Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

Where do you get your best material? (03/15/06)

Featured writer: Kate Douglas

Contributors this month:
Betty Winslow
Christine Falcone
Gay Bishop
Gianna De Persiis Vona
Ken Rodgers
Marlene Cullen
Robert Kostuck
Susan Bono
Vesta Copestakes

Kate Douglas

I would love to say my best material comes from the friends and family with whom I interact on a regular basis. That would keep everyone I know on their toes, since my books are in a sub-genre called erotic paranormal. Shapeshifter sex? No problem... check out Uncle David.

Unfortunately it doesn't work that way, and David is safe for now.

Odd as it sounds, my characters bring my stories to life, and my amazingly complacent muse brings the characters to me in the first place. Whether it's my own warped imagination or an active fantasy life, it seems to work, as I'm rarely out of ideas. I'm currently writing a series for Kensington Publishing called Wolf Tales. The title is my editor's choice and drives me nuts: Wolf Tales I, Wolf Tales II, Wolf Tales ad nauseum. Okay, they pay me well so I can live with the title. It was originally mine, without all the Roman numerals.

I started the series as a free story on a romance readers' Internet chat list. One thousand words, posted online. A friend of mine opened a new ebook publishing company and said she wanted something totally over the top to run as a serial with a new chapter every few weeks.

What did I have?

Absolutely nothing, except that thousand word freebie, which was really nothing more than a sex scene between an unseen man and the woman he's rescued. I sat down with what I considered the core of my series, that short piece, and suddenly I knew the man was a shapeshifter, caught half way between animal and human. I knew his past, his needs, his fears, and exactly how his woman would help him.

I needed a mythology, a reason he could shift from human to wolf (Okay, so I picked wolves because they're very popular right now among romance readers and I CAN be bought) and my search took me online to sites about wolves. I found a species from the Himalayas called Chanku and that one word triggered even more stories. The first five installments of my ebook series were purchased by Kensington and released in print as Wolf Tales. The sixth just came out as part of an anthology called Sexy Beast. (They REALLY need to work on those titles!) Still, I had two more novels and two more novellas to fulfill the terms of the contract.

One of my characters discovered more shapeshifters living in San Francisco—amazing how that happens! I had enough material for my next two books and one of the novellas. While writing the third book, a new character showed up when I wasn't expecting him and brought enough personal baggage to plot the third novella.

In the meantime, Kensington has asked for three more novels and three more novellas...all Wolf Tales. (I have this nightmare vision of Wolf Tales XXVIII) As usual, I'm counting on those characters with their terrific ideas, or I'm in deep trouble!

Kate Douglas has been privileged to call writing her profession for thirty-five years, producing everything from radio copy to news stories to contemporary romances and erotica. With thirteen titles currently in print and eight more books in her erotic paranormal Wolf Tales series scheduled through 2008, at least she knows what she'll be doing for the next couple years!

Betty Winslow

My best material comes from observation of what is around me, what is inside me, what could be, what never was. How can a writer who is surrounded by the wonders of creation and the joys and pains of love and life not have more material than she'll ever be able to use? How can she not spend hours searching her memory for just the right words to describe a sunset, a lover's quarrel, a new technique for making life easier? How can she say, "I don't have anything to write about?" All of us live in the midst of heaps of material that we can fashion into words to share with a starving world. All we have to do is look.

Betty Winslow, observing and writing in Bowling Green, OH

Christine Falcone

I get a lot of my material from the air around me, feeling out currents like a swimmer in the bay. I walk around with little buggy antennae twitching, sometimes not even aware that the feelers are on. But, for my best material, I frequent the store of my own life.

Like fabric swatches strewn about the floor of a dressmaker's shop, I collect and assemble certain aspects of the lives of friends and family members. By arranging them into some kind of order, I attempt to make sense out of the incomprehensible, the comic, the mundane. It can be a story or an image that sparks my imagination, or something I overhear. Some part of my brain wakes up, takes notice and like a compulsive note taker, mentally jots the thing down.

Best friends are not safe. Neither are cousins, coworkers or family pets; my parents and my daughter, especially, are not immune. I rake in all of it, like I'm on some kind of reality TV show version of a scavenger hunt. I have been wrestling with certain familiar stories in various forms for years, or a certain dimension of a particular someone's personality. It is usually in an attempt to understand a relationship that I begin writing. Nothing makes my blood flow as fast as two disparate elements that must somehow intersect. It is in discovering how these things relate that I eventually come away with a greater understanding of myself and of the world around me.

Searchlights columnist Christine Falcone's fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in various print and online publications. Her work has also aired locally on public radio and nationally on public television. She is currently working on her first novel entitled, This Is What I Know.

Gay Bishop

In answer to where you get your material as a writer;
Live it or steal it.

Gay Bishop, Sebastopol, CA.

Gianna De Persiis Vona

My best material resides in an undocumented and nervous organ in my body that seems to travel between my forehead and a small space beneath my heart, tucked up under my rib cage. This undocumented and nervous organ is prone to long periods of complacency, interrupted by attacks of the severest emotion, that will often break free from the moorings of the body part and flush through my system like a backed up toilet.

My best material resides in the streets. It comes to me when I am walking, up through the souls of my feet.

My best material runs away when the rain comes. It hates distraction.

My best material hides from me. I alternately love and despise it. If my best material were a house I might burn it down one day, and then weep with regret.

My best material doesn't make sense, but still, we understand each other.

My best material is when my word choice is holding hands with the thoughts that are careening around in my head, and somehow, in a moment of deepest camaraderie, they manage to reflect each other on paper.

Gianna De Persiis Vona is writing a novel. She isn't sure why. Most of the time it's not very much fun, but she keeps on doing it anyway. It occurred to her recently that maybe her previously held belief that she does housework to avoid writing, is incorrect, and maybe it's the other way round, and all of this time she has been writing to avoid housework.

Ken Rodgers

I wonder if my mother had any idea what I really thought about, what I'd done in my life. I managed to hide a lot from her. She was religious and owned strong convictions of what is right and wrong.

I consider myself a relativist. How I see the world, in relative parameters, has given me the quandaries, the questions, the irony I depend on for my writing material.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: "Poets treat their experiences shamelessly: they exploit them."

That applies to me as a writer. I plumb my life. Cancel that, I am required to plumb my life for writing material. It's compulsive.

As hard as I attempt to derive from the purely fictional, I am not successful. I draw upon personal experience for everything I write. Sometimes the thread that connects my finished product with experience is sparse, other times the poem or story comes out of my past word for word. I have tried to visit the purely fictional. But the results taste like cold ashes.

I've tried writing pure fiction based on TV news, the newspaper, or a story I heard about in conversation. But the work only bongs like Clara Rosemarda's prayer bell if I tie the fiction back to my own experience; my war experiences, my slinking cowardice, my hesitant heroism, or the drudgery of work, spats with spit-eyed women, friends I've betrayed, the enduring heat of my hatred.

What I pass off for fiction comes directly from my past; memoir, so to speak, or autobiography. That doesn't mean I don't spice it up. Don't forget that old saw (and I don't know who said it): "A well told lie is worth a thousand frames."

Lately I've tried writing historical fiction, something where time inserts itself between me and the story. Some place in time where automobiles don't blare their horns (there are no automobiles), where guns don't fire on full automatic, where women's dresses have lots of length. But even when I delve into the past for my setting, my characters, I still rely on my memory, my emotion, my sense of smell.

The fact that I use myself as the reflector for my writing has produced some trauma. I squirm when I think that people might see me as something other than perfect. It used to bother me a lot more that I was exposing my weaknesses, my failures. But if the writing is well done, people respond favorably to the fact I wallow in my own misery and shortcomings, and on paper to boot.

I never showed my now deceased mother any of my work because if she knew what I had truly become, she would disown me. Now I don't have to worry about that. Besides, I read Nietzsche.

Ken Rodgers lives and writes in Boise, Idaho. See more about him at

Marlene Cullen

Well now, I'm still in the composting stage. I've thrown all the peelings and scraps onto a heap and it's still cooking. If I pull something out now, it might feel premature.

Okay, I'll pretend my compost pile of ideas is ready. I mean, that's what writers do. Right? Pretend.

Oh, and writers procrastinate. Have you noticed? I'm sure you have. We writers. . . Yes, me, too. . . I'll call myself a writer, perhaps prematurely, but nevertheless. . . where was I? Oh, yes, Procrastination. How many times have you checked your emails and then, of course, answered them. And immediately thought of a few more emails you need to send. By now, the tea kettle is ready. On the way to fix tea or coffee, you notice yesterday's mail, which you really should take a look at.

About now the phone rings. To answer it, or not. You might as well answer because you haven't started writing yet, anyway.

That taken care of, you go back to fixing tea or coffee and sigh as you notice last night's dirty dishes on the counter and in the sink. Since you haven't started writing yet, you might as well wash a few dishes.

Oh, and better get a load of laundry on to wash.

Ignore the dirty house. Ignore the dust bunnies. Ignore the newspaper on the coffee table and the kitchen table and the dining room table. Wait a minute. It's only one newspaper. How does it take up so much space?

Oh, that reminds me. Where do I get ideas?

From the obituaries. They're great. Oh, and I do get distracted and think I should get ideas from all those spam subject lines that look so intriguing but really are promises to enhance body parts I don't have, drugs I don't need and weight loss, which I do need.

What was the question again? Oh, yes, best material.

From my past experiences. At least, I think that's right. I'll let you know as soon as I dig through the fermented, decomposed, ripe compost heap.

Marlene Cullen, Associate Editor of Searchlights, digs deep in Petaluma, CA

Robert Kostuck

I have a story to tell you and I know where it begins but I do not know where it ends.

I get my best material from my brain, which, as the years accumulate, is virtuously stuffed with sepia and Kodachrome photographs, the real and the true, imagined possibilities, half-remembered REM dreams, improbable playbacks of what I've read in the past, and memorized discussions and arguments I've had with other people who were or were not present during the discussion or argument.

Memories especially: climbing to the top of Little Granite Mountain with my Japanese Language teacher, Dani—a self-effacing professional translator/housewife/artist photographer—and witnessing her laughing and smiling for the first and only time. Watching her photographing two dozen turkey vultures swirling in a tight wheel of fortune twenty-five feet over our heads.

Trying to write down everything that happened in two years and forcing it to revolve around that single image of an 88 pound woman standing alongside of a crumbling prehistoric wall beneath the Arizona sun with the camera going click-buzz, click-buzz, click-buzz. Figuring out, after more years have passed, that a solitary image is where the pencil begins and the story is something I make up as I go along, not a static image with related and oh-so-relevant topics tacked on at odd and artistic and literary angles. That single image is the accumulation of two years of jumbled images and conversations and imaginings and what-ifs and probably-nots. A static beginning with a preordained direction will lead to a didactic and boring and unreadable story.

Instead of focusing on that image and working backward to tell the story I strip the solitary image of its unique and irrevocable past and I work forward. I begin with the tantalizing singularity and I go in an unplanned direction, I create the map as I go along, not consciously or critically aware how I am doing it but happy to be doing it. I arrive and I am surprised; and then you arrive and you are surprised.

I have a story to tell you and I know where it begins but I do not know where it ends.

Robert Kostuck, Clearwater, FL.

Susan Bono

I have longed for a direct approach when it comes to writing. I envy writers who are deep in the throes of a novel, or anyone who knows what waits for them every time they approach their notebooks or keyboards. I'm jealous of those whose material calls to them, insistent, persistent. They may struggle to express their passions on the page, but they don't have to worry about finding them.

For me, the adage, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans," also describes my writing. I may enter an experience believing I know what I'll end up writing about, but it rarely turns out the way I'd planned. Instead of writing about my son turning 18 and all the emotions that roiled in my maternal sea, I ended up writing about how nervous I get every time I have to make his birthday cake—a related topic, to be sure, but one I wasn't looking for. My best material always shows up unexpectedly, popping out from under the layers of hope and expectation I've piled up for myself.

In fact, I'd have to say that my fears and anxieties provide my greatest source of inspiration. So far, it hasn't been disaster itself that grips me—I'm powered by the anticipation of trouble and the doubts I carry about not being able to handle it. I end up writing about the roller coasters I didn't ride, movies like Psycho that I'm still too afraid to watch. I've never written about being carjacked during my first month away at college or being caught outdoors in a lightning storm. Those things happened so fast, I didn't have time to be afraid. And after they were over, there were other surprises, other subjects waiting to catch me off-guard.

My best material is always waiting on the periphery, at the edges of my vision. I may never be able to access it directly. I'm trying to learn how to accept that fact. No use chasing it; let it come on its own terms, even if that means it's always going to sneak up on me.

Susan Bono is trying to look the other way in Petaluma, CA.

Vesta Copestakes

The source of my best material for fiction writing is a combination of reality/experiences and my own imagination. I can enhance any situation! For non-fiction, reality all by itself does a fine job.

Vesta Copestakes
West County Gazette
6490 Front Street #300
Forestville, CA 95436
FAX 707-887-0253

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

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