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So, just like last year I’ve had a few people ask me what was in my writer’s toolkit for National Novel Writing Month this past November. Starting from the top, let’s go through the equipment, software and other tools that got me through the month in one piece (mostly).

Apple 13″ MacBook Pro Retina: It’s about a year and a half old now, and El Capitan (Mac OS 10.11) is riddled with weird problems…but the Mac OS platform is still a solid one. Sure, I have about two dozen third party applications that run at launch – I’ll get to that in a moment – but the Mac OS still provides, at least to my mind, a friendlier, more attractive work environment. I use Windows extensively at work (7, 8.1 and 10), and I still prefer to come home to a Mac at the end of the day.

Third Party Software for Modifying the Mac OS: Yeah, okay, here’s where the Mac OS falls down on the job: Apple wants me to do things their way, and I’ve never been much of a follower. I am very much a creature of habit, and I like to customize my work environment to make it more comfortable for the way I do things. To that end, the following third party apps enhance my use of the Mac OS. (This is a brief list – I’ve got a LOT more than just these running.)

Disclaimer: Because Apple has been making it harder and harder to modify the way their operating system works – sacrificing flexibility for stability and safety, according to them – running some of these apps requires violating a level of Apple’s ‘user security’ (ie: doing things the way they want it done) or two along the way. Do a little research before deciding if these are for you!

ClipMenu ( A compact clipboard manager which remembers the last X# of items you cut or copied (I have it set to 20, but it’ll keep a LOT more than that). Useful for the indecisive writer! It hasn’t been updated in a while, but it’s free and still works well in El Capitan.

TotalSpace & TotalSpaces Grid ( A third party replacement for Apple’s Mission Control desktop manager. It works like the original version of Apple’s Spaces (from OS 10.6), and is enormously more flexible and useful, especially in this age of fullscreen applications.

Alfred ( A Spotlight search/launcher interface replacement with greater flexibility and a wider range of uses. It’s free for basic use, which covers a lot of ground, and the (relatively inexpensive) PowerPack just expands that.

Path Finder ( A total top-to-bottom replacement for Apple’s Finder (the Windows Explorer equivalent on the Mac). This is as much an aesthetic choice for me as a functionality one – in addition to a wider range of information being available at your fingertips, Path Finder gives you more options for viewing, sorting and filtering the contents of folders. It also replaces the basic Mac OS desktop interface, giving you a lot of options for customizing the layout of icons and what information they present at a glance. (It also uses a lot less in the way of system resources, if you’re willing to let it quit Apple’s Finder when it launches.)

BetterSnapTool ( Adds Windows-like “snap to edge” functionality to the Mac, which lets you drag windows to the sides of the screen to fill half of it, to the top to fill all of it, or to the corners to fill a quarter of the screen. Yes, El Capitan offers some of this functionality…but not all of it, and BetterSnapTool is smoother and more reliable in its behavior.

And now, back to mainstream software…

Scrivener ( I have yet to find a better all-in-one solution for writing. Scrivener is a place to keep all of my research, character biographies, setting notes, and the manuscript in a chapter-by-chapter format that makes editing and reorganizing the story very easy. It can also compile and export your manuscript in a variety of formats, including Microsoft Word, ePub, Mobi and PDF, for easy publishing. There is, to my mind, no better all-purpose writing environment than this.

As a side-note, Literature & Latte also produces a program called Scrapple, a great basic mind mapping program. I’ve used it a couple of times to help me reorganize and disentangle particularly difficult plot threads.

Scrivener and Scrapple both come in Mac and Windows flavors, and while the Windows version of Scrivener hasn’t quite caught up to the Mac version in terms of features, it’s well on its way and worth the money.

FocusWriter ( Remains the best distraction free writing environment I’ve tried, and it’s still donationware (I happily made another donation this year – I love it that much). Best of all, there’s still no Markdown in sight, thank goodness. But as I said last year, it’s distraction free, not feature free. It remains a fully-functional Rich Text editor, which means you get all of the vital formatting tools you need (italics, bold, underline, etc.), and for those writing in foreign languages it will do right-to-left text.

Like Scrivener, FocusWriter is available on both the Mac and Windows platforms, in addition to having a couple of Linux version. You don’t get more flexible than that!

Generally, I compose in FocusWriter, then copy it into Scrivener for storage and editing. Between the two programs, they’re better than any word processor on the market for a serious writer.

Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard ( I bought this keyboard in October of 2014 for National Novel Writing Month that year. A year and about 300,000 words later (more or less – probably more), this keyboard is still going strong and I’m not having any Carpal Tunnel problems using it. The best keyboard on the market today, in my opinion. And yes, I bought a spare – just in case. 🙂

Microsoft Word 2016 & Apple Pages 5: I don’t have much to say about these this year. I’ve abandoned Pages entirely at this point – Apple has crippled it well past the point of it ever being useful as a serious writing tool. The few things I was using it for, Scrivener does better.

Word 2016 is a definite improvement over Word 2011, and has even improved the collaborative & editing tools that make it so useful for sharing documents (with, for example, your editor). But it’s an editing & finishing tool, not a writing tool. It has a tendency to bog down when working on large documents…as always.

Music: Music this year was odd and irregular. I was writing in silence as often as while listening to something, for a change. I can’t even really say what I was listening to…iTunes’s randomizer got a pretty solid workout.

I’ve made a new short story set in The Kinnear Chronicles available for free (in several formats) on my website. I had a lot of fun writing this one. Compared to the last one, it’s quite a bit more light-hearted (mostly) and was written almost purely for entertainment purposes. That said, keep an eye open for a few hidden plot-advancing gems hidden amidst the fluff…

Check it out!

The Kinnear Chronicles: A Very Merry Yule
It’s time for the mid-winter Yule celebrations, and Alys Kinnear is
determined to see to it that her boyfriend, Ben Donovan, enjoys it as he never has before. Doing so, to Ben’s discomfort, means taking him along on their visit to the new Swindon home of Alys’s parents: her mother, Deirdre, and her step-father (and former teacher) Jonathan Tremane.

Why do I write? That’s a really good question.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King wrote “Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do – not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.” I think that holds true for why we write, not just how.

So, why do I write? I don’t think there’s a single, simple answer to that.

Partly, it’s the same joy of creation that every artist experiences. There’s something wonderful about telling a story, and hoping that other people will enjoy it as much as you do. About creating characters you love and hope others will too.

And there’s the challenge of it. Anybody who thinks that writing anything (poetry, short stories, novels, you name it) is an easy thing to do – I’ve had people tell me “All you have to do is sit there and type. Anybody can do that.” – needs to have their head examined. Or, better yet, try it. Setting aside how difficult it can be to build the structure of a complete and coherent story, it is incredibly hard to populate a story with characters and events which are engaging and interesting.

Sometimes I write to get something out of my system. Writing can allow me to vent a frustration or fear, or even help me work out a problem that I can’t get off my mind.

Also, frankly, it can be a compulsion. I feel a genuine need to write, to sit and put pen to paper (metaphorically speaking, these days). Whether it turns out to be good or not, I enjoy it. I just hope people enjoy reading it!

But whether they do or not, whether my work finds an audience or not, I love writing. So I’ll keep writing. Even if I don’t completely understand why myself.

I love to listen to music while I’m writing. It helps me concentrate and can – perhaps more importantly – help me maintain the right emotional state for the scene I’m working on.

So, what’re my favorite types of music to listen to while writing? That depends on what I’m writing.

For example, when I’m working on Kinnear, I like to listen to Celtic folk music. One piece in particular – an instrumental piece by Loreena McKennit called Between the Shadows – has come to be closely associated with Alys in my mind.

If I’m writing an action sequence, intense music is called for. Amongst my favorites for this task are multiple tracks from the Pacific Rim soundtrack (especially the title track) and from The Mummy (the version with Brendan Fraser). Recently, the entire score for Mad Max: Fury Road has entered into use for getting in the mood for writing action too – it’s an awesome, high-intensity soundtrack.

But in general, I just like to listen to instrumental music while writing. It provides enough background noise to help me focus without distracting me with lyrics. My usual writing playlist is eclectic, containing bits from the soundtracks mentioned above mixed together with everything from classical music (Vivaldi and Gershwin) to modern orchestral (Tim Janis and Danny Elfman) to film composers (Basil Poledouris and John Williams) and some which can defy easy classification (Vangelis).

Music is, of course, extremely good at creating and molding emotion, which makes it a useful addition to any writer’s toolkit.

A couple of people have asked what was in my toolkit for NaNoWriMo this year, ranging from what computer I used all the way through to what music did I listen to. So here’s a roundup of what was in my Writer’s Toolkit this year…and what will be staying as I go back to a normal (if such a word can be applied to a writer) writing process.

First, let me note that at no time was my television on while I was writing. There is nothing more destructively distracting than a television. If you’re planning to write, start by turning the TV off! 🙂

Apple 13” Retina MacBook Pro: This replaced my 13” MacBook Air back in August, and is a sturdy, steadfast writing partner. No crashes, no hiccups, no slowdowns. I’ve had a few little issues since upgrading to Yosemite (OS 10.10), but nothing that rebooting and a few third-party programs didn’t fix. The Retina display is a bigger deal than I thought it would be…after hours of staring at the screen, my eyes aren’t nearly as tired on the Retina display as they are with a normal monitor, so the high-resolution screen definitely makes a big difference.

Scrivener: ( For a few years now, Scrivener has been my go-to tool for organizing all of my notes about a novel as I’m writing. Whether I’m doing research (it can import and store web pages, images, PDFs, and almost every document format), creating characters, outlining, storyboarding, or keeping track of draft revisions, Scrivener is flat out the best tool for the job. Each book gets its own Scrivener file, into which all of the material for that book – including the book itself – goes, making it a fantastic top-level organizational tool as well.

Scrivener comes in both Mac and Windows flavors, and its format is cross-platform. They’ve been talking about an iPad version for a couple of years now, but don’t plan to release it until its feature-set matches the desktop version. At $45 (often on sale), it’s a bargain.

FocusWriter: ( FocusWriter is a new addition to my toolkit this year, and will be staying in it for the forseeable future. After trying a huge variety of the new “Distration Free Writing Solutions” (including iA Writer, OmmWriter, WriteRoom, and Byword, amongst others), I settled on FocusWriter for several reasons:

First, it’s Donationware. Which is nice, since I got to try it out without having to pay for it, and when I found myself at home with it, I made a nice donation to the programmer to help support it. I like this business model, because I don’t get fleeced up front for a product I’ll never use again (I’m looking at you, iA Writer and Byword).

Second, I like the fact that it’s distraction free, not feature free. I do not like Markdown, which has become the go-to tool for so-called “distraction free” word processors…it feels like programming, and distracts me from the creative process of writing. FocusWriter is a traditional Rich Text (RTF, though it can also save as ODT and DOCX) editor with a hidden and minimalized user interface…so I can write with nothing between me and the words, without losing basic and critical formatting options like italics and bold.

Finally, it has a customizable writing environment, and I love the old-school green text on black interface option it comes with. It’s surprising how easy it is on the eyes.

Microsoft Word for Mac 2011: Unfortunately still the industry standard for word processing. I don’t say unfortunately because it’s not useful, but because it’s been almost five years since Microsoft’s last serious update to Word for Mac, and it’s spectacularly long in the tooth. However, its collaborative tools are unparalleled, and I will happily continue using it with my editors to make it easier for them to make corrections and comments.

Apple Pages 5: For several years, I felt that Pages had the potential to be a major competitor for Microsoft Word. Unfortunately, the most recent version is a disaster. Apple stripped out major features, crippled the user interface, and made the collaborative tools difficult to use effectively – all in an attempt to match the feature set with the iPad version. The previous version still runs well enough in Yosemite that it’s still useful for compiling the book into various formats – including the easiest ePub conversion on the market – but for actual editing, Microsoft Word crushes it.

Microsoft Sculpt Ergononic Keyboard: ( Anyone who’s spent enough time around me knows that I have a tendency to replace my keyboard on a regular basis. I’m very hard on keyboards, and have a long-standing tendency (thanks to having learned to type on old manual typewriters) to pound on the keys. For years, I’ve been relying on Apple’s low-profile keyboards and a variety of Logitech keyboards to provide me with comfortable and reliable typing experiences.

This year, I decided to try out the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard, because my hands have been bothering me lately, and writing 50,000 words in a month is guaranteed to cause wear and tear on both computer hardware and on your hands.

After a month and almost 60,000 words (not counting email and chat), I’m pleased to say that this keyboard was an excellent investment. My hands feel better than they did before I started, and the keyboard has performed admirably. It’s comfortable to type on for long periods of time, and being wireless is easy to place precisely where it’s most comfortable for you. The detached numeric keypad makes it even easier to lay out well – I find that putting on the left side of the keyboard actually makes it more comfortable to use.

I highly recommend the keyboard. In fact, I plan to buy a spare for when this one inevitably fails. 🙂

Music: What to listen to while writing is a highly subjective and wildly variable thing. This year, Jazz appeared to be the order of the day. Fortunately, iTunes’ Internet Radio provides easy access to a wide variety of options, including a full range of’s stations. My favorites are their Piano Jazz, Saxophone Jazz and Trumpet Jazz channels.

Other music included my usual bizarre range of music from movie soundtracks (Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the 1999 version of The Mummy and Basil Poledouris’ score from Conan the Barbarian were popular this year) to Japanese pop music. Whatever gets the creative juices flowing.

I think I’ve finally put my finger on what’s been dampening my enjoyment of New Who since 2005.

In the original Doctor Who, with only one or two exceptions the Doctor’s companions were just people. Everyday, regular, ordinary folks trying to cope with his weirdness. They were us, in other words. They were there to give us a frame of reference when viewing the universe through the Doctor’s old, tired, jaded eyes. Sometimes they were useful (Sarah Jane, we miss you!), sometimes they were a bit hapless (poor Harry), and sometimes they were victims of the Doctor’s zeal and unconscious tendency to push people to be as larger-than-life as he was (poor Adric).

With the exception of Martha Jones (who the writers couldn’t seem to figure out what to do with), NONE of the new Doctor Who companions have been “just people.” They’ve been destined to travel with him, been vital to his continued travels in more than support ways, become something other than normal people while traveling with him, or – twice now, Donna literally and Clara figuratively – have effectively become the Doctor for a while.

They have a greater purpose in the universe, which stunts our ability to identify with them. They are, in other words, almost as alien as the Doctor himself. Something Liz Sladen managed to capture in her own series is that even after growing out of being ‘just a reporter,’ Sarah Jane was still only human at the end of the day. She had no great destiny, no special powers. She was just…us, trying to follow in the Doctor’s footsteps and make him proud.

Most of the Doctor’s new companions have not been us. We can’t follow in their footsteps.

Mandy asks: What do you like to do in your spare time? It seems that you are on cases, learning or training a lot. In the last book, you went on a few dates with Ben…but other than that, what interests you that isn’t in a way related to your work?

Alys: I’m studying to be a professional wizard. That has a tendency to eat up time like you wouldn’t believe. The end result is not having much spare time for hobbies.

Athena: Or sleep, sometimes.

Alys: Too true. That said…the best thing about studying to be a wizard is how spectacularly multidisciplinary a field it is. Since I began my apprenticeship with Jonathan Tremane, I’ve studied – in addition to the Art of spellcasting – an incredibly wide variety of subjects, including psychology and sociology, comparative religion and mythology, chemistry, physics, woodworking and metalsmithing, law and history.

Jonathan assures me that if I decided to sit for exams at Oxford or Cambridge, I could get degrees in at least half of those. Frankly, I don’t doubt it…while my peers were in grammar school, I was already studying college-level material.

Unfortunately, that means that the worst thing about studying to be a wizard is that everything you do is eventually related to your work in some way or another. Whether you mean it to be, want it to be, or not. For example: I’ve been playing the Celtic Flute (a wooden flute with a lovely, rich sound) since I was a little girl. At first, I did it because I thought that learning an instrument of some sort would help me be accepted by the other kids. I stuck with it because I enjoy the discipline of it, and because it’s very relaxing to let myself go in the music.

I’m not professionally good, but I get by without making people wince.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that some species of supernatural predators can be calmed and lulled into sleep through the proper application of music. I have no doubt that sooner or later, playing the flute will come in handy in my work. In the meantime, it’s a lovely hobby.

What else? I read voraciously (obviously), and I have a fondness for Breton poetry (the works of T.S. Elliot and Robert Browning are amongst my favorites) and mysteries. Conan Doyle is a special favorite.

I also love going to the theater, be it for concerts, musicals or plays. And I’ve been known to go to the occasional film, though I find the tendency of movie theater owners to turn up the sound to deafening levels rather annoying.

Athena and Ben have been conspiring recently to get me out of the house as often as possible, and not just for work. But we lead busy, active lives, and our schedules don’t always mesh. Fortunately, I love what I’m doing…and as the saying goes, if you love what you’re doing, it doesn’t feel like work.

I’m not even all that popular or well-known yet, and I’ve already had a few people ask me the question all authors dread…”Where do you get your ideas?”

I could steal a joke from an author (I wish I could remember who) that I read years ago and claim that I get my ideas from a P.O. Box in Schenectady, NY. “Only $19.95 will get you a dozen top-quality ideas that you can use to produce your very own stories! Checks, Money Orders and Paypal accepted, no credit cards.”

If only it were that easy. 😀

I could talk about how my ideas are drawn from experiences in real life. The plot ideas are drawn from news items and things I read online, the characters from people I’ve met, and so on. But since I’m writing urban fantasy, that’s a little bit of a cop-out. Sure, the plot of Alys helping track a kidnapper (for example) and the details of the kidnapping could have been drawn from something that I read about which really happened…but magic certainly wasn’t used to find them, and there weren’t real monsters involved.

Okay, there probably were…but human monsters, not supernatural ones. You know what I mean.

I could talk about my inspirations: The different authors I love to read, the TV shows, movies and anime I’ve consumed over the years. All of them helped shape my imagination, and I have no doubt that some of my ideas come from there.

The truth of the matter is, I don’t precisely know where my ideas come from. My subconscious is a minefield, and I never know what sort of mine I’m going to step on when I go poking through it. Sometimes it’s not even that clear cut. There have been times when I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with an idea that I absolutely have to get out of my head and onto paper. That’s why I kept a pad and pen by my bed for years, until my iPad took their place (thank you, Apple).

Sometimes, the next morning, I don’t even remember waking up and writing the idea down. A lot of the time they’re fragments, disjointed bits of imagery or pieces of a scene. Quite often, they have no bearing on whatever my current project is.

Fortunately, I’m a long-time fan of Stephen King, and remembered him saying (I believe it was in the forward to The Gunslinger, or possibly in Danse Macabre or On Writing) that the first line of The Gunslinger was written twenty years before the rest of the book. As I recall the story – I should have gone hunting for it before writing this – he pinned the scrap of paper it was written on to his bulletin board and swore that something would someday come out of it. That scrap of paper, the story went, travelled with him from home to home over the years, until one day the rest of the story started to take shape.

I have two bulletin boards today; one is a physical one, covered with pieces of paper with little scraps of ideas, some as small as a single sentence, some several pages long; the other is a digital one, stored in a Scrivener file and backed up religiously.

So…where do my ideas come from? The deepest, darkest corners of my mind. I don’t always understand them, I don’t always know what brought them about…but I know they’ll all come in handy. Sooner or later.