Becoming a Writer by Mistake, or How I Traded Needlepoint for Writing

Becoming a Writer by Mistake, or How I Traded Needlepoint for Writing.
Terry Odell

**Note: We’re having new windows installed and they’ll be doing my office today, which means moving my desk and disconnecting electronics, and I’m not sure when I’ll have connectivity to respond to comments.

At reader-focused conferences, such as Left Coast Crime, most panelists are asked the question, “How/When did you start writing?” regardless of the panel topic. Readers are interested in learning more about the person behind the book. I listen as everyone else spouts off their histories of wanting to write since before they could talk, or how they wrote their first manuscript in crayon. Then my turn rolls around, and here’s my answer.

I was a card-carrying AARP member before I considered writing anything. How did I get started? The short answer: I ran out of room on my walls for needlepoint and had to find another creative outlet. But the real answer is, “By mistake.”

I never had any dreams of being a writer. Creative writing classes weren’t my forte. I knew all the rules of grammar, got A’s in English, but I was a reader. I devoured books. I read anything, from comic books to cereal boxes. My parents tell everyone that we moved when I was 12 because I finished the library. I made up stories, but they were in my head. I never thought about writing one down. They were usually daydreams, or continuations of books I’d read, or stories about characters on television. The closest I came to writing was two pages of a story I’d had running around in my head—something featuring MacGyver. But the actual typing was a total drag. Punctuation mattered. You had to start sentences with capital letters. There were quotation marks to deal with. All that use of the ‘shift’ key was a total drag.

Years later, my son was visiting. He, as all men are wont to do, was “watching” television by flipping the remote. He stopped on a show. “This one’s cool,” he said. “It’s all about these guys who can’t die unless you cut off their heads.”

My son went back home. Being a good mother, I decided to watch the show so we’d have something “cool” to talk about. I found “Highlander” in the listings, set the recorder, and watched an episode. Okay, I’m not proud. Watching Adrian Paul was no hardship. But the show also raised questions about what these Immortals could and couldn’t do, and I got curious. There were no Yahoo groups then, or even Google (I think, anyway). There were CompuServe forums. I found one about Highlander and discovered the world of fan fiction. It seemed right up my alley. I discovered one author whose voice resonated with me. (Of course, back then I had no clue it was her “voice.”)

We hooked up via email, she connected me with some of her friends, and I did some beta reading for them. Just because I wasn’t a writer didn’t mean I wasn’t a good reader, and I definitely used all my English skills to hone their stories.

Then, one day, hubby was out of town, and I decided to see what would happen if I tried to write a story. The beauty of fan fiction is that your world and your characters are all there. You can work on the skills of the craft in small increments. I cranked out my little story—actually, sweated it out, because it still didn’t come easy, what with getting all those quotation marks in the right place—and bravely sent it to the writer I’d befriended.

I’m sure she got a good laugh, but she came back with advice and comments. What the heck was POV?

I accepted the challenge. After all, I did get all those A’s in English, and surely I could learn how to put a story on paper instead of sucking up what others wrote. She had immeasurable patience, and when I finally had her approval that it was done, she insisted I post it to one of the Highland fan fiction forums. I got positive feedback, and like any good puppy, kept trying to please. (Had I known then how low the bar was for positive feedback, I might not have kept going, but since I didn’t, I did.)

Eventually, I found another writing group at a site called iVillage, and thought I’d try writing some original fiction, just to see if I could. I recall an exercise, where we were supposed to write a “hook” in under 200 words. I sent mine in, and got lots of “Wow, what happens next?” comments. How did I know? So, I kept writing. 143,000 words later, the first draft of Finding Sarah was finished, and I’d hooked up with a local, in person, critique group who drove me to consider the “get it published” side of the writing craft. And one of my Highlander fan fiction short stories eventually provided a starting point for the next book I wrote, What’s in a Name? There’s a lot of Duncan MacLeod in Blake Windsor.

And somewhere along the line, I was talking with my son. I asked him what he thought of the writers killing off Tessa. He said, “What?” I said, “You know. Highlander. Tessa. Duncan’s girlfriend. They killed her character.”

His reply. “Oh, I never actually watched the show. I just thought it was a cool concept.”

And that’s how I became a writer by mistake. I don’t think I’ll go back to needlepoint.

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now
Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

30 thoughts on “Becoming a Writer by Mistake, or How I Traded Needlepoint for Writing

  1. Love this! I used to do needlepoint too – then rheumatoid arthritis killed that. Tried writing a story, submitted it to a contest and was shot down! So I told myself I’d show those naysayers that I could do it.
    Oh and Adrian Paul – yes!!!!

  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Terry. I, too, enjoy hearing how other writers came to writing. Your story is very interesting.

    By the way, I like your needle point. Nice framing and matting. Someone knew what they were doing.

    Good luck with the window replacements!

    • Thanks, Steve. The installers were here yesterday, and got phase 1 of all but our two offices finished. They’re very good, and I felt sorry for them having to work at our altitude, which is almost twice as high as where they live.
      Thanks, too, for appreciating the framing. The ever-patient and gifted Patrick of Benjamin Franklin in Orlando gets the credit for that.

  3. Always so interesting to hear how people get their start in writing. As to needlepoint, I don’t think I’d have the patience.

    • I enjoyed the relative simplicity of poking the needle in and out of the canvas, but it was a television project. I found tennis matches the perfect background. I could listen and it was always obvious when there was a good play, and they’d replay it (several times) so I’d look up from the needlepoint and watch.

  4. Love your writing origin story. I was a fan of Highlander for awhile until it got kind of weird. I never did like that they killed off Tessa. Several years ago, when I was looking for actors to inspire me for characters, I picked Adrian Paul for one of my main characters. He gets better looking with age. 🙂

    • What ended up becoming “What’s in a Name?” started with a MacGyver scenario with Duncan MacLeod showing up. Even when Highlander got “weird” there was still Adrian Paul. I think I was ten episodes in before I realized there was a plot going on.

  5. I completed my first novel at 53, now I have 23 published. Like you, I never wanted to write. I was, and still am mediocre with grammar. Though I have 4 college degrees, I can’t every recall getting an A in English. I hated every creative writing assignment I ever had. However, I’ve been a people watcher my entire life. I can’t help but make stories up in my head about people that pass me by. I do have a rich imagination and I’ve hooked up with an editor that appreciates that while not flinching about the twice a paragraph grammar violations. Life is good.

    • A good editor is a goldmine, Alec. I was terrible in the junior high semester of creative writing. I don’t have grammar issues, but finding the right words is my challenge.

  6. Love your story-much of it sounds like mine. 😉 since I’ve aways read the backs of cereal boxes, comics, too. And I started ate. I’ve enjoyed your stories and am gad you traded in needlepoint for writing. (I used to do needlepoint too. Lol)

  7. Delightful story, Terry! And so well written. I love how someone’s life direction can change based on a simple comment or short conversation.

    I think there’s a lot to be said for those of us who came to writing after living for a few (or more) decades. There are lots of lessons and experiences just waiting to be shared.

    I loved the pictures of your needlepoint. I especially like the more modernistic one.

    • Thanks on both counts, Kay. That image is only a small number of my needlepoint projects–one wall in the bedroom, which is mostly florals. My office is mostly seashells.
      There’s a lot to be said for being older when starting to write — after all, “Write What You Know” gives us a lot more to know about.

  8. How about the 280 lb defensive lineman for the Los Angeles Rams who by accident got into needlepoint? Rosey Grier! He wrote a book called Needlepoint for Men that now goes for almost $300 on the internet.

    File under “Ya never know.”

  9. Beautiful needlepoint and delightful story, Terry.

    My dining room chair seat covers are needlepoint. The canvases were imported from China before it went communist. The floral design had already been hand-stitched by Chinese artisans and just needed the background filled in. My grandmother started the set before I was born and completed two before she had a stroke. My mother did two while I was little. I finished the last two as a young newlywed. They never wear out and still look beautiful today.

    • I recall some of those ‘kits’ where all the buyer had to do was the background. My mom had one of “The Juggler” on her living room wall. She made needlepoint seat covers for the bentwood rocker our kids were all rocked to sleep in, and even though it totally doesn’t “go” with our decor, I won’t get rid of it. One decorator suggested getting rid of the covers … Ha! No way. Not only did my mother do it, but she included her name and the date. I agree as to the longevity–my youngest is 50 now.

  10. I never thought much of fanfic until you set out what the value of it could be, Terry.

    That’s given me a whole new insight into story mechanics and how it feeds into craft. I promise I won’t be snotty to fanfic writers on reddit any more.

    My journey to writing was a little different-it kinda sprung out of my head a few years ago as if from a dream. I remember waking up in the middle of the night about four years ago and I started writing about a Korean war vet who gets mixed up with the Kansas City mob. I still don’t know where it came from at all, but it started me on the path of learning the trade. Come to think of it, I haven’t looked at it in quite a while-I wonder what I can harvest from it.

    Consider me an apprentice who knows enough to be dangerous.

  11. I’m sure fan fiction writers will be happy to know you won’t be snotty to them. Sounds like an interesting story — follow that dream!

  12. ❦ When I was born, I immediately reached for the nearest writing implement. But the only thing at hand was the obstetrician’s hemostat. It made a lousy pen, so I began nursing on it, to no effect. Or so my mother said.
    ❦ No, the earliest “writing” was tiny newspapers my sister and I put together, “The Daily Bloop.” They had listings for the radio soaps: “Just Plain Bob,” “Old Widow Black,” and “Portia Faces Ugly,” etc.
    ❦ Later, my sister got L. Sprague de Camp’s “Science Fiction Handbook,” which inspired me to dabble in writing. My degrees were in Chemical Engineering, but I took 5 English courses at USC.
    ❦ I made several serious attempts, including one I submitted to Analog SciFi in 1972, about a man who discovers a place where time doesn’t pass and vanishes with no trace. Ben Bova sent me a nice note saying, “A pretty good story, but too inconclusive for Analog. Try Again.”
    ❦ From 1975 to 2000, I printed several poetry chapbooks and had a few magazine articles published, including “Beware the Wrath of Abibarshim.” (Alex Haley autographed my acceptance letter!)
    ❦ Since 2001, 25 works for the stage, five novels, a short story collection, three screenplays, and six monographs on brain structure.

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