Tag: Story Ideas

Winter is Coming

Winter is Coming

Okay, I know that line has been taken, but it seems that winter is a theme running through my writing these days. I recently finished a new alternative history mystery novel, (as yet unpublished—still at first reader stage) that arose out of a writing workshop I attended on the Oregon Coast. It is set in what is Kyrgyzstan in our world. Okay, okay. I can hear you now. KYRGYZSTAN? Where the heck is Kyrgyzstan?

Think north of Afghanistan in and around the Tian Shan and Allay mountains.

It’s a small, ex-Soviet Union country—one of the ‘stans’.

My story grew out of an exercise at a Historical, Time Travel, and Alternate History workshop presided over by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, author of such wonderful time travel novels as Snipers. She asked us to take an event out of the wonderful non-fiction book The Great Upheaval, and use that as a jumping off point for an alternate history story. The short story that arose presumes that history diverged way back in the late-1700s at the time of Catherine the Great, or Yekaterina as I call her. It was around the same time as the American and French revolutions when Catherine was the great Tsarina of the Russian people. She was an interesting lady who wasn’t even Russian by birth, but she married the Tsar and then usurped his throne. Like I said, interesting lady.

In her younger years Catherine was tempted by the influence of the great statesmen and philosophers of her day to consider democracy for her people, but eventually decided that it wouldn’t work—for Russian peasants. Instead she went to war against the Ottoman Empire. In our world she won her battles because the Ottoman Empire was waning.

But what if Catherine’s depredations (and they were vicious) woke the Ottomans up? What if the Ottomans found their strength again and took the battle to Catherine and the Russians? The Russians were stretched by conflicts on their northern and southern borders and with Poland.

Because the Ottomans won (in my version of history), it led to a world very unlike this one. It led much sooner to the end of the French Revolution so that Napoleon never became emperor and never ruled. As a result, the French government never supported the fledgling United States in their great democratic experiment, and that led to Great Britain taking over most of North America.

At least in my made-up world.

In the novel that grew out of the short story, a rag-tag group of Russian refugees escaped the Ottoman juggernaut and now live in a small country called Fergana. Fergana lies caught like the gristle in a joint between the two behemoths of the Chinese and Ottoman Empires. In the late fall of a modern day New Moscow a young girl is found dead in a city park. Thus begins my new novel, After Yekaterina. It’s late October and the first snow is threatening as Detektiv Alexander Kazakov stands over her body.

That is how I came up with my latest mystery series. And now, as I start the second novel in the series, the autumn ocean storms are settling in over my home, but in Fergana it is deepest January and the long winter has arrived.

My goodness I like this writing thing.

The Care and Feeding of Birds… and Novels

The Care and Feeding of Birds… and Novels

I put up a new birdfeeder the other day. It’s not the feeder oriented toward small birds like rosy and gold finches or chickadees. This one is solid wood, with a solid tray and a wooden roof that I inherited from my parents’ house. I decided to throw it up on my back deck as a way to get rid of some bird feed that I had had left at my house.

The first day a few little birds fluttered over from my other feeder to try it out. This carried on for a few days, but they clearly preferred my tube feeder with the chopped sunflower seed. I waited anxiously to see whether anyone would like the plain bird seed, peanuts and sunflower seeds in their shells. About three days in suddenly I had a vivid blue visitor—a cocky Stellar Jay. Not long afterwards there was a second—a youngster who kept bugging his mother to feed him even though he was perfectly capable of feeding himself. These two kept the feeder busy, taking turns feeding and teasing my Bengal cats in the process.

Two weeks later the population of Stellar Jays has doubled with four of the forward little fellows coming in to feed. They also take great pleasure in teasing the cats by hopping right up to my sliding screen doors. There are also two or three flickers that come in to feed as well as the usual mix of smaller birds. It’s kitty T.V.

The process of building a population of bird neighbors got me thinking about the care and feeding of novels—mainly because this spring and summer life has kept me from being able to write as much as I would like to. It got me thinking about how the kernel of an idea for a novel is a lot like putting out a birdfeeder.

Writing a novel requires the same faith as putting up that bird feeder, but instead of waiting for the birds, as a writer I’m waiting for the visitations of ideas. When I first put fingers to keyboards to start a new novel, it’s like hanging out the birdfeeder. There are tempting ideas there, there may even be ideas about the characters you intend to include, but the reality is something else. The core of the idea is there, but finding the other ideas that make a novel a novel is another matter altogether. After all, a bird feeder without birds isn’t much of anything at all and a novel without layers of ideas is at most a short story.

In the best of cases, new ideas come as you write. They really do seem to flutter down of their own accord, attracted by your initial idea—some even strut onstage cockily much like a Stellar Jay. The best of them you never see coming, leading to a veritable Eureka moment. The ideas that surprise the writer are my favorite kind and are usually the situations or reversals of fortunes that please readers the most, too. They are the ideas I strive to find in my stories, but in truth I think the ideas find me.

This year my creative process seems to have been dampened by dealing with too many family issues. It feels like my bird feeder is empty. And yet…

I wrote a short story the other day (good or bad, who knows) and I saw a pileated woodpecker for the first time since I moved into this home 18 months ago. My plan for this challenging time is to gradually get back into writing and to blog about the process.

And I will remember my bird feeder metaphor. If I start the novel, the big ideas will come.

Wish me luck.

Inspiration and a new Short Story

Inspiration and a new Short Story

I’m pleased to announce the publication of a romance novella called ‘The Rescue’. The story is based loosely on the fact that I broke my leg in January just like Amanda did in the story. The difference was, I fell on ice, not wet wood and I never had a handsome search and rescue man come and rescue me. Sigh.

I had to walk out.

I hope you enjoy the story. Here is the blurb:

The Rescue, by Karen L. McKee

Amanda Ripper escaped a controlling husband who convinced her that she was weak and an invalid. To convince herself that it wasn’t true, she fills her life with friends and hiking and refuses to become involved with anyone again. Then she falls and breaks her leg, reigniting the specter of her old life. Can a handsome man from search and rescue to give Amanda a chance at life again?

Available on Amazon, Smashwords and Kobo.

Shaping the World – the power of belief.

Shaping the World – the power of belief.

In my last blog I mentioned how in the middle ages religion turned back cartographic knowledge, so that people started to think the world was flat. Heck, maybe it was flat then, given the prevalence of the belief in Europe. Or maybe the Europeans lived on a flat earth while the rest of the world didn’t, but during that time religious maps placed a new world view in the forefront of European’s minds.

Some of the earliest maps, the ‘T-O maps’, from between 500 and 600 A.D. show a very different world than what we consider reality today. They were circular, disk-shaped maps (the O in T-O) that showed a circle of ocean around three continents that also made up a disk within the circle. At the top of the map was Asia that took up most of the top half of the circle. The bottom half was divided into Europe on the left and Africa on the right. Separating these three continents were the Mediterranean Sea (separating Europe and Africa), which was directly connected to the Don River and Nile River, which formed a horizontal margin across the middle of the map separating Asia from Europe and Africa. The confluence of the Mediterranean and the two rivers created the ‘T’ in the T-O map. The three continents were also each labeled and apportioned to the three sons of Noah, namely Shem, Japeth and Ham. The only further detail was the presence of Jerusalem at the heart of the world.

Not a particularly helpful map if you needed to find your way from point A to point B, but what it did was point the way to a different way of viewing the world. Asia was paramount and so was the east, which was also placed at the top. The north sat on the left. Why and what did this mean?

It reflected the belief that paradise lay somewhere off to the east and thus Asia was important.

Other maps of that time period, placed a square of land floating in an Ocean Sea that was filled by the four great rivers of paradise. So, for a while at least, these often beautiful maps were of no help to anyone travelling or exploring. But that wasn’t their intention. These maps were created to shape minds and belief systems, rather than to reflect reality.

Of course people still went on voyages from point A to point B, and  stories from adventures like the ‘mythical’ voyage of Saint Brendan of Ireland, fueled additions to maps for many years. Saint Brendan believed (contrary to the T-O maps), that paradise was an island somewhere in the Atlantic and so he sailed away and returned with tales of great adventures and the discovering of an island of great beauty and fertility that came to be known as Saint Brendan’s Island. Given the way the island changed its placement on maps over the next 1200 years, clearly this was an island with an outboard motor, but as late as 1721, long after the Age of Exploration  and the Renaissance had dawned, the Portuguese were still sending out expeditions to find Saint Brendan’s Island. They never did, and the paradise promised by Saint Brendan faded from the map.

But in my imagination, I wonder if the island really did exist — until someone decided to erase it from the map, sort of like an adult deciding a child is too old to beleive in Santa Claus. Maybe the island’s erasure was the point when Euopean’s grew up in the world. Or not…

Which, I suppose, points to the fact that the human spirit might hold to faith, but it also cannot be contained by the simple boundaries of  a T-O map.

Peruvian time

Peruvian time

Women in the moment of Cusco Parade(2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Women in the moment of Cusco Parade(2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Coming home from another continent affords lots of time to sit in airports and to reflect (as you cross time zones) on the nature of time, and timing, and how we experience it. Coming from North America we are so driven by the clock – to be punctual, to punch the clock, and to resent those who don’t bow to the ticking moments in the same way the rest of us do. I speak from experience. I lost a very good friend because she refused to honor my time as I honored hers. She always kept me waiting for at least an hour every time I was to meet her for a social engagement and when I pressed her on the issue she decided my friendship wasn’t worth trying to change her time sense. So we parted ways.

In Peru I ran into a similar phenomena. There I was, sitting in the train station at Aguas Caliente, going home from Machu Picchu, and the train before mine arrived. They called the train’s arrival. They called boarding and the foreign tourists crowded around to load. They called last call and a few Peruvians came running. They called last call again (I guess they didn’t mean it the first time). More Peruvians came running. They called last call again and an entire tour group (Peruvian) came trotting up. They closed the gate and announced the train was leaving.

Time worn ripples in the stone of Sacsaywaman (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Time worn ripples in the stone of Sacsaywaman (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

About 5 minutes later another entire Peruvian tour group arrived and were a tad put out that the train had left without them.

I watched this and put the phenomena down to this being a tourist train and Peruvian tourists, but then I had to catch a plane to get from Cusco to Lima. There, I was, sitting in the departure lounge as LAN airlines boarded a flight. They announce last call. A couple of people come running. They announce last call again, and a few more people come. They announce that they were closing the gate and a western tourist who had been guarding the belongings of a Peruvian friend, finally tossed the friend’s belongings to the gate crew and boarded. His friend eventually showed up and was choked that the plane wasn’t waiting for her. They announced last call again and at that point – after Airport staff had been walking around for at least ten minutes paging missing passengers (by name) – someone pointed out to a group of businessmen in the waiting area that they were supposed to be on that plane. They dashed off, madly. So after about 4 last calls, personal pages and various and sundry announcements the gate was finally locked and the plane took off, but the whole thing got me thinking.

Village near Ollantaytambo (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Village near Ollantaytambo (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

What was it about Peruvians? Did they just not pay attention? Was the whole world to wait for them? Did they just not care that they were holding up an entire airport? Was there something called ‘Peruvian time’?

While waiting for another flight (this time in Canada), I had the chance to chat with a Peruvian woman who has lived in North America a long time. I ran my story past her and she laughed and said that the Peruvian psyche is not so Machiavellian. Instead the reason those passengers missed their trains and almost their planes was more likely because Peruvians are more ‘in the moment’. When they engage with friends they are totally ‘present’, and so they miss little things like the announcement for a train or last call for a plane. She told me that when friends get together for dinner they had best plan for people to arrive two hours late.

Which is interesting for a writer, because, from personal experience, our sense of timing is such a rich source of conflict.

Peruvian mountain woman (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Peruvian mountain woman (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

And now I’ve come home to Canada to find my mother in the hospital from a stroke and my family playing a waiting game. No longer is our focus on punctuality. Now we live in the moment and keep hoping for a few moments more – Peruvian time. Let the world pass us by for a long, long time.

The masses at the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
The masses at the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Wiggle Room – the Chinese army and finding the time for a creative life

Wiggle Room – the Chinese army and finding the time for a creative life

I’ve heard it said that if you want something done, ask the busiest person you know and they will accomplish it. Somehow these people have the ability to stretch a little more out of a minute or hour to get the conference planned, or the new report written. These people amaze me. Actually, I think they intimidate the heck out of me, because I am constantly finding myself scrambling trying to get things done and regretting my inability to say ‘no’ to new work. Of course, too much work impacts my ability to find time for my writing.

How do these people do it? Do they really have the magical ability to expand time?

Yak at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Yak at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Of course the answer is ‘no’ (at least I don’t think too many of us have Hermoine’s magic watch), but these people have tricks that help them get things done. I figure I must have a few as well as I am frequently being asked where I find the time to write, or travel , or blog.

The first thing one must do is decide if writing or travel is something you really want to do. For me, there were years of frustration about finding the time to write and the time to market my writing until a friend and mentor made the suggestion that I treat myself as a one of my clients. You see, I work for myself as a consultant and I schedule my time based on the work a client has asked me to do. The suggestion was helpful to me because it did two things:

1. It got me to schedule time;

2. It legitimized my writing and got me to take it as seriously as I take my paying work.

The first of these points speaks to organization, a key point if you are trying to fit writing into your life. Along with organizing your life to allow writing time, you must obtain the buy-in from significant others like spouses and friends – otherwise expect writing time to be a constant source of relationship friction.

The second of these points is probably the most important. Taking my writing seriously gave me permission to make it a priority to write. I can’t tell you how many people I know who say they want to write a book or are working on a book and yet they never sit down to write. The first job of a writer is to write – not to talk about it. Not even to blog about it. But to write. Bum in chair folks, and no matter what else is going on in my life, I always find time to be there.

You have to decide the writing/travel/whatever is a priority because it will hurt you more not to do the activity, than to do it.

I’ve also had people tell me that part of their trouble is the challenge of moving from creative to mundane (e.g. work) projects and back again. This is an issue of multitasking. So how do people manage this shift from project to project?

I know people who work on two or three novel projects at the same time. I admire them greatly, but I don’t think I can do it. These folk can literally be writing one manuscript in the morning and another at night. For some it’s a matter of compartmentalizing their writing, so writing a certain type of book is associated with a certain time of day. I suppose I do something similar when I get up early in the morning and write creatively, and then turn to my work computer at eight a.m.

Having separate computers can help, as well. Having one computer for work and one that is strictly for creative endeavors allows your brain to associate a certain place with a certain type of thinking. Keeping your creative space separate from the internet has also helped some writers, and definitely removing all games from the creative computer. For me, I have to keep my photography on a separate computer because that is a time sink I frequently get stuck in, because it also feeds my creativity.

Other issues fledgling writers run into include knowing what to write and just getting started. I’ve talked previously about inspiration, but sometimes it’s just the fear of getting started. There are wonderful books out there that can help. I fondly recall Natalie Goldberg’s Wildmind, and the wonderful book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Both helped me explore my voice and passions and taught me that my voice was valid. Books can teach you how to deal with the anxiety of starting through cleansing breaths, or meditation . Each writer has to find their own way to deal with the critics in their heads.

I’m reminded of a mantra Kris Rusch and Dean Smith put up at every workshop: DARE TO BE BAD. What this means is that all creativity (and travel, and just plain living, for that matter) is about taking a risk. We have to throw ourselves out there and only by taking those chances will something wonderful arise.

I’m reminded of one of my adventures: In China my travel companion and I decided to visit a remote area called Qinghai Lake. This is a wind-blown steppe in the mountains that has a huge lake that supports the massive migrations of waterfowl from Siberia to South Asia. So we hopped a local bus and travelled up into the mountains and were dumped off in a small group of buildings that were reminiscent of an old west town except there were no horses around, only yaks and monks.

Monks at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Monks at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

So we ventured out to the lake on foot (not an easy hike, because the lake was distant and the wind was high and scoured us constantly with dust). We were met by Tibetan women bringing their children to see Westerners. (I scared the children because I have blue eyes and apparently that’s not a good thing.) We saw massive stone cairns, strings of prayer flags, and wonderful kids who showed off by riding yaks to guard their herds and, in the distance, blue Qinghai Lake. I ended up going back to our room alone and was just washing the dust out of my pores when someone pounded on the door.


They barged in on me as I stood there dripping. I was shocked, to say the least, and my first reaction was to shoo them right out of the room again and bar the door. It worked. I stood there, heart pounding. Through the door I heard them whispering and laughing. And they went away.

Which proved to me, that if I could deal with the Chinese Army, I could deal with most anything – including anything that dares get in the way of my writing.

You’re Going Where?

You’re Going Where?

Okay, so I’m going to Peru. I’m going to follow the Gringo Loop and hike the Inca Trail all the way to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu

 Or at least that’s the plan. If food poisoning and altitude sickness don’t get me first.

But then neither of them has ever stopped me before. You see, I like to travel. I like to travel just as much as I like to write fiction and so I thought I’d combine my two passions in a blog as I get ready for the trip and as I hike (uphill both ways) to Machu Picchu.

A lot of people ask me how I decide where I want to go. Yes, I’ve been to ‘normal places’ in Europe, but mostly I travel a bit off the beaten path. I’ve traveled through East and West Africa by truck. I’ve spent three months in northern India travelling by train, bus, jeep and, dare I say, camel.  I spent two months travelling the Silk Road through China and made side journeys to the Tibetan highlands. I’ve travelled in Egypt, Burma, and Cambodia and lived in Thailand. A good friend described my travel as going to all the weird places in the world. Of course he followed it up with the question “Why don’t you go someplace normal? Like Palm Springs? Like Florida?”

Answering that question is a lot like answering a best-selling author who, when I told her I was writing a suspense novel with romantic overtones set in Afghanistan,  asked to me why in god’s name I would write something like that.

The answer?

Why not?

Besides, it was something I was interested in. It was something far away and foreign that I wanted to understand. That inspiration became Ashes and Light, it was just after the invasion of Afghanistan and I wanted to understand what was happening in that country. I’d enjoyed Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, but I wanted to write something that was more mainstream, that would reach into the hearts of readers who wouldn’t read The Kite Runner and provide them with insights that might explain – even a little bit – the misunderstandings that were brewing between Islam and the rest of the world. My travels to northwest India and far western China—areas that enjoy similarities of people, religion, culture and landscape with Afghanistan—all helped me with the book.

While the Afghan story arose from a cerebral process, sometimes the idea for a story or destination arises from something far simpler. Sometimes it’s another traveler’s tale. Sometimes it’s a photo. In the case of Peru, it was two postcards: One was a framed postcard in my doctor’s office of a traditionally dressed Peruvian girl peeking out from behind a brightly striped blanket. There was something so fresh and lovely in her face that it made me want to meet people like her. The other post card was of Machu Picchu and was from my parents who were on a world cruise. Unfortunately, they couldn’t visit the ancient Inca site because they are 83 years old and if the altitude sickness didn’t get them, the uneven ground would have. 

So part of my reason for going to Peru is to bring the feel of Peru back to my folks. And that’s what I see travel as being—one part inspiration, one part imagination, and a whole lot of hard work and a magnificent gift—when it works. A lot like writing a book.

So I leave for Peru on March 25, 2011. Come on along, if you like, and I’ll try to get us through without the food poisoning and altitude sickness.

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