Essays | Recipes | For Writers
Essays on C. J.’s Writing Process
Take a peek inside my (messy, crazy, fun) creative process. It all starts...
...in this room, at this desk
and on this story board
and with this author (me)
- Rise and Shine…on clearing away the fog and starting each new day of work
- Finding Your Happy Place…where you do your work really does matter
- How Long Does It Take To Write a Book?…this may not be the answer you expect
- Recipe for Christmas Stories…It’s not a formula, but there are certain key ingredients
- Wasting Time…we can’t be productive 100% of every day
- Cell Phones…and other technological headaches for writers
- Little Women…and how they influenced the sisters of the Circle C ranch stories
- On Writing the Twisted Cedar Mystery Series…not another cookie-cutter mystery
- The First Sentence Matching Game…because it’s fun
- The Art of Experimenting with Cover Designs…it’s a matter of personal taste
- So Many Books…so little time
Rise And Shine
Some people wake every morning with a smile on their face, anxious to start the day. Others take a little longer to ease into a wakeful state. But we all need a reason to get out of bed each morning. What is it for you?
Children or pets who need you?
A commitment to exercise?
Or maybe just the allure of breakfast and that first cup of coffee?
When you’re self-employed—as I, and many other writers are—the motivation to rise every morning and attack “the work” has to come from within. There is no child that will cry until you start writing, or boss to tap her watch and raise her eyebrows at you.
And sometimes it’s hard.
We work because bills must be paid, but we also want to feel that our labor is fulfilling a larger purpose, whether it’s helping others, keeping the peace, making the world a healthier, cleaner, more educated place.
Throughout my career as a writer I have struggled with the question of whether my stories matter. Will they make a difference to the lives of the people who read them? Perhaps more crucially—will people read them? Stories have no impact if the words lie unseen on the page. If they don’t win prizes—the Pulitzer Prize, the Booker—were they still worth writing?
The one way I can clear my head from these worries, is by heading out to the mountain to hike, ski or snowshoe. Sometimes you have to climb the peaks, to rise above the fog in the valley.
Unfortunately I don’t come home from these treks with new wisdom and insights about the world. But I am refreshed and healthier. I realize that my stories must contain my truth—what I care about and what I believe. Sounds pretty, but what is that, exactly? What matters to me?
Sure, there’s chocolate. Good coffee. And pretty shoes.
More importantly there are people. My family and friends. Neighbors, colleagues, and Molly at the grocery store who always smiles and asks me if I’m having a good day.
I care about my city, and my country. Yes, I worry about the economy. But also, is constant growth sustainable? And is it possible for humans to ever live in peace with one another and the natural world around us?
Turns out there are so many things I care about that making a list isn’t really helpful in deciding what I should write about. I can’t tackle everything.
I’d love to write an epic, world-changing novel. Something that would make the entire literary community shake their heads with awe and wonder. But I don’t know how to do that. So, I start small. I pick a place. A couple of people. A small, fictional world begins to form…
And it turns out that what I really care about are relationships, all the nitty gritty problems that are part of living and loving. I’m fascinated by the good and bad in all of us. And the struggle between these powerful forces.
So, if that’s what I care about, what do I believe in? If you’ve read my books you already know: The power of love and truth to resolve conflicts.
The message is simple, nothing you haven’t heard before. I’ll have to leave the Pulitzer Prize winning literature to others. My stories may be small, but when I receive a review or email from a reader saying they stayed up all night to finish, that they cared—laughed and cried—that the story felt so real, then I know my message may not be original. But it’s something people need to keep hearing. And believing.
Finding Your Happy Place
Back in 2013, in a search for a place where we could “get away from it all,” Mike and I stumbled across Flathead Lake, and a charming 3 bedroom cottage on the south side near Polson. When I sat on the deck and looked across at the view of lake, islands, trees and mountains, I said, “I don’t want to leave this place.” The realtor replied, “You don’t have to.”
And so, eventually, after much soul and pocket searching, we bought it. And our cottage in Montana has become my “happy place.” To get here from Calgary, we often drive through Glacier National Park, another one of my “happy places.” Because for me, being in nature, close to mountains, lakes and trees always makes me feel vibrantly alive and at the same time calm and peaceful.
As a writer one of the ways I can get to the heart of my characters is to understand where their happy place is. For the Carrigans of the Circle C novels it was important for me to figure out what this place was for each of the sisters.
For Sage Carrigan, in Promise Me Cowboy, it’s the kitchen of her Copper Mountain Chocolate store where she taps into her creativity and the sensory delights of excellent chocolate, pure ingredients and time-honored technique.
Sage’s oldest sister, Mattie, has bonded to the ranching community of her husband, Wes, and the Tennessee Walking Horses they breed and raise at Bishop Stables. In Good Together, Mattie risks losing everything she cherishes when Wes suddenly announces he’s had enough.
Second eldest sister Dani, with her PhD in psychology, eschews the ranching world where she was raised. For Dani, the hallowed halls of a university, and the cramped confines of the lab where she conducts her research, are what matter most. In Close to Her Heart, however, Dani discovers there are some thing she loves more than her job.
Cousin to the Carrigan sisters, Eliza Bramble isn’t sure where she belongs in this world, and that’s why she comes to Mariette Montana to help her great-aunt keep the family home by turning it into a bed and breakfast. It is only when Eliza takes a backcountry ski trip and is Snowbound in Montana that she discovers more about who she is and what she really wants.
The youngest of the Carrigan girls, Callan, has always loved her home, the Circle C Ranch, and has never wanted to live anywhere else. In A Cowgirl’s Christmas, however, an untimely death and a shocking will, have her contemplating a future much different than she planned.
Where is your happy place? If you’re a fabulous cook, maybe it’s your kitchen. If you love to read, it could be your public library, favorite bookstore, or the comfy couch at home. Perhaps places don’t matter that much to you—as long as you’re with the important people in your life.
How Long Does It Take To Write A Book?
This is one of the questions people most frequently ask me when they hear that I’m an author. I’m not sure why. Maybe they’re hoping it doesn’t take much time and they might be able to squeeze “writing a book” into their calendar next month?
The answer, of course, is complicated. Many factors come into play. How long is the book? (My books range from short novellas of 35,000 words, to longer novels upwards of 80,000 words.) Also, how much research is required to write the book? And what else is going on in my life—are there going to be interruptions for holidays, family-stuff or other writing-related tasks.
Here is a photo of me, starting a new book in June of 2015. I had the title (A Bramble House Christmas), and the picture that would be on the cover of the book, and not much else. At the time, I had planned the book to be 40,000 words and I hoped it would be ready at the end of October.
What actually happened, is that despite tons of fun distractions (lake and hiking stuff) the book turned out to be 45,000 words and I finished three weeks early. I guess I got lucky this time…once I really had time to focus, the story just sort of flowed. Some books are like that. Others are like English Assignments from Hell. But maybe I shouldn’t get too smug. I haven’t had comments back from my editor yet, which means I still don’t know how much time I’ll be spending on revisions.
And that’s the other tricky thing. When people ask how long to write a book, do they mean including revisions, copy edits, etc? Since there can be time lags of weeks or even months between these stages, you can see why it’s a hard question to answer.
So next time you ask an author a question, ask her something easy like… “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”
My Recipe for Christmas Stories
I wrote my first Christmas story, Together by Christmas, in 2002. Since then I’ve written many more, working hard to come up with the magical combination of story elements to make the perfect holiday read, including all the ingredients that readers crave at Christmas time. And in my opinion those are:
- A sweeter-than-average heroine and an honorable hero: I enjoy edgy, provocative main characters as much as the next person. But when I’m looking for a holiday read, I want to root for a woman who is truly a kind and good person, and an honorable man who is willing to put his woman’s best interests ahead of his own.
- Delicious baking and cozy settings: I always include the flavors, textures and aromas of holiday favorites like gingersnaps, hot cocoa, roasting turkey, etc. And I try to draw my readers into the sorts of cozy settings that they would love to enjoy over the holidays—rooms with wood-burning fireplaces, comfy chairs, and decorated Christmas trees.
- Small-town settings: Maybe it’s because I grew up in a rural area, but I favor stories set in ranching communities such as Marietta, Montana, for my holiday stories. And I generally include at least one major snowfall—sometimes a blizzard!—as well. Because, frankly, there is no Christmas like a white one.
- A special child: Since Christmas is for children, I almost always include a child who is in need of “rescuing” of some sort. In The Gift, I included a preschooler who needs to escape an abusive situation, while in A Bramble House Christmas, we meet a spirited boy, Scout, who has just recovered from leukemia and longs to be a normal kid again.
- Happily Ever After Ending: Think of the way you feel when the credits roll at the end of your favorite holiday movie. Whether it’s Miracle on 34th Street, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life, or something else, I bet you have both a smile on your face and a tear in your eye. And that is how I hope to leave my readers, with each and every Christmas story I write.
What do you like to do when you have a few minutes—or an hour—to spare in your day? I’m talking about things that you do for pure enjoyment, not because they are good for you, or helpful to someone else. Just fun.
I confess I have a guilty pleasure…I like to play a game of spider solitaire in the morning before I dive into my writing. This is fine if I wrap up the game in 15 or 20 minutes. But those puzzles are diabolical and some take over an hour to solve! And I’ve been known to waste an entire morning because I didn’t want to give up…Grrrr!
What are some other time wasters I indulge in? Scrabble on my ipad. Scrolling through my Facebook feed. And what about movies and reading novels? I spend lots of time doing that. Does that count as wasting time?
I used to feel guilty about these indulgences. But I’ve been thinking about a quote that I used to dismiss. Seems to be it just might be true.
We can’t ignore our work and other responsibilities. But maybe we need to stop feeling guilty about the little pleasures we thinking of as “wasting time.”
To celebrate Bertrand Russell, and his wisdom, please tell me what you like to do that you consider “wasting time.” One random winner will be chosen to receive two box sets of romance novels containing, in total, 24 stories. And just remember, when you’re relaxing and enjoying these romantic tales, you are not wasting time!
(Originally published in Totebags & Blogs, May 2014)
Cell Phones…Novelist’s Tool or Headache?
As a writer I have to love technology. I depend on the Internet for research. And I can’t imagine going back to manual typewriters and white-out. But sometimes (actually, often) technology makes me wish I wrote historical fiction.
When I started writing seriously, back in the eighties, e-mail was just becoming commonplace, and it didn’t take long before this new form of communication was incorporated into novels and movies.
You’ve Got Mail capitalized on the new email trend and its potential as a forum for meeting new romantic partners. Emails began to emerge in novels, as well. No longer was it reasonable to have a several day or week lag as a character waited for a letter to arrive. No, emails were delivered instantly—and that was a game changer.
Next came cell phones. Now for a novelist writing a suspense novel, a woman-on-the-run could no longer be stranded and helpless at her lake cottage because readers would want to know—where is her cell phone? And there are only so many times a writer can use the “it’s out of juice” or “no reception” excuse.
Along with the cell phone came the text message. Now novelists don’t even have to wait for our characters to check their email. Communication happens instantly. Text messaging is even being incorporated on TV shows like House of Cards and The Good Wife. What is this doing to our storytelling? Well, of course there are advantages (besides not having to worry about correct spelling for a change). First, texting requires the novelist to be brief and to the point—and we know readers like that! Also, as we all have probably experienced in our real lives, text messages can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings—and novelists really like this!
Honestly, there are days when I long for the 70’s, when lovelorn characters waited weeks for letters to arrive, when there was no DNA testing and detectives relied on deductive reasoning to solve crimes, and when people argued in person, rather than by text.
But this is 2015. And I suppose I’ll have to include drones in my next book…
Little Women & The Carrigan Girls
As a writer, I find inspiration for my stories and my characters in everything around me. The people I know, the books I read, the movies I watch. Sometimes I don’t even realize what has inspired me, until after the fact.
This is the case with my series: The Carrigans of Circle C. I started these books with the central idea that I would write about a rancher who wanted a son but ended up with four daughters. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the series, that I figured out the four Carrigan sisters I “created” were remarkably similar to the four March sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Little Women.
Now this similarity came about completely from my subconscious—probably influenced by my having read the story, watched the movie, and listened to an audio version of Little Women dozens of times.
Mattie Carrigan (heroine of Good Together) is my “Meg.” She is the oldest, and is responsible and motherly. My Mattie is not as vain or fond of pretty things as Meg March, but she is the sister the others go to when they want motherly advice. She is also the first to marry, first to have children, and like Meg, her children are twins.
Callan Carrigan (heroine of A Cowgirl’s Christmas) is my “Amy.” She too is the baby of the family and while she isn’t artsy or ultra-feminine like Amy, she is strong-willed and stubborn. When she sets her mind on something, she is unstoppable. Remember how Amy is the sister who ends up with the charming Laurie from next door? Well, my Callan has an equally wonderful hero in store for her, as well. She just takes a long time to admit it.
Sage Carrigan (heroine of Promise Me, Cowboy) is my “Beth.” Of all the sisters she is the kindest and most soft-hearted. It’s no coincidence that I made her the owner of a chocolate shop—her delicious confections reflect her own inner sweetness.
As for Dani Carrigan (Heroine of Close To Her Heart) she is my Jo. Dani tries so hard to be independent and strong, to be ruled by her head rather than her heart. Her weakness is for the underdog—she can’t resist looking after them. Just as Jo was motivated to start a school for needy boys in Little Women, so is Dani driven to make the choices she does in Close To Her Heart.
On Writing My Twisted Cedar Mystery Series….
While I’ve written over 45 romance novels, my first love as a reader and aspiring author (if you can call a twelve-year-old that!) was mystery. I devoured the Trixie Belden series as a kid, then went on to enjoy Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and pretty much everything Agatha Christie wrote. Nowadays, my favorite mystery authors run to the like of Liane Moriarty, Kate Atkinson and Laura Lippman.
What appeals to me most as a reader, is what I’m trying to do now as a writer. I’m not into on-scene violence, gory details, or clinical forensics. It’s the people—characters—who fascinate me. Their motivations and secrets, their past and hopes for the future. I also love the psychology of small towns, the idea that every knows one another’s business—or at least they think they do!
In writing my Twisted Cedar mysteries, I wanted to create a town and characters that felt real and interesting to both me and my readers. And I wanted multiple mysteries, some that are solved in each new book of the series, but others that carry on until the final novel. When I hear from readers who say they couldn’t stop reading and that the ending shocked them—that makes me feel I’ve achieved my goal.
Twisted Cedars Reading Order:
The First Sentence Matching Game
In every book I write, no sentence gets as much attention from me as the opening line. If I spent as much time on every sentence I wrote, I’d be finishing my first book…oh, about six months from now. Why is that opening so important? Well, I want to hook the reader into buying the book. But I also want to be true to my characters and the setting, and hopefully hint about the conflict about to unfold.
The best book covers have the same objectives as the first sentence, only using a title and a picture as tools to attract the reader’s attention while giving them an idea of the characters, setting and type of story.
So, theoretically, a good opening line should match the cover of the book, right?
To test this theory I came up with a matching game for my 6 book Carrigans of the Circle C series. Can you match the following opening lines to the correct book cover? (Note: I’ve substituted my name—Carla—whenever the heroine is named in the first line.)
Contact me with your answers and I’ll let you know if you’re right and mail you your own Carrigans of the Circle C Bookmark!
(Originally published in Totebags & Blogs, Nov 4, 2015)
The Art of Experimenting with Cover Design
One of the many fun things about Indie publishing is the ability to experiment with book covers when you realize your initial packaging may not have been the best. When I started out to write the Carrigans of The Circle C, initially there were only going to be 4 stories. I had a rough idea of the stories I would write and the characters, so, together with Jane Porter of Tule Publishing we decided on a certain “look” for the series and had covers designed accordingly.
Then I wrote the books. And four books became five. And I got to know the characters and their world, on a very intimate basis. And suddenly we had a problem with the “look.” It needed to change.
Fortunately Jane is open to experimenting with her authors’ books. In fact, it was Jane who first identified the problem with the packaging of this series. So we went to none other than Lee Hyat and asked her what she could do.
Here is what she came up with for Book 2, Good Together (old is on the left, new is on the right):
A very different look, right? Interestingly, I found an even split between the readers who preferred the old and those who appreciated the new.
Next we asked Lee to come up with a new cover for Book 5, which was Callan Carrigan’s story. Callan is the youngest of the Carrigan sisters, and in many ways her story is the most important, as it reveals old family secrets and deals with the future of the Circle C Ranch.
The first cover we had for this book, just didn’t feel right to me anymore. First, the setting was wrong. Since the ranch is so pivotal to the story, we needed to be there on the cover. Also, Callan looked too urban and, well, frivolous.
That wasn’t our only problem. The timing was working out so that this book would end at Christmas. It seemed to make sense that we reflect that in the title. So now we needed a new title AND a new cover. Here is what we decided on (again, old cover on the left, new on the right):
I’m hoping we got it right and came up with the perfect “packaging” for both these stories. Here is the way the covers look when they’re all together. I love my Carrigan girls!
(Originally published on Tote Bags ‘n’ Blogs in 2013)
So Many Books…So Little Time
When I was a kid growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan (think North Dakota, only less cutting-edge) it seemed I couldn’t get my hands on enough books. Our one-room school house (think Little House on the Prairie meets Lord of the Flies) received a rotating number of books every month from the local school library system. But I always plowed through those before the month was over. As a results I re-read my favorites many times over.
Those days are long over. Now it seems I am flooded with books. Every time I go on Facebook or Twitter, or visit Amazon, Kobo or Audible, I see dozens of books I’d love to read. And don’t get me started about Goodreads! Or bookstores!
The most amazing thing of all, is that having identified a book that interests me, I can have it purchased and downloaded to my Kobo, Kindle or iPad within five minutes (or less)!
Buying books is easy, fun…and addictive. But time to read them is increasingly scarce.
So…how to decide what to read next? For me I usually circulate among the following:
- The monthly reads chosen by the “Happy Bookers” my Calgary reading group
- New releases from my favorite authors
- New releases getting a lot of “buzz” on Goodreads, Publisher’s Weekly, or the Globe & Mail (think New York Times, Canadian style)
- Older books I always meant to read…sometime
- Classic titles I haven’t yet gotten around to
What about you? How do you decide which book you’re going to read next? Do you, for instance, pick up titles you see discussed on Facebook or Twitter? Do you receive author newsletters and buy a lot of books from those? Or do you subscribe to discount newsletters like Book Bub or ENT? And hey, does anyone browse actual book stores anymore?!? I do. Witness this photo taken in Portland this summer…
(Originally published on Tote Bags ‘n’ Blogs in February 2016)
Love and the Single Mom
Try Margo's Daily Soups... Three recipes are now posted and print-friendly! Click on the links below and enjoy!
Try Grandma Carrigan's Cranberry Coleslaw...
Just for Writers
Are you a writer or interested in becoming one? C.J. recommends these books (and not just because she contributed one of the sections):
Writing the Bestseller: Romantic and Commercial Fiction
Writing the Bestseller offers practical advice and wisdom from a dozen successful authors who have sold hundreds of thousands of books, experiencing all the ups and downs of the publishing industry. What to do, what not to do, as romance and commercial fiction have their own rules.
Writing the Bestseller doesn't sugar-coat the work involved. Instead, authors who've been there tell you how to understand the genre and reader expectations. The rewards of writing a bestseller are worth the effort, and these authors share what they've learned over the years so you, too, can succeed in today's competitive market.
Writing the Bestseller II
Writing romance and commercial fiction means knowing the rules, and this book will help you learn them and get there. If you’re wondering where to start, what to do, what not to do, how to find your author brand… this book has it all and more. Just take it from the 12 bestselling authors who wrote it! Experiencing all the ups and downs of the publishing industry isn’t easy, so Writing the Bestseller II will help you not only handle the work involved, but handle it well. Learning from authors who have been in your shoes, who understand the market and genre, willingly share their tips, wisdom, and encouragement so you can also succeed. What are you waiting for? Get started on your writing career today!