Celebrate the Holidays without Breaking the Bank

Snowshoeing in the North Cascades with Friends

Snowshoeing in the North Cascades with Friends

I’ll just come out and say it: I’m basically anti-materialistic.  So this time of year with its emphasis on consumerism makes me more than a little crazy.  I’m especially sensitive to it because I know a lot of people who are still going through hard economic times and probably will be for the rest of their lives.

When those who have good jobs and lots of savings in the bank insist on celebrating the holidays in traditional blow-out fashion, that makes it hard on those who have little money to spare. Even if the well-off types want to pay for everything, that can still cause uneasy feelings among families and friends. Everyone likes to participate and be considered generous.

I grew up in a family with a modest income, and generally speaking, we authors don’t fall into the upper income brackets, so I’m used to coming up with activities that don’t involve a lot of spending. (I even wrote a little book about that common sense ideas for developing a thrifty lifestyle: here’s a link if you’re interested.)

So I thought I’d throw out some ideas that make the holidays more fun for folks without big bucks to spend. First and foremost, reorient your thinking away from things (food and gifts) and focus on experiences. If you reflect on the happiest moments in your life, odds are that you’re thinking about something you were doing, not about a thing you received.

First up: the big meal. Make the meal a potluck instead of making one cook create a lavish dinner. Ask all guests contribute something, even if it’s drinks or napkins or flowers for the table. Have everyone help prepare and clean up. That way nobody gets too stressed out and everyone helps to create the occasion.

Plan a party that will make everyone happy.

Plan a party that will make everyone happy.

Gift-giving is always the biggest challenge, because we have all been so thoroughly saturated with the advertising of things, and kids are especially vulnerable. They will most have made lists of all the things they want like the good little consumers they have been trained to be. Why not teach them a new way to enjoy the holidays?

Think back on your own childhood–do you remember things or experiences? I truly wish that families and friends didn’t give gifts but instead did something together that they all enjoyed, whether that’s playing charades or volleyball, heading off to the beach, or going snowshoeing. Why not use your money and time to create memories instead of accumulating more stuff?

If you must have a gift exchange (and I know that for most families it is a must), consider having a low-cost exchange of practical gifts only. Have each person buy and wrap a practical gift under $10 (cake or soup mixes, hammers, screwdrivers, postage stamps, flashlights, books, kitchen utensils, potholders, sewing kits, duct tape, hand lotion, soap, etc.–items that anyone at the party can use). You may want to put practical gifts for kids–packs of colored markers, cookie cutters, books, cute key chains, etc.–in different colored wrappers so a child doesn’t end up with a screwdriver, although some kids would think having a personal screwdriver is pretty cool.

The first person chooses and opens a gift. The second person can either take the first person’s gift or choose a new one. If the second person takes the first gift, then the first person gets to choose a new one. The third person gets to take either of the gifts already opened, or choose a new one, and so on down the line. I’ve been to a lot of these round-robin practical gift exchanges; they’re a lot of fun, and everyone goes home with something useful.

Another truly old-fashioned possibility is having everyone create their gifts. Don’t panic if you’re not creative! Make cookies, create bags of fruit and nut mix, string an interesting bead on a small chain. One of the best gifts you can offer without spending a dime up front is to offer a service–babysitting, sewing, auto repair, carpentry, house cleaning–whatever you know how to do. Many of us very busy people would be thrilled to receive a card that said “Redeem for six hours of babysitting” or “Good for two sessions of lawn mowing” or “I promise to help you paint your bedroom” or “I promise to take you camping next summer–you get to decide the date.” You know what your friends and family members need and want, so you can make the gift of time the most personal gift of all.

The holidays don’t have to be stressful and expensive. Resolve to spend time doing activities with the ones you love instead of spending money.

Holidays should be about memories, not about merchandise.

Slogging Through the Muddle in the Middle of Your Manuscript

Two hikers in river-CroppedHaving problems getting from Point B to Point C in your novel? You’re not alone. Why do so many plots bog down in the middle of the story? Here are a few reasons:

Problem: You’ve lost sight of your character’s goal.
Solution: Revisit your character’s goal and make sure your focus is on that and you’re still headed in the right direction.

Problem: You gave away the whole story in the first third of the book.
Solution: Break up backstory, feed it in slowly to add interest and drama.

Problem: Your story line is too simplistic.
Solution: Add a subplot. Possible subplots are:

  • Problematic or developing relationships with secondary characters.
  • Conflicting or distracting journeys or quests of secondary characters.
  • Complications that have nothing to do with the main plot but affect the characters.
  • Other things I can’t think of right now.

Problem: You don’t have enough obstacles, or obstacles are not big enough.
Solution: Add or enlarge obstacles. Possible obstacles and complications are:

  • A ticking clock. Something terrible is happening as time goes by, or something horrible will happen soon.
  • A relationship with a secondary character.
  • A conflicting goal of a secondary character.
  • Everyday disasters—sickness, injury, death, heavy traffic, car wrecks, loss of cell phone coverage, power failure, etc.
  • Weather or extreme acts of nature—tsunamis, tornadoes, hail, lightning, blizzards, wildfires.

Problem: You’re trying to force a plot to fit an outline that doesn’t work.
Solution: Get someone else to read your work and make suggestions. Often writers find certain characters are trying to take over the lead role. Maybe you should let them.


  • Think about the motivations and goals of all the characters in your book.
  • Keep track of where all your characters are and what they are thinking during the course of the story.
  • Write scenes you know you want for the last part of the book. These will probably spark ideas on how to get there.
  • Read the article on this website under #Writetip on How to Write a Pitch. Write your own. If you’ve already written one, read it again and focus on what it says–did you stray from the path of what your novel is supposed to be about?
  • Ask for suggestions from your readers. Even if you don’t want to follow their advice, their ideas may jog your brain out of the rut.

Good luck! A working writer can slog through the bog and come out the other end with a great story.


The Dilemma of the Unknown Author

“Hi, I’m Rae Ellen Lee, an internationally unknown author,” my friend says to the bicycle rider who has stopped to chat with us in a Utah canyon.

Rae Ellen is more forward and much funnier than I am, and I love this line. It cuts through the embarrassing back-and-forth that, for me, usually goes something like this:

I really am an author! This is me signing books at Seattle Mystery Bookshop

I’m not lying, I actually am an author! This is me signing books at Seattle Mystery Bookshop

Me: “I’m an author. I write mysteries and romances.”

Polite Stranger: “That’s great!” Then, peering at me with curiosity, “Would I have heard of you?”

Me (mortified): “Probably not. My publisher never promoted my books.” (Unsaid: And I’m obviously a total nincompoop when it comes to marketing.) “But here’s a card describing my books. (Nervous laugh.) Do me a favor and leave it in a public place.”

Sigh. It’s such a dilemma. How and when does a clueless introvert author make herself known to new readers? I avoid anyone who constantly hawks herself or her products; why would anyone appreciate it when I do? But I don’t have a big family-and-friends network out there supporting me, I can’t afford to advertise in expensive magazines, and since I write outdoorsy animal lover mysteries, my outdoorsy animal lover readers don’t tend to sit around chatting on social media.

So when I pass up the opportunity to tell a friendly stranger that I’m an author, I never know whether to feel like I’m being just a nice normal person or some sort of expert self-defeating anti-entrepreneur. So I generally say something only half the time and usually end up feeling like a complete loser.

A couple of days after meeting the bicyclist, as I ride the shuttle from St. George to the Las Vegas airport, I chat with my very nice seatmate. We talk about Utah and other places we have visited, and after a while, she mentions that she reads constantly. Aha-an opening! I tell her I am a voracious reader, too. And then she says she likes mysteries. Feeling like a hunter with a deer in the crosshairs, I tell her I am a mystery author, pull out my card that describes my books, and hand it over. She says she’ll definitely look for my books.

Later, at the airport, I share a restaurant table with an interesting man from Germany who has been visiting all the western parks. I love Germans, they are such adventurers, and like me, many are enthusiastic about the American West, its culture and its beautiful wild places. We talk about places he visited on this trip (he flew to the Cook Islands, too!) and a bit about how Americans and Cook Islanders eat unhealthy diets and will pay for that in the long run, and briefly agree on how politics need to move away from the current all-about-the-profit mode to work-for-the-common-good mode.

Close-up of magnifying glass focusing on two people

Of course, while we talk, I am thinking, do I tell him I’m an author and some of my books are published in Germany? Wouldn’t that be a typical it’s-all-about-me American move? Besides, he’d probably ask me the name of my books there, and my cards are all in English. I can’t even spell the German titles, let alone pronounce them. Nor could I cough up the name of the German publisher. So we part politely without exchanging names and wander off to catch our separate flights back home.

From now on, I’m borrowing Rae Ellen’s line: “Hi, I’m Pamela Beason, an internationally unknown author.”

And I’ll keep using it until a stranger says, “Oh, I know that name! I love your books!”

Back to Canyon Country


Hiking with new friends

Hiking with new friends

Today I’m in Escalante, Utah, sharing good times with my intrepid author friend Rae Ellen Lee. This is the first time I’ve been back to Canyon Country since I used it as the setting for my novel Endangered, and as we explore the area, I am reminded of several things.

Slickrock is Slick

Duh! There are very few level surfaces in any canyon, and the rippling multicolored layers of sandstone have been polished to a hard smoothness by water and wind. If you don’t have gripping tread on your shoes and excellent balance while traveling downhill, you could easily end up on your backside. To avoid this embarrassing and painful result, I often start out on my backside in the steepest sections. For my aging knees, hiking on slickrock is much easier when moving uphill.

Sudsie and I climb up the slickrock

Sudsie and I climb up the slickrock

There Are Surprises around Every Bend

Hoodoos—the standing rock formations carved out by wind and water—are always interesting. Rae Ellen and I sit for a while to sketch in Devil’s Garden. After drawing for half an hour, I conclude that my hoodoos look more like invading space aliens, and Rae Ellen vows never to attempt pen and ink again. She doesn’t even show me her effort; I’ll have to sneak a look after she goes to bed.

We focus on enjoying the scenery again, and delight in the slickrock paintbrush and claret cactus blossoms we find tucked into crevices along the way. We peer down into slot canyons and naturally I imagine flash floods and other disasters I’ve either read or created in my own books.

Paintbrush in bloom

Paintbrush in bloom

Desert Country Seems Similar Around the World

I explore one very hot sandy area on my own, looking for the best small example of petrified wood. The crystallized wood pieces litter every square foot of ground in this spot, and they are not protected on BLM land, so I want to take back one small souvenir for a rock-loving friend. As I get further away from Rae Ellen and her dog, I begin to feel a little anxious. For me, this is unusual; although I’m always careful, I often hike alone with great enjoyment.



Then, looking around, I realize why. This particular part of Utah bears a striking resemblance to some game parks in Zimbabwe that I visited in 2012. Lions abounded there, and anytime we humans were on foot, we might be lunch. Of course, there are lions in the U.S., too, and as a matter of fact cougars are featured in Endangered. Fortunately, our American lions are quite shy (as opposed to their bolder African cousins), but I can’t stop looking for those graceful feline shapes on the high rocks and those intense golden eyes in the shadows under the scrubby trees. I feel relieved but also foolish and a bit disappointed when I don’t spy any sign of a big cat. (People who know suspense writers know our imaginations can easily conjure up a whole range of worst-case scenarios, even for ourselves.) I rejoin Rae Ellen and her dog Sudsie as soon as I’ve found my perfect pocket-sized geologic specimen, complete with crystalline bark and growth rings, now set in stone forever.

Searching for a Lost Loved One?

Fair Warning: This post discusses unidentified corpses, so if you don’t want to think about death and missing persons, click away right now.

shadowsAs a private investigator, on the very first missing persons search I worked on, I found that the individual was deceased. I hated to tell my client that her long lost buddy was dead, but at least it was closure; the client knew what happened to her friend. I am haunted by another case in which I could find no clue about what happened to a missing young woman who had a history of drugs and prostitution.

I cannot imagine the torture of having a loved one simply vanish and not knowing for years, possibly forever, about what happened to that person. I am so fascinated by this subject that I have now written about missing persons three times. In my novel Endangered, a toddler vanishes from a campground in a national park and the media coverage cause many to assume a cougar took him. In The Only Witness, an infant disappears from a locked car and half the town suspect the teen mom murdered her daughter. And in The Only Clue, the police force of my fictional small town of Evansburg, Washington have been notified about the disappearance of an adult schizophrenic, but they are not actively investigating the case, as is often true when addicts and mentally ill adults go missing.

Most missing individuals are either found reasonably quickly or never located. That’s because the case of a missing person is quickly moved to the back burner by law enforcement, especially when the missing person is an adult. The police have limited time and budgets to solve all crimes, it’s difficult to track possibilities through multiple jurisdictions, and often a missing person case has very few clues to follow. But each passing day is another 24 hours of torture for the families of the missing.

So when I heard a former law enforcement officer who is now an author mention the NamUs database (“Name Us”), I immediately reached for my pen and notebook. Have I been living under a rock? I’d never heard of NamUs.  The authorities and the media have done a really crappy job of making this resource known to the public.

Namus is a nationwide database available for free to the public to help both families and law enforcement personnel identify the 40,000 unidentified corpses who have been found in the United States. (Yes, you read that right–forty thousand!) NamUs also contains names and details of deceased people who were identified but whose bodies were never claimed. (I can see how this could happen, because I’ve worked on a few cases where an individual was known to be homeless but hadn’t been heard from for decades and remaining family members had different last names and scattered, sometimes across multiple countries.)

NamUs logoI know there are a lot of families in which loved ones vanished so long ago that remaining members may be totally unaware of this new resource. Family members can enter descriptions and last-seen details of their missing loved ones, which may then be matched up with unidentified remains. DNA can be submitted in cases where that might help.

Are you missing a family member or a friend? It may not contain the answer you’re hoping for, but NamUs could bring some closure to your case. It’s a great tool that anyone searching for a missing person should know about.

In My Element at the Left Coast Crime Conference

Signing books at Seattle Mystery Bookshop

Me, signing books at Seattle Mystery Bookshop. I signed at Left Coast, too, but was one of the smaller frogs in that big pond.

I just returned from four days at Left Coast Crime in beautiful Monterey, California, and I am exhausted. I can’t decide whether my fatigue is from multiple mornings when I had to arise at 3:30 a.m. to make my flight, or because I’m an introvert and crowds make me a little crazy, or simply because the conference was so interesting that my brain cannot absorb meeting one more author or discovering yet another whole series of mysteries that I simply have to read.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about AWP, a conference that is designed more for MFA writer types than for us proud-to-be-genre writers. LCC is completely different–it’s a fan conference, so all the attendees are enthusiastic mystery readers, although quite a few of us are authors, too. It’s one of those rare conventions where you overhear conversations about where to hide a severed head and the least detectable poisons to use to kill off your enemy. What more could a mystery writer like me ask for?

I was the token woman on a panel with four other private-investigators-turned-authors. The crowd included (to my amazement) Sue Grafton, an author who truly gets what it’s like to be a female PI. I later ambushed her in a rare solitary moment (sorry, Sue) to have the honor of shaking her hand. She gave me a hug. I hope some of her publishing success pixie dust rubbed off on me!

Author panel with two of my faves--Craig Johnson at left and Sara J. Henry at right.

Author panel with two of my faves–Craig Johnson at left and Sara J. Henry at right.

Every panel I went to was well attended by an enthusiastic audience, and all the speakers were interesting (which I certainly can’t say about every conference I’ve attended). After stalking charming funny country boy Craig Johnson (author of the Longmire series) on multiple panels and chatting with him in person (I come from a long line of tall tale tellers and I swear he’s a long lost cousin) , I’ve decided that I too need to wear a cowgirl hat so people can find me, especially since I’m vertically challenged. However, Craig’s hat fits in with his author persona (Wyoming sheriff etc.) and since I have two different series, one about wilderness issues and one about signing gorillas, I’m not quite sure of the right headgear to represent my writing–a sun visor? A baseball cap? A gorilla mask? My character Neema has been known to wear an orange peel on top of her head, but that doesn’t seem quite right, either, although it would probably make me more memorable.

The only downside to the conference was that it was so huge. I found it hard to locate a few folks I was looking for, namely Jeanne Matthews and Tracy Weber, fellow authors from Washington state, and Donnell Ann Bell from Colorado. I did run across Jeanne and Donnell in passing, and finally spotted Tracy sitting behind me at a session, but I promptly lost them all again in the crush.

I made a lot of new friends, and shared a table the last evening with authors Sara J. Henry and Chris F. Holm and a mix of other writers and fascinating fans, whom I would write more about if I’d been able to hear what they said in the uproar of the large ballroom or if the waiter hadn’t continued to re-fill my glass with delicious red wine.

See, I DO sometimes wear a cowgirl hat!

See, I DO sometimes wear a cowgirl hat!

Having found so many new-to-me authors whose mysteries I can’t wait to read, I staggered home lugging more books than Alaska Airlines would have allowed had they weighed my carry-on. It’ll probably take me a whole year to read all these new series, as well as to decide what sort of headgear to wear to the Left Coast Crime Conference 2015.

Using Weather in Your Writing

BellinghamSnow2014 015After a surprisingly heavy snowfall (for my coastal area), I decided to pull on my hiking boots and stroll the 1.5 miles to my favorite park while the scenery was coated in white.

The trail was only a bit slippery and the frosting of snow made thick woods and waterfalls completely enchanting. The winds were calm, and the temperature hovered around the freezing point, hardly life-threatening. I was deep into my beloved woods when I noticed that other aspects of my walk might be more than a little hazardous.

BellinghamSnow2014 022Branches overhead were so burdened with wet snow that every few minutes I heard a loud CRACK! Then a branch would crash to the ground, sometimes from as high as fifty feet in the air. I spent a fair amount of time hugging big trees as I waited for plummeting snow and debris to settle around me. The situation added an unexpected element of suspense to my outing.

This was a good reminder of how much weather conditions can add to any story and help set the mood. I decided that the falling tree limbs would make a great addition to one of my next novels; now I’ve got to find an appropriate place to put that scene.

Weather can set the mood and dramatically increase the feelings you want to provoke in your readers. Although it might be a bit cliché to set your big suspense scene during a thunderstorm, flashes of lightning and claps of thunder can add a lot of tension. Delve into your memory and sort through all the weather situations you’ve experienced in your lifetime, and you’ll think of interesting weather elements to add to scenes.

Gathering storm cloudsI included a thunderstorm in my novel Endangered, but the main threat in that Utah setting is peripheral to the storm: when it’s raining on the high plateau, a flash flood will soon be roaring through the slot canyons. An earthquake opens my romantic suspense Shaken, and my heroine Elisa is pinned to the ground by a falling tree. But again, the earthquake isn’t the real threat; it’s the cool damp weather, and because she is trapped, she soon has to battle hypothermia as well as a broken leg.

Pouring rain and driving snow lessen visibility and can add suspense when a character needs to be on the move outside, or if that character is on guard against a threat coming from outdoors. If your characters are indoors, bad weather outside can make a scene feel more “cozy” and romantic.

TornadoTornado conditions are always anxiety-provoking: I once had the occasion to watch as the change in air pressure caused the giant plate glass panels at the front of a store to bow inward. (Fortunately some doors flew open and equalized the pressure before the windows shattered, otherwise I might not be here to write this.)

Sunshine and gentle breezes can add to a pleasant scene. Relentless baking sun and drying winds are a different story.

You see what I mean. The snow is all gone from my neighborhood now, but I’ll remember to add those cracking limbs to a future book. And maybe I’ll find a place for those dramatic bowed windows, too, although I no longer live in tornado country.

woman celebrating the sunSo if you feel the story you’re writing is lacking in some respect, think about how you could use the weather. In real life, we all deal with the weather every day.

Be sure the characters in your books do, too.


Report from a Genre Author on the Loose at the AWP Conference

Could this be an AWP?

When I heard about the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Seattle this year, I was 1) perplexed about why I didn’t already know about it and 2) eager to go investigate. So I signed up to help out with a vendor booth–Chanticleer Book Reviews, a company that provides author services such as manuscript overviews, book reviews, and contests of all kinds. They awarded me a Grand Prize for my mystery THE ONLY WITNESS, so naturally I have a fondness for Chanticleer, and the company provides opportunities that are especially valuable for indie writers who are blocked from some  paths available to traditionally published authors.

Feeling a little insecure

Feeling a little insecure here

I was curious why I didn’t already know about AWP, because it’s one of the largest writing organizations in the U.S. I got my answer shortly after arriving, as I wandered like a lost puppy through the endless maze of displays: AWP is mostly a gathering of MFA types, with emphasis on academic programs for literary writers. I learned during the first few presentations that most of these writers spoke a completely different version of English than I do. (I’m still not sure exactly what “materiality” means, but it seemed to be a very important concept to some of the presenters, so I repeated the word as often as possible in my attempt to blend in.)

I use camouflage techniques in an attempt to blend in

I repeat the word “materiality” and employ other camouflage techniques in an attempt to blend in

Although I was having a bit of a “stranger in a strange land” experience and hoping my rogue identity as a black sheep genre author was not immediately obvious to the surrounding literary herd, it was, as always, exciting to be among so many people who were simply enthusiastic about writing. It’s so wonderfully relaxing to be in the midst of other creative types, where I don’t have explain/defend my writing aspirations.

The dozens (maybe hundreds) of booths displaying literary magazines and advertising MFA programs made me a bit jittery. I did feel more secure when I saw the folks from Amazon who came to represent Createspace, Kindle Direct Publishing, and ACX were received warmly instead of being stoned by traditional publishers. In fact, although there were many small publishers present, I saw zero representatives of the big traditional companies. Although academia is generally the last to convert (one presenter admitted she’d never have landed her teaching position if her university knew she was planning to write novels for middle school kids), the publishing world is obviously changing, even for MFA grads.

I want to be as wise an author as Hugh Howey

I want to be as wise an author as Hugh Howey

One of my indie-published heroes, Hugh Howey, was there, too. I hope some of his incredible (and well deserved) success floated through our shared environment and attached itself to me.

On the third day, the public was admitted to the “book fair” (i.e., the hundreds of vendor booths, some of which actually had books for sale). Yay! My people had crashed the gates!

Cow's nose

Me, talking to a video camera.

A couple of folks making a documentary about northwest writers stopped by the Chanticleer booth and interviewed/filmed me (I am not a natural public speaker; I hope I didn’t look and sound completely demented), another gal asked to interview me at a later date, and I met an enthusiastic (and successful!) screenwriter from L.A. who gave me some marvelous tips on how to approach agents about selling rights to my novels for films and television shows.

So, all in all, AWP was a positive experience for this genre writer, although it was mostly made that way due to the book-loving public of Seattle who flooded in on the last day. Eclectic readers and authors are clearly more my “peeps” than the MFA students (although I’m pretty sure they, too, will become comrades after they get a taste of what it’s really like to be a working author in today’s publishing world).

Resting up for the next conference

Resting up for the next conference and trying to erase the word “materiality” from my brain

Now, I’m exhausted and glad to be back in my quiet writing cave.

But I am really looking forward to the Left Coast Crime Conference in a few weeks. Murder, mayhem, sleuthing, where the mystery book fans come to meet each other and to meet authors–what could be better for a mystery author?

I’m on a panel of real-life private investigators who are now published mystery authors. I can’t wait!


Why I Write Mysteries Set in the Wilderness

Valleys in Mist in Olympic Natl Park

Valleys in Mist in Olympic Natl Park

I was recently asked to do a talk about why the wilderness makes a good setting for novels, so I decided to write a post about it here.

Reason #1 – I’m passionate about wild places and want to share my love of them with an audience. I can rhapsodize about my obsession with fungi and lichen, my enthusiasm for all wild creatures, and all the endless variations of colors, shapes, and patterns of nature. I do truly believe that—like the Ken Burns PBS series title—our national parks are “America’s Best Idea.” I’d also include all our other public lands in that statement.

Reason #2 – There are so many enticing opportunities for adventure. Hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, canoeing, scuba/snorkeling, swimming, biking, skiing, snowshoeing, you name it.

Reason 3 – There are so many ways to get into trouble.

Reason #4 – Even if you can call 9-1-1 out here, help is not going to arrive any time soon. This offers wonderful opportunities for heroic acts, tragedies, and great drama.  And that’s what makes good fiction.

Two hikers in river-CroppedI used the canyon country of Utah as the setting for my mystery novel ENDANGERED. I couldn’t resist forcing my character Sam to cross a natural rock bridge in the dark, confront a cougar, and explore a slot canyon while searching for a lost child. The dangers of slot canyons become apparent in real life every year. Hikes die of hypothermia and heat stroke, get stuck squeezing through narrow openings, and get trapped by falling rocks.

But my character Sam doesn’t get in trouble in the slot canyon because of heat stroke or being trapped by falling rocks. Her problem begins when it starts to rain in the high country. The Native American name for one of the most famous slot canyons, Antelope Canyon, means “the place where water runs through rocks.” Think about that. A flash flood can happen within minutes inside a constricted space.  (“Drowning in slot canyons is more common than people think.”– Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, Utah) So, amazingly, rain can be one of the biggest threats in canyon country.

What do you think is the most common cause of death in national parks across the United States? It’s hard to find the statistics, but there seem to be two leading causes of deaths in national parks.

  1. Vehicle accidents, especially in parks like Yosemite and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
  2. Drowning. Why do you think so many people drown in the wilderness? Because they venture into dangerous swift water, and because they don’t consider hypothermia from cold water flowing down from the mountains.

More than a dozen people have been swept over waterfalls in Yosemite National Park in recent years.

Another big cause of death in national parks is accidental falls. And they don’t all involve rock climbing. Many clueless campers have set up tents after dark, only to take a few steps away in the middle of the night and disappear over the cliff they didn’t realize was there.

Other potential scenarios I’ve thought about using in my mysteries (like I said, books need drama):

  • forest fire
  • wind storm with falling trees
  • lightning
  • volcanic eruption
  • earthquake
  • falling through ice or snow bridge
  • blindly following a GPS unit into a dangerous area
  • hunters who don’t identify their targets
  • stray bullets from far away hunters
  • scared drunk campers with guns
  • overprotective miners with guns

As you can tell, I worry a lot about guns. Maybe that’s because in my area at least two hikers have been killed by careless hunters, others have been fired upon by miners, and one poor woman at a picnic was killed by a stray bullet from oblivious target shooters a mile away.

Yikes! So why do people go into the wilderness at all? Remember that while it can be dangerous (although not as dangerous as driving on a highway), millions of people do explore the wild every year without incident. We go there because of the beauty and the adventure, because it can teach us so much, and because of the wildlife we might encounter.

How often do we truly see everything around us in everyday life? Wilderness forces us to live in the moment and experience our surroundings. The wilderness is a great place to find your own story, or to use as a backdrop for your next novel.

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” –John Muir

Climbing Out of the Writing Doldrums

Autumn leavesNo matter how I try to avoid it, I get stalled sometime in January every year. The days are short, the holidays are over (thank God), the weather is generally miserable, and I’m stuck in the tedium of end-of-previous-year paperwork for my three businesses. It’s hard to get started again on any creative project. But here’s what I’ve learned over the years that helps.

  • I define achievable writing goals for the year. For me, these are finishing the YA adventure novel I have already begun, and writing a sequel for my romantic suspense, SHAKEN. (I plan to create a trilogy, one story for each of the three women introduced in the first book.) I would also like to write the next Summer Westin mystery and convert my “grandpa-may-be-a-serial-killer” screenplay into novel form and write the next Neema mystery, but those are “maybe” projects, because I said “achievable goals” that I know I must finish first.
  • If I find myself incapable of writing (and I usually do for a few weeks), I read the best examples of the genre I’m writing in, and I often outline them to study how the author created the story. I’m not copying, but doing this helps to to jog my brain into the right structure and sparks ideas for my own story. For example, by reading other YA novels, I now realize that I should define more competitors for the cross-island race my heroine is involved in, and another possible love interest from her background. I write notes as I read, sketching out different scenes for my own book. So after I’ve read a few books this way, I have a stack of notes and I’m eager to start writing those scenes.
  • If possible, I get together with other writers and talk about writing and brainstorm ideas and solutions to problems. Being around other creative people automatically makes my brain more creative.
  • Icy Falls in the Cascades

    Icy Falls in the Cascades

    I get moving. My creative mind works better when my body gets plenty of exercise. So even if the weather’s bleak, I make myself go out for a walk and go to water aerobics and Zumba and western line dance class. And on those days when it’s not pouring rain or blowing snow, I get out and snowshoe or cross-country ski or hike or kayak with my outdoorsy friends. I’m not a big fan of winter, but the lighting on the water can be lovely this time of year, all silvery with subdued shades of blue, and sometimes frost and snow are beautiful, too.

always stingrayI plan some fun events to look forward to. This year I’m going scuba diving in Roatan in early February, then to the Left Coast Crime Conference in March, and then to visit a friend in Utah in early April–all short trips, but happy events to anticipate.

So now I’m going to read a little, write a few scenes I’ve sketched out so far, go to a movie with a friend, and check the weather report to see when it would be good to schedule an outing later this week.

I know that eventually I will achieve the momentum I need to carry me into a successful and productive 2014.  Happy New Year!