As writers we are used to juggling many writing projects at the same time or the complete opposite – nothing! (Although, I have to say my mind is crowded with ideas most of the time in MUSE central!)
These opposing states come with their own problems, each unique and as frustrating as each other. Firstly, ‘feast’ has us worrying which project to do first. Which one is the most strident in it’s demand to be written? Is it the right one to pursue? Will another story ‘vanish’ if we ignore it?
Secondly, ‘famine’ when ideas may be circling in our minds, but none of them ‘stick’ or have the ‘legs’ to form a longer narrative. Or there is a void. This is a frustrating feeling, leaving us grasping for elusive or fragments of ideas, or something to write!
So what can we do to organize the jumble or utilize a fragment?
Let’s look at the multiple ideas first. Write down as much as you can for each idea – lay them out on separate pieces of paper or word documents. Organize each idea into genre or categories and then plot, character or scene and any other components of each particular story you do have. Separating the stories in this way allows us to focus on them, if not objectively, as least with a clearer vision. Once you have them in an orderly list you will see which idea has the most content. Now, comes the difficult decision – which one do you pursue? It might not be the one with the most detail, but another that attracts you to it for whatever reason. Take some time to really dissect the new idea. Can you envisage the plot arc, the ending, the characters? If one starts to ‘grow’ within your minds eye, or the majority of the narrative reveals itself to you, then that is typically your direction.
Now comes the void. How do we spark our Muse? There are many reasons for this dearth of ideas, illness, relationship problems, work commitments etc. As a writer we know that the act of writing is not only satisfying, but a real need. Our creativity requires it. This is the time to look at those filed away short stories, or fragments of ideas. We always have inspirational quotes, sentences, even whole paragraphs, that have languished somewhere in journals, notebooks or electronic folders. Take time to read through these, after all we kept them for a reason. Utilize writing prompts – writing anything helps us get back on track. Fifteen minute bursts of writing from a word or picture prompt can refresh our minds, spark our creativity and set us on a new course. Your prompt response might only be short – a poem, a paragraph, even a word association list, or it can develop into something. I recently used an image of a dragon’s egg to spark my Muse. It was going to be a short story but grew and grew into a three thousand word story! You never know where an idea can lead, and that is the beauty of story writing.
How do you handle the sparse and dense periods of your writing life?
What obscure stimulus has sparked an idea for you?
How do you approach new ideas? Frantic notes? Plot arc? Character descriptions?
Have you experienced a story unwilling to stay quiet?
“The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out. Every mind is a building filled with archaic furniture. Clean out a corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill it.” Dee Hock
My friend, Linda, and I have been on so many road trips for writing retreats, attending books fairs and writing events in the last eleven or so years, that we have the preparation, planning, and execution of them down to a fine art.
This particular road trip, we are virtually attending When Words Collide as presenters, but it will be a fully literary trip, as we work on current projects, visit local libraries and bookstores, too. There will be day trips for exploring, watching wildlife and finding inspiration as always on the back roads.
We organize our trip, for the most part, in the same way each time. It is a tried and tested practice for us.
Road trip journal
Bird identification book.
Blankets, emergency kit, shovel, trolley.
Chargers, camera, sunglasses.
A bag for trash.
Plenty of water bottles.
In addition there are Sammie essentials:
Water and food bowls
A peaceful and beautiful location.
Options for where we can write – so a desk (or two) and two comfortable chairs, and a nice view.
Comfortable beds, ample lighting, space to spread out our things and a good shower.
A microwave, fridge and storage for food. Luckily, we both like the same foods.
And tea! (So there must be a kettle).
Notebooks and pens.
Current writing projects
Chargers, extension cord and power-bar (there are never enough power points).
New for this trip headphones with mic’s for the presentations.
How do you plan for a writing retreat and A road trip?
We met in 2007 on an online writing group where you share short stories, poetry and life experiences. We became fast friends.
2. When did you begin writing?
Cristal- I began writing in grade school. In 1976, in second grade, I won a writing contest. The prize was three silver dollars. I was hooked. I also published multiple special interest stories in the local newspaper. I typically wrote in journals growing up and started a couple novels, but they were never published.
Andy- I have always had a love for books and a vivid imagination. It wasn’t until later in life that I decided to put my imagination to work.
3. Where did this quote come from? It’s not about tolerance, it’s about acceptance.
We were both bullied as children and always felt we were not accepted the way we were. Tolerance is only allowing someone to be themselves and not genuinely loving them and encouraging them to never change. We prefer the be accepted.
4. How did this quote bring about your book series?
We created imperfect, quirky characters that are relatable to everyone. We threw them together because each one is unique, different or weird. It allowed us to show you can form friendships with all types and if you do, magical transformations can happen. We wanted to make readers think about their preconceptions of the deaf kid, the geek or even the bully. We want to show that digging deeper can produce an understanding and lifelong friendships by just being kind.
5. What age range are your books aimed at?
We consider the books to be young adult/adult paranormal mystery genre. However, we have had ten-year-old advanced readers love them. There are some intense and scary moments plus a little gore that could affect younger readers, so we ask parents to use their own discretion.
6. Can you give the readers an idea of the messages within Secret 8 and The Wandering?
We have found that our readers all relate differently to the books. What might resonate with one person may not with another. It might be easier if I give you key words to describe what our readers have experienced and relayed to us. Secret of 8- adventure, self-discovery, confidence, trust, courage and inclusion. The Wandering- grief, guilt, first love, teamwork, closure, second chances.
7. How many books will be in the series?
We are currently working on the third book in the series, “Freaks to the Left” which is to be released in the Fall 2021. We have plans for at least eight books.
8. What is the fundamental message you wish your books to convey?
Whether you are being bullied, went along with it so as not to be bullied yourself, or maybe you ARE the bully, there is always a choice to change that behavior. No one is perfect and we all make mistakes. You have a choice to look at the behavior and get to the root of why. By simply being kind, you can influence others to do the same.
9 What are the subjects you will cover in your books?
Our books hit on many aspects of growing up. Awkwardness, low self- esteem, love, loss, social class, racism, disabilities, sexuality, prejudice and addiction to name a few. So many books for young adults only skim over sensitive subjects. Our books approach them head on but tactfully and through the eyes of our character’s first-hand knowledge.
10. Has your own background contributed to the stories?
Yes, very much so. We both have life experiences that are sensitive and meaningful. By including these in our books, it makes our characters more realistic. They say to write about what you know. If you have never experienced it, how would you explain it? How would you capture the emotions? Sure, you can research it, but will it come off as authentic?
11. Where do you prefer to write?
We wrote the first book entirely through email. Andy lived in Pittsburgh and I lived in Erie. Once we married in 2016, we published the first book and built an office in our home. The office has shelves filled with everything that inspires us. Andy likes to write on the laptop there, but I tend to write chapters in paper notebooks whenever the urge hits.
12. Do you feel a writing group is an important tool for writers?
Absolutely! Chatting with fellow writers, reading their works, asking questions and encouraging one another is the best kind of support. Writers are unique in that they do not compete; they are fully supportive and celebrate with you.
13. What is your writing process – punster or planner?
We have never used outlines with our books. They have evolved as we wrote. We often wondered where it all comes from, but it seems to flow freely and eventually make sense in the end. The last chapter takes the longest though, as we tie up loose ends and make sure the climax is exciting.
14. Can you share your social media and book links
Bio: Cristal Underwood: Born and Raised in Erie Pennsylvania, She is the mother of one Daughter Megan Grace, and an extra Mom to Andy’s for children. She has always had a passion for writing and has been writing stories and poems since elementary school. Writing books that encourage inclusion, anti-bullying and acceptance is her life long goal. She enjoy’s baking custom decorated cakes and delicious cupcakes.
Andrew Underwood was born in Salem Utah, he is the father of four wonderful kids, and newly became a grandpa this last week. He is an avid paranormal investigator, loves to read, build things in his woodshop and daydream. He has always had an active imagination and a love for the outdoors. He always considered himself a geek and a little different which fits in well with his message in the books they write.
Inspiration can strike us at any time from a vast array of sources. An overheard conversation, a scenic view, an image or a news report – the list goes on and on. One of the most frustrating but rewarding is dreams. They are elusive a lot of the time but if we can capture them somehow, they can become the marvelous start to a story idea.
In my current steampunk novel, The Commodore’s Gift, the initial scene is actually a dream sequence I experienced. It is a cloaked figure propelling out of a high window. When I woke up, I immediately wrote down everything I could remember of the scene. It was an older mansion house, an older time period and the person falling was a young female wearing a cloak.
Writer Tip: Always keep a notebook and pen beside your bed.
Upon reflection of the dream, I was able to ascertain that the ‘place’ was actually very similar to my old school in England. Which was an Elizabethan mansion. When I was at school many of the rooms still had the original wooden paneling, large stone fireplaces and leaded-light windows. It is now a historic site and open to visitors. https://www.historichouses.org/houses/house-listing/shaw-house.html (images above)
As with most dreams their fleeting quality can make solidifying them difficult but with practice you can train yourself to remember them. A notebook is useful to have on hand but also try to keep within the dream for as long as you can before you become fully awake and your day starts.
Here are a few tips to try:
Write, “I can remember my dreams” on a sticky note, place it somewhere you’ll see it before you go to sleep, and read the note aloud.
Go to bed at a regular time.
Practice 20 minutes of mediation prior to sleep.
What dream(s) resulted in a story idea for you? Please share in the comments.
It energizes me big time! I feel so excited when I get a good writing session in, it’s hard to stop. I could go for hours, but my time is usually limited. When I write short stories in particular, I usually can’t stop until it’s done and I’m happy with it, all in one session. I love it!
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Stress. There are certain things I can write while stressed, but the most common issue for me is settling my mind into writing. I have to work to get myself relaxed and creatively focused, which can take music, ambiance, changing the colors on the screen, and other things. Not fun.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I have! I like writing a lot of different genres, from dark psychological suspense to positivity poetry and haikus, cozy short stories to horror. I’ve polled my readers on this, and they tend to agree that I should keep my real name and at most use my first initial instead of my full first name.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I’m friends with loads of authors, both in person and online, and they all offer different perspectives on writing as well as balancing writing with other work. They’re really good at getting me inspired and motivated! It’s really good to have friends who understand your creative successes and dilemmas—not everyone does.
Do you want each book to stand alone, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Both! My Dark Victoriana Collection is written so that readers can enjoy each book as a standalone, but they’ll enjoy my books on another level if they’ve read the whole collection. Characters and scenes cross over in each novel or short story, so some scenes mean more with the full understand of the collection.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Scrivener, for sure. Using Word was actually stopping me from writing anything longer than a short story. I don’t write in order, I write my scenes in random order, so trying to control that in one Word document or multiple Word documents was not productive for me. Using Scrivener, I just put each scene in one project but in separate text pages, and voila! It’s organized!
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I think Shakespeare’s Hamlet impacted me heavily with this. It was in that play that I realized how important it was to infuse meaning that could be interpreted different ways, and that’s a huge part of my books, which are purposely multi-layered so that readers can either read for entertainment or for depth—whatever they like best.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
The Distant Sound of Violence by Jason Greensides. He’s an incredible author, and I recommend his novel to anyone who will listen. The psychology, the depth of emotion, the varied characters, and a lot more all come together into something that should really be much better known. Highly impactful contemporary fiction at its best.
I also have to mention Josh de Lioncourt’s The Dragon’s Brood Cycle series, which is bestseller-level fantasy. He’s an outstanding author who blows me away with his incredible worldbuilding and careful attention to detail. He’s on par with some of the biggest fantasy authors out there.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
I think alpacas are my spirit animals because they’re very curious and intelligent, and I think they’d really appreciate all the Victorian research I do. They’re herd animals, too, and I have to say my writing community means a lot to me. Plus they’re just so CUTE!
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
An uncountable amount. Seriously. I have a whole bunch of notebooks dedicated to different ideas yet to be written, and I have a whole ton of notes on yet more fiction to be written. The ideas are unending!
What does literary success look like to you?
Ideally being able to publish at least once per year. That’s difficult for me, although I always have something published, whether it’s a novel, short story, or poetry in an anthology or literary journal. But I’d like to publish at least one novel per year along with other short stories and creative projects.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I spend a ton of time researching in general, some before the book, a lot during, and a lot after the creative writing is finished. My books take place in Victorian America, which can be harder to research than Victorian England, and I want every detail to draw the reader into the time period. It’s important to me that my books are saturated with the Victorian era and are extremely accurate, so I research everything from how many times per day the mail was delivered to what type of wood would be used on a dresser in a middle-class home.
How many hours a day/week do you write?
Not nearly enough. Writing isn’t my priority at the moment, my editing business is, but hopefully that will change in the future…
How do you select the names of your characters?
They’re all meaningful, and for those that don’t have Biblical meaning, there’s a reason for it. I choose Biblically significant names because of the time period and to discuss the concept of religion without discussing it outwardly. It doesn’t smack you in the face, it’s just there if you’re interested.
What was your hardest scene to write?
In my first book, Anatomy of a Darkened Heart, I have a scene that finally breaks one of my characters, and that scene was extremely hard to write. I felt terrible about what I was doing to her, as bad as if she were a real person. I actually took a month off writing to mourn what I was about to do to her, then came back and wrote the scene in one go. I was glad it was over with once it was done!
Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? If you write more than one, how do you balance them?
My favorite genre to write in is psychological suspense, and that’s what my Dark Victoriana Collection is. It includes everything I love: psychology, suspense, historical fiction, and horror. I’ve had readers call my books psychological thriller and psychological horror as well. I also write horror short stories, and they also rely heavily on what would terrify a person psychologically more than anything. I write positivity haikus and poetry because I’m actually a very positive person despite all my very dark writings! I like to dabble in all genres—I feel it expands my writing horizons and improves my craft.
How long have you been writing?
Literally since I was capable of writing. I started out with poetry, then moved straight into novels, then short stories. I also love writing haikus and micro-fiction, which I find to be the most challenging and the most rewarding.
What inspires you?
Victorian jewelry, fantasy art landscapes, hidden object games with strong ambiance, all kinds of music, art… There’s really no end to what inspires me! If I had my way, I’d write all day and night.
How do you find or make time to write?
This is the toughest part for me. I’m trying hard to make more time to write, and the only way I find that works is to set aside a reasonable amount of time per day (usually a 15 minute writing sprint) and force myself to write despite all the other things I have on my plate. The thing is that once I start writing, I usually pour out creativity for about an hour, so stopping myself is hard, and a lot of times I just end up not writing at all because of the time suck (for me, an hour is a lot of time to lose on other projects). I’m trying to develop a routine for myself to avoid that catch-22.
What projects are you working on at the present?
I have two projects ongoing: the third book in the Dark Victoriana Collection and a positivity book based on the positivity writings I do on Patreon. I do work on other things in the background, but those are my two main focuses. I can’t wait to finish writing my third novel and publish it!
What do your plans for future projects include?
A lot more books for the Dark Victoriana Collection. Originally I was going to write one standalone book, then I decided I’d write five books, now the plan is six books and additional short stories. I’m slowly developing a fantasy novel as well, but that’s way on the back burner. I have some horror short stories I’d like to pull into an anthology too. Really the amount of projects I have ideas for is never-ending.
Share a link to your author website.
You can find me at http://christiestratos.com, and from there, you can buy paperbacks directly from me that are signed, gift-wrapped, and include a personalized note. They’re great gifts for the holidays, especially since you can ask me to write the personalized note to anyone. Brotherhood of Secrets also comes with a key charm when you buy the paperback directly from my website. Best of all, the cost is exactly the same as buying a plain paperback with nothing special on Amazon.
Christie Stratos is an award-winning writer who holds a degree in English Literature. She is the author of Anatomy of a Darkened Heart and Brotherhood of Secrets, the first two books in the Dark Victoriana Collection. Christie has had short stories and poetry published in Ginosko Literary Journal, Auroras & Blossoms Poetry Journal, Andromedae Review, 99Fiction, and various anthologies. An avid reader of all genres and world literature, Christie reads everything from bestsellers to classics to indies.