Everything I Learned About Writing I Learned from Joan Wilder

This week, we’re excited to introduce our second “Free-Range Chick,” the hilarious and delightful Kathleen Valenti, author of the Maggie O’Malley Mystery Series. Kathy also blogs at Mysteristas, and is helping fill in while the fabulous Kellye Garrett takes a much-deserved blogging hiatus. Take it away, Kathy!


Since my first visit with my dad to The Roseway Theater in Portland, Oregon, I’ve been a bit of a movie nut.

Give me classic films, campy favorites, movies of shame you’ll never admit watching. I love them one and all.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that I take some of my writing inspiration from Romancing the Stone’s heroine, author Joan Wilder.

Except that, well, it is surprising.

After all, Joan pens romance and I write mystery. Plus she’s a fictional character. Still as I put the final touches on the third book in the Maggie O’Malley series, I find myself channeling my inner Joan Wilder, not just because I love saying “Joan Wilder? The Joan Wilder?” but because of the lessons she teaches.


Here, then, are a few things I’ve learned from Joan.

Be Brave

As the film opens, Joan Wilder is nervous and neurotic. She can scarcely leave her apartment, let alone rescue her sister from kidnappers. Yet she overcomes her fears, pushes herself way (waaaaaaay) out of her comfort zone to not only save the day and her sister, but herself from a life of the mundane. Whenever I let go of my anxieties and take more chances, whether it’s been a career change or trying multiple viewpoints, I find growth and rewards. The lesson: sometimes the best way for me to move forward is to get out of my own way. Who knew?

Messy Can Be Beautiful

Joan is an emotional and literal mess. She can’t remember to buy tissue, her apartment is a disaster and her clothes have the well-worn rumples of the ironing-averse. I can relate. My desk looks as though it’s been ransacked. My creative process isn’t much prettier. I have notes written on the backs of envelopes, storylines that stop and start, and uncooperative characters who are eventually left at the Authors’ Home for Wayward Characters. It’s within this beautiful, spreading mess that Joan and I find our strides. For me, my piles of crap become the fertilizer in which ideas grow and thrive. So I embrace the mess. Even while my husband follows me with paperclips and file folders.

Crying Is Okay. Maybe Even Encouraged.

Maybe there’s no crying in baseball, but in novel-writing it’s okay. At least at my house. Joan becomes so enraptured with her own story that she cries at the closing scene of her next book. I use my own emotional barometer to check the soundness of my characters’ realism and the pace of the story’s subplots. If I’m not moved, how can I expect readers to be? Of course most of the time, I’m going for humor and suspense rather than sadness, so I use my personal laugh- or jump-out-of-my-skin-o-meter to check for emotional viability.

Make Connections


As the film opens, Joan’s only companion is her cat. (And, okay, maybe her publicist.) By the end of the movie, she’s made a host of new connections, including a significant romantic one.

Although I’m a team player, I have a tendency to try to Lone Ranger my way through life. I’m not good at reaching out, asking for help or soliciting support. Since my debut, however, I’ve discovered how important it is to be part of a community. The crime fiction family is talented, gracious and infinitely welcoming. It’s filled with people who will drop everything to help someone in need, lift up others with kindness and humor, and not bat an eye if you want to talk about the merits of garroting versus manual strangulation. I’ve found more than a way to improve my craft or exchange knowledge. I’ve found my people.

Character Growth

I’m going to get a little mushy here and say that the biggest treasure Joan uncovers isn’t a priceless emerald but the woman within. She goes from being a fish out of water to navigating the seas of change with ease. Character growth is as essential to Romancing the Stone as adventure and excitement. It’s a wonderful reminder that we need to keep growing, right along with our characters. After all, our most important work in progress has nothing to do with word counts.

I’m betting most of us are inspired by flesh-and-blood authors (I know I am), but what of the fictional variety? Do you relate to Jessica Fletcher? Have days where you feel like Jack Torrance? I’d love to know! Meanwhile, I’ll be on my zillionth viewing of Romancing the Stone.


KathyKathleen Valenti is the author of the Maggie O’Malley Mystery Series, which includes her Agatha- and Lefty-nominated debut novel, Protocol. When Kathleen isn’t writing page-turning mysteries that combine humor and suspense, she works as a nationally award-winning advertising copywriter. She lives in Oregon with her family where she pretends to enjoy running. Learn more at www.kathleenvalenti.com.

. . .

515glL+H7cL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg   51LaB+0TfRL.jpg

33 thoughts on “Everything I Learned About Writing I Learned from Joan Wilder

  1. Welcome, Kathy! I’ve never seen Romancing the Stone, but I can tell I’m going to have to rectify that. I do have to wonder how Joan’s cat feels about Joan expanding her horizons. Is the poor thing still being fed regular meals by the end of the movie? I suppose I’ll have to watch it to find out!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. My “writing process” creates a messy desk. I love your poetic take on it: “piles of crap become the fertilizer in which ideas grow and thrive.” I’m always hoping a bloomin’ manuscript emerges from the crap! And we’re crazy happy to have you join us as a Free-Range Chick, Kathy!!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Aw thanks, Vickie! So thrilled to be a Free-Range Chick!

      Oh, my poor work area. When I mention it, my neatnik husband usually deadpans, “Desk? What desk? All I see is paper.”

      I’m sure you’ve got a wonderful manuscript in bloom right now!

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I just realized it’s been about 15 months since I watched Romancing the Stone. It’s definitely time to pull out the CD for the zillionth view. Thanks for the reminder. Like Joan Wilder, I’ll always be a ‘hopeful’ romantic. And I still laugh when I see Michael Douglas’s boots at the end 🙂 So many wonderful things like that tossed seemingly effortless through the story to give us a smile and surprise later on. Love it!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Welcome to Chicks, Kathy! I ❤ this post so much! I haven't seen that movie in YEARS, but now I'm thinking we need to plan a virtual watch party.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Thanks Kathleen, for making my evening with this post (I apologize for being a little late to the party today.) I loved that movie, too. Even though he didn’t write fiction, my fave fictional writer is Oscar Madison. Old-school, always furiously typing and eating. I dunno, there’s a certain passion there. My desk is actually fairly neat (we won’t talk about my closets or kitchen cupboards). That is because I can’t be trusted to have anything on my desk, because I am so easily distracted. (Look! Rubber band!)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oscar Madison! Yes!! Such a great character. (This makes me want to drag out my old typewriter!)

      Sounds like you’ve killed two birds with your neatness. I’ve started saying that messiness is part of my Process (always with a capital P). Then it’s necessary!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s