Heather Weidner Talks About Her Writing

Virginia is for Mysteries cover-final

What’s the theme of the story you wrote for the anthology Virginia is for Mysteries?

My story, “Washed up” is about a mysterious suitcase that is discovered on Chic’s Beach at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. And it takes on a life of its own when it starts trending on social media. Thousands flock to the beach to see where it happened.

What’s the most autobiographical writing you’ve done?

My journal writing is definitely the most autobiographical, but I use life experiences and anecdotes in my short stories and longer works.

How much of your personal history gets revealed in your fiction?

I keep a small notebook with me, and I jot down interesting notes and bits of conversations. These often end up in my work. You hear great dialogue standing in line at the DMV, sitting in a restaurant, or just going about your daily routine.

If you were to write a full-blown memoir, what might the theme be?

I have never really thought about a full-blown memoir. I think if I did that it would be a collection of humorous anecdotes and experiences. Some people’s lives are a drama or a docu-drama. More often than not, mine tends to be a sit-com.

Originally from Virginia Beach, Heather Weidner has been a mystery fan since Scooby Doo and Nancy Drew. In addition to mysteries, she writes the blog, Crazy for Words. She currently lives in Central Virginia with her husband and a pair of Jack Russell terriers. When she’s not reading and writing, Heather enjoys kayaking, photography, and visiting the beach as often as possible.

 She earned her BA in English from Virginia Wesleyan College, and her MA in American literature from the University of Richmond. She has been a technical writer, editor, college professor, and software tester.

 Her short story, “Washed up” appears in Virginia is for Mysteries (Koehler Books). She manages the Twitter account and blog for the anthology. She also guest blogs for discuss.design.develop.

 Heather is a member of Sisters in Crime International, SinC-Central Virginia, SinC-CV Critique Group and Guppies writing group. She is the programming chair and vice president for the SinC-CV chapter. Heather is also on the executive team of Bethia UMC’s Upward Basketball and Cheerleading program.


Linda Thornburg: Write The First Draft of a Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part Three

Blue Sky Growing a Tree Branch in the Garden o...

Blue Sky Growing a Tree Branch in the Garden of Success (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Linda Thornburg runs the Memories Into Story website. Suggestions for how to approach the first draft of a memoir are offered here and in related articles on the site.

Day Two: Exploring Possible Themes

In order to complete the first draft of your manuscript in thirty days, you need to know your theme before you start writing. Themes in memoir are broad subject areas that certain aspects of your life embody. Some examples of memoir themes are:

The artist within

Living with Papa

A garden for each season

Growing up in small-town America

The writing life

Travels in Japan

List the things you are grateful for in your life. Take a broad approach so that you don’t end up focusing only on the present. What forces made you the person you are today? Can you see the value in even the darkest parts of your life now? This exercise can be quite powerful. It will help to clear your mind of negativity and fear and get you ready to begin outlining.

To find a theme that will help you focus your writing, try this process. Take a blank sheet of paper and write the words “me” in a circle in the middle. Without thinking about it too hard, draw a line radiating from the circle and write something about your life. Then draw another line radiating from the circle and do the same thing. Draw a third and fourth line with things about your life on each of them. Which line is the one that you can make “branches” off of most easily? That is, which one do you have most to say about? Draw branches off that line and write something on them.

The branching technique is a quick way to “mind map” and discover the area of your life that holds the most interest and energy for you as a writer. The topic with the most branches may reveal a theme, or at least hint at one.

After you’ve had a chance to do the branching exercise, rest for the day and let the ideas that have surfaced find their way through your subconscious. On the third day, you will work with some of those ideas.

Day Three: Refining Your Theme

By now you should have an idea of whether you are writing for family and close friends or for a wider audience. You also should be aware of some of your fears about the writing process and have some idea of the theme of your memoir.

When I tried the branching technique I ended up making a lot of lists. One was of people I had known intimately, one was of groups I had joined, one was of jobs I had held, and one was of men I had known. It became evident to me that what I needed to do was to find a device that would let me incorporate all my lists into a single memoir. That led me to some introspection about how I had defined myself as a woman, especially during my twenties and thirties. I realized that social norms — or fighting against them — had pushed me in certain directions.

By working with your branching from the previous day, you will find that certain themes emerge in your life’s trajectory. Consider these questions as your review your branching work:

1. What things about your past would you change if you could? If you find that your life experiences made you the person you are today, you won’t want to give up much. This is what happened to me; I realized that I am quite satisfied with who I am and have few regrets about the life that I have lived. What a wonderful revelation that was! I have almost always been a person who focused more on the future than on the past, but knowing that my past serves to make me who I am and that I like myself makes me happy.

If you find that there are a lot of things you would change about your past if you could, look for themes there. For example, if you had a bad marriage and wished you hadn’t married the person you did, what led you to that choice? How did your choice fit into the other patterns you exhibited in your life? Why did you stay in a bad marriage? Is there something that would serve as a theme for your memoir?

2. What was your subconscious telling you when you did your branching exercise? By thinking now about the things you left out or didn’t write down, you should have some clue about what has been most important. What do those first branching lines have in common? Is there a germ of a theme there?

3. Imagine that you are a little girl or boy and have the power to see into the future. When you were six years old, what about the life you lived would have been the most surprising? What would have been the most expected? By answering these two questions, does the beginning of a theme emerge?

4. I once heard a new age guru say that everyone has one or two questions they are trying to answer with their lives. Does your branching work suggest what those questions are? Does that help you define a theme for your memoir?

If you still don’t have a good idea for a theme, don’t worry. Work with a possible theme and it will become clearer as you progress. Take what you think might be your theme and do another branching exercise using that theme inside the circle in the middle of the page. Don’t think about it too hard; just write things on the lines radiating from that circle. This will be the skeleton for your memoir. But don’t worry. You don’t have to get it right; just let both sides of your brain work together to create branches for your newly discovered theme. Remember, you are looking for one branch that calls to you and that you can branch off of easily.

Your new branches should bring you closer to the subject material for your memoir. If you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere, try this exercise several times. Eventually the patterns will emerge. When you think you have a clear idea of what you will write about, rest for the day.

Related articles

Linda Thornburg: Write The First Draft of A Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part One

Bean curd person of high skill

Bean curd person of high skill (Photo credit: Wm Jas)

Linda Thornburg runs the Memories Into Story website. See her full bio under Writing and Editing Services.

Your life story is unique. There is no one else on this planet with the same memories and experiences. That makes you a fascinating person, so start with the knowledge that your life is worth writing about. It doesn’t matter whether you know you are fascinating, you think you’ve had the dullest life imaginable or you see yourself as a ne’er do well. You have a story that will captivate readers and can teach them a thing or two.

After thirty years working as a writer and editor and coauthoring a number of books for pre-teen and teenage girls I started a memoir writing business. I work with people who want to tell their unique stories to produce the best memoirs possible. The process described in this and subsequent blogs is the one that I used in writing the first draft of my own memoir. It was an intensely satisfying experience.

 In order to write fast, you have to have an understanding of what you want to achieve, so take a little time to prepare  for the writing ahead.

If you believe, as I do, that one of the primary reasons we are given this life is to learn and that you have indeed learned, then you have something valuable to share. One reason the memoir genre has become so popular is that it gives us a glimpse into the minds of those who are both similar to and different from us. We like relating to others through their stories. It takes us out of our own narrow perspective and yet we find things to identify with in the stories of others, things that teach us lessons as well as satisfying our curiosity about how others live

It is worth spending a little time thinking about this as you prepare to write. What do you see in your life that is unique, and what do you see that is common to others? For example, if you grew up with an exotic learning disability that made your life more challenging, that would be something that is, if not unique, at least different from the majority of people who will read your story. But if you found a way to learn and took joy in it, that characteristic is one you share with others and one that readers will easily relate to.

Just as each life is unique, so too is each person’s reason for writing. But we can attempt categorize memoir writers’ motivations. You might write as a form of therapy, hoping to find in the act of recording your life that you will better understand the things that have happened to you and find some peace. You might be someone who has to work through pain and or guilt. You might write as a form of self-validation, seeing your life more wholly and finding meaning in remembering. You might write to discover how you feel about certain themes or experiences, using the writing opportunity to gain more self-knowledge. You are the person who knows the most about your life, the primary expert, but by putting your recollections on paper you might discover aspects of your life you hadn’t considered before. Listen to these authors on memoir:

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory.

“Each of us is a book waiting to be written, and that book, if written, results in a person explained.” Thomas M. Cirignano, The Constant Outsider.           

You might write to revisit certain times and understand why you made the choices you did. Maybe you write to answer big questions, like “Why am I alive and what is my purpose?” Many people write to leave a legacy, either for their families or for a wider audience. Others write because they want attention or fame, others to earn money.

What are your reasons for writing? Take some time now to understand your motivations and you will be guided in how you organize your material and the subject matter and word choices you make. Here are some questions to consider:

Who am I writing for?

What is my primary motivation?

What are my secondary motivations?

What do I hope to discover in the writing process?

Am I trying to justify my actions to someone?

What is my relationship to my past?

Most of us cannot fully articulate how we feel about the past. However, by trying to put our feelings into words, we open doors into our writing. If you believed only that  “the past is dead, time to forget it,” you would not be reading this. You have an interest in your past. Do you look on it nostalgically, regretfully, angrily or philosophically? There is no right answer and no single answer, but articulating how you feel will help you to see and understand your motivations for writing.