You don't know it at the time. Somebody says something that sticks in your mind. Years go by and it's still there, taking shape, gathering meaning. Two people hold that place in my heart. The first was my eighth grade reading teacher, Miss Kathryn Buckwalter.
She was a dragon. She taught with a vengeance. You did the work or else. Her passion was the English language.
I remember the day in the second grade when I could read. Suddenly, all those letters on the page made sense and reading became an addiction. Miss Buckwalter's passion was greater than mine. She'd pace back and forth when we didn't grasp the magnificence of Scotts' Lady in the Lake, pounding the desk for emphasis. It happened one day, during one of those tirades. She said what has shaped all my writing.
With fire in her eye, she declared, "There's no such thing in the English language as a synonym."
There you have it. The secret of good writing. No two words mean the same. Sparkle is not the same as glitter. Amble is not a stroll.
If I ever publish another book, the dedication page will read: "To Miss Kathryn Buckwalter, who taught me all the English I need to know."
The second person was Cliff Thorban, a retired WWII war correspondent, editor of Lancaster Magazine, my first writing job a year out of high school. My mentor. He claimed that if I was a writer, I could write anything, no matter what or when. He liked to yell at me from his office things like, "I need 250 words on church steeples, right now." This was the old days, before PCs, when we did our own composition with scissors and rubber cement.
Uh. Church steeples are usually found at the top of tall buildings.
He was a very patient man. One day I whined that I didn't know anything about the topic. That's when he gave me the secret.
He said, "Intelligence isn't what you know. It's how fast you can find out."
There you have it, folks. Now you can become a writer.