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!

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

Creativity Cross-Pollinates

yves saint laurent vmfa
From now through August 27, 2017, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is featuring an exhibition of the work of Yves Saint Laurent, a trend-setting couturier who built a body of work unique in creativity and originality.

 

A whole section of the exhibit pays homage to Saint Laurent’s artistic influences, including Piet Mondrian (far right in photo above), ancient Greek vases, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Tom Wessellmann (far left in photo).

 

Artistic cross-pollination is everywhere. A prime example of art to music is Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann. Viktor Hartmann was an artist, architect, and designer.
Using photos as story starters for writers is a classic technique. Whole books have been based on that premise.

 

I’ve found the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts a fertile ground for launching stories. Several of my published stories began with VMFA exhibits: Buddha Remote, Not Mechanically Inclined, The Naked Truthand Love Me Tender.
 
Bottom line: Attend to non-written art and often inspiration strikes. Look at photos, art exhibits, paintings and pottery. Listen to the lyrics of songs and the emotions evoked by music. Think cross-pollination!

Consider Uncomfortable Words

Dictionary uncomfortable words
 
I had a high school English teacher who much preferred “it isn’t” to “it’s not” because, she said, the latter sounded too much like “snot.” Apparently snot was an uncomfortable word for her. Decades later, I still say “it isn’t.”

 

But that isn’t to say snot should always be avoided. Snot can be a very useful word for writers. The word has connotations beyond the definition and can imply, among other things, social class—for example, a snot-nosed kid—whether spoken by a character or part of the narrative.

 

The Dictionary of Uncomfortable Words is a collection of words that two men (Andrew Withan and Brian Snyder) label as uncomfortable. In that regard, it is personal opinion. They emphasize that this dictionary does not contain “dirty” words, just words that evoke a response of uneasiness in the listener/reader. Consider the power this gives you, the writer.

 

For example, if a character drops words like masticate, undulate, viscous, flaccid, or engorge into his/her speech, it might make other characters uncomfortable. And if the other character is unfamiliar with the word, such as invaginate would be for most people, then that other character could well feel insulted or offended—which could lead to any number of responses by the speaker.

 

Then there is the issue of whether the character/narrator uses uncomfortable words on purpose—and if so, what purpose?

 

Words like faggot, fairy, dike, gay, and queer are fraught with implications, not completely counteracted by a non-sexual context.

 

What words make you uncomfortable? Identify them and find ways to use them to strengthen your writing.

 

If words like lugubrious or luscious don’t readily come to mind, pick up this dictionary. It’s a treasure!
Dictionary uncomfortable words

Writers’ Notebooks

notebooks

Virtually all writers have heard the advice that they should keep notebooks—books of whatever sort in which one jots down ideas for stories, images, bits of dialogue, whatever might be useful sometime or other. I’m not very good at that. I kept extensive notes when I was writing Nettie’s Books, but mostly it is catch as catch can.

 

But don’t take me as a model! Better look to Agatha Christie. When Christie died in 1976, at the age of 85, she left behind 73 hand-written private notebooks, including illustrations and two unpublished Poirot stories.

 

agatha christies secret notebooks
She wrote more than one book a year from the 1920s, all bestsellers. Her notebooks included notes, lists, and stories. Such notebooks give depth to the published works, reveal the originally planned endings, and plots that were rejected.

 

agatha christie murder in the making
Not surprisingly, such a successful, prolific writer left behind more material than one book could contain. This volume explores Christie’s techniques for surprise and entertainment. John Curran discusses how her plots evolved, presents previously unpublished short stories and chapters edited out of published works, and discusses her final unfinished work.
hawthorne's lost notebook
Keeping a notebook is not a modern idea. Hawthorne’s notebook from 1835-1841 is testimony to that. It is the earliest notebook that Hawthorne is known to have kept, containing more ideas for stories and articles than any other, including facsimiles in his own hand with more readable typescript alongside.

 

I urge you to read such notebooks. For one thing, they are fascinating reading. But also, you might come across bits that the greats abandoned but which inspire you to new heights.

 

In any event, consider keeping your own writer’s notebook—or expanding what you’ve already started. As in virtually every case, there are books to help you do that!

 

novelists notebook

Exercising Your Creativity

The program is simple. Take an ordinary event and consider all the ways you could add tension, conflict, humor, surprise, etc. For example, having the house power-washed.

 

My house was scheduled for power-washing at 8:00 this morning. At 7:50 a loud—make that thunderous—noise outside the bedroom window made me jump and exclaim. What if it had caused a heart attack?

 

I was asked to back the car up a bit farther from the garage. What if I backed into the work truck? Or one of the workers? Or ran over a box turtle?

 

exercising the creativity
At one point a high-pitched squeal pierced the early morning silence. What if it triggered an epileptic seizure? Caused me to knock the tofu scramble from the stove-top to the floor, and I was running late already? Made the dog howl, the cat leap onto the curtains and pull them down, knocking over the parrot’s cage?

 

Then a worker moved all the potted plants to the far edge of the patio. What if he dropped a pot containing a rare heirloom orchid? Or wrenched his back moving the hanging baskets of rocks? Or dropped a decorative rock on his foot, breaking a toe, and falling through the French doors?
exercising the creativity
All the window screens were removed and set aside, leaning against a tree by the flowerbeds. What if squirrels played tag across the screens, knocking them from the tree and crushing the newly planted begonias?

 

When the washing actually started, what if the water roused a black snake from the foundation plantings? What if it had been a poisonous snake? Or what if an open window was overlooked? Who or what got drenched, and to what effect?

 

exercising the creativity
And I haven’t even touched on the possibilities of one spouse having scheduled the power-washing without informing the other spouse. Or the reactions of the neighbors. Or the dog-walker passing by. Or children who escape to play in the spray. Options go on and on.

 

Your assignment: Choose any mundane activity from today’s wealth—anything from doing laundry to going to the gym to hosting six for dinner—and take a few minutes to consider what if?

A Satisfying Writing Life

I recently read that two things will make or break a writing career. The first was passion that (among other things) wakes you in the night to jot down ideas, steals time to write, learns the craft, bounces back from rejection and criticism, and spurs investment (money implied).

 

The second was a strong submission strategy. By this, they meant, “…a streamlined, organized, efficient, highly functional, easy-to-execute…” strategy. Submitting should feel joyful rather than burdensome, and put the right work in front of the right eyes.

 

All of the above strike me as good, desirable things. And probably they are necessary for a brilliant writing career. But not all writers expect—or actually aspire to—a writing career in that sense. Surely everyone who published writing sometimes fantasizes about writing a best seller, but that is seldom a realistic goal. Perhaps writing is so inherently gratifying that it’s a necessary part of a satisfying life.

 

Satisfying Writing Life
Which brings me to important elements of a satisfying writing life. The first is enjoyment. Taking pleasure in crafting artful descriptions and effective dialogue is key. Then there is the gratification that comes from a job well-done. Every once in a while, I read something I wrote years ago and think, “Damn! That’s pretty good.” Then I smile, and return to writing with renewed energy.

 

The second in my list is writing that suits your purpose. Of course, that means you must figure out why you write. I started writing as therapy for my post-profession depression. As a former academic, I found that cooking and gardening just didn’t engage me intellectually. I did—and still do—enjoy both activities. But I need to keep my brain engaged. So, I enrolled in adult education writing classes and began learning the craft. (I’d never had a composition class, having tested out of freshman comp in college.) Today, one of the greatest joys of my writing life is doing the research to get the story line right, whether that involves the effects of ketamine on humans or the price of gasoline during the Great Depression.
Satisfying Writing Life
Writing as a source of self-esteem doesn’t require being a Steven King or a J.K. Rowling. Praise from fellow writers in classes and critique groups, and from readers, is great for my ego. And every time I have a short story or essay accepted for publication, even with no monetary reward, I feel like someone pasted a gold star of my forehead!

 

Perhaps one of the most common reasons to write, especially memoir, is to leave a legacy for family. This can be a way of letting them know who you are and how you came to be you, and/or leaving a record of their roots and the relatives who have gone before.

 

Many writers have more than one reason to write. In my opinion, why people write is less important than that it contributes to a gratifying life. Be clear in your own mind and heart about why you write, and then choose the path and activities that will achieve your goal.
Satisfying Writing Life