know about’ and most of all, not being afraid to simply take the plunge into something…uh, dare I say it…alien to me.

So, if you’re feeling stuck or a little bored with your writing, consider taking that literary leap and just letting your imagination go free-range. Simply close your eyes, hold your nose and jump… into a new genre. You may end up thrilled with what you discover.

And may the plot bunnies bounce along with you. 
photo credit: <a href="">Dean McCoy Photography</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Write, right and research Part 3 (final)

As if my trip to the US wasn’t miraculous enough, I could hardly believe it when even more unexpected pleasures came my way.
After that fascinating meeting with Ohio’s finest, I was given a tour of the state crime lab at BCI. I hadn’t expected it to look like a set for CSI and it didn’t. What was interesting, particularly for me as a mystery writer, was how passionate the people at BCI are about their work. From the forensic document examiners to the DNA lab technicians, everyone I met has a kind of enthusiasm that doesn’t bode well for anyone planning on a life of crime in Ohio. It was research that I hadn’t planned on doing but it fit perfectly with one aspect of my novel and I was able to get a lot of questions answered by the expects, saving me many hours of trawling through the internet.
Another thing I hadn’t planned on was a trip to Holmes county, OH, but my deputy sheriff friend had it on his agenda and it seemed rude not comply, especially since he’d gone out of his way to make this visit as productive as possible for me. Holmes county, as I understand it, is almost entirely Amish. (And I hadn’t known there were any Amish communities outside of Pennsylvania!) 
I spent a very enlightening morning learning about this community while browsing the many shops and buying a whole lot of beautifully crafted goods, which cost me excess on my luggage on the way home, but what the heck. Interesting fact: The Amish don’t believe in ‘self-adornment’ or decorating their homes but they seem to make a good living selling the most exquisitely hand-crafted home decor items.   

The owner of the buggy, pictured here, was intrigued to learn that I’d come ‘all the way from Africa’ and wanted to know if I spoke German. I don’t, but I explained that I do speak Afrikaans, a local language of Dutch origin. He wanted to hear it so I rattled off a few sentences and he was delighted, saying that he could hear the Dutch in it and it made him think of his grandfather who had come from Holland. He also added that meeting me had made his day. I could honestly return the compliment. There is something very special about Amish people and I’m glad they have the freedom to practice the lifestyle they chose. They make good apple pie, too.
Among the many experiences I had during that short visit to Ohio was that, not only did I get to attend a graduation party, I got to watch a real-deal American Memorial Day parade. Earlier that morning, I’d been invited to attend a Memorial Day service, held outside the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department. It was a touching tribute to those who had died in the line of duty and I appreciated the opportunity to be there.
But the parade that came later was lots of fun. It’s sort of like a waving fest. People in the parade, who are not marching, or looking terribly serious, wave at the people on the sidewalks who all wave back. A lot of flag-waving takes place too. A kind lady from the Wooster Emblem Club gave me a flag and, when she discovered that I was a visitor, gave me another one. (I cahn’t imagine whot gave me awaii.) Those flags now have a permanent place on my study wall.  

Perhaps the most ‘miraculous’ of all the experiences of my Ohio visit was the trip to Lake Erie. Erie features heavily in my story, specifically, being out on it in a sailboat during a bad storm. I needed to speak with people who know this stretch of water and what sailing on it entails. My deputy sheriff friend had tried to arrange something with a friend of his who has a boat, but that friend was away on vacation. Nevertheless, on the day before my return to South Africa, we made the 1 hour drive to Cleveland and found a marina.
Of course, the security guy wouldn’t let us in. No, sir! He didn’t care if my friend was law enforcement (wrong county) or that I was a visitor from South Africa… or the moon for that matter. Members only. That was that. We were standing there, wondering what to do, when a middle-aged man stepped forward. He’d been listening to our discussions with the security guy. “So you just want to have a look around, eh? Wanna see my boat?” Did we? Oh, yeah. He signed us in and off we went to look at his boat. It was a 36’ sailboat, a little smaller than the one featured in my story but he sure kept it in good nick. “Wanna go for a sail?”
Man! This just kept getting better and better. In no time at all we were out on the lake. I couldn’t have wished for a more knowledgeable sailor. Dave, he’d introduced himself at the gate, has been a sailor for many decades and sailed all of the great lakes, though Erie is his favorite. He was able to give me every last bit of info I needed – prevailing winds, direction of high and low pressure systems, wave patterns, water temperatures at various times of the year, storm conditions, rescue procedures and a whole lot more. The man is a walking encyclopedia of Great Lakes sailing and another example of that fantastic Ohioan generosity. Although there was hardly a cloud in the sky that day, I got a very good picture of what it would be like to be caught out on Lake Erie in a storm. It’s seriously bad. I hope that my writing of that scene has done justice to it.  
Now tell me, please, what are the odds of all of this happening? It’s as if the waters were parted for me, obstacles brushed aside, everything I needed just laid out in front of me. Happenstance just doesn’t cover it. See what I mean about the ‘m’ word?
The next day it was time to pack up and get ready to go to the airport. Lots of hugs and thanks and yes, some tears (mine). I said goodbye to all the very special people at the Salvation Army. Some of the women in the shelter even gave me little gifts, which touched me to the depths of my soul and which I shall keep forever. I had lunch with my deputy sheriff friend and his wonderful family before getting into that unmarked Crown Vic for the last time and heading back to Cleveland.
My flight, on Continental Airlines, left promptly at 8PM. As the plane gained altitude I had a last look at the Cuyahoga river, the one that caught fire, before we turned and headed east over Lake Erie. The plane kept a course along the lake and I watched the shoreline until it finally ended and the land was slowly cloaked in darkness. My heart filled with gratitude to the many people who turned a simple research expedition into smorgasbord of rich experiences that will fill much more than one book.
The novel is finished, but until now, the story behind the story had not been told. Thank you for letting me share it with you.  

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Write, right and research. Part 2

 A warning to all middle-aged women traveling on a South African passport: When arriving at Hopkins International Airport (Cleveland, OH) don’t, whatever you do, smile or look happy to have reached your destination, even if it has taken you 31 hours to get there. Smiling and looking happy will arouse an instant suspicion and will get you hauled out of the line, frisked and have every last piece of your luggage searched while you’re photographed, fingerprinted and asked a gazillion questions. Don’t ask me how I know this.

Shortly before leaving Johannesburg I received an email from my deputy sheriff friend to say that he’d been given permission from the sheriff to take me anywhere in Ohio that I needed to go. This was beyond awesome. Knowing that I’d be frazzled from many hours in cramped economy seating (not to mention the tedium of the transit lounge in London’s Heathrow) I’d booked into a hotel in Cleveland so I could get a good night’s sleep before meeting all the people I’d been corresponding with. That turned out to be a wise decision.
Promptly, at 10AM the next morning my deputy sheriff arrived to pick me up and I got my first look at a Crown Victoria, in the metal, so to speak. I’d seen them on American TV shows, of course, but never up close since they’re not used in SA. Wow. If you’ve never been in one let me tell you, they’re amazingly comfortable and though I couldn’t tell how many horses are under the hood, the smooth power of that engine is positively sensuous. As we set off I tried to maintain some sense of sophistication but what a ride.
We stopped for lunch and I had my first introduction to American food (apart from the Poptarts I’d enticed out a vending machine at the hotel) and my goodness, the portions were big enough to feed a small army! How on earth do restaurants in the US make a profit? I couldn’t eat more than a quarter of it. But it was good and I soon learned that taking leftovers back to my apartment meant that the fridge was always well stocked. My Ohioan friends, it turned out, are generous to a fault and nobody would let me pay for a meal even though, thanks to the free accommodation, I could well afford to do so and wanted to. Just another reason why I think Ohio is awesome. (Sorry Haggis.)
My first drive down the main street of the City of Wooster felt oddly familiar. Not surprising really, the large map on my study wall covered with photographs I’d printed off the internet had given me a better idea of the place than I’d imagined. It was wonderful, though, to see the actual buildings and landmarks that I’d already incorporated in my manuscript, particularly the courthouse where a big part of my story takes place. I couldn’t wait to get inside.
Wayne County Courthouse
The next few days were amazing. I was taken to the sheriff’s department and introduced to everyone and I’m willing to bet that Wayne County must be one of the safest places in the US, if their professionalism and enthusiasm for the job of law enforcement is anything to go by. I should confess something here. Before arriving in Wayne County, I never knew the difference between a Police Department and a Sheriff’s Department. Just as well I made the trip or my manuscript would have been full of jurisdictional errors. Another reason why thorough research is vital.
I got my tour of the courthouse, courtesy of Deputy Travis Hutchinson whose knowledge of the building and its history is truly encyclopaedic. From the holding cells in the basement to the clock tower, I saw it all and even had time to sit in the courtroom in which much of my story’s drama takes place. ‘Hutch’, who is now the Sheriff of Wayne County, (congrats on being elected, by the way) thank you so much for a truly memorable morning. And for the real, bona fide American hotdog. I loved it!
Perhaps the most valuable thing to come out of that visit to the courthouse was that I got to meet so many people who were more than willing to help me with my manuscript, the county prosecutor, a public defender and no less than two Common Pleas Court judges, to mention a few. Considering the huge volume of emails that went backwards and forwards between us after my visit, any errors in the legal aspects of my manuscript would be mine alone.
Throughout my visit to Ohio there were two questions that everybody asked me: Why Ohio? Why Wayne county? And because everyone was genuinely interested it would not have been polite to reply with something flippant like, “Because it’s there” or “Well, I had to set it somewhere.” So they got the whole explanation and while it may have got a little tiresome to repeat, I was humbled by the incredible kindness, concern and willingness to help that these people gave me.
What’s that you say? Where’s the funny? Coming right up.
A week into my visit I was taken to London, OH where I was invited to sit in on a meeting of the joint heads of Ohio’s various law enforcement departments. I dressed quite formally for it – navy blue skirt and jacket and navy court heels, so I felt as though I sort of fitted in.
London is about a two hour drive from Wooster. We left early and I got a good look at the countryside while balancing an incredibly hot cup of coffee on my lap for most of the trip. (Thanks to the suspension on the Crown Vic, I didn’t spill any.) Since one of the characters in my novel would be making this trip, the traveling was good research.
The meeting was held in a large room attached to the offices of the Ohio Attorney General and the BCI. My deputy sheriff friend was seated at the main table, so I found myself a chair among the other members of Ohio’s finest seated around the perimeter of the room. At the commencement everybody stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. For a split second I wondered what I was supposed to do, being something of a fish out of water here. So, along with everyone else, I stood and faced the flag, which I thought was respectful but I did not put my hand on my heart and I did not say the words. It wouldn’t have been appropriate, would it?  
Halfway through I felt eyes boring into my head and turned to my right. A woman was looking at me with what I can only describe as a death-stare. I swear, if she’d been armed she’d have shot me there and then. A mixture of pure fury, disgust and horror in that gaze. It couldn’t have been worse if I’d been wearing a burka with an AK47 slung over my shoulder and there was nothing I could do about it except smile at her and turn my eyes back to the flag.
She kept up the stare after we’d sat down and I must tell you, I was feeling quite uncomfortable, particularly in light of the way some of my pre-visit phone calls had been received. But relief came with the round-robin of introductions that followed. When my turn came I stood, introduced myself stating that I was from Johannesburg, South Africa (Americans always want to know what city you’re from) and that I was a guest of the Wayne County Sheriff’s department. Immediately I looked at the woman but she was looking away. She never made eye contact with me again but to this day I wonder what thoughts went through her mind when she spotted me not pledging my allegiance to the American flag. 
However, I do pledge to update this blog more frequently. :)

Friday, 2 August 2013

Write, Right and Research. Part 1

A question for all my writer friends: Do you remember when you first decided to write a book?

For me, the idea of writing a novel struck with a sudden and stunning ferocity, a road-to-Damascus-type epiphany that had me wondering if I’d lost my mind somewhere along the safe and orderly pathways of my everyday life. I mean, there I was, one moment engrossed in an Elizabeth George novel, lost in a passage of her typically eloquent descriptive narrative and the next, jerked out of the story and nearly blinded by the thought - ‘I can do this.’  
By this, I don’t mean that I could write with anything like the genius of Ms. George, but that I could tell a story, hopefully, in such a way as to engage a reader pleasantly enough to get him or her to the last page. That was the idea and it wouldn’t leave me alone. By morning, I had the arc of story all mapped out in my mind and by 9AM I was at the bookstore, buying every ‘how-to-write-a-successful-novel’ tome I could lay my hands on. I learned quite a lot from those books, not the least of which is that, unless you’re writing complete fantasy (and possibly, even then), getting your facts in order requires some research. As Elizabeth George states in her book, Write Away: “It’s tough to make a place come to life unless you’ve been there and allowed your five senses to experience it.” Logical.
Except that I live in South Africa and I’d set my novel in the United States. Ohio, to be exact. Okay, I can just see my friend Haggis rolling his eyes and making gagging noises but I needed a state with the death penalty and yes, I could have simply thrown a dart at a map of the U.S. but it would have landed on Ohio anyway. (I tend to slice my golf swing, too.)
Research? That’s what the internet’s for, isn’t it? And besides, I’ve watched almost every episode of Law and Order. How hard could it be?
Three paragraphs into chapter 1 and I hit the first of many stumbling blocks. For example, the internet has plenty pictures of the Wayne County courthouse but no amount of Google searches could tell me what type of trees are planted in the pavements surrounding it. What the internet could deliver was a fair number of email addresses of people in that county, so I launched an email fact-finding mission. I got zero replies. Not surprising, really. What would you think if you got an email from someone in Africa, asking for your help in writing a book? Exactly. Thanks for nothing, Nigeria.
The next step, I figured, was to try the personal touch. Telephone numbers are also quite easy to find, so I tried calling people who I though might be willing to help once I’d explained what I needed the information for. Ha, again. “You’re calling from where? South Africa? I don’t think so.” – clunk. All I got was a telephone bill set to exceed my mortgage. I tried one last call – to the sheriff’s department.
The receptionist answered and after a moment or two of silence, heavily laced with skepticism, (I could tell), she put me through to the Deputy Sheriff. I could hardly believe it. Not only was he friendly and understanding, but totally willing to help me in any way he could. Wow! We exchanged email addresses and I was back in the writing business. For a while, at least.
In no time at all I was getting an education in police procedures but deputy sheriffs are busy people, being second in command and all that, so there was a limit, I felt, on just how many questions one could pester him with. Despite large maps and pictures pasted all over my study walls, I still wasn’t getting a ‘feel’ for the place and my writing was flat and unconvincing. Either I was going to have give it up or go see the place for myself. The latter was a pipe dream. My rainy-day savings account didn’t hold enough for a foggy morning, let alone a round trip across the Atlantic. Then, a series of events changed everything.
I hate to use the word ‘miraculous’, it’s somewhat clichéd and wholly subjective but as an adjective, it comes pretty close to describing what happened.  
It began with an email from my insurance company advising me that a small retirement annuity had matured and asking me whether I wanted to cash it out or reinvest. The amount was surprising, even after tax. Enough, it appeared, to get me round-trip air ticket, economy class of course, and a stay in the cheapest flea-bag motel available but no money for food or car rentals. My hubby didn’t quite take to the idea of my sleeping on a park bench, no matter how romantic I made it sound. And though he offered to make up the difference, this was something I had to do myself. If it bombed, and there was no saleable manuscript at the end, I didn’t want anyone else to have thrown good money after bad.
One evening, while sitting out on the patio, trying to let go the idea of ‘reality research’ a thought almost literally slapped me over the head. A quick search of the internet revealed that yes, there was a Salvation Army branch in Wayne county. I dashed off an email, explaining who I was etc. and asking if they knew of a family who had a spare room available and maybe needed some extra cash. Twelve hours later I had a reply: “We have a two-bedroom apartment in our complex that you may use free of charge.” Okay. I take it back. If that’s not miraculous then I don’t know what is. God bless you, Major West! 

One last hurdle to go. Most American folk probably don’t know that it’s notoriously difficult to get a visa for the US and I was warned by several friends not to get my hopes up too far. But I did anyway. Having filled in the forms online, and received an appointment, I duly presented myself for the interview at the US Consulate here in Johannesburg. The attractive young lady who interviewed me took all my paperwork and checked boxes on the form in front of her. Then she asked me where I’d be staying. I told her and handed over yet more paperwork. “Oh,” she said, “Wooster. I graduated from the College of Wooster. What will you be doing there?” I explained about my research and her face lit up. “You’ll love it there. It’s a really great city.” And just like that, I had my visa. Now, I ask you, what are the odds that of all the people in the US Consulate that could have interviewed me that day, I get the one person who’s been to college in the very county of Ohio that I plan to visit? A small college, a big planet, and I meet that lady! I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I don’t have a criminal record or unpaid taxes – but still, that m-word haunts me.
And that was just the beginning of a truly incredible adventure. I was on my way to America, more excited than I can begin to describe. 
So, my writer friends, that moment when you first decided to write a book. Do you recall it? Are you willing to share it? Please leave a comment, I'd love to hear from you.