Friday, December 3, 2010

Everything I Learned About Writing I Learned From My Mother

I couldn’t have done it without her! There I said it. My mother, Leslie Strickland Talley, is the reason I write today. She encouraged me every step of the way. She told me countless tips about writing, particularly about getting started. I never bought any books about how to write. I just listened to my mother. And guess what? She proved right about everything, at least with regard to writing.

With my debut novel, Carbon Copy, and mother’s debut novel, Make Old Bones, coming soon from Wild Child Publishing, people ask me, “Why did you start writing?” I love sharing the story about my mother. Then they ask, “How did you start writing?” Both are excellent questions.

After answering these questions countless times, I’ve discovered something. People enjoy hearing the story of the “why.” But I also learned many people are interested in writing themselves. And they are particularly eager to hear about the “how.” I’ve even inspired others to start writing, including my 10-year-old son. They figure if I can do it, then anyone can do it. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it thrills me to inspire others.

Now I’m sharing the story of the “why” and the “how” I started writing my story.


“I know this girl who looks exactly like you!” That’s why I started writing. I’ve heard this for years, and my response never changes, “I must have been cloned.” And that is how my debut novel, Carbon Copy, was born.

But I didn’t start writing immediately. In fact, I thought about it for eight years before I typed a word of text on my laptop. But the reason why I decided to write is because of my mother.

When she started writing her debut novel, Make Old Bones, she’d let me read each chapter as she completed it. I wanted to know what happened next. I’m her biggest fan. She claims she kept writing because I wanted to know the rest of the story. All the while, she inspired me to start writing. And I had an idea: cloning.


Before I delve into the “How,” I first want to share the tips from my mother. Her tips initially came in the form of a speech she wrote for Toastmasters when she was my age now. She even won a few trophies for her speech. I’m not going to dictate her speech. That’s her baby. But I am incorporating many of her brilliant suggestions, with her permission, of course. Plus, I added some advice of my own.

 Start writing anywhere
 Write down your ideas ASAP
 Know that inspiration can come from anywhere
 Stop worrying about not knowing your entire story
 Write in your creative spot
 Write what you know
 Write often because writing sparks more writing
 Stop when you know what will happen next
 Join a writers’ group
 Make writing part of your routine
 Be patient because writing takes time

Start Writing Anywhere

Start writing anywhere. You don’t need to start writing a story at the beginning. You can start writing at the beginning, the middle, or the end. You don’t even need to start with your story. You can start describing a character or a place.

Many writers rarely write their novels sequentially. My mother wrote all three of her novels this way. I now chat with many new authors. Some of them write sequentially and some of them do not.

When Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With The Wind, she wrote the beginning last because she couldn’t decide where to begin her story. I’m an avid GWTW fan, by the way.
I started my first book at the beginning. Then I wrote the ending. And I filled in the middle chapters last.

For my second novel, Body of Gold, I first wrote the early middle when my heroine met her hero. Then I wrote the end. Then I filled in the rest of the middle. And finally, I wrote chapter one last. I pulled a Margaret Mitchell because I hadn’t decided where my story starts. Now that I think about it, I also pulled a Scarlett O’Hara: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

My third novel, Tin Roof, is the sequel to Carbon Copy which also features my
heroine, Lilly Allen. Since I pictured the ending in my head, I wrote it first. Then I wrote chapter one, and now I’m writing the middle.

I just proved my own point, you can start writing anywhere. I started my first novel in the beginning, my second in the middle, and my third with the end. But before I started writing my first story, I wrote a description of my heroine, Lilly Allen, and her twin, Luther Allen. But before I wrote my character descriptions, I jotted down my ideas.

Write Down Your Ideas ASAP

Write down your ideas the instant they enter your brain, unless you are driving, of course. In that case, write it down the minute you stop. Not all of your ideas will come to fruition, but writing your ideas down sparks the creativity process.

My mother keeps more than one notebook. She carries a small one in her purse and she keeps a big one by her bed. Every time she gets an idea, she writes it down so she doesn’t forget.

Before I had children, my mother and I enjoyed a mother-daughter weekend in Savannah. After touring one of the historic mansion homes, she thought of a how her heroine, Clarice, discovered a major clue. She sat down on the bench in the garden and rummaged through her enormous purse. (The purse I carry now is even bigger, by the way.) She retrieved her notebook and wrote down her idea.

It took several years, but she incorporated her idea into her second novel, The Closer The Bone. I enjoyed the weekend in Savannah with my mother. We took the trip before I started writing myself. But I will never forget the experience of witnessing her inspiration firsthand. And for the record, my mother had forgotten about her inspiration in Savannah until she read this article.

Before I sat down to write Carbon Copy, I started jotting down ideas in a notebook I kept by my bed. I did this for eight years. I still have the notebook. Maybe it’ll be worth something on eBay one day. When I look back, I’m surprised how many of the ideas never even made it to the first draft. But many of them did.

I’ve actually used a cocktail napkin to write down one of my ideas. My husband, Garrison, and I visited Charleston in 2004 for our ten-year wedding anniversary. We were in a pub and noticed many patrons had written on one-dollar bills and stapled them to the wall. We did that too. I wonder if it’s still there? But it sparked an idea, the ending of my third novel, Tin Roof. I wrote it on a cocktail napkin. At least I think I did. Did I mention we drank a Guinness or two?

Not only do my mother and I write down our story ideas, we also jot down phrases. Between the two of us, we here countless entertaining sayings. We both live in the South, and Southerners are full of great prose.

Another source of entertaining one-liners are my many girlfriends. They always keep me in stitches with their colorful commentary. The one who cracks me up the most is my girlfriend, Heidi. I even based the character, Britta on her. Britta is a minor character in Carbon Copy, she plays a bigger role in my sequel, Tin Roof. That’s the book I’ll incorporate one of my favorite sayings of Heidi’s, “She must have one of those special mirrors where that shit looks good.”

But the single most productive source of entertaining sayings is my father, Frank. He is a character and a hoot. One of my mother’s leading characters, Otis, in Make Old Bones is based on my father. In fact, my mother and I often fight over who has the rights to his sayings. For now, my mother and I follow the standard shotgun rule, “I call it.”

With technology the way it is today, I no longer use a notepad to jot down my ideas. I use my cell phone. Initially, I sent emails to myself. But keeping track of all of those emails and printouts of emails grew cumbersome.

Then I discovered my AT&T Tilt had Microsoft Word and Excel. And I went to town. I write down my ideas and phrases and save it on my phone. I periodically transfer the documents to my laptop. I’ve even written at least a dozen chapters on my AT&T Tilt. Now I’m the proud owner of an iPhone. Since it is a product of Apple, it doesn’t support Microsoft, so I use the Notes application. “There’s an app for that.”

You never know when inspiration strikes. Make sure to have some form of writing device available. Use whatever works best for you. As long as you write it down somewhere. And for the record, my mother still uses her notepad.

Know That Inspiration Can Come From Anywhere

Now that you’re armed with some form of writing device, how do you find the inspiration? You don’t. Inspiration finds you. I never understood how, but it does. Places inspire me. A scene appears in my head, and I write it down as fast as I can.

Most of the time inspiration hits me while I am at the location. My mother refers to this as “sense of place.” Once she and I have a distinctive place in mind, all kinds of ideas creep into our brains. I admit it’s a scary thought.

My trip to Charleston six years ago opened the floodgates of inspiration. So many ideas swam in my head and I literally couldn’t write them down fast enough. I’m glad I did, because I just started writing Tin Roof, which is set in Charleston. And I had all of my ideas jotted down and ready to go.

When I started writing Carbon Copy, which is set in New York City, I’d only been there once before. But now, coincidentally, I travel there once a year for work. Yes, I still have my part-time day job. For the last six years I’ve visited the Big Apple. I attend a three-hour meeting, and my husband and I stay for three nights, on someone else’s dime.

I’ve enjoyed many pints at Fraunces’ Tavern, window shopped at Tiffany & Company, explored the New York Stock Exchange area, and walked through the lobby of the Plaza. All of these places found their way into Carbon Copy.

So much inspiration in one place is unusual for me. Most of my inspiration comes in smaller doses. We hold Disney World annual passes and take the boys several times a year. On one of our many trips, the idea hit me about how Grier hides Lilly on Disney property. I wrote it down immediately and emailed it to myself. But it took dozens of trips before the inspiration struck.
I’ve visited the Florida Keys several times in my life. While riding over one of the numerous bridges, I saw so many tiny islands. I thought, who knows what type of secret things could transpire in such a remote location. Read Carbon Copy and find out.

Stop Worrying About Not Knowing Your Entire Story

“But I can’t start writing until I know the entire story.” I hear this from my friends who want to write. Once I tell them, “No you don’t,” they feel relieved. Telling my story about how I wrote the first two novels, inspires my friends to start writing.

My mother knew who the murderer was before she started writing, Make Old Bones. In fact, she knew most of the story. When she told me her third novel, A Bone To Pick With You, was almost finished. I asked her is she knew who the murderer was. She said she “hadn’t decided yet.”

I remember reading the murders in her last two books. I said, “ I didn’t know you were going to kill so-n-so.” And she said, “Neither did I, it just happened.” Then I asked her if she knew who did it. And she replied, “I have no idea.”

Write In Your Creative Spot

Find your creative spot and make it inspire you. My mother’s second novel, is set in St. Augustine, Florida. I got married in St. Augustine, and I live their now. She took dozens of pictures of the City and posted them on a bulletin board above her computer. Not only do the pictures inspire her, but they also remind her to write.

When I write, I sit in my formal living room in my comfortable wingback chair. I prop my feet up on the ottoman. I use at least two pillows and my fleece Florida Gator blanket. In fact, I’m sitting in my creative spot now as I write this article on my HP Mini.

I initially chose this spot because it’s quiet. But more importantly, it’s always kept clean. While the rest of my house may not be immaculate, my formal living room and dining room are always presentable. There is nothing more distracting to a writer than thinking about how dirty their house is. As long as I don’t see the toys on the floor in the other rooms or dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, I’m not distracted by them. My husband can vouch for this.

The first item I placed in my creative spot was a laminated chart of the Periodic Table of the Elements. The name of my website is My idea is that each one of my novels will contain an element from the Periodic Table.

Garrison and I first brainstormed the idea of Elements of Mystery while drinking German beer at the European Street Café in Jacksonville. Our oldest son, David, only a few months old at the time, slept peacefully in his infant carrier. A quiet baby, a cold beer, and a few moments with your spouse is a treasured moment.

I remember telling Garrison how I struggled with my title. Since my debut novel involved cloning, I wanted a title which alluded to cloning. My first thought was Doppelganger, a German word for deadly double. But when I discovered it was already a book and a movie, I nixed the idea.

I fantasized about writing more than one novel. I loved the concept of a recurring theme in the titles of my books. Janet Evanovich uses numbers, One For the Money, etc. Sue Grafton uses letters, A is for Alibi, etc. James Patterson uses a portion of a nursery rhyme in many of his novels such as Along Came a Spider and When the Wind Blows. My mother’s novels each contain the word “Bone.” She refers to it as her Bone Series. My husband is full of suggestions for future titles for his mother-in-law, but they all involve phallic imagery.

I told Garrison about the title Carbon Copy. We recognized Carbon is an element from the Periodic Table. I believe Garrison first said, “What about Elements of Mystery?” We loved the idea and toasted his brilliance. The very next day, he bought me the domain name But for the record, Garrison has yet to read a word of Carbon Copy or Body of Gold. He says he’s scared to death about what my mind can conjure up.

I have no particular order planned as I weave my way through the Periodic Table. I write whatever inspires me. My cousin, Patricia, told me she can’t wait to read Ytterbium. I told her it will follow Thulium. For those 99.99% of you who didn’t understand the joke because you’re not intimate with the Periodic Table, Thulium immediately precedes Ytterbium on the Periodic Table.

The only item I’ve added to my creative spot since I started writing is a framed
8 x 10 of Carbon Copy’s book cover. It has really inspired me to write my second book. Publication proves the best motivation ever.

Once I began writing, I discovered I can write anywhere. My HP mini weighs less than three pounds. I can stow it in my enormous purse. If I have at least fifteen minutes, I can write something.

I’ve written in the park while my sons played on the playground. I’ve written on long car rides. (I wasn’t driving.) I’ve written while sitting in my Jeep waiting in the pick-up line at my sons’ school. I’ve written, about Karate in fact, while my sons attended XMA class. XMA stands Extreme Martial Arts. My sons and I are all First-Degree Black Belts in Taekwondo. I just love saying that.

Write What You Know

My mother always says, “Write what you know.” But I’m fairly certain that’s not what she had in mind when I wrote my steamy sex scenes. My first novel contains only one. But my second novel boasts three. When my mother read the sex scenes in Body of Gold, she told me I had a comma splice, and thought I’d be excommunicated.

I didn’t follow her advice for my first novel, Carbon Copy. It’s about cloning. The only thing I knew about cloning before I started writing was that people kept telling me I look like someone they know.

Although I had limited knowledge about cloning, I knew my main characters, because some of them are based on real people. My heroine Lilly is based on me. Lilly’s twin brother is based on my brother, Damon. He is only thirteen months younger. We were almost Irish twins (siblings born within one year.) Charlotte, the overbearing mother of Lilly and Luke, is obviously not based on my mother. My mother is wonderful. But I have many friends with overbearing mothers. "And that’s all I’m going to say about that."

Not only did I know some of my characters, I knew all of the locations in my story. I’ve been to all of those places--New York City, Key West, Disney World, and The Swamp. In fact, when I visited these locations, I felt inspired to write a scene in my book.

However, in my second novel, Body of Gold, I followed my mother’s advice and wrote what I knew. My heroine, Chelsea, is a hedge-fund manager and a First Degree Black Belt. I’m a CPA and a First Degree Black Belt. When I started jotting down ideas for Body of Gold, I was a yellow belt. I remember waiting in line at Disneyland sending emails to myself as the ideas came to me. And there is a scene at Disneyland in my second book.

The only downside to writing what you know, is that you probably know too much. You always want your novel to feel realistic, but remember to write to your audience. I tried to “dumb down” the financial information as best I could. Much of the financial lingo flew right over my mother’s head. But then again, when the stock market tanked in 2008, my mother thought it didn’t affect her because she owned mutual funds.

Although it was over her head, she raised an excellent point. With three steamy scenes and a love story, Body of Gold evolved into a Romantic/Suspense novel. Carbon Copy is a Mystery/Suspense novel. The romance adds a different audience which I needed to accommodate.

In my mother’s novels, her heroine runs a Bed & Breakfast. My mother has never ran a B & B in her life, but she’s stayed at dozens over the years. She also cooked and cleaned for my father, brother, and me. She always said she felt like a maid. Thanks, Mom.

My mother knew her characters. Her heroine, Clarice, is based on herself. Clarice’s husband, Otis, is based on my father. Their children, twins Kitty & Pat, are based on my brother and me. My mother’s characters from Make Old Bones are mentioned in Carbon Copy. In fact, my heroine, Lilly Allen, is the niece of my mother’s heroine, Clarice. It’s interesting to read the similarities and differences of my mother’s character based on me and my character based on me. And interestingly, my mother and I each made the character based on my brother, Damon, a real slob. He’s a neat freak in real life. And I’m being kind.

Stop When You Know What Will Happen Next

For those writers who experience “Writer’s block,” this is for you. Imagine sitting at a blank computer screen and asking yourself, “Now what?” Always, always, always have a place to start for your next writing session. Remember what I said about how hard it is to start writing? That applies to each writing session. If you don’t know what you plan to write about next, guess what? You’ll find no motivation to sit and down and write.

Following this advice will avoid the blank page syndrome. In fact, my mother told me this before I started writing. And guess what? I always had a place to start writing something. I’ve found that knowing what is going to happen next motivates me to make the time to write.

In fact, I took her advice to the extreme. I keep a list of “things to write” on a spreadsheet. Remember, I’m a CPA. I keep my list on my cell phone too. That way if I ever have at least fifteen minutes, I can start writing a chapter. I also incorporate my list into my outline. Then I denote “finished” , “need to write” , “started” , or “need to modify.” When my mother read this article, she asked, “And you think your brother is anal retentive?” I swear, I’m not.

The best part of keeping lists is the euphoria of crossing things off of your list. Now my writer’s block derives from distractions and lack of time. I guess I shouldn’t refer to my husband and sons as distractions.

Write Often Because Writing Sparks More Writing

I get most of my story ideas when I am sitting at my laptop writing. When my head is engrossed in my story, more ideas come to me. It just takes the persistence to sit down at my laptop and write. In fact, I finally felt as if I’d arrived when I typed as fast as my fingers allowed. I saw the scene in my head, and my fingers barely kept up. It felt like reading a book. I didn’t know what would happen next until I typed the words into existence.

When I’m trying to fill in the holes in my story, I wish I had a wheelbarrow. But simply thinking about all of the gaps in my plot spawns the solutions to fill in the holes. Sometimes I feel the more I write, the more work I need to do. If I add one thing to my story, it affects four more things which I have to go back and modify. But each time I sit down and write, re-write, and edit, my story improves.

I can’t count how many times I’ve re-read Carbon Copy and made changes. In fact, each time I went through my manuscript, I changed something. But eventually I found myself with a final product worthy enough to submit.

Join a writers’ group

My mother joined a writers’ group years ago. They still meet every month. It helps to have someone else review your work as your story progresses. It gives my mother motivation to write. Every month she tells me, “My writers’ group is next week, I better write a chapter so I have something to share.”

My main writer’s group is my mother and me. She lives less than two hours away, so I get to see her at least once a month. I like to have something for her to read, edit, and critique every time we get together. It helps to have an audience, someone to write for. It’s discouraging to write if you think “no one else will ever read this, so why bother.”

Make Writing Part Of Your Routine

One of my largest writing hurdles to overcome is time. Who has enough time? Let alone, the coveted commodity of spare time. That’s part of the reason Carbon Copy took me five years to write.

Ernest Hemingway wrote from six a.m. to noon everyday. He even kept those hours even after staying out all night. Margaret Mitchell wrote all of the time. Even before she wrote Gone With The Wind, she spent hours writing letters to her friends and family. Remember when people used to write letters and mail them?

I changed jobs six years ago. I used to work those grueling tax seasons. I wrote about one-hundred pages during what I now ironically refer to as my “previous life.” The ironic part is I didn’t have one.

Then transitioning from crazy overtime to only fifteen hours a week, I noticed the amount I wrote didn’t increase. I filled my days by exercising and spending more time with my boys. But I never made the time to write more. So I learned to make time to write.

I have Fridays off. And during ten months of the year, my sons are in school. I write on Fridays. My goal is to write at least one chapter a week. I figured it’s a reasonable goal I can attain for the rest of my life. If I write a chapter a week, that’s one book per year.

But I’m an overachiever. Last Friday I wrote almost three chapters, and I wrote a total of five for the week. That’s my record. And I exceeded my goal because I made writing part of my daily routine.

After I drop off my sons at school, I have a good hour before I start my day job. Guess what? I write then too. It’s amazing how much I can write when I have peace and quiet. But even without complete serenity, I’ve learned to tune-out my surroundings and write. After I pick up my sons from school, I have an hour or two to write before I start dinner. Even on the days we have an activity such as Karate, cubs scouts, baseball, or football, I still squeeze in an hour of writing in the late afternoon.

On the weekends, we enjoy the glorious days of not over scheduling ourselves. The boys play outside with their friends. My husband works on his laptop in between cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (I just love to rub it in.) And I write. The beautiful Florida weather is distracting. So I sit outside on the patio and write. Not so much in July and August when it is 110 degrees in the shade. But making writing part of my daily routine proved crucial to writing more because writing takes time.

Writing Takes Time

It took me five years to write Carbon Copy. However, I wrote my second novel, Body of Gold, in less than a year. Each of my mother’s novels took her two-three years to write. But she wrote the second half of Make Old Bones in thirty days. My friend, Michelle Rhyne, wrote her debut novel, Original Sin, in three months. Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With The Wind in ten years. It doesn’t matter if it takes three months or ten years, as long as you finish. But in order to finish, you must start!


I hope you enjoyed the story of the “Why” and the “How” I started writing. I pray this inspires many of you to start writing. So remember: Start writing anywhere. Jot down your ideas ASAP. Know that inspiration can come from anywhere. You don’t have to know your entire story. Write in your creative spot. Write what you know. Write often because writing sparks more writing. Stop when you know what will happen next. Join a writers’ group. Make writing part of your routine. And finally, be patient because writing takes time.

You don’t need a degree in English, Literature, or Creative Writing to become a writer. I earned my B.S. in Accounting and Masters in Taxation from the University of Florida. And now my debut novel, Carbon Copy is getting published because everything I know about writing, I learned from my mother.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Carbon Copy
Terri Talley Venters

Lilly Allen has brains, beauty, and an obscene trust fund. She's living in NYC and her career as a reporter is taking off. She's hoping that the love of her life, Grier, will propose soon. Lilly has it all, or so she thinks.

Grier Garrison, Create Life executive, is running the company in his father's absence. Dr. Michael Garrison, and his failing heart, is in the ICU waiting for a heart transplant. Grier knows the truth about Create Life and its shady side business. He fears that Lilly and her twin brother, Luke, are in danger.

While working on two unrelated stories, stolen newborns and cloning, Lilly discovers a shocking connection. Horrific things are happening, but who is behind it all?

Coming soon from