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No detail too small

My husband and I recently took the kids on a 12-day tour of Europe. We hit the highlights of cities like London, Venice, and Paris, and enjoyed the natural beauty of Innsbruck and Lucerne. But–as I mentioned in a previous post– the most interesting part for me was the details that made Europe different from the US.

Not just foreign languages, old buildings, different food, and paying to use the restroom. I mean the things you might never discover without visiting.

For example, in many of the hotels, the lights wouldn't turn on unless you inserted your key card into a slot by the door. After the first night in one of those hotels, the tour group was laughing about how long it took each of us to figure it out.

Insert key card for electricity

If you're in continental Europe and you want a Diet Pepsi, too bad. Pepsi apparently failed Euro-marketing 101. It wasn't even in the little grocery stores. And if you want a Diet Coke, it's Coke Light.

In Innsbruck, there are boxes at the crosswalks, but no obvious button to push to request the walk signal. We never did figure out if it was a motion sensor or what.

Mysterious crosswalk box

If you need to know what street you're on, check the wall of the nearest building. No street signs on poles.

The commercial rest stops are amazing. Clean bathrooms, great food, and nice displays. They reminded me of the toll road oases in Illinois and New Jersey, but nicer.

Rest stop food

Rest stop shopping

Rest stop tortellini

Just to make things confusing in Italy, if you wanted self-service food, it worked like a cafeteria, but if you wanted something made-to-order, you had to pick it out, get a ticket for it, pay at the cashier, then take the receipt back to pick it up. We stuck with self-service and still got excellent food like the tortellini above.

The UK had fun names for its pubs. We didn't get a chance to eat at The Slug & Lettuce (“Slug” for short), but we dined at a pub called The Bunch of Grapes (near Harrod's).

The Bunch of Grapes

This is just a sampling of the things that I noticed on our trip, but I think they're the unique aspects of a place that make it interesting. And as a writer, it's the little details that make a setting real to the reader. I'm already dreaming up ways to incorporate some of the places we visited into a new book.

What are some of the fun things you've learned about different places you've been (foreign or not)?

What’s the big(ger) idea?

How do you write a “bigger book”? Yes, I've blogged about this before, but a recent series by one of my new favorite writing resources–yes, Larry Brooks over at–helped the concept of “writing big” finally click in my brain.

He seems to be helping things click a lot lately. Not sure if it's Mr. Brooks' style, that my brain is finally ready, or a bit of both. Maybe it's that old line: “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”. Hmm.

Anyway, here's my take on the idea of writing a bigger book.

The author takes ordinary people and shows them in extraordinary roles. We can relate to the emotional core of a character, and be thrilled by the chance to participate in a job or situation that many of us have no experience with. (And probably wouldn't want to in real life.)

They say and do the things most of us only wish we had the guts to say or do. When faced with a terrifying challenge, they rise to the occasion (eventually), the way we'd like to think we would.

Those larger-than-life characters are operating in an environment that is both foreign and fascinating to the average reader, so we're drawn into the experience for the vicarious ride through their world. Think special ops forces, spies behind enemy lines, hostage situations, medieval times, the Regency period, a school for wizards, NYC with vampires.

The same way a roller coaster simulates the thrill of a death-defying ride, big books let us experience scary and exciting worlds and situations through the adventures of the characters that we've grown attached to. We feel the fear, the joy, the heartache, and the bravery as if it were our own. We can have the emotions without the risk.

Bigger books usually also often have larger stakes. The threat isn't just to the heroine's daughter, but to the entire school, or the whole city. The villain isn't just a terrorist, he's the head terrorist. The stakes are personal, but also universal.

So now that I “get it”–I hope–my goals are to work it into Slow Burn, which I'm getting ready to put through its first major plot revision, and to apply the concept to Blind Fury which is in the throes of nascency.

How about you? Any thoughts on what makes a “bigger book”?

Location, location, location

So far, all three of the manuscripts I've completed (I'm counting the current one, Floater, which is in revision status), have been set mostly in San Diego. I lived there for two years in the early 90s, and it's still one of my favorite cities. I enjoy writing about, and researching, the area.

Two books I started before Floater–but never finished–were set in northern Virginia (where I was living at the time). For some reason, I just couldn't get those stories off the ground. I wrote about 100 pages for each and didn't know what to do next.

I'm sure it's a coincidence that the two stories set in VA didn't work out. I'd like to think I could write a book set anywhere in the world. But, I have to admit, when I went back to the drawing board to start on Floater, I was back to San Diego again.

This time, I worked through the GMC, and made sure I had at least some idea of the major scenes and how the book would end. Even though I'm more of a pantser, I need some structure to hang the scenes on. I need the approximate destination, even if I don't know the route. My confidence has grown, and my understanding of what I have to do before I start writing has improved.

My brain is already fizzing with ideas for my next book, and it's set in Virginia again. Maybe.

I'm hoping the third time's a charm.