Knowing Your Place

I usually pitch all the “stuff” that comes with the newspaper without a second glance. But not this time!
discover richmond funny skies
The August/September issue of Discover Richmond is a treasure trove for readers and writers!

 

The cover story, about Richmond’s TV weather forecasters, is amusing. But—for me—the other articles are better. Anyone interested in off-beat information would agree. For example, one segment of the “Archive Dive” is about a Reynolds Metals aluminum submarine. It was active in the 1960s and is now housed at the Science Museum of Virginia.

 

gravel hill
The long article on Gravel Hill is about a community in Henrico founded by freed slaves over 200 years ago.

 

Another lengthy article describes five historic bells in Richmond: St. John’s Episcopal Church, the Carillon in Byrd Park, Centenary United Methodist Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and Capitol Square Bell Tower. Besides general interest, knowing about the bells, when and why they ring, would be great details for stories set in Richmond!

 

weather civil war
I recently wrote a short story mystery in which a lunar eclipse during the Civil War was a key element, so naturally I was taken with the article “Weather and the Civil War.” Naturally, the same weather could be a great obstacle or a helpful defense, depending on one’s objective.

 

From articles on African American Vernacular English to the James River to the 1973 gubernatorial race, this issue of Discover Richmond is a treasure trove! If you haven’t read it already, do!
weather civil war table contents

The Upside of Fear

upside fear blue woman
We are prone to assume that fear is a bad thing—but not so for writers! Giving your characters fears is just one more way to make them real.

 

I’ve been on a character jag recently, writing about birth order, secrets, and exercises to better understand your characters and build realistic ones. Lately it seems that everywhere I look I find another tidbit. Such was my reaction to this article in the Ohio University alumni magazine.
i fear therefore i create
This half-page article is about the book Fear, illustrated by Julia Elman, a professor of visual communication. It is absolutely relevant to writers. As Elman says,  “…we live in a world where fear is a driving force. Fear sells, persuades, and makes us snap to attention.” I will add that giving your characters fears makes them more real.

 

ohio today
Your character’s fear could be a big one—in which case, it might be shared by many. The end of the world as we know it or other cataclysmic disaster is a staple in the action/adventure/suspense genre.

 

ohio today
More personal fears are more generally relevant to character building. Here, the prime example is fear of failure. But it could also be a fear of death or personal disaster that drives much of a character’s behavior, especially in the mystery genre.

 

ohio today
Fear of loss is a great one. It can lead to all sorts of desperate measures to prevent a loved one ending a relationship, a child from leaving home, an employee becoming irrelevant…

 

Personal fears can be anything, from a debilitating phobia to a source of humor. Consider the agoraphobic, so fearful of open spaces that s/he can’t leave the house. On the other hand, someone who fears insects could go to comic extremes to protect, home and garden. You get the idea.

 

Bottom line: Give at least some of your characters fears that advance the plot.
 
upside fear ohio today
For more on creativity, see the Summer 2017 issue of ohio today.

Off-Beat Character Building

I recently wrote about the advantages of giving your characters secrets and of considering the effects of birth order. But how else do you really know your characters and make them richer?
 
Finding books with titles like Building Better Characters is easy. Some such books include pages of questions to answer about your protagonist, everything from physical appearance to favorite foods to religion.

My advice is to go beyond the usual. Here are six off-beat approaches to knowing your characters better.
off beat character building best dear abby abigail van buren
1) Write a letter from your character to an advice columnist of your choice. Make the advice requested relevant to your story.

other peoples love letters
2) Write a love letter from your character to a real or ideal romantic interest.

off beat character building not proud smorgasbord shame
3) Imagine your character’s most shameful act or experience. If it’s out of character, create a believable context or circumstance.

4) Create a personals ad for your character. Strive for originality. Include a picture.

off beat character building six drown saving chicken
5) Find a News-of-the-Weird story and write your character into it.

six word memoirs
6) Write one or more six-word memoirs capturing the essentials of your character’s life.
Last but not least: Write one or more of these bits into your actual story.

Sister! Sister!

I recently wrote about birth order effects on personality, self-concept, and behavior. At the time, I made no distinctions based on the gender of the siblings. But last Sunday was Sister’s Day, so let’s take a look at female siblings in particular.

 

you were always moms favorite deborah tannen
[Source: Amazon]
I’ve written before about Deborah Tannen, a world-renowned linguist who’s written—among other works—bestsellers about communication patterns between women and men, in the workplace, and between mothers and daughters. Now Tannen (the youngest of three sisters) has written You Were Always Mom’s Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives.
 
Tannen reveals that in some ways, she’ll always feel like the kid sister. She claims that just as mother/daughter relationships are particularly fraught because both are women, so are the relationships of sisters. It is a relationship of connection and competition. Every child wants attention and resources.

 

Age differences are a built-in power differential that lasts forever. Whether the siblings are 4 and 6 or 101 and 103, the older is always older.

 

And comparisons are inevitable. When sisters are asked to describe themselves and their sisters, whether they get along or don’t, they almost always talk about being “very different.”

 

Twins are no exception. They often feel that people are trying to differentiate them as the smart one, the more outgoing one, the more studious one, the more athletic one, etc.

 

my sister my self vikki stark
[Source: Goodreads]
 Vikki Stark, author of My Sister, My Self: The Surprising Ways that Being an Older, Middle, Younger or Twin Shaped Your Life , focuses specifically on birth order among sisters. She maintains—and presents evidence—that birth order among sisters affects occupation, love relationships, friendships, and how one feels about her body.

 

This book is by a social worker, and includes a lot of techniques and strategies to help readers who want to break out of limiting sisters roles or improve sister relationships.

 

If you are a female writer with one or more sisters, these readings might be personally interesting as well as helpful in recognizing sister relationships that are unlike your own experience. Why would a man want to read this stuff? Besides general interest in understanding human nature, one’s own wife, or daughters, if you are a writer, you will be better able to write female characters!

Your Characters’ Secrets

Everyone has secrets. Anything that is known only to oneself (maybe one other person) is a secret. It can be a regret, betrayal, desire, fear, confession, past humiliation—anything unknown.
post secret
Frank Warren tapped into the breadth and depth of secrets when he invited people to return postcards anonymously revealing a secret as part of a group art project. The response was extraordinary, and Post Secret became an international phenomenon—and a book. Here are three randomly selected offerings from this book.

 

“I can’t think of a secret. Except—I don’t think I’m interesting enough to have a secret.”
“I don’t care about recycling (but I pretend to).”

 

“I didn’t tell people I was running a marathon for fear they’s be nauseated by visions of my FAT ASS bouncing down the street.”

 

my secret post secret
The art project ended but the postcards kept coming. In two years he received over 50,000 postcards. This led to a second book, containing many secrets shared by young people. Here are three examples.

 

“If I charged the people I babysit for by the SCREAM I’d be rich.”

 

“I’m only friends with rich girls.”

 

“I told my family, the school nurse, and my optometrist that I couldn’t see the last rows just so that I would get glasses like my friends.”

 

secret lives men women frank warren
Eventually there were so many postcards that they could be sorted into related themes. The result was The Secret Lives of Men and Women.  The secrets revealed include the following:

 

“I’ve been with my wife for twenty years and she doesn’t know who I am.”

 

“I didn’t take a pill last night. Even if you leave me, I’ll have part of you to love forever.

“I have both a wife and a girlfriend and I’ve never been lonelier.”

 

“All of my exes bat for the other team.”

 

lifetime secrets frank warren
Many secrets have a hold on a person for years. Many of these are captured in A Lifetime of SecretsFor example,

 

“I still remember my rapist’s birthday.”

 

“My best friend slept with the only man I ever loved. Their son is in college now. I still drive by their house.”

 

“I only allow myself to read your letters once a year (9/17). Then, I let myself fantasize how my life would be different if you were still around. Sometimes I find myself hating you because it’s easier than missing you.”

 

“Finally I truly wish you well.”

 

Why give your characters secrets? It adds depth to them, makes them more like real people. In addition, depending on the secret, it can add humor, intra-psychic tension, or the motivation for behavior in various situations. Feel free to give a character a secret of your own. Or make one up. Or consult Frank Warren’s treasure troves!

 

post secret confessions on life death and god

Vicarious Adventure

My personal adventures have been relatively tame: parasailing in the Bahamas, zip-lining in Costa Rica, draping an anaconda around my shoulders in the Amazon rainforest. (FYI: Anaconda poop bleaches clothing.) But I’ve always enjoyed vicarious adventures—women’s adventures.

 

This started when I was in elementary school. I read the adventures of Ruth Fielding in a series of books owned by my paternal aunt.

 

ruth fielding
Although the settings of these thirty books seemed like ancient history (published 1913-1934), I loved kind-hearted, curious, brave, adventuresome Ruth.

 

When I was somewhat older, I discovered Cherry Ames: Student Nurse.

 

cherry ames books
The medical aspects of this series (27 books) fascinated me. But more important was the heroine, whose kind heart led her into dangerous situations that her sharp wits got her out of. I gave my Cherry Ames books to my older granddaughter a few years ago, but alas, her interests are more in the fantasy/horror genre. Oh, well.

 

As you may have gathered by now, for me, there is no expiration date on adventure.

 

west with the night
Beryl Markham’s incredible book is set in the earliest years of flight, and being a bush pilot in Africa. The writing is lyrical, the scenes compelling.

 

When I was involved in a vicarious love affair with Alaska (I’ve never been there), I read book after book set there, and through a rather circuitous route, came across Woodswoman.
 
woodswoman anne lebastille
When one thinks New York, the first thing to come to mind is not wilderness. And yet the North Country has winters suitable for training military for the Arctic, and parts of the Adirondacks truly are isolated—and virtually inaccessible in winter. Anne LaBastille living alone, frozen in for the winter, with a jerry-rigged outdoor shower, is plenty adventurous.

 

My longest term adventure was a two-week float-and-paddle rafting trip down the Colorado River. I mostly floated. Side-canyon hikes were strenuous and attending to one’s bodily needs was a challenge. But the most exciting part was the white-water rapids. I went bow-riding over thirty-foot drops! (Bow-riding is sitting on the front of the raft, holding onto a rope.)
writing down the river
So it’s no wonder I love Writing Down the River. Over one summer, fifteen talented women writers rafted down the Colorado. Their contributions to this book reflect their successes and failures, joys and fears. They take you there! (And, BTW, the photographs are gorgeous.)

 

Bottom line: Find your adventure—personal or vicarious—and pursue it.

Missing Nimrod

A year ago, I attended one of my favorite writing retreats: the writers’ weekend at Nimrod Hall. Unfortunately, I was unable to make it this year, and I missed the camaraderie and stimulation I find at Nimrod. I recommend my readers find a good residential writing workshop; in addition to the community of writers you’ll meet, you’ll also receive great feedback on your writing. Below is a blog post from this time last year, telling a little about Nimrod and the programs it offers. I hope you’ll check out the opportunities they have!


For many years I’ve traveled to Nimrod Hall in Millboro, Virginia, for their annual writing retreat. Nimrod has inspired several of my stories and given me hours of valuable writing time.

Nimrod Hall main buildling
Nimrod Hall

Last year I kept a travel log of my two weeks at Nimrod. I shared everything from packing my bags…

Packed for Nimrod Hall Writers' Workshop

…to the wild women writers I met there.

women writers at Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program
2015 Week One writers at Nimrod Hall Writers Workshop
Note card showing women standing in a stream. Text reads, "We arrived at Nimrod with no baggage"
Note card by Susannah Raine-Haddad

As I prepare to depart, I look forward to my misty morning walks,

Nimrod Hall Writers' Workshop misty lane

and family-style meals with writer friends,

Nimrod Hall Writers' Workshop writers at lunch around table
2015 writers at lunch
Nimrod Hall writers lifting fake wedding cake at breakfast table
Who but Nimrod Writer Women would be passing around a paper mâché wedding cake at breakfast?

and uninterrupted writing time.

"Do not disturb" sign on door knob
No writer is ever disturbed between breakfast and lunch–and seldom otherwise.

This year I will share my travel log on my Facebook page. I hope you’ll join me there.

Happy writing!

view of Cowpasture River near Nimrod Hall during walk
Cowpasture River near Nimrod Hall during my morning exercise

Nimrod Hall, established in 1783, has been providing summer respite from everyday stress since 1906. It has been operating as an artist and writer colony for over 25 years. The Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program is a non-competitive, inspirational environment for artists to create without the distractions of everyday life. 

A Creative Nonfiction Writer You Should Know

creative nonfiction writer know linda bourassa
Once upon a time, I worked with Dr. Joyce Dyer at Hiram College. We were just solidifying the writing program and making it more prominent within the curriculum. Joyce was a great choice to head those efforts, for she is a stellar colleague and widely admired teacher. But that’s not why I am writing about her today.

 

Joyce Dyer has a flair for drawing on her own life and making it bigger—relevant, compelling reading.
tangled wood alzheimers journey joyce dyer
In a Tangled Wood: An Alzheimer’s Journey is a rare, powerful memoir of a mother and daughter in the world of Alzheimer’s. It is humorous, painful, and wise. Joyce doesn’t shy away from the struggle, but this book contains a surprising wealth of joy as well.
Sociology of time and place permeate two of her books. The titles say it all: Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood and Gum-Dipped: A Daughter Remembers Rubber Town. The former, in particular, is a case study in writing memoir based on the earliest years of one’s life. How can those memories be recovered? Those times revisited? Anyone interested in writing—or simply reading—memoir should check out these books.

 

The keen eye and talent for the telling detail that characterize her own work enabled her to edit two volumes of essays that are prime reading for anyone interested in writing, women’s writing, women’s history, or life in general!

 

bloodroot joyce dyer
Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers is particularly poignant for me. Being firmly rooted in the hills of eastern Kentucky and southeastern Ohio, Appalachian voices and places permeate many of my short stories and one (as yet unpublished) novel.
curlers chainsaws women their machines
And now I have the pleasure of starting From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines. Published just last year, this is a new acquisition, an anthology I expect to enjoy reading and to shelve for reference. Bill Roorbach’s cover comment says it beautifully: “From Curlers to Chainsaws makes stops along the way to visit prosthetics, lawnmowers, typewriters, vibrators, washing machines, and on and on, from traditional women’s gear to equipment we’re all using now, praise be… a book of women’s voices so clear and diverse and funny and heartbreakingly individual that you hurry from one to the next…” I can hardly wait!

Consider Sibs

sibling age tees
The importance of birth order is so widely recognized, there are even T-shirts about it! And every good novel that involves family relationships takes birth order into account, either directly or indirectly.

 

jane austen pride and prejudice
[Source: The Atlantic]
You probably know Jane Austen is one of my all-time favorite authors. Her books are rife with sibling relationships. Partly, that reflects the period in which her novels are set. In the 19th century, at least among the gentry, birth order determined everything from how one was addressed (Miss Bennett vs. Miss Elizabeth) to who inherited titles and estates.

 

But birth order goes much beyond the social niceties. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, birth order of the five Bennett daughters is a recurring theme, with much being made of Lydia’s position as the spoiled baby of the family. The dour Mr. Darcy’s personality reflects his position as the only son charged at a young age with the care of his estate, tenants, and a much younger sister. Colonel Fitzwilliam’s position as a second son determined everything from his career choice to his marital prospects. Charles Bingley is manipulated by his sisters.

 

More recently, you have four sisters who thrive as individuals (Little Women) but also a family falling apart (Sound and the Fury). In the latter, Quentin is hypersensitive, aware of sibling issues but unable to act, and considers suicide; Jason is jealous, tries to dominate, and wants to put Benjy in an institution; everyone tries to protect Caddie, who gets pregnant out of wedlock; and Benjy, the youngest, is feeble-minded and pure.

 

Perhaps my brain just isn’t functioning well this morning, but as best I can recall, among mystery writers, sibling relationships’ primary role relates to the victim and the suspects. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But what about the sleuth—whether professional or amateur?

 

Consciously giving your main characters siblings—or not—makes for a richer, more realistic portrayal. This is true whether they are present on the page or only in the thoughts or awareness of the character. This is especially true for series characters.
 
Reams of psychological research exists to determine the effects of birth order and explain how those effects come about. But here’s a quick-and-dirty crib sheet to get you started.
 
First borns are high achieving, conscientious, approval-seeking, risk-averse, anxious, emotionally intense, defensive, and prone to jealousy.

 

Latter borns are more competitive (especially second-born, same sex), rebellious, liberal, agreeable, flexible, sociable, able to compromise, build coalitions, negotiate, and adopt peacemaker roles.

 

Last born children are more likely to question rules, develop a revolutionary personality, and expect others to serve them; they’re also less likely to volunteer or take responsibility.

 

Only children share many characteristics with first-borns; they may feel like outsiders, are extremely mature, aloof, and expect special standing.

 

Things to keep in mind: 1) the generalizations are based on group data, so there are wide individual variations; 2) effects are moderated based on the sex of each child and the age gap between them; family patterns often transfer to the workplace or social relationships.

 

Bottom line: Consider your character’s siblings.

 

smart one sibling tees

Airport Reading

I just returned from family time in Colorado, with lots of airport hours each way.

airport hudson store

And as is the case with airports everywhere, there was a Hudson’s for last-minute purchases at exorbitant prices, with prominent displays of bestsellers. Oh, to be Patterson or Sedaris!

Who buys a big heavy book at an airport?

anne tyler accidental tourist
[Source: Goodreads]
This made me think of The Accidental Tourist–at least I think that was the book/movie in which the protagonist wrote travel guides for people who hate travel. He advised always traveling with a hardcover book to discourage seat mates from chatting.

But are there many people like that out there?

If so, they must be limited to the planes, because they certainly weren’t in the airports.

In ascending order of frequency, I saw people work reading,

airport reading

magazine reading,

paperback reading,

handmaids tale margaret atwood

and reading on electronic devices.

kindle airport reading

I am in this last group. It’s the perfect way to carry literally hundreds of books in the space and weight of one paperback. DEFINITELY THE WAY TO GO!

kindle interface