30 July 2019

Living in a Writing Rain Forest

Recently Michael Bracken wrote here on SleuthSayers about living in a writing desert. He doesn't have a lot of authors who live near him in Texas. So he doesn't have author friends he can easily meet up with for lunch or a drink or a plotting session. In response to my comment that a friend once said that here in the Washington, DC, area, you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a mystery author, Michael said:

"I often wonder, Barb, how much being part of a thriving writing community or being in a writing desert impacts how our writing and our writing career develops. I sometimes think that if I moved somewhere where one can't swing a dead cat without hitting a mystery writer I might get too excited. I'd have too much fun being a writer and not enough time actually writing."

Well, I'm here today to say that I know with certainty that if I were living in a writing desert instead of the opposite (which I'm guessing is a writing rain forest--all that water, right?) I would not be writing these words on this blog, and I wouldn't be writing fiction at all.
A real rain forest

I remember when I first got the hankering to try to write crime fiction. It was in my first or second year of law school, and I had an idea for a book. I thought I would start writing it in my spare time (ha!), perhaps over the summer. But summer came and went, as did the rest of law school and my first year of practice as an attorney. And guess what? I didn't write that book. Not even one page. 

One day I was thinking about the book. I wanted to write it, but three years (or so) had passed. Why hadn't I started writing? And I realized it was because I didn't know how to write a book. Legal briefs and memoranda, yes, those I knew how to write. Newspaper articles, yes, I could write those too. (I was a reporter before I went to law school.) But I wasn't trained in writing fiction. It was a mystery to me. (Ha again.) I knew there were rules I didn't know. I couldn't imagine how to start. Looking back, I realize I could have bought any number of how-to books, but I didn't. Instead, I decided that I didn't know how to write fiction, so I should just give up that dream.

But the dream wouldn't give up on me. Perhaps a week later, I saw an ad for an eight-week course starting in just a few weeks at a place called The Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland. They were offering an introductory course on writing a mystery novel. The class would be on Saturday mornings, which fit into my schedule. The Writers Center was just a mile from my apartment. And I could afford the course. It was like fate was calling to me, "Don't give up!" 

So I signed up for the course, and here I am, nearly two decades later, with 32 crime short stories published, four more accepted and awaiting publication, wins for the Agatha, Macavity, and Silver Falchion awards under my belt, as well as 27 nominations for national crime-writing awards. As for that first book, the one that prompted all of this ... I stopped writing it after chapter 12 or so. But I wrote another novel after it, and that one I finished. It sits in a drawer, awaiting one last polish. I may get to it someday ... or not because I've realized I love short stories, and when I get time to write, that's what I want to work on. So I do.

I never would have learned all of that and done all of that and accomplished all of that if I had been living in a writing desert. Without that first class at The Writers Center, I wouldn't have started writing fiction. I also wouldn't have been introduced to Sisters in Crime, specifically to members of the Chesapeake Chapter. I wouldn't have heard about mystery fan conventions Malice Domestic and Bouchercon. I wouldn't have started writing short stories. (I started down my short-story path because the Chessie Chapter had a call for stories for its anthology Chesapeake Crimes II.) Boiling it all down, if I were living in a writing desert, I wouldn't be me, not the me I've become. I'd probably still be working as an attorney instead of working full-time as a freelance crime fiction editor. (The pay is worse but the work suits me so much more.)

Living in this rain forest also has affected my life in other ways. My closest friends these days are all writers. When I lived in the Reston area, four other mystery authors lived within two miles of me. Other close friends lived less than a half hour away. We would go to lunches and dinners, talk about writing and plotting and life. Now that I live a little farther away, those meals happen a little less frequently, but they still happen. And thanks to Facebook, I'm never far from my writing tribe. It is the modern-day water cooler. I also talk to my pals on the phone regularly. (Yes, I'm a throwback!)

So I am utterly grateful I don't live in a writing desert. I can't imagine who I'd be if I did. And while I hope no one ever actually swings a dead cat my way, if that were the price I'd have to pay, I'd pay it. But who would swing a dead cat anyway? Mystery lovers are animal lovers, and we like our cats--and dogs--alive and slobbery. But that's a blog for another day.

And now for a little BSP: I'm delighted to share that a few days ago my story "Bug Appétit" was named a finalist for the Macavity Award for best mystery/crime short story of 2018. And I'm doubly happy to share this Macavity honor with my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, along with four other talented writers, Craig Faustus Buck, Leslie Budewitz, Barry Lancet, and Gigi Pandian. The winner will be announced on October 31st during Bouchercon. If you'd like to read "Bug Appétit" it's available on my website here. Or if you'd like to hear me read it to you, you can listen to it here. Once you reach the podcast page, click on my story title (Episode 114). Enjoy!


  1. I was so young when I started writing that I just stumbled my way into it, teaching myself as I went, and I spent a great deal of money purchasing how-to books from Writer's Digest. I moved often throughout my childhood and early adulthood, and for a brief time was part of a small writing community in Southern Illinois.

    For the past twenty-five years, though, I've been in a writing desert here in Central Texas, and most of my contact with other writers is via the internet. In the real world, I spend little time with writers outside of conventions. That's changed some during the past year or so, but will likely never approach the level of daily interaction you have with other writers up there in the writing rainforest.

  2. Barb, I also look at Facebook as the water cooler, since I live in a sort of ruralish area outside of L.A. proper. It's a place I can go to commune (I hate that word) with other writers. Though if I want face time with them I can also drive into L.A. The best of both worlds.

    And congratulations on your nomination and to all the nominees.

  3. Happy to be living in this rain forest with you, Barb! And to be alongside you on the Macavity shortlist too, of course. Thanks for the fine post and the shout-out. :-)

  4. Well said, Barb. There are so many fellow writers here in LA, it can be easy to take it for granted. Think I need to make some phone calls and book some lunches.

  5. Barb, I live in a state so thick with writers you couldn't stir 'em with a stick, and a good many are within 30 miles of me, so yes, I do like that. I also agree with you about short stories--I've written two (well, actually three and a half) novels but BOY do I like the short stuff. The best thing about shorts, I think, is the turnaround time--I got an idea for a story yesterday morning, wrote it yesterday afternoon, and I'll probably finish revising it today or tomorrow. It's only a couple thousand words, but still, that kind of freedom to create and complete something fast is a lot of fun.

    Unlike so many of our writer friends, though, I started my writing career late--in my forties--and I've often said that was lucky for me: if I had discovered this love of writing when I was in my 20s, my family would probably have starved.

    Great post, as usual. And sincere congrats to you and Art!

  6. Thanks for everyone's comments. What I failed to mention in the post but should have is that without The Writers Center, I never would have joined my first critique group, and that group has been vital to my success as a writer. (My second critique group too was extremely helpful, especially getting me back to writing when I stopped for a time.) But that first group--Carolyn, Mary, Laura, Tim, and Jack (the original six)--that group was instrumental. I'm sorry I didn't include it above.

    And thanks to everyone for stopping by and sharing your stories. Lawrence, enjoy those lunches! And John, yes, I love the fast turnaround, from start to finish, and (in many cases) from submission to response.

  7. Barb, my closest friends are all mystery writers too! Plus a few children's authors thrown in (my next book out in 4 weeks, Crime Club is YA). The Toronto area is the 4th largest city in the US/Can, so we number many here. That's great for support. It's lousy for getting the attention of media, alas. I treasure my writer friends.

  8. Lovely blog, Barb. I don't live in a writing desert here in central Ohio, but it's far from a rain forest. Buckeye Crime Writers, our local SinC chapter, has a hard time attracting more than a handful for meetings. Confession is good for the soul: I envy those of you living in the rich mystery-writing communities out east.

  9. Thanks for sharing your journey, Barb. It's similar to the route other writers in the DC area have taken, me included--Writers Center, Sisters in Crime, critique group, and then another critique group. This is a fertile place for mystery writers to learn their craft and also to celebrate each others' successes. Congratulations on your latest nomination!

  10. My writing story began with Barb ... she sent me to The Writer's Center, introduced me to SinC, and alerted me to the Guppies and the Emerald Review Group. I not only live in an area saturated with writers like Art Taylor and Tara Laskowski, but Millie, who cuts my hair, also trims the locks of Sherry Harris and Aimee Hix.

  11. Barb, a most excellent post. You know how much I agree with you about the Writer's Center. In '94, I completed a mystery-suspense novel with only my BA in English Literature to guide me. The novel is still in a drawer. I took this novel to my first writing course at the Writer's Center. The teacher thumbed through the first 15 pages, stopped, and in red ink wrote, "START HERE!" Next, I took my first mystery writing course. I believe you were in that class with me, along with Bonner and a few others like Mary Ann Corrigan. The camaraderie we shared, the laughter and excitement was terrific. That course motivated me to write my first published book and garner Agatha and Macavity best first book nominations.

    When I left DC and the Chessie Chapter for South Carolina, I knew the most important thing was to establish a writer's group. I joined the Aiken Chapter of the South Carolina Writer's Association. The problem there, was people were writing poetry, memoirs, and historical southern novels. But within two years I found two other mystery writers and a gal that writes historical fiction that is filled with suspense. We've evolved into a darn good group, and one of the members has become a best friend.

    I also helped establish a SinC chapter in Columbia, SC and that has been terrific, especially since we now do joint events with the Atlanta Chapter of Sisters in Crime and the South Eastern Chapter of MWA. Without these people, I'd be lost.

    And Barb, as always, I say, "GO BARB!!"

  12. Congratulations on being a finalist for the Macavity Awards!
    As for me, I've almost always lived in a writing desert. But I've also lived in artists' communities, and that in itself will really get the juices flowing.

  13. Thanks to all of you who have stopped by, and especially those of you who've commented, since I last checked!

    Mel, I know all about that. The benefits of having so many writers around are plentiful, but to the media, you're just a pebble in a pond.

    Mary Ann and Eve, thanks about the nomination!

    Bill, I had no idea you and Sherry and Aimee had the same hairdresser. That is, to use a phrase Sherry is find of, "wild"!

    And Sasscer, we've missed you since you moved away. I'm so glad you've found a writing community in your new home. But I do still think of you whenever I eat bread at a chapter meeting. (Heck, any time I eat bread! With butter, of course.)

  14. You are very fortunate. I can hardly find a thinking person here let alone someone who can truly write.I run across authors here the types of which self-publish raunchy stories, their versions of history, or have paid rip-off vanity presses to bind their poorly-written stories.
    Then there are others those who write child-like columns in the local free papers and call themselves 'authors'. I am sure that it is helpful to be around the writers near you who I know are good, and are good people.

  15. It's so important to find other members of your tribe as you point out, Barb. And lunches and dinners and meetings with other writers are so important and that's why I'm still a member of Chessie Chapter, so I can keep up on what you all are doing. Sometimes it's a bit of a challenge when you move away from the rain forest to the desert to find like-minded people. Although I have been a member of some groups here, it's still in process for me. Thanks for a great post.

  16. First, congratulations to you and Art. Your recognition is well deserved.

    Second, it occurs to me your gregarious nature is well suited for the literary rich rain forest. You've made it a great combination. And it shows.

  17. Thanks again, everyone, for stopping by. I'm glad my post spoke to you and that we're all members of this wonderful tribe of writers.

  18. Millie -- hair stylist to writers! We are lucky but I've learned to wear makeup and do my hair whenever I go out because you never know who you are going to run in to.

  19. That's what happens, Sherry, when you live in a writing rain forest.

  20. Barb, this was wonderful - I'm so glad to have met you and all the Chessies, and now I miss you all. -- Shari, writing from a desert with a few nice oases. PS Are you all talking about Millie at Tangles? She was my hair dresser too!

  21. Ooh, I can listen to you read your story! So cool. Barb, thanks so much for sharing your journey, and thanks for all you do for our Chessie Chapter. I'm not super-active in it yet - I think I'm a little awed by the incredible talent of this group - but I'm so happy to be part of this rainforest!



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