Category Archives: creative non-fiction

the next idea?

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I’m still editing my manuscript, but at the same time I’m thinking about my next big idea. And freaking out that I won’t have a next big idea. I think it’s a common concern: what if this is the end of the road? My goal is to be a full-time, published writer (fiction, non-fiction, either, both), but what if I can’t think of anything to write?

Barbara Kingsolver said in an interview that she aims to answer broad questions in her fiction. She ruminates on the world around her, comes up with a big question, and uses fiction to help answer that question. Or at least shed light on it.

Stephen King wrote that ideas come to him like lightning bolts. You either get an idea for a novel or you don’t.

My current manuscript, written during nanowrimo 2009, is a result of a lightning bolt. I don’t remember my train of thought but I remember sitting at my computer and thinking: aha, a Caribbean island, a murder or two, an unwilling detective, lots of local flavor.

The routine of daily writing and editing will soon be over and I’ll move on to the “attempt to get published” stage. Once I get there, I’ll need to start something new. But what? How do writers come up with new ideas?

In my writing journal I’m keeping a list of words that intrigue me and could be woven into a story. For example: secrets. Also, every time I go to Ikea I get the idea to write an immigrant novel–immigrants living in the US working at places like Ikea. How about a dry erase board instead of a paper journal–every time I pass by I can jot down a new idea or thought or inspiration. And when I’m feeling less than inspired I can stare at my previous scribbles.

How do you come up with new ideas? Do you have creative writing exercises and prompts? exercise? cooking? daily writings?


10 cents per idea

While I diligently (and sometimes not so diligently) plug away at my murder-mystery novel, I also want to keep publishing magazine articles. I say publishing, perhaps I should clarify that statement to read: writing and submitting magazine articles. I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

I found great publishers in Blue Water Sailing and Cruising World but I need to expand my audience. Quite simply, I’m not doing any blue water sailing and I’m not cruising anymore.  I have lots of stories I can write about sailing but at this point it is more like reminiscing than providing useful information to readers.  Sigh.  Tear. I’m afraid that putting up and down the Delaware River on m/v Stinkpot will only give me about 300 words.

“The water is brown. I saw a white trout (aka used condom). The Ben Franklin Bridge is magnificent. Wow, look, another smokestack! Here comes a container ship. Isn’t the skyline pretty? Do you think those guys have a permanent camp set up on that abandoned pier? Wonder what they’ll do with the old prison site…”

It’s time to change gears, change magazines, change content.  Any ideas?

  • Navigating the streets of Philly via bicycle.
  • Local, fresh food markets in the city.
  • Developing the Delaware waterfront.

Anything else?

query letter or quick email?

The conventional wisdom when submitting an article proposal to a magazine is to first submit a query letter to the editor.  These letters have a standard format which includes the hook, why this magazine, and why you (qualifications).

I’m beginning to question the need for these standard query letters.

In my short history as a freelance writer, I’ve submitted articles and been published in Blue Water Sailing and Cruising World.  For both of these magazines, I sent a quick email to one of the editors saying something like:

I have a 1000 word article on sailing around Antigua I think you might be interested in. I also have photographs to accompany the story. Please let me know if you’re interested and I’ll email the manuscript and photos.

These quick, informal emails worked.

In February I took a travel writing class that introduced me to the concept of writing a query letter.  As an assignment for this class, I wrote a 2000 word article on visiting Saba via sailboat. Using the professional, freelance writer approach, I drafted a query letter which I sent to two magazines.  See below.

Dear Ms. Egolf,

I gripped the door handle with white knuckles, waiting for themomentwhen the car would jump the guardrail and plunge 1000 feet down to the Caribbean Sea.  My visit to Saba, an island known for its pristine natural beauty and biodiversity, began on a steep and winding road not mentioned in the guidebooks.

I would like to introduce your seasoned Caribbean travelers to a side of Saba few visitors experience.  Dubbed the “Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean,” Saba lives up to its name both above and below sea level with hiking trails that wind through the island’s rainforest and a marine park teeming with aquatic life.  Your readers will meet the island’s inhabitants, descendants of the original Dutch settlers, and the free roaming goats which are well-suited to Saba’s rocky terrain.  They will get a glimpse of the island’s history, as well as a sidebar outlining how to get to and from Saba, accommodations and dining options.

My Caribbean-focused features have appeared on the pages of *Blue Water Sailing* and *Cruising World*, with my most recent article appearing in the May 2010 issue of *Cruising World.*  I lived and traveled throughout the Bahamas and the eastern Caribbean on my 27-foot sailboat from 2006 to 2009 and my writing draws from those experiences, which include many off-the-beaten path destinations.

Thank you for your time and consideration.  If you would like to share my story with your readers, I can provide a 1000 word piece with photos that would fit well in the Travel Tales section of *Islands*.

No takers. I have another story on sailing in Stockholm’s archipelago which I have sent a query letter to the editors at Sailing Magazine.  If I get no response, I may go back to sending quick, informal emails. Based on my (albeit short) track record, they seem to produce more results than the query letters.

I am not an island.

Paul Simon sings ‘I am a rock, I am an island . . . I have no need for friendship, friendship causes pain, its laughter and its loving I disdain . . .’ What a way to live! It is a natural human reaction to seek out community. In Western society it is the norm to be connected to some form of community – the workplace, family, friends, neighbors, church, the local watering hole – because being an island is not only lonely but cuts us off from helpful, beneficial human interactions. Alone you can accomplish the work of one, but working with one, two, or three other people, your impact is multiplied.

The sailing community is a great group to belong to. As we sailed down the eastern seaboard, through the Bahamas and island-hopped from Puerto Rico to Trinidad, the sailing community was with us every step of the way. Harbors with a large number of cruisers had a morning radio net relaying weather, news and announcements. Dinghies buzz around harbors an hour before sunset as friends visit other boats for sundowners. Ideas, suggestions and advice are exchanged, as are cotter pins, light bulbs and a crimping tool. Friends are made quickly as people often stay in a harbor for only a day or two. Help and spare parts are offered without reserve because everyone believes in boating karma. s/v Whisper was our little island in the Caribbean, but it was an island we encouraged others to visit. We knew we couldn’t sail the Caribbean alone and the sailing community jumped in to help with a generosity and hospitality that is unrivaled.

Our countless positive experiences with the sailing community encouraged us to continue living aboard when we moved to Philadelphia a year ago. Why wouldn’t we? Our other option was to move into an apartment building where neighbors often don’t know each other and the only community activity is passing in the hall or riding the elevator together. During our first week tied up at Pier 3 Marina we were invited over to another boat for dinner, someone brought us flowers, another boater dropped a big bag of fresh veggies in the cockpit and someone else loaned us their car for a week. Yet again, boaters coming together to help each other out, be welcoming and generous. Marina residents got together for a Christmas party and over the past few weeks a group has organized a spring clean-up of the marina. A small, but telling, anecdote: the soap dispenser in the bathroom ran out of soap over the weekend, by Sunday evening someone had placed a bar of soap by the sink.

It is natural to gravitate to communities: the group helps the individual through tough times and encourages each member along in good times. As smart as we think we are, someone else always has a different perspective that will shed new insight on an issue, problem or question. I embrace the boating community as an invaluable part of my life.

What community do you belong to that you can’t live without?

Johnny Damon – the heartbreaker

A collective groan erupted from the fans at the Wachovia Center and echoed across Philadelphia on Wednesday night. Patrick Kane had scored the winning goal 4 minutes and 6 seconds into the sudden death overtime of the Stanley Cup finals. Chicago held the lead throughout the entire series but the Flyers kept bumping up to keep the score even. Hopes were high in Philadelphia, only to be dashed on home ice. I was disappointed but, as a new Philadelphia resident, I wasn’t very upset. I didn’t have the same dejected, depressed feel as when the Patriots lost the Superbowl in 2008.

As I watched the Flyers and Blackhawks skate across the ice fist-pumping their gloves at the end of the game, it was obvious that the loss was much different for the fans than for the players. Sports fans maintain their team loyalty for years, decades, and, most often, entire lifetimes. I’ll always root for the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins and Celtics. No matter where I live. The players, however, are just in it to win. Look at Marian Hossa of the Chicago Blackhawks. He basically moved from team to team until he won the Stanley Cup. He was elated when he hoisted the cup over his head on Wednesday night, but for him, he was happy to hold the cup as a personal victory. Fans in Chicago were overjoyed because their Blackhawks won the cup. I’ll never forget my feelings of betrayal and loss when Johnny Damon went to play for the New York Yankees. The Yankees! I even dressed as Johnny Damon for Halloween. In my eyes, Damon was a true Red Soxer (-ian?). But when he moved, after I got over my feelings of personal hurt, I reminded myself that professional athletes are playing for themselves. Sport is their career, the way they make money and fame. They are not tied to the team or the city, but to their own personal goals.

It was with this in mind that I watched the players at the end of game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals. The Flyers were upset, of course. They were at the end of a long, hard fought season, and no one likes to lose. But they were upset for different reasons than the fans. Such is the dynamics of professional athletes and their fans. Fans and players are not at cross-purposes, we just experience each victory and loss from different perspectives. I will not, however, ever again fall in love with a player like I did with Johnny Damon who broke my heart.