I Do Declare: a total of ten hours by train and six hours by car to tell someone you don’t know that she’s a blessing is not too much

I’m just back from a quick weekend trip to the beach. Our party of six did a five-hour ride on Amtrak to Rocky Mount, NC, then rented a car for a three-hour drive over to the Outer Banks.

A beach trip like that might seem a bit of overkill, considering all six of us live in Charleston, where a trip to the beach is measured in minutes instead of hours and doesn’t involve anyone yelling “All Aboard!” (unless you want to, of course).

But it’s the journey, not the destination, as they say.

It’s also the insights that you pick up along the way. Insights you’d never pick up at home. Like the one that hit me after I returned the rental car.

After a few days in Nags Head – by which I mean dangerously strong surf, biting winds, and fabulous food that made up for the less-than-welcome beach – we did the return trip: three hours by car, then I dropped everyone at the Amtrak station and went to Enterprise to drop off the rental and call for a taxi to take me back to the station. (Yes, Enterprise does provide free shuttle, but not during after-hours, which it was at this point on Sunday.)

The taxi service said they’d send someone but weren’t sure when the person would get there. Hopefully soon, might be forty-five minutes, could be an hour or more. I started thinking up contingencies in case I didn’t make the train. Because I’m a professional worrier (and pretty good at it), this was a serious concern, and I launched into full-on fretting mode.

But then – surprise! – the taxi pulled up about two minutes after I parked. I was so grateful that I jumped in and said to the woman, “Thank you so much!”

She didn’t say anything. Nor did she talk on the way to the train station. I could see her eyes in the mirror. Tired, sad, a little apathetic.

When we pulled up to the station, I said, “You were such a blessing to me today.”

The woman shrugged and mumbled something like, “Uh.”

The fee was 9.65. I gave her a twenty.

She groaned and said, “I only have ones to give you.”

I said, “No, keep the change.”

She just looked at me dumbfounded, so I said it again: “I mean it. You were a blessing to me today, and I appreciate how quickly you got there. Thank you.”

I got out of the car and went into the station. A quick glance back. She was still staring at me, confused.

That was an interesting encounter. I thought about it on the way home. I fell asleep thinking about it. And I woke up this morning with an insight.

You see, I don’t think it was my double-paying the taxi fee that puzzled her.

Maybe she didn’t hear “thank you” or “I appreciate you” very much and wasn’t sure how to respond. (I’m guessing that when it came to paying the fee, riders usually only said something about the high price, if they said anything at all.)

Maybe she wasn’t used to being called a blessing.

And sure, maybe I’m over-thinking the encounter (I’m as skilled at over-thinking as I am at worrying), but when you get an insight, you might as well entertain it for a while.

I don’t think it was an accident that I ended up in her taxi. I think it was part of the journey-not-destination that she and I are both on, where we gain valuable insights in the most unlikely of places and use them to grow: For me, it’s seeing blessings instead of worrying and fretting; for her, maybe it’s believing that blessings are real and, in fact, sometimes come in the form of her.

I can’t help hoping and praying that the woman also thought about our conversation. I wouldn’t even mind if she was irritated or rolled her eyes when she thought about it.

I just hope she heard the truth: “You were a blessing to me today.”

I hope it gets stuck in her head and echoes every day.

I hope it takes root and grows.

I hope it becomes part of her self-talk.

I Do Declare: The U.S. Navy could use a dose of my dad’s humor on its 245th birthday

The following is an excerpt from a book I wrote with my dad. The full title (shown in the image to the left) is, “If You Can’t Pay Attention, Take Notes: A Navy Brat Reflects on Brathood, the First Line of Defense, and Why You Don’t Wash the Chief’s Coffee Cups.”

That title almost constitutes a whole chapter by itself. Dad would have approved.

Dad loved the Navy. He was a natural storyteller, and sea stories were his favorites. He retired as Chief Radioman in 1978, and he died in 2017. A lot of sea stories were told between those years.

Here’s one of them:

~ ~ ~

My dad always had a way with vehicles. A magic touch, you might say. And it wasn’t just a matter of making it run smoothly; his ability to acquire vehicles for little or nothing was an art.

Take that time he found a jeep in perfect running condition. Not bought, not borrowed: found. And then he got to keep it, courtesy of the U.S. Army. It might have been his best auto purchase, considering there was no purchase at all.

But I’ll let him tell the story his way:

I had been transferred from the main communications centers to the harbor entrance control post. That post controlled all the shipping and boats, including fishing boats, in and out of the harbor of Da Nang.

Transportation from our barracks to the post was “iffy” most of the time. The buses were usually broken down or if they worked, then they couldn’t find a driver. We ended up walking the three miles almost every day.

After I’d been there about three months, I found a jeep.

I was walking to work with Bill, a guy who worked in Operations. Same building where I worked, down the hall from my office. We stood watch together a lot, so we usually made the trip to the post together.

This one day, we were walking along, and as we rounded a corner, we saw an Army jeep on the side of the road.

We thought it was odd. Here’s this jeep out in the middle of nowhere, just sitting there. Bill and I walked around it and looked it over good just in case it was booby-trapped. We didn’t find anything, so we got in and hit the starter. What luck – it cranked right up!

We didn’t know why anyone had abandoned the jeep, but we were going to take advantage of the free ride.

Then we went about two feet and realized why it was just sitting there abandoned. The tie rod had come loose, and the front wheels were headed in different directions.

Good thing we had left the barracks early that morning – since it looked like the bus wasn’t going to make it again – because we had time to run back and get some bailing wire to tie up the rods. We did, and we fixed it up.

But then Bill and I got to thinking. The Army might be coming back for it, possibly with their motor pool – or worse, with armed guards – and it wouldn’t do for us to have it in our possession. So instead of driving off with it, we left it there.

When we got off work the next morning, we saw it was still there. Now most of us in the Navy didn’t have a terribly high opinion of the Army, but we knew that even they wouldn’t take twenty-four hours to fix a jeep. So we drove it back to the barracks. We figured they’d come looking for it and we’d let them know we fixed it.

They never did, though. We drove it back and forth for several days until it finally ran low on fuel.

We took it over to the Navy fuel depot. A supply clerk filled it up and noticed that it was an Army jeep, not one of ours.

I started to pay for it, but the fellow said he’d charge it to the Army.

“No, that’s all right,” I told him. “I’ll pay for it.”

“Nope. It’s the Army’s jeep. They’ll pay.”

What the heck, I let ’em pay. Who am I to argue with military protocol?

So we kept driving it. Then about a month later, Bill took it into town. He stopped in at the club, had a few drinks, and ended up staying out past curfew. The MPs arrested him, and he called me for help.

By this time, he was in deeper trouble than just staying out past curfew. He was a sailor driving an Army jeep with no papers, and no one believed his story about finding it on the side of the road and fixing it.

I caught a ride over there after my watch was over, and I explained everything to the provost marshal.

At first the provost marshal didn’t believe me either, especially when he found out I was a radioman. Not that a radioman can’t know how to work on cars, but this man just wasn’t buying the story.

I told him all about my background working on cars and all, and he finally took my word for it. But he was still fit to be tied.

Turns out the jeep had already been marked as transferred stateside and taken out of their inventory. It would create a lot of paperwork and probably start an investigation if they acknowledged that it was still in Vietnam.

He sat there, his face getting redder and redder, and he glared at both of us. Finally, he passed sentence.

“Just keep it!” he said. “But don’t tell anyone around here where you got it.”

We agreed. He closed the case. Then he had his motor pool fix the front end for us.

And we had free gas for the rest of our tour. All we had to do was pull up to the depot and tell them to charge it to the Army.

~ ~ ~

Want to read more? You can find it here.

I Do Declare: The bots are connecting some weird dots on my job searches

The artificial intelligence (AI) bots are mucking up my job search and, I suspect, trying to mess with my head. True story.

Like many these days, I have turned job searching into a primary activity, and the job posting sites have became acutely aware of this. Lists of companies looking for someone like me land in my inbox all the time. And I do mean All.The.Time.

That’s not the problem. The problem is that the specific jobs included in the listings are getting more and more … how shall we say? … outside of my wheelhouse. And by that, I mean sometimes the job post and I are not even on the same boat, nor indeed even on the same planet.

I’m a writer/editor. I work with words. The job market for me is not hard to understand. Content manager, copywriter, copyeditor, technical writer, proposal manager, reporter, grants writer: These are the types of job postings I expect when I open the email.

But not long ago, along with writer/editor jobs I started to get job postings like the following, which I am not making up:

  • Home Care Aide
  • Paint Shop Manufacturing Engineer
  • Border Patrol Agent
  • PT Night Trash Collector
  • Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Restaurant Biscuit Maker
  • Naval Aviator

Now, these are fine jobs. But trust me when I say there is nothing on my resume that would point to my being qualified for any of them.

Unless Monster, Indeed, Glassdoor, LinkedIn, et.al., were just throwing things out randomly to see what would stick, I figured there had to be a broken algorithm somewhere. I bent thought on how to fix it.

Earlier in my career I did a bit of programming and database work. One thing I learned is that when you’re troubleshooting a database because it has – and please forgive the jargon here – gone all wonky, it helps to start with a simple question:

What does the database think I’m asking it to do?

That often helped me track down the error and fix the code. I tried applying that logic here.

Q: What do these job sites think I’m looking for?

A: Uh…haha…no clue.

And then I gained some insights into this mystery when I came across the new docudrama “The Social Dilemma.” If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend. It’s up on Netflix, which gives this description: “This documentary-drama hybrid explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.”

I found it both eye-opening and chilling. But I also think it explained a lot, especially when I learned just how much the AI bots were tracking my online movements and storing them as data.

Sure, I had an inkling this was going on, what with having a conversation – in the presence of my smart phone or smart TV – that I was thinking about going to Home Depot and then :::BOOM::: a Home Depot ad pops into my Facebook feed within minutes.

That can be a bit unnerving, depending on the details of the conversation and how much of a smarty-pants the smart devices are, but overall, I get it. The closer you target, the more likely you can close a deal, which means you need to gather data so you can zero in and hit the target. Sure, fine.

Except that these AI bots – at least according to this film – are measuring everything: the people I’m friends with, the lists I follow, the videos I watch, how long I stay on a certain site before scrolling to something else, my Google searches. And then they use these bits of data to come to conclusions about me, which might be wildly off-base.

Take the time I spend on a site, for instance. That’s easily explained. If I pause for an unusual amount of time it’s probably because I stumbled across a bizarre political story and I’m shaking my head in disbelief, whispering “What The What…?”

My Google searches, though. This might be where it starts to go off-rail, because connecting those dots would draw a totally different picture.

You see, I write historical novels. These often require some digging, hence the occasional online searches that can be … well, let’s just call them a bit odd.

For example, when I was writing my book “Turning August,” which is set in Germany during World War II, I needed to find out a wide range of details, such as the euthanasia program, how fast one could travel from Munich to Berlin in a 1940s vehicle, images of members of the Resistance movement, and which French cities were bombed first.

For the cover photo shoot, I ordered a vintage 1940s needle/syringe and an authentic Wehrmarcht uniform on eBay. (I worried what my credit card company thought of me and wanted to send them a note of explanation: “Don’t judge me! These are just photo props!”)

My current work-in-progress is set in the Renaissance period. Thanks to Google, I can tell you where Cordoba is located, when Isabella and Ferdinand took over Alhambra, what happened when Columbus sent his brother to talk to Henry VII about funding his trip to the new world, how long it takes to sail from Marseille to the Port of Palos, exactly how fast a peregrine falcon can fly, and the French word for balcony.

Given my overactive online researching, I really shouldn’t wonder that the AI bots are confused about my capabilities and interests. Though I am curious to see what pops up next. Sword-carving apprentice? Lady-in-waiting? Falcon trainer?

After being invited to apply for Border Patrol, FBI Special Agent, and Naval Aviator, I’m up for anything.

Even making biscuits.

~ ~ ~

Update: Moments after I posted this, another email dropped in with new jobs, including this one:

  • Firearms Instructor for the Department of Homeland Security

Seriously, bots, you’re starting to worry me.

I Do Declare: The Autumnal Equinox is upon us and it’s time to turn, turn, turn

As soon as the calendar says it’s September, I start getting impatient for autumn.

When we close the books on August, effectively saying “seeeee-yaaa” to summer, what’s needed right then is a celebratory moment (especially as 9/1 is my unofficial new year).

Why wait? What else is there to do but bring out the pumpkins and winter scarves and apple cider?

Yes, autumn is my favorite, but there’s something elegant and serene about the changing of all the seasons.

Unlike calendar months, with their brusque starts and ends (Not ready for October? Too bad, it’s here.), seasons get eased into.

Introspection and meditation abound. Journal books get filled with thoughts of what has passed and hopes of what will come.

The chill of winter thaws before a flourishing spring that lounges its way through summer until it gears up for the autumn harvest, which gives way to the chill of winter … and so on.

And each season has its own distinct personality. The poets and writers have always known this and have metaphored* the heck out of them. (*Grammarcat will forgive me for verbing “metaphor.”)

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York. (Shakespeare, from “King Richard III”)

In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. (Alfred Lord Tennyson, from “Locksley Hall”)

Summertime and the living is easy. (George Gershwin, from “Porgy and Bess”)

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
(Shakespeare, from “Sonnet 18”)

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower. (Albert Camus)

Trivia time: equinox and solstice

The seasons are also known by their equinox or solstice status.

The equinox (from the Latin meaning “equality of day or night”) occurs twice a year, at the onset of spring and autumn. In each case, the sun crosses the equator and makes daytime and nighttime roughly equal. The spring equinox (or vernal equinox) occurs around March 21, and the autumnal equinox (or September equinox) occurs around September 22 or 23.

The solstice (from the Latin solstitium, made up of sol – “the sun” – and sistere – “to make stand still”) represents the exact moment when the sun reaches its northernmost point (June 21, the summer solstice and the longest day of the year) or southernmost point (December 22, the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year).

Another turn around the sun

Besides their Latin language background and an opportunity for contemplation, the changing of the seasons also serves as reminders – primarily that life is cyclical.

The reminders are inherent, like the air we breathe. To acknowledge or study or attempt to control them, we must draw attention to them. And in doing so, we see that their truths are eternal:

  • That time is fleeting – and increasing in speed. The days stretch out, weeks drag on, months take forever. Finally a year has passed. Then you notice that today is the first day of autumn, except that yesterday summer was starting and a week earlier than that you were heralding the start of spring and that was practically minutes before you felt the first nips of winter. If nothing else, the changing of the seasons reminds us that time moves on – but it does not stop.
  • That this too shall pass. Or as it happens in some years (2020 especially), these too shall pass. As mentioned above, time does move on. And there are times when we are so glad that it does. We all have moments – well, more like days, weeks, months – when we’ve been pushed to the limit. The seasons remind us that often things happen only for a season and that in time, things will change. Thank goodness!
  • That there’s a season for everything. Sometimes no matter what you do, you can’t make it work. Then later, without much effort, the whole thing comes to fruition. What was that about? Just this: Things happen in their season. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 goes into this in great detail. So does the 60s band, The Byrds, with their hit, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Whichever version you choose, it’s really the same message. When it’s time, it’ll happen.

Tomorrow is the first day of autumn. The Autumnal Equinox. A nip in the air. Time for bonfires and oyster roasts and hot chocolate.

I’m ready.

I Do Declare: A good historical work is better than a DeLorean

Did I mention that I love this guy?

I am about to take a trip back in time.

My favorite historical novelist, Ken Follett, has a new book out tomorrow – The Evening and the Morning – and I will be at Barnes & Noble when the doors open so I can purchase it, after which I will be immersed in Medieval England until I turn the last page.

In my opinion, Follett is the perfect storyteller. He has a way of weaving a tapestry of time and place that incorporates all your senses and keeps you on the edge of your seat with anticipation, even if you’re an expert in that period of history and know what’s coming.

I fell under Follett’s spell long ago with The Eye of the Needle, a spy thriller involving a German spy in 1940s England. The book stirred in me a passion for World War II that led (years later) to my writing a historical novel about the German resistance.

Follett also created the world of Kingsbridge and its marvelous cathedral in The Pillars of the Earth and the sequels, World Without End and A Column of Fire, and I was so invested in the stories that I feel like a resident of the town revisiting with each book. His latest book is the prequel to these stories, and I can’t wait to see the origins of “my town.”

There are many other historical novelists who are just as gifted – Herman Wouk immediately comes to mind, as does Anton Myrer (more about both of them in a future post) – but Follett is my favorite.

And it’s not just books. I feel the same about period TV shows and movies that are done well. It’s fascinating how a good historical movie or TV show or book can transform me to a different period and hold me in thrall.

That may sound peculiar, but when it comes to entertainment, in both cinema and literature, I have two great loves: history and time-travel.

Though they’re two sides of the same coin, really.

As much as I love historicals, I adore time travel stories, especially in cinematic form. Whether it’s a fun frolic (Back to the Futureand by that I mean I, II, and III, because they have to be taken as a whole) or a serious narrative (The Final Countdown) or a bizarre travel-industry-turned-dystopia (Thrill Seekers) or a zany yarn (Midnight in Paris) or hundreds of other stories.

TV too. The madcap antics of Quantum Leap or the juvenile capers of Voyagers kept me glued to the set every week.

Does it come as any surprise that the time travel episodes of Star Trek were my favorite? (Apparently I’m not alone. They gathered all those episodes and sold them in one boxed set.)

I don’t even mind the plot holes or conundrums. How did Gil get back to his own time? Why didn’t the time gadget get damaged when Phineas and Jeffrey fell into the next time? Why didn’t Doc and Marty use the undamaged car (which still had gas) that was buried in the cave?

Who cares? If you have people slipping into a different era, I’m there.

I can hand-wave inconsistencies away because it’s all about transporting to another time. Living inside history. Seeing it firsthand.

Which is where I’ll be tomorrow. As soon as Barnes & Noble opens.

I Do Declare: Such trying times call for updated nursery rhymes

Architectural rendering of the house Jack was trying to build provided by E.G. Summers.

On this Labor Day, let’s remember that during the shutdown a lot of people continued to work and, in doing so, kept things a little bit closer to even-keel for all of us.

With that in mind, here’s a 2020 remake of the nursery rhyme “The House that Jack Built”:

~ ~ ~

This is the house Jack was trying to build during Covid.

This is the tech in the County permit office
who processed the forms (while working remote)
for the house Jack was trying to build during Covid.

This is the man from the ISP company,
who repaired the malfunctioning cable lines,
so the tech in the County permit office
could process the forms (while working remote)
for the house Jack was trying to build during Covid.

This is the all-night gas station clerk, who tended the pumps
so the fuel was all set to fill up the truck
for the man from the ISP company,
who repaired the malfunctioning cable lines,
so the tech in the County permit office
could process the forms (while working remote)
for the house Jack was trying to build during Covid.

This is the deli, where brown-bag lunch and dinner were bought by the
all-night gas station clerk, who tended the pumps
so the fuel was all set to fill up the truck
for the man from the ISP company,
who repaired the malfunctioning cable lines,
so the tech in the County permit office
could process the forms (while working remote)
for the house Jack was trying to build during Covid.

This is the cook who burned her hand as she worked at the deli,
where brown-bag lunch and dinner were bought by the
all-night gas station clerk, who tended the pumps
so the fuel was all set to fill up the truck
for the man from the ISP company,
who repaired the malfunctioning cable lines,
so the tech in the County permit office
could process the forms (while working remote)
for the house Jack was trying to build during Covid.

This is the nurse in ER who took care of the cook
who burned her hand as she worked at the deli,
where brown-bag lunch and dinner were bought by the
all-night gas station clerk, who tended the pumps
so the fuel was all set to fill up the truck
for the man from the ISP company,
who repaired the malfunctioning cable lines,
so the tech in the County permit office
could process the forms (while working remote)
for the house Jack was trying to build during Covid.

These are the plans of the house being built
for the nurse in ER who took care of the cook
who burned her hand as she worked at the deli,
where brown-bag lunch and dinner were bought by the
all-night gas station clerk, who tended the pumps
so the fuel was all set to fill up the truck
for the man from the ISP company,
who repaired the malfunctioning cable lines,
so the tech in the County permit office
could process the forms (while working remote)
for the house Jack was trying to build during Covid.

I Do Declare: New Year’s Eve needs to happen more often because I have resolutions to make

I love New Year’s Eve. All that freshness and newness and potential of it all. You get to put away the old year – and won’t we be so happy to do that to this year? – and embrace the new year.

You can throw your arms around the upcoming 12 months and start afresh. The new year is like a big, wrapped box waiting to be opened. It holds a glimmer of excitement, a whisper of something better to come. Possibilities. A shiny new world is tucked inside that word.

Here at the last day of August, this is my New Year’s Eve.

I’ve always felt that September is when the new year happens. School starts. After the lazy meandering of summer, September brings routine and structure. And office supplies! Packs of paper, sticky notes, new notebooks, freshly sharpened pencils, pens in a variety of colors.

It’s a checklist time of year – my idea of heaven – which means things are getting real. Only X number of days until Halloween, until Thanksgiving, until Christmas. No time to waste. To-do lists abound.

So tonight is my New Year’s Eve. Setting resolutions, dining on steak and lobster, popping a bottle of champagne, setting off fireworks at midnight. Just kidding. I won’t go that far. Supper will be the usual fare and fireworks will not be happening (no sense in alarming the neighbors, who might not understand my moving NYE around on the calendar).

But there will be resolutions. And bubbly, probably.

Resolutions are the best part of New Year’s Eve. Intention takes center stage. Resolutions are the great do-over, and for one night at least, you get to feel like a master planner.

Most standard resolutions are about taking better care of yourself or improving yourself in some way:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Eat healthier.
  • Exercise more.
  • Get organized.
  • Save money.

Writer resolutions are different. Sure, we could apply the list above and see some progress and be better people for it, but we writers tend to have a different focus. And a different focus begets different goals.

Here are some resolutions I’ve made in the past. Feel free to adopt for your use.

  • Get organized. By which I mean meet those deadlines – even those that are self-imposed – and remember that you’re on the clock. Yes, it’s your clock, but that doesn’t mean you can fritter away your time. People are waiting to read your work. Getting organized also means avoiding rabbit holes, or at least knowing how to jump back up out of them quickly. When you need to do some research, set a timer. When it dings, close out Google.
  • Feed yourself. Not just your body but your mind. Nourish your thoughts with prose and poetry. If you’re a screenwriter, read as many scripts as you can. If you’re a novelist, dig into books. Read everything you can get your hands on, good or bad. (Yes, the bad too. You need to be able to spot bad writing so you can do better.)
  • Seek peace with your enemies – but make use of the anger. Of course it’s important to let bygones be bygones and forgive those who’ve wronged you. But while you’re working on your peacemaking skills, why not pour all those feelings into your work-in-progress? Give one or more of your characters the same traits as your foes and have at it. Here’s your chance to blast them into next week. (p.s. I’d advise against giving your characters the same names as your real-life foes. You don’t want to spend your future royalties in legal battles over libel.)
  • Use dysfunction to your advantage. Got weird relatives? Of course you do. (Who doesn’t?) Great! You’ve got a ready-made cast of characters. Pull some of that craziness into your work-in-progress. Remember: Normal is  boring. Nobody wants to read about normal. Mentally re-label your family gatherings “Dysfunction Junction” and get on that train. If you’re in therapy, take copious notes. Ask questions like, “What if I didn’t work on these issues? What would that lead to?”
  • Connect with others. Unless you’re collaborating with a cowriter, writing can be a solitary endeavor. It’s important to avert the isolation that comes with it. Get out and about. Do lunch with a friend. At a bare minimum, go walk around a mall or museum or park and be a people-watcher. Observe how they move and what they’re wearing and how they talk. Listen in on their conversations if you can. You need these details for your work.

These resolutions may be a bit on the atypical side, but they’re doable – and you’re more likely to keep at it than a gym membership.

Now I need to set the timer and go look up the words to “Auld Lang Syne.”

Happy New Year!

I Do Declare: The most important question in novel writing is “What if?”

Ever get stuck when you’re in the middle of writing your novel? Or chase the beginning like a merry-go-round you’re not sure how to jump on? Or have entire construction crews go on strike when you’re world-building?

Yeah, same here.

I’ve found the best way to break free of all that and get on with the business of actually writing the book is to pose one basic question:

What if?

Those two words have power. They can unlock a sticky plot or generate nuance or establish the entire universe of your work – if you take time to answer the question honestly.

Example: See this photo of an alley? It looks interesting, maybe a little mysterious. Something about the curve at the end is intriguing.

And then I get started with what if.

What if this alley was built in the late 1700s and there have been stories around town about it being haunted? And what if several people – at least a dozen since 1970 – have disappeared walking down it? And what if a reporter starting investigating the disappearances and experienced a time-slip of his own? What if he ran into a guy who looked like a pirate and at first he thought the guy was dressed up to be in a play but something about him looked different. And what if the reporter saw the guy vanish right in front of him? And then what if he went back to tell his editor about it and the editor killed the story and then the reporter found out that the editor’s first wife was one of those who disappeared?

See? A few what-ifs and I’m already into the story.

It may seem basic (it actually is … that’s the beauty of it), but sometimes the rudimentary tools are what you need to get the work done. This elementary device has several benefits:

  • What if gives your imagination permission to play. Asking what if opens up a range of possibilities, and you can have fun with them. Go along for the ride. Get as serious or as silly as you like. This might be the moment you push your story to the edge – or over it, if that’s where it needs to go.
  • You don’t have to commit to what if. Think of it as a sandbox or a testing ground. You don’t like where your thoughts took you? Ask it again and add other details. See where that takes you. Keep asking until you find a path that feels right. Or discard all of the scenarios and go back to square one. It might look different now.
  • You can ask what if as many times as you like. It’s not a one-time thing. As with my example above, which began as a simple detective story, you can what if yourself into a different (and hopefully richer) story or even into a whole other genre.

Give it a shot next time you’re stuck. Who knows, it might charge up your work. And what if it does? Where to then?

~ ~ ~

By the way, there are many fine writing helps out there (and you can find some of them on my I’m a Fan page, which I add to weekly) that tout effective techniques, solid advice, explanations of rules – including when to break them – and how to get past writer’s block if you’re ever so afflicted. They’re all good resources. I encourage you to use them.