As some of you know, when I start a book, I may have only a vague idea of the story as a whole, but I’ll have definitive knowledge of the ending. I know not only what is going to happen at the end, but what the very last line of the book will be. Writing then becomes a process of how to get to the end.

I admit, I get lost along the way. Wandering off onto roads less traveled that end up going nowhere, and then having to find my way back to the story. But always, the ending is there as my map.

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Roads guaranteed to lead me astray. What’s around that bend?

There is a lot of emphasis out there on all the work a beginning must do. If you write, you’ve heard it by now. Beginnings must raise questions, hook the reader, introduce characters and setting, and so on. And yes, beginnings are extremely important. A good beginning instantly transports me into the story world and if that doesn’t happen I’m not going to wade through hoping for a good ending.

Endings have a lot to do, too, such as tying up all the plot threads, answering all the questions, etc. But this quote from John Irving says it all for me. Here, he’s talking about epilogues, which do a different job from endings, but the quote still works for me with regards to endings.

‘An epilogue is more than a body count. An epilogue, in the disguise of wrapping up the past, is really a way of warning us about the future.’

I don’t mean here that the ending of a book should be a cliffhanger, and I don’t think Irving means that, either. I don’t like books that leave you hanging simply because it usually takes a while before the next book comes out. I want to be satisfied at the ending. I don’t want to wait months because, honestly, by the time another book comes out I’ll have read many in between and forgotten what cliff I was hanging from.

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It’s hard being a mom on the ground in the midst of a cliffhanger

What I do like about a good ending though, is when it plants a tiny seed. When the last few paragraphs, or the last line leaves one minuscule question. Not a cliffhanger. No big question that will torment you at nights. Just something that allows you to daydream about what comes next. To continue the story in your own imagination. To spend a little more time with the characters you’ve come to like, and possibly not be ready to leave.

I’m not talking about a plot question that won’t get answered until the next book. That’s as bad as a cliffhanger with too much prolonged suspense. I mean something not directly connected to the plot, something that you will find out more about in the next book, but doesn’t necessarily have to be in the next book.

It’s a fine balance between too much teasing of the reader, and giving them just a little bit more time with the story. And I love the challenge of finding just that perfect balance. Most of the time, that ending that I already know, has little, if anything, to do with the main plot. Because, like I said, it’s not a cliffhanger or teaser.

It’s just a little gift to open after the story has ended.

Ode to Oatmeal

This morning, while running late, I threw water and Quaker quick-cooking oatmeal into a pan, put it on high to force it to cook faster, and tossed in some frozen blueberries. Then I put the scorched pan in the sink to soak for the day while I rushed off to work. Driving down the highway in the snow, I thought of past oatmeal.

As some of you know we lived off grid for several years. We left behind a lowland countryside of small farms where, as kids, we’d build forts with the neighbor’s hay bales. In other words, we weren’t prepared.

Initially my parents lived in a minuscule cabin and I had a homemade, equally minuscule, 5th wheel trailer. With no heat. The first winter I priced propane heaters and made the, by now infamous, statement ‘I’m not paying two hundred dollars for something I’m going to use one or two months out of the year!’.


Mishma was not amused by winters

Some of you already know what happened. I spent a winter going to bed wearing wool leggings that went from ankle to crotch, socks covered by wool socks, a shirt, a flannel nightgown, a robe, a big stack of blankets, and a dog and cat under the blankets. I’d wake to blankets frozen to the wall and my breath frozen on those blankets.


Blurry photo of Vaila, who slept under the blankets.

It was not enjoyable. And obviously, I eventually spent two hundred dollars. The heater kept the cat’s bowl from freezing but that was about it.

But anyway, one thing that is still a warm memory from that time period is oatmeal.

My father would get up early and mix steel-cut oats with heavy cream. He’d start a fire in the wood stove and put the pot on the back, where it would slowly simmer for hours.

By the time I came in frozen, the cabin would be warm and the oatmeal hot, thick, and creamy. I’d stand in front of the fire, turning in circles to thaw out each side, and eat breakfast to thaw out from the inside.

I think of that now, and not just because of the difference between his oatmeal and mine. It was a rough way to live in many ways. There were a lot of hardships both emotionally and physically. But as with anything else in life, there were also many good things.


And one of those was a father who would get up on those cold, dark, winter mornings and start a fire.


Dialog in Streets and Pages

I was at a training in the city all last week. While walking to meet family for dinners and to get to classes, I encountered a lot of people.


Without fail, the homeless people talked to me. Not asking for money or anything like that. We’d be standing on a corner waiting for the light to change, and we’d talk. ‘How’s it going?’ they’d ask. Or, ‘how’re you doing today?’ Or a simple ‘hello’. Or comments on the weather. We’d chat until the light changed and then go our separate ways.

The people dressed nicely passed by in a hurry. On their way to the local bars or shops, intent, I assume, on their next errand or next stop. Even people wearing the lanyard that identified them as attending the same training I was in didn’t speak. No eye contact, not even a simple ‘hello’.

Why? The hurry? The responsibilities on their minds? None even commented on the weather while waiting at the cross walk.


Here at home we mainly talk about rain

Thinking about that led to all sorts of musings on society, but also made me think about dialog in writing.

Think about the last book you read. Was there any dialog that went along the lines of ‘hi, how are you?’ ‘fine, how are you?’. Or ‘nice weather we’re having’.

If there was, an editor somewhere failed. Because that kind of dialog, whether in a book or standing chatting with a homeless person, is nothing more than polite filler. It’s an acknowledgement of the person near you, a sort of polite verbal nod that doesn’t mean anything more.

As a side note, someone once told me while in line at a grocery store, that if it wasn’t for weather we’d have nothing to talk about.

In books, that filler dialog shouldn’t be present because it doesn’t move the story forward, or develop character arcs, or add anything to pacing, tension, or structure. You don’t notice its absence when reading, either, because subconsciously you know it’s filler. You’d probably find it annoying if it showed up in a book. You’d probably start thinking, ‘come on, get on with it’ because you’re invested in the story.

In real life though, we should notice when it’s absent. Why couldn’t those nicely dressed people at least have said ‘evening’ as they passed? And I’m not making an over-all generalization here, meaning one or two homeless people did not speak and one or two nicely dressed people did. Absolutely across the board, only homeless people chatted with me.

Of course those who know me personally could make a solid argument (and probably be right) that it was me attracting the types of conversation. I’m not exactly one of those high-maintenance, fancy dress types.


I dressed a bit nicer for the training

But still, the clear-cut lines about who chatted with me and who didn’t, surprised me. It was nice to return home to mountains and snow, and locals who will stand in the street in all types of weather, and talk about everything and anything.

Including the weather.