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October 3, 2013

Writers on writing — learning and loving the craft

When I met Scott Boyer in 2010, he was in the thick of writing his first book.  I was working on Velva Jean Learns to Fly at the time, and we formed a kind of informal writers group, sharing not only our work but our thoughts and feelings on the process.  Unlike me, Scott didn’t grow up writing.  He studied business at UC Berkeley.  But when it comes to writing, he is one of the most passionate and dedicated people I’ve ever met.  To celebrate his book’s release, I’ve asked Scott to write a few pieces about his writing journey. 

BobbyEtherfrontcoverWriters Write

by R. Scott Boyer

It’s Fall 2010 and I’m heading to a writing class on the UCLA campus. Jennifer Niven is with me. While I’m still learning to write, Jennifer is already an accomplished author and, as such, has been invited to speak to the class about the process of writing a novel. Arriving a few minutes early, we take seats across from the instructor, near the head of the horseshoe of tables surrounding the chalkboard. I’ve never seen my fellow students so animated. They can’t wait to talk to Jennifer and hear what she has to say. Even the teacher looks eager.

Jennifer talks for a while about writing in general and about her books, especially Velva Jean Learns to Fly, which she’s still working on the time. As usual, she’s charming and witty, with everyone hanging on her every word. The other students all have tons of questions. The more they ask, however, the more I hear one question asked lots of different ways: how do you find time to write? When do you write? Where do you find the energy?

Jennifer and I exchange a look. It’s a topic we’ve discussed many times. To us, the answer is both profoundly simple and deeply complex: writers write. When you have a passion to write and a story to tell, it’s often more difficult NOT to write than it is to sit down at the computer and start typing. A better question may have been: how do you manage any sleep when you’ve got a story inside you trying to claw its way out?

Now it’s present day, nearly three years since that class ended. I just finished publishing my first book, Bobby Ether and the Academy, less than three weeks ago. Jennifer and I are talking and I find myself asking a whole different set of questions: how does anyone get their book noticed? How does one manage all the marketing and social media needed to connect with readers? How does anyone find time to keep writing when there are so many other aspects to being a successful author that require attention? (For the answer to this one, see my previous answer.)

Of course, for someone like Jennifer, who is both incredibly talented and blessed with an amazing team (agent, editor, publisher, etc.), some of these issues take care of themselves, but many do not. It takes hard work and commitment no matter what stage you’re at. It also takes a deep love of writing; a refusal to quit and a willingness to do what has to be done because you wrote a great book and, gosh darn it, people are going to hear about it!

For any of you just starting out as a writer I offer this advice: just write. Don’t worry about anything else. Write what you love, because you love it, and find happiness in bringing the story to life. For those of you further down the road, perhaps with a book or two already written, I offer this advice: ask Jennifer, she knows way more about it than me.ScottandPatch

I’m kidding, please don’t bombard dear Jennifer with emails.  Try this instead: do research on the web, engage in book clubs, chat rooms, and blogs about writing. Connect with other authors, ask questions, and really listen to the answers. Perhaps the greatest skill I possess is not the ability to write, but the ability to learn. That skill has served me better than any other as I’ve advanced along the continuum from dreamer to published author.

For anyone interested, my book, Bobby Ether and the Academy, is a young adult adventure story that blends urban fantasy with new-age/spiritual fiction (Think Harry Potter meets The Celestine Prophecy). It’s full of excitement, mystery, and just a hint of magic. Information about the book and about me can be found on my website.

Scott Boyer grew up in Santa Monica, CA and still resides in the Los Angeles area. Graduating from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley in 1996, he started writing Bobby Ether and the Academy with the goal of blending YA fantasy with spiritual fiction. Nowadays, Scott splits his time between helping his father manage an insurance brokerage, playing with his Shepherd-mix rescue dog, Patch, and writing the sequel to his first book, the soon to be released Bobby Ether and the Temple of Eternity.

(Note from Jennifer:  Please bombard me with emails!  I love hearing from readers and other writers.)

April 20, 2013

Things I couldn’t write without

As many of you know, I’m currently doing a very fast, very intense, very daunting, and very complete rewrite of the fourth Velva Jean novel, American Blonde (due out next year).

In this last stretch of the Book from Hell, as I’ve taken to calling it– otherwise known as That Damn Book– I’m making a list of the things that are helping me get to the end of the Worst Deadline I’ve Ever Known.

(Not including my computer and my imagination, of course. And my loved ones, who, I hope, will still love me once the book is completed.)

Thank you to:

  • My readers, who write me the most wonderful notes and emails, reminding me why I’m doing this in the first place
  • Robeks, which gives my weary brain sustenance
  • Scrivener, the greatest software for writers ever
  • My early morning walk/workout/girltime in the park with my friend Lisa Brucker (please watch her show, Ex-Wives of Rock!)
  • John Green, Melvin Burgess, and Raymond Chandler
  • Google
  • My fab intern, Laura Burdine, who, at lightning speed, can research everything from wire tapping in the 1940s to the Los Angeles streetcar system circa 1946 to the U.S. postal system in postwar America (not to mention her ability to help one brainstorm love triangles and ways in which to solve a murder)
  • The CW, Switched at Birth, and Adam-12, for good, fluffy fun
  • Newspaperarchive.com
  • My literary cats (a special shout out to Miss Lulu for being at my side throughout each long work day)
  • My copy of MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, which I’ve practically worn to dust
  • My team of experts– private investigator, medical examiner, and toxicologist– who are patiently answering my endless questions
  • Daryl Dixon, the most inspiring badass I know (or wish I knew), and my hero (as well as pretend boyfriend)
  • Lululemon, maker of the most comfortable writing clothes on the planet
  • Briana Harley, who not only helps me with Velva Jean’s music, but is the very best resource for Velva Jean idea bouncing–  after all, she knows Velva Jean almost as well as I do
  • My bosu ball and elliptical machine, which are productive places to have a good book think
  • Netflix, which, without complaining, delivers 1940s-era movies to my door or directly to my TV
  • The Los Angeles Public Library
  • And Ryan Bingham, who is Butch Dawkins

I couldn’t do it without them.

Speaking of Ryan Bingham, here’s a video that I use for inspiration. It really could be Velva Jean’s friend Butch sitting on her granddaddy’s porch.

January 17, 2013

Move over, James Bond — seven decades later, lady spies receive their due

This week, an article I wrote in tribute to some courageous female spies appeared in the HuffPost, and I wanted to rerun it here. These are just a few of the remarkable women who inspired Velva Jean’s own spy journey in Becoming Clementine. I’ll be highlighting others soon…

Nancy Wake died in 2011 at the age of 98. The Germans once described this former World War II spy as “the white mouse” because of her ability to evade capture. She killed a Nazi officer with her bare hands. She ordered the execution of a fellow female spy, because she believed the woman was working for the Germans. Before her death, the United States awarded Wake the Medal of Freedom, Great Britain presented her with the George Medal and France gave her its highest military prize — the Legion d’Honneur. As the New York Times reported, “Ms. Wake received so many medals for her wartime service… that she lived out her old age on the proceeds from their sale.”

If only this were true of the other daring women who spied in World War II — some 3,000 in Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive), and an estimated 4,500 in America’s OSS, or Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. Last October, the head of Israel’s national Intelligence agency stated, “Women have a distinct advantage in secret warfare.”

Before the war, a good number of these women had been stay-at-home wives and mothers. But wartime found them going to work in Washington, D.C. or in England as code breakers and intelligence analysts, or dropped into France or Africa as couriers and spies. They worked with the French Resistance and the Allies to recover missing or captured agents or prisoners of war. They gathered invaluable, critical information. They helped downed pilots and Jews escape over the Spanish border. They hid precious works of art from the Germans. Before the war’s end, many would be captured and executed by the enemy.

Yet most will never be recognized and too many of them are already forgotten. However, recently the spotlight has been cast on a few of these brave heroines.

On November 8, 2012, seven decades after the death of an Indian princess, a statue was unveiled in London. The statue bears tribute to the courageous and beautiful Princess Noor Inayat Khan — Britain’s only female Muslim war heroine — who was the first woman radio operator dropped into France by the SOE.

She was the descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore. Her father was Indian, her mother American. Noor Inayat Khan grew up in luxury and comfort, playing the harp and writing stories. She later studied child psychology at the Sorbonne. At the end of 1940, the family fled France (escaping to England by boat) before the government surrendered to Germany. Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a wireless operator, and was recruited by the SOE in 1942. She was sent back to Paris a year later. There, under the codename Madeleine, she sent vital messages to London while trying to evade the Germans. In October 1943, she was arrested and tortured, but she refused to talk. In September 1944, at Dachau, she was executed by the SS. She was 30.

England’s Princess Royal dedicated the statue at Gordons Square not far from the house where Noor was living when she left on her last mission. Sir David Richards, the Chief of Defence Staff, said at the November 8 ceremony, “We owe our freedom to women like Noor Inayat Khan.” A film of her life is now in the works.

In October of 2012, George Clooney announced his latest project — a movie titled The Monuments Men (based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel), starring Daniel Craig, Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett as Rose Valland, an art historian and member of the French resistance.

Ms. Valland was an employee at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. The Germans took over the museum in October 1940 and used it to store paintings and other works of art stolen from private French — mostly Jewish — collections. Valland was the only museum worker allowed to stay on. In the eyes of the Germans, she was nothing to worry about. She was quiet and plain, a dowdy spinster who followed instructions. But, unbeknownst to the Nazis, Valland spoke German, and because of this she was able to track the shipments of stolen artwork from Paris to locations throughout the Reich. On August 1, 1944, days before the Liberation of Paris, she notified the French Resistance that the Germans were planning to smuggle out five boxcars filled with art. The Resistance stopped the train from leaving Paris. Thanks to her efforts and her meticulous, covert record-keeping, hundreds — if not thousands — of pieces of artwork were located and returned to France.

Elizabeth Peet McIntosh grew up in Honolulu, where she learned Japanese and yearned to travel and have adventures overseas. Her father worked for the Washington Herald as a sports editor, and Betty, as she was called, soon followed him into reporting. She was working as a correspondent for Scripps Howard near Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. She soon left Hawaii for the Scripps Howard bureau in Washington, D.C. In 1943, she was covering an exhibit of sleeping bags stuffed with chicken feathers at the Department of Agriculture (not exactly the grand adventure she’d dreamed of as a girl), when she was approached by an official from the OSS. He said, “Are you interested in a secret overseas assignment?” She didn’t hesitate: “Yes.”

At the OSS training facility in Bethesda, Maryland, she learned to shoot a .32-caliber pistol. She swore an oath never, under any cost, to reveal OSS secrets. And then she was sent to India. Her mission: to create deadly propaganda by concocting “fake but authentic-sounding rumors, news stories and radio reports to make the enemy citizenry think their troops were losing and that they should give up.” From there, she was sent to China (with fellow spy Julia Child), where she unknowingly participated in a plot to kill Japanese soldiers, delivering a bomb disguised as coal to a Chinese secret agent. She was one of the few women assigned to the OSS division of Morale Operations.

After the war, she went to work for the CIA, authored a memoir and the book Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS. In March of 2012, the 97-year-old was honored as one of the 2012 Virginia Women in History by the Library of Virginia.

In an era when most women were expected to stay at home and tend to the house and the children, these were women ahead of their time. When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, there were 460,000 women in the military and over 6.5 million in civilian war work. In Nazi Germany, Hitler forbade women to work in German weapons factories because he felt that a woman’s place was at home. Seventy years later, we continue to honor the courageous spying women who — thankfully — did not agree with that.

At the recent ceremony for Noor Inayat Khan, Princess Anne said she hoped the new statue will “remind people to ask: Who was she? Why is she here? And what can we achieve in her memory?”

December 19, 2012

A Velva Jean Christmas

When it got toward supper, I went into the kitchen and rolled up my sleeves and started cutting up vegetables for soup. For some reason, it was the only thing I could think to make. There was an actual icebox, not just a springhouse, but the stove was the same– an old comfort stove just like Mama had and just like Ruby Poole had. Granny still used a Dutch oven. I tried not to think of what Granny would be fixing over at home.

Velva Jean Learns to Drive

Minnie Kinsley Justice, better known as Velva Jean’s beloved Granny, is based in part on my great-grandmother Florence Fain. Mama, as the family called her, married my great-granddaddy (they called him Papa) on the North Carolina-Tennessee line just four days after her twentieth birthday.

Afterward, they moved to Murphy, North Carolina, to live on Fain Mountain, named for her family. They raised ten children there when they weren’t following Papa’s blacksmithing work over to Copperhill, Tennessee, or Ducktown, Tennessee, or up to Woodfin near Asheville, North Carolina.

Mama played the auto harp. She loved her children and her husband, even though he was in and out of trouble for most of their married life (he was, after all, descended from outlaws). He called her Bebe. She called him Old Mule. Like Velva Jean’s Granny, Mama was a wonderful cook.

In honor of Christmas and family, tradition and Velva Jean, here is one of Granny’s holiday recipes.

Dried Apple Stack Cake

Cooking time: about 18 minutes

Ingredients:

6 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 cup molasses
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup buttermilk

Preparation:

Sift together flour, soda, baking powder, salt, ginger and cinnamon. Cream the shortening and sugar, then add molasses and mix well. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the vanilla. Add the buttermilk alternately with flour, mixing well. Place the dough on a floured surface. Work in enough flour to make it easy to handle, but not enough to make it stiff. Divide the dough into 9 portions and shape these into balls. Place 1 ball in a greased 9-inch round pan. Press the dough with your hands evenly over the bottom of the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 18 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool slightly before removing from the pan. Continue the same process for each ball of dough. You can use the same pans again, but grease them each time.

Stack the layers with apple filling (below). Store the cake in an airtight container or wrap it well at least over night for the very best flavor and moisture. (The cake freezes well.)

Filling:

1 pound dried apples
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Wash and cook the apples in water until tender. Drain and then mash well, and then mix with sugars and cinnamon.

September 18, 2012

Rumi on my desk

Rumi was named for the Persian poet and mystic, famous for his poems of love, which is very fitting since Rumi the cat is the most loving creature I know. His purr runs all day and night– he doesn’t even turn it off at the vet. He’s been keeping me company at my desk since he was a kitten, and has seen me through every Velva Jean book. So with Becoming Clementine due to come out one week from today, here’s a little tribute to the sweetest literary kitty of all.

June 4, 2012

Velva Jean Goes Online

Velva Jean Hart, heroine of my novels Velva Jean Learns to Drive, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and the upcoming Becoming Clementine (due out September 25), has taught herself to drive and fly, she’s flown as a member of the WASP in World War II, spied for the OSS, and fought with the French Resistance. Now comes her latest adventure: tackling the world of social media.

You can read and follow her style diary, “Lipsticks, Looks & Lifestyles,” on tumblr.

Follow her on twitter for pictures, thoughts, info, videos, book updates, etc.

And like her facebook fan page, where she’s posting everything from family photos to family recipes, songs and maps, as well as info on the women who spy, fly, and drive, WASP and spy-related events, and 1940s beauty tips.

February 15, 2012

Come Fly with Velva Jean and Me!

Novelist John D. MacDonald once said, “If you would be thrilled by watching the galloping advance of a major glacier, you’d be ecstatic watching changes in publishing.”

I’d like to amend that just slightly to say if you would be thrilled by watching the galloping advance of a major glacier, you’d be ecstatic watching a writer working on a book.

Today is one of those days when the work is not terribly exciting, but it’s necessary. There is a lot of this kind of thing going on: researching and locating of film clips for the trailer, scripting the trailer, renewing library research materials, discussing various book matters with my agent, discussing website update plans with my boyfriend (who also happens to be my web programmer/designer), reading and making notes on the Hollywood book.

Because it is one of the less glamorous work days, I thought I would look ahead to next Friday, February 24, when I’ll be stepping away from my desk (!) and leaving the 1940s and all of the above matters behind for a day (!) and heading to San Diego for Adventures by the Book’s Velva Jean Learns to Fly Aviation Adventure.

Please join me! I promise it will be a good deal more exciting than watching glaciers.

January 24, 2012

Behind the Book — Naming a Book

Book titles are tricky. Sometimes they come to you naturally and easily and sometimes (most of the time) they’re more evasive. John Steinbeck said, “I have never been a title man. I don’t give a damn what it is called.” But I do. I think titles are important.

Tennessee Williams said, “The title comes last.” This has, for the most part, been my experience. I spent two years researching and writing The Ice Master before choosing the title, which was suggested by my mother. After my editor and I settled on The Ice Master, we came up with a subtitle: “The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk and the Miraculous Rescue of Her Survivors,” which became simply “The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk” because my editor felt the former was too wordy and gave too much away.

I went through at least fifty titles for my memoir about high school (including the uninspired High School and the more inspired Riding in Trans-Ams with Boys) before my editor– during our brainstorm of 1980’s-related words and phenomena– came up with The Aqua Net Diaries.

In the case of my first novel, Penguin originally wanted to change the name Velva Jean Learns to Drive so that it wouldn’t be confused with a children’s book or a young adult book, but I stood firm and convinced them otherwise. When it came time to choose a title for Velva Jean Learns to Fly, Penguin wanted to change the name to something that could stand alone and didn’t mention Velva Jean (the sales and marketing teams have very good and convincing reasons for this). But I wanted Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and I fought for it.

With this third novel in the Velva Jean series, sales and marketing have again stated their case– more emphatically this time– about leaving Velva Jean out of the title. After all, they argue, she’ll be mentioned in the jacket copy and also on the front cover (which will say: “Author of Velva Jean Learns to Drive“). The few readers I’ve mentioned this to have reacted almost violently– they want Velva Jean’s name in there! I understand this because part of me does to. I like the symmetry of Velva Jean Learns to… But this third time around, I’m ready for a change.

Maybe it’s because I don’t want potential readers to pick up the book and think, “Oh, it’s some series about some girl named Velva Jean, and I haven’t read the first two so I can’t start with this one,” or maybe it’s because I’m, every now and again, feeling the itch to move beyond Velva Jean into new characters and new settings, or maybe it’s because of the nature of this third book– it’s a darker, broader, more epic tale, full of adventure, danger, intrigue, and action (and a grown-up love story!). Or maybe it’s because sales and marketing make a really good case. Whatever the reason, I feel ready for a new title.

The challenge about revealing said title is that, until you read the book, it’s going to be hard to really get its meaning and impact. But then, aren’t so many good titles like that?

E.L. Doctorow said, “You’ll find a title and it’ll have a certain excitement for you; it will evoke the book, it will push you along. Eventually, you will use it up and you will have to choose another title. When you find the one that doesn’t get used up, that’s the title you go with.”

That’s how I feel about this new one. I had a couple of other titles for it at first, but I wore those out. Then my editor suggested one– what ultimately became the final one– and I wasn’t sure at first. I mulled it over, I tried to think of others, I tried living with this one or that one for a day or two. But I kept coming back to the one she suggested. And now I like it. I really do.

So what is the final title for Velva Jean #3? You’ll have to tune in here tomorrow for the reveal…

January 23, 2012

Why I Love Book Clubs

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , , , — jennifer @ 11:41 am

Sometime last April, months before Velva Jean Learns to Fly was published, I received an email from a woman named Linda Newby, a travel agent in Anaheim, California, telling me how much she loved the book. Through a good friend with ties to Penguin, Linda had come across an advanced reading copy (we call them ARCs) of Fly and was particularly drawn to it because she is a private pilot who wanted to fly from a young age.

In August, she wrote me again to tell me about her book club and to ask if I might be able to attend if they chose Velva Jean as one of their reads. I said of course! I talk to book clubs whenever I can– usually, depending on where on this globe the club is located, by conference call– because there is nothing better than meeting readers and hearing an impassioned discussion about characters you’ve created.

On Thursday I pulled myself out of 1946 and took the time to get my hair blown out by an actual professional so I would look presentable and not like a writer deep in the throes of researching and outlining. My boyfriend baked bread and we braved the traffic down to Anaheim, where we spent the most delightful three and a half hours with the most delightful group of women this side of my family. Linda, our host, had decorated her gorgeous home with model airplanes and flying-related knickknacks. Then there was the food! The wine! The crackling fire in the fireplace!

Best of all was the women themselves and the rather heated and in-depth discussion of Learns to Fly. Book clubs are terrific reminders of why it is I do what I do. Even when the ladies were arguing over Butch Dawkins and what he should ultimately mean to Velva Jean– some like him, some don’t like him– it’s a strange, surreal, Christmas-Day-kind-of-feeling to sit and listen to readers discuss so passionately, so enthusiastically, so insightfully characters and a story I’ve created.

After dinner and before dessert, I read the first chapter of the new Velva Jean book to them (her daring and dangerous spy tale, to be released in August). The book is still being edited, so this was the first time sharing it with anyone outside of my editor and my early readers. I fought the urge to mark a few things as I read– little things that I’ll tweak when the copy edits come back to me next week– and instead, I just focused on reading. The book club was a wonderful audience, attentive, appreciative, and warm. Velva Jean and I felt very welcomed.

I left Linda’s house not only feeling energized from the lovely evening and the dynamic, engaging company, but from being part of their discussion. I also left with new insights– not just into Fly but into Velva Jean and all that lies ahead for her. As I move forward on Velva Jean’s next adventure, it makes me look with a kind of renewed clarity at her, at Butch, at Johnny Clay (who inspired a very fluttery and collective group sigh), at others she may interact with, at what she will do and where she will go. And as I settle back in at my desk (as I did Friday, Sunday, today), knowing those readers are out there waiting to see what I’ll come up with makes me gladder than ever to be here.

January 3, 2012

Behind the Book — You Are What You Write

“To give words meaning, you must first know the reality, the thoughts, sensations and experiences that the words stand for.” — Lee Strasberg

People who aren’t writers often assume that you’re only writing when you’re sitting in front of your computer. But, as many writers will tell you, as soon as you start a new project you become immersed, which means you’re writing all the time.

When he isn’t working for IBM (or revising and redesigning my websites), my boyfriend bakes bread. As I watch him in the process I realize how much it has in common with my own writing process. When he’s preparing to bake something he often creates what’s called a starter, which is, essentially, the glue that ties together the bread’s unique flavor and texture. This starter needs to be fed and watered, just like a pet or a person, and each day until it’s time to bake he cultivates it and nurtures it and does everything short of talking to it in order to help it grow. Sometimes the starter fails, and the whole thing has to be tossed out. It’s a very delicate process.

With the holidays, I haven’t spent a lot of time at my desk, but I have been working on the starter for the fourth book in the Velva Jean series. Just before Christmas, I returned the edited manuscript for the third Velva Jean to my editor. That book will come back to me again because there’s still work to be done before its release on August 30. But I also need to write book four, due to my editor by September 15.

Book four is still being researched and formulated and outlined– basically the hunting and gathering stage. This starter phase, in some ways, is the most crucial phase because the idea for the book needs to be able to grow and ferment and take shape. Because it’s not yet formed and solid, the idea is susceptible to neglect, among other things. To grow the starter, I am gradually–happily– immersing myself in 1940’s Hollywood, the time and setting of the story.

When Dustin Hoffman was filming Marathon Man, one of the scenes involved his character staying awake for three nights. Reportedly, Hoffman didn’t sleep for three nights in real life so that the scene would seem more realistic. When he arrived on the set after night three, his co-star, Laurence Olivier, asked him why he looked so haggard. When Hoffman told him what he’d done and why, Olivier said, “Try acting, dear boy…it’s much easier.”

It was Russia’s Constantin Stanislavski who first created the idea of method acting, and actor/director/teacher Lee Strasberg who made it popular in America. The idea behind method acting is simple: you invoke inspiration in order to give the truest performance.

One of two Ming Heavens dogs outside Grauman's Chinese

A friend of mine calls me a method writer. At some point, no matter what I’m writing– a harrowing tale about an early Arctic expedition or a harrowing tale about my 1980’s high school adventures, the story of a young girl’s coming of age in Depression-era Appalachia or the story of a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot in World War II– I start living (to some degree) in that other era, that other world, so much so that it can be jarring to leave the house. When I was writing my first book, The Ice Master, I became so lost in the time period– 1913– and the setting– the polar Arctic– that I actually wrote a check at my grocery store and signed the date “November 12, 1913.” (Even though it was March of 2000.) The deeper you immerse yourself, the harder it is to transition out of it. When I was writing Velva Jean Learns to Fly, my boyfriend and I would walk to Trader Joe’s and it would take me the entire trip there and back before I’d completed the re-entry process.

You become a kind of strange, frightened mole-like creature, creeping out of the world you’re creating to do the everyday errands that have to be done to keep life going, shrinking from the all the noise and too-bright fluorescent lighting and the traffic– so much traffic!– dreaming of the moment you step back inside your office, safe again in the quieter, more idyllic world of another time, another place. Chitchat becomes almost impossible. When I wrote the third Velva Jean, I lived and breathed 1944 occupied France, and all its wartime horrors. Going to dinner with friends could be exhausting because, while everyone else was talking about the movies they’d seen or politics or the latest current events, I sat brooding over the battle for Caen or the decimation at Oradour-sur-Glane like I had just returned from the front lines.

This is how I’m currently method writing: As I drive around Los Angeles, on my way to the hair salon or the gym or the grocery, I listen to big band music from the 40’s. I change my route home so that I can pass by some of the few remaining old Hollywood landmarks, ones that I’ll be writing about and that Velva Jean will be visiting. I keep the television tuned to Turner Classic Movies, and when my boyfriend and I watch a movie at home, we watch ones starring Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Carole Lombard, Gene Tierney.

I always have a stack of books by my bedside, but the present stack is a revolving pile of Hollywood history books, from movie star biographies and autobiographies to histories of studios, the star system, and Los Angeles itself. I’m reading these and keeping them close by not only for research but to keep my mind in that particular place and time. I’ve done this for each and every book, and it not only serves as inspiration, but as protection. Too many things in this world can keep you from sitting at your desk and writing, but by building yourself a kind of portable, specially programmed time machine, you can hopefully create and develop a flow.

Yesterday I drove by the Hollywood YWCA, formerly the Studio Club, where female Hollywood hopefuls roomed and boarded while trying to catch their big break. As I paused on the street outside I didn’t see the girl texting in her car or the homeless man on the corner. I could see instead Marilyn Monroe at the window and Donna Reed at the front door. Passing by nearby Sunset Gower Studios, it was suddenly Columbia Pictures again, home of Rita Hayworth, and I could imagine what it felt like to be twenty-two and walking on that lot for the first time.

As I drove down Hollywood Boulevard, the sun shining through the sun roof, the palm trees swaying, Martha Tilton crooning away on the stereo, for one brief instant the tourists and the motorcycles and the police sirens and the twenty-first century chaos faded away and I had a flash of being Velva Jean. I drove down the block, wearing my red lipstick, the sun beating down on my hair, my arms, and felt full of possibility.

As soon as I got home, I sat down at my desk and wrote up all the ideas I’d had on that short trip. Meanwhile, my boyfriend turned his starter into a wonderful loaf of bread, which we then ate while watching episode three of Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood, followed by William Powell and Myrna Loy in Love Crazy. This was bliss: laptop nearby, ready to take notes, happy and safe once again in my own imagined world, having fun while still feeling productive as the ideas continued to gather, the outline of the story filling in more and more, beginning to take shape.