Please welcome author Eleanor Cawood Jones today to the blog as she discusses her participation in the new book, Murder on the Beach: A Destination Murders Short Story Collection.
Inspiration on Demand: Where do you go when there’s nowhere to go?
I admit it. When it comes to firm commitments, this short story writer has gotten a bit spoiled by entering anthology calls for submissions. Look! An open call for a neat looking subject! And, hey! The deadline is coming, but it’s not technically my deadline. It’s only my deadline if I want it to be. No one is sitting around waiting for me to enter (except the voices in my head, which want to enter everything).
Inspiration doesn’t strike by deadline? No problem. Don’t try out for that one; there’s another one coming up with a different cool theme, and for that I’m grateful.
It's a distinct lack of pressure.
But when that magic moment comes and you’re actually invited to contribute to a book, the editors smile at you and hand you a deadline and it’s alarmingly real. Deadline? What’s that? An entire new set of emotions arrives and sets up camp in your frontal lobe. You must perform! You must come up with an idea, and not just any idea, but the best idea ever! Everyone’s waiting for you to send in a story which will be a good fit with your colleagues’ work, which you already know will be excellent because you’ve read every one of them.
The deadline is six months off! Then Five. Four. Do I hear three?
Two and a half?
Recently, I was invited to join a group of writers to create Murder on the Beach, Book 1 in the Destination Murders series. And even though I was wild about the cozy, humorous concept, my co-writers, and even the book cover—plus, I’m a beach lover—when I sat down to write, something terrible happened: nothing. Even though I’d recently visited Cabo San Lucas, which is a place screaming for a mystery if there ever was one, no characters showed up to talk in my head, no potential crime reared its ugly head, no clever plot twist showed up, and panic was starting to set in.
I talked it over with co-author Barb Goffman and narrowed down with her that the deadline pressure was what was getting to me and that I wasn’t the only one, I took long walks, I made Alexa play ocean noises, I interviewed friends for weird beach stories, I flipped through twenty billion beach photos on my phone. I even asked customers at work, “Hey! What’s a great way to kill someone in Mexico on the beach? (After a few weird looks, I added the word “imaginary” between “great” and “way.”) I even tried the old standby, just sit back down and write and see what happens. Or blow something up.
Then something completely unrelated happened. I got called to jury duty. It was for a truly horrific crime—a gang-related kidnapping and murder—and, even though I ultimately didn’t get selected to sit on the jury, I understood how traumatic it would be to do so and live through what the victim and families had experienced. I wasn’t about to write about the trial itself, but as I stood in line waiting for yet another round of panel selection, I looked out the window and thought about how the jury members would bond as they sat through the trial, and how possibly some of them would become friends, share meals together, and ultimately even go to the beach together and put some of the trauma behind them. Because, seriously, what could go wrong in paradise?
They wouldn’t have much in common except the shared jury experience. They would be all ages and ethnicities. They would be…a really fun, caring, personable, did I mention fun, group of women to take to the beach.
And finally, the characters started to arrive in my head, and 12,000 words later, they’d been to the beach and taken the trip of their lives. I had a ball hanging out with these women and writing their story. It’s called Cabo San Loco.
Whew! I made deadline.
In hindsight, I realize that so often inspiration has struck with small happenings that have nothing to do with the story theme. I once overheard someone say, “It seemed like the most convenient place at the time,” and ended up writing a whole story based inside a convenience store. When struggling to fit a plot into a pets theme and walking through the little park behind my condo, I saw a fallen tree with a hollowed end and suddenly envisioned a pet rabbit escaping into the park and its owner following and going right to the…well, you know. I wrote a four-story Christmas book once based around the first stanza of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which, as I interpret it, is a song that has very little to do with murder. (Just thought of two reasons why that’s wrong, so look for more feel-good Christmas stories.)
So, next time I need inspiration, I’m going to do something completely unrelated. I’ll find it by taking a walk in a strange neighborhood, listening to conversations at the grocery store, watching a sitcom, or reading some random song lyrics. I’ll add notes to my little notebook where I write down funny things people say. But I’m keeping up with those ocean noises on Alexa. Turns out it’s great writing background noise.
Surely lots of writers struggle with inspiration on demand. I’d love to hear from some folks who’ve experienced this and how you conquered it.
Murder on the Beach comes out May 28 and is set for a pre-order price of 99 cents. My beachy co-authors are Ritter Ames, Karen Cantwell, Lucy Carol, Barb Goffman, Shari Randall, Shawn Reilly Simmons, and Cathy Wiley. (Turns out you can bond over a shared writing experience, too.) The stories are all novelette length and set at eight different beach locales.
Eleanor Cawood Jones ©2021
Eleanor Cawood Jones’ work appears in several mystery anthologies as well as two solo books, and she won a 2021 Derringer Award for "The Great Bedbug Incident and the Invitation of Doom" in Chesapeake Crimes: Invitation to Murder. She's an avid reader, people watcher, world traveler, and remodeling show addict who spends her spare time telling people how to pronounce Cawood (Kay'-wood) and making up long and elaborate story titles.