Friday, December 28, 2018

Finding Inspiration

One of the most important parts of a writer's physical toolkit is that thing that helps inspire them. This can be anything -- a coffee mug, a poster, or that thing in your office that always catches your eye and draws your thoughts, even if just for a moment. We need something like this because it reminds us about who we are as writers, and that we turn on some part of our brain now and then and really make things happen. It doesn't have to have meaning to anyone else but us, because it is our inspiration, and ours alone.

Mine is a stack of Post-It notes.

To most people, a simple office supply like that is nothing more than a thing we swipe from the supply cabinet at work (and I think that's where I got mine). However, like any inspiring item, its value is the attachment we place on it. There is nothing magic about these Post-It notes other than what I use them for, so when I see them, I become a writer.

We all have our tough periods for writing. I am recovering from a bad cold, so my writing is not at its strongest. However, this has been a benefit for my Post-It notes, and here's why. My little yellow stack of notes stays by my bed, a pen always close by. Whenever I wake up with some lingering idea from a weird dream still floating around, I write it on a Post-It note. Needless to say, the past few days of cold medicine and a mild fever has brought some weird ideas to mind. And whenever I wake from that fever dream with some random thought still echoing in my skull, I jot it down.

Is this magic? Does this capture the purest essence of the most brilliant of my many brilliant ideas? Not even close. However, it does grab something my mind had been processing so much that it leapt to the conscious side of awareness. Was it meaningful? Well, here are my last seven entries over the past month -- you tell me:

  • Toys have souls
  • 19th century penny-ante poker
  • That place in Chicago where runaway trains hide
  • Going back to grade school
  • My pet fire
  • I have to eat everything
  • Fireflies by Montrose Harbor
Anything? Are there any real gems there? Maybe they each say a little about me, or the things that go through my mind while under the influence of cold medicine. They might mean nothing to another writer. However, each one of those notes brings back that dream in vivid detail, along with all the feelings, emotions and weird ideations. And with that suite of emotional detail, I could write something about any one of those.

Will I? We will see. I am still on the mend, and trying to edit a manuscript ahead of a hard deadline. However, I do like the thought of writing about a pet fire, and there's a story about the souls of toys for sure. I would wager they all have stories in them, if I choose to write them.

The most important part, however, is that when I look at that stack of Post-It notes, I know there is a bunch of inspiration waiting there. It is not because the ideas are so good, but because that stack reminds me that I am a writer, and I can spin those into something worth reading.

(The next thing here worth reading will be on January 5th, 2019, as I slowly recover from New Year's Eve.)

Friday, December 21, 2018

Christmas and the Gift of Modifiers

As we enter the holiday season, I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

More to the point, I want to explain as a writer why I want your Christmas to be Merry and your Holidays to be Happy, as my words suggest.

Merry and Happy are modifiers; in this instance, adjectives that modify a noun. We use them all the time and usually fall back on the safe ones. If I wish you all a Regal Christmas and a Ravenous Holidays, the modifiers might distract you even though I still wish you these things. Even something like a Joyous Christmas might not sound right, because recipients have very specific expectations -- Christmases shall be known as being Merry and/or White, and any other modifier stands out. Bing Crosby literally demanded it by singing, "And may all your Christmases be white." All of them. Every one. No exceptions. 

Well, sorry, Bing. Writers have that obligation to mix it up. Any written material will be filled with traditional modifiers -- blue skies and dark eyes, stormy nights and scary frights; all the lingua franca of writers. However, a writer really helps their craft when they can bring out modifiers that change the mood and bring a novel idea to the sentence. 

There is a fun little exercise to work on modifiers, based on the old-fashioned party game, The Minister's Cat. Fortunately, a writer can do these without needing a party. It's a pretty simple thing, and with a lot of practice, it develops the writer's ability to break away from expectations and create memorable sentences.

It goes like this: Take a simple sentence describing a person or a behavior, and leave the descriptor blank.
  • I am a _____ driver. (the modifier is an adjective)
  • I drive very _____. (the modifier is an adverb)

Now think of the easy adjectives -- good, careful, fast, bad, experienced, etc. -- and get those out of your system. Do the same for the easy driving adverbs -- well, carefully, quickly, poorly, etc.

Now start throwing different adjectives in, particularly ones better used for things like food, sports, hobbies, art, etc. -- the further from driving, the better. Think about the ways that you describe your soup or a painting could describe your driving. Could you be a zesty driver? Fast and memorable, always capturing the attention of everyone around you? Could you drive very poetically? Each move and technique well-thought out and scripted with a rhythm-and-flow that not everyone can understand or appreciate?


(Personally, my driving is salty and I drive inquisitively. Does that tell you about my driving or about me? Would you want to be the car behind me or the one in front of me?)

As you learn to flex your adjectives and adverbs, they do more than add to the description, they tell a story. If an artist character begins describing his moods not with emotions but with colors and shading, we see how that character acknowledges the world. Someone replete with loving, affectionate descriptors -- even as negative ones -- creates a very empathetic world about them. Think of a character who who describes friendships, relationships, and love with calculated, mathematical terms. You might know more about that person from those odd descriptions than by their simple actions.

Do this exercise periodically, assigning weird words to simple tasks and see what they become. .The more you do this, the easier it will become, and the more open you become with using your whole palette of words to bring out the details in your characters and writing.

But for next few days, enjoy your holidays. Have a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and enjoy the love and friendship of those around you (you can write about them later).



(I will also be enjoying a few things myself, so there will not be a post on December 24th. The next scheduled post will be on the 28th, as I prepare for New Year's Eve.)

Monday, December 17, 2018

Memoirs – Remembering Time, Place, and Family

As diverse as everyone’s life story is, they all share one thing in common: They all happened in the past. How long ago the story was will differ, but this is a common thread. It might seem like a painfully obvious statement, but the purpose is to remind the writer that the past is not the present, and the difference between the two is the basis for a good memoir.

I went out the other night with some friends, and one of them put five bucks in the digital jukebox (Note: not too long ago, jukeboxes were not digital, and only had vinyl.) When my friend came back he said he put on some Lady Gaga, but wanted to hear her “old stuff.” Only at that moment did I realize that my present mind just accepts Lady Gaga as a musician, but once upon a time she was a new artist. Her “new stuff” was now her “old stuff.” That made me realize just how much things can change in a mere ten years.

The purpose of this note is never forget to bring your readers into the past. When we write about the lives of our parents, grandparents, etc., we are sharing a life that many people might not understand these days. If I was to write about my father’s life, I would talk about the three-bedroom house where my father spent his teen years and my grandmother spent most of her later years. People these days have a concept of a three-bedroom house, but this story would have to dismiss all of those modern-day preconceptions and establish the past reality.

My father was five when the Forties started. As a writer, it is my responsibility to bring out the details of that era. When two of my father’s brothers went off to serve in the Pacific, the household changed in a way we might not relate to these days. My grandmother hung a two-star banner in the window, just like other houses on that street. Conversely, my father had the excitement of finally having his own bedroom. When everyone came back from the service, not only did seven people live in that three-bedroom house (with only one bathroom), but they often had relatives and guests sleeping in the living area due to the post-War housing shortage. The back room was filled with laundry from the neighbors because the extra money helped my grandparents pay the bills and eventually pave the driveway in 1947. (Though they never did get that second bathroom.) And at night, everyone would gather for an evening by the radio in the parlor, or one of my great-uncles would come over and tell stories. Those are stories that take place in the Forties, and can hold the interest of the 21st-century audience.

Now that the background has been set for a story about my father, there is one element that needs to be incorporated, and it’s the most difficult of them all: Family. I could write a bunch of stories about my grandmother, but the only ones I knew firsthand were from the Seventies. My grandfather had long since passed away, so I never knew my grandmother as someone’s wife. Grandma was just a saintly woman in her seventies, very different from the one raising five boys during the Depression and doing the neighbors' laundry for extra money. It becomes my responsibility to try and bring out who she was back then, and present her to the world not as my grandmother, but as a mother, wife, sister, and all those things that I never saw.

And lastly, the most difficult part is writing about family members as complete characters. To be honest, this isn’t always necessary – we can write about the many heroic deeds of our ancestors without pointing out the embarrassing details that go with them. However, I personally connect the closest to characters who have flaws and shortcomings, doubts and fears, or bad habits that they just can’t seem to shake. Reading stories of those before us and their perfect lives can make us feel somehow inferior. Stories about those same heroes that include their problems and the adversities they overcame make them inspirational.

I have plenty of people in my life (that shall remain nameless) who gain my admiration not for what they did but for what they overcame. I recently celebrated the thirty-fifth birthday of a friend who was not supposed to live past twenty – there is a story of heroism. Another friend of mine overcame the worst set of problems – bad luck and bad choices – to finally get their life on track, and their story moves me to be like them. And yes, for those friends who were ultimately defeated by their obstacles, there is still inspiration in how they took on a challenge they could never win.

Those are lives worth writing about, even if just for those stories.







Friday, December 14, 2018

Nobody’s Life Fits In Three-Hundred Pages

A lot of my fellow writers carry at least one project that involves documenting someone’s life – their parents, grandparents, a special friend or maybe their own. A part of that adventure involves discovering all the facts and details, and also all the stories and hearsay about that person. That alone is a lot of fun, and a worthy adventure. Then the writer in them steps in to put all of this stuff into narrative form; telling these things as stories. Whenever someone takes on this huge task, I support them 100%. However, I also remind them about the difference between those crucial things that turn the process into a journey, and the other parts that don't need to go in.

Documenting someone’s life is the first step to writing someone’s story, but it is not an end in itself. More importantly, a lot of any person’s life does not need to be documented on its own because its most important part is being a descriptor for other sections. Think about all the time you’ve spent sleeping, quietly enjoying a meal, reading the newspaper (back when there were newspapers) or watching something mindless on Netflix. These moments would never make it into any memoir on their own, and if they did, they would only be there to support some part of the real story. “I tried to enjoy my dinner while bingeing on episodes of The Office, but my thoughts always returned to that one night in 1986…”

Anyone who knows me, knows that during the winter, my bad knee gets stiff and I drag one leg a little. That’s how I am, no apologies. What any author of my life story must decide is whether or not it is important to tell all the stories behind that habit: blowing out my knee playing football, the lack of proper care that allowed the injury to become a chronic problem, and how I am now fifty and what little cartilage I have left in my bad knee is just for decoration. Is all that important? Or would it be easier to just point out the dragging step as I walk and mention how it was the lingering effects from a cheap tackle back in school? The decision about how to write that will define the shape of the story.

Next, life isn’t just one story, so don’t try to put everything into one story. Rather, look at one critical turning point in that life, and start writing about everything that led up to that point. If someone’s greatest moment in life is their fiftieth wedding anniversary, then the stories about their first job, the neighbor’s oak tree getting hit by lightning, or that time they saw a dog in the alley eat a rat are not important. All that matters are the stories that contribute to that one magical day – stories that build up to it, strengthen it, or even threaten it. That’s the real story. Save the thing about a rat-eating dog for another discussion.

(The rat-eating dog was kind of true -- I couldn’t tell if the rat was eaten by a dog or just by a much-larger rat.)

Now, going back to the fiftieth-anniversary story, the choice of stories leading up to that point determines what the whole thing is about. If the supporting stories are all about the adversities that couple faced on their way to that day, that’s one thing. A different route would be with all the stories about why that marriage was so strong. How about all the stories of humor and mirth that made those fifty years just fly by? Stories about the family they made, the lives they led – these all create a different environment for the memoir about that fiftieth anniversary.

There is more to it than just the story choice. There is creating the place and setting, which will be discussed in the next post.

(and to a certain couple – happy Fiftieth and may the next fifty be even better!)

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Reality About Historical Fiction

I know many people who write historical fiction, exploring every era from the Bronze Age to the Dotcom era (yes, that is now part of history.) And within that category, a debate usually emerges about when it changes from writing for a genre to historical fiction. If I had an answer, there would no longer be a debate. However, I can offer some guidelines on knowing which is which.

The real sum of the discussion comes to how much reality we want in the story, and how much we want to educate our readers. These two can easily be merged together, but when they run into conflict, it becomes the author’s choice as to which side wins out.

First and foremost, the author needs to have a fairly sound idea of any historical anchors that will be included in the story. If this historical discussion is about fictional characters traveling west after the Civil War, then the only mandatory historical anchors will be environmental – horses, covered wagons, different makes of rifles and so forth. These become interesting research pieces, but do not have to drive the story more than the characters. Most everything else can just be a fa├žade of the western trails – Piedmont Ridge, the Wild Northern Plains, Remington Junction can all be landmarks even though none of them likely existed. That’s okay – our characters didn’t really exist either, so they would be right at home. The only environmental anchors that bind our fictional characters are those of history. If the characters settle down in the state of Arizona, well, Arizona wasn’t a state until 1912, so it’s safer to call it the Arizona Territory or do some research on names other than state.

The amount of reality we pour on our fictitious characters is now up to us. If our west-wandering characters go through a real town that has particular relevance to the author, there’s nothing wrong with making that place as real as possible. Including details, descriptions and even pictures of the town is perfectly allowable. The only real warning is to remember that the story is about characters. Before spending five pages describing Cheyenne in 1882, consider whether so much description would break the pace of the action. Maybe two pages is fine, or perhaps five pages spread throughout the chapter. Good historical writing should not feel like a history lesson, it should feel like a fully fleshed-out story that just happens to be in a particular point in time.

Now, if your purpose is to bring the reader fully into that era, you can introduce historical figures. At this point, your responsibility is to try and write them as sincerely as possible, which requires all that much more research. If you write about an encounter with Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), it will be to everyone’s benefit that you have some understanding of the character and not just introduce someone spewing out quotes from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Conversely, you can introduce a very esteemed but nameless author that you imply to be Mark Twain but never say so, thus letting you off the hook.

On the one end of historical fiction, I would offer Caleb Carr’s The Alienist as a very good example. The very name offers an introduction into its historical point – an alienist was the original title for a psychiatrist before the whole Freudian movement caught hold. Carr depicts New York in the late 19th century in all its gritty glory and brilliant disgust. It is very evident that he researched the works of sociologist Jacob Riis and others to recreate the tenement districts through the city, filled with fictitious characters who all fit that reality. The few historical anchors are worked in very well (including an appearance by Riis himself), but our fictitious protagonists and villain would never be found in a history book. New York City comes to life, though very little reality is ever involved.

The other side of this, however, would be something like Erik Larson’s The Devil In the White City (I’m from Chicago, so I have to mention this). This book is often considered historical non-fiction because it anchors itself on the underlying reality of its main characters, who conveniently have substantial documentation about their lives. The novelistic approach of this story – narratives knitting together individual events into one continuous story – relies more on the presentation of facts with presumptions to fill in the gaps. There is plenty of room for creativity, but very little for improvisation or telling the story that you want to tell (if it differs from the real story).

(I should also note that Larson’s more recent book, Dead Wake, telling the events around the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, is just as riveting for those who don’t want to read about Chicago and the nefarious H. H. Holmes.)

The most common form of historical fiction is when we write about our long-lost ancestors. True, they really existed, but unless their lives were as well documented as most national celebrities, any stories about them will have to be anecdotal or mostly built on assumption. While this makes the story fiction, it can still be very much anchored in reality. At this point, it is up to the author to find the best way to do justice to their family. And when it comes to the author’s personal story, well, that gets into writing memoirs. That will be the next post.

Friday, December 7, 2018

External Versus Internal

Drama, action, and narrative can each be sorted into two categories: external and internal. Most readers overlook this simple fact, but to be fair, readers do not care about which group is used, as long as the story keeps moving. As writers we always need to consider these touches, because they each make different contributions.

Let’s look at a simple thriller: A plane crash-lands high in the mountains, and the survivors have to find a way to make it back to civilization. We see this one done quite often, from the short story, Ghost Walkers (later turned into the movie, The Grey), to the true-to-life novel, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (also made into a movie.) This is simple survival, but the tension and dramatic build come from two completely different areas.


In external drama, the problems come from forces beyond the control of the main characters: brutally cold weather, the thin air of high altitudes, or a pack of wolves stalking our characters. Everything actively threatens our characters, from running for their lives to trying to traverse the unyielding frozen tundra that seems to challenge them at every step. This technique has its pros and cons:

  • It builds suspense, as the characters are surrounded by danger
  • Reader becomes sympathetic to this trapped situation
  • Characters lose depth because they appear reactive, not proactive (at least in the beginning)

Internal drama, such as in Alive, plays off of tension rather than the suspenseful build from the threat of the unknown. No packs of wolves pursue our survivors, and the brutal conditions are manageable, if not comfortable. Rather, the internal drama is the inevitable question of survival, and how far our heroes are willing to go to that end. There is an ever-looming threat around these people, but the threat is when they might have to make some horrible decisions about survival. Here, the up- and down-sides are very different:

  • Tension builds as the characters weigh the terrible decisions
  • The reader knows something must be done, but does not know when the choice will be made
  • Internal action is driven by narrative, which is far more difficult to write than a scene about running from a pack of wolves

Now, these two stories are strong examples of their respective camps, and perform well because they each do a good job working within their self-imposed boundaries. They also mostly avoid giving in to the pitfalls of their genre – when an external drama gets weak, it is easy to throw in an unexpected event like an avalanche; for an internal drama, a three-page narrative about why a character is so conflicted about facing a particular decision. Stories can be very successful just living in one camp or the other.

However, blending the two approaches and balancing them accordingly can be very engrossing. In keeping with our plane-crash survivor theme, I suggest Lord of the Flies. This classic blends together these two dramatic approaches, creating a well-balanced combination that offers the best criteria of each while countering their weaknesses. Of course, writing with this kind of balance takes that much more work and incredible patience to get things just right. If you are not sure whether it is worth it, let's just say that more people have heard of Lord of the Flies than Ghost Walkers or Alive.

When a writer approaches a story, one question that should always sit in the back of their minds is, “How should this conflict be played out?” When the writer asks themselves that simple question, they should consider the pros and cons of each one, and decide which contributes the most to the story. After that, it’s just a matter of writing.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Seeing the Internal Character

Several posts on this blog have talked about the intricacies of character development. However, nothing is more difficult than the first step - figuring out who that character is. Not just name, rank, and number, but who they are relative to the story. This can be difficult, so I thought I would offer an exercise in figuring out how to bring out the important parts of a character.

The character is you.

Before you get alarmed, I will use myself as an example to show how this exercise works and what there is to gain. It's fairly simple, and of course, when you do the exercise, you don't need to publish, print or save one written word. Just try this out and see how it feels.

I start with a simple narrative beginning: "I looked in the mirror and tried to recognize the man in the reflection." (Side note: Never describe your character in a first-person narrative by looking in a mirror. It is a worn-out cliche.) At this point in the exercise, I start writing about the various features in the mirror: The blue eyes, the receding hairline, that little scar on my cheek that is only visible if someone knows where to look. I rattle off a whole list of those things, just exploring odd details and seeing what they say. The way the bridge of my nose tells everyone I once hit a steering wheel with it, the way my eyebrows hop about when I laugh, that one tooth that doesn't match the rest. I lay out every trait possible.

Now here's the fun part. Make up some story arc. Anything. You are preparing to go to work. Heading out on a first date. Meeting a son you never knew you had. Heading to Uzbekistan for international intrigue. Preparing to rob a bank. Give your character a very specific purpose (that you are not legally obliged to follow through with).

Once you have that, compare all those things you described about yourself with the mission you are heading to. Think about whether those qualities about yourself are relevant to the thing you are doing. Is the quality you described totally relevant? Totally irrelevant? Or is it a possibility, a quality that can be described in a way that fits the situation? Does the hairline make a difference for that trip to Uzbekistan? Would that barely noticeable scar matter on a first date - or does it make you very self-conscious when you are trying to relax and enjoy yourself?

The important part of this exercise is actually two-fold. First, a critical part of this is to ask ourselves if something is worth mentioning. We all have different hair, eyes, ears, skin, teeth and so on, but we don't need to discuss them in the narrative if they offer nothing to the story. Unless my story pivots around my receding hairline, does it matter whether I describe it or not? Does the bent bridge of my nose motivate characters or press along the narrative? If it doesn't, maybe it is not worth mentioning.

The bigger part about this is a little more intricate. Let's say that the whole nose thing doesn't factor into the plot. That's fine, but we can actually use it to bring out other internal points. If this story is about going on a first date, the broken-nose issue can be used as a springboard for bringing out the character's insecurities about going on this date. The nose itself doesn't matter, but it becomes a device for showing the character's internal traits that don't show up in the mirror. The receding hairline won't push the plot, but its influence on the character can shift his actions. Maybe it makes the character wear a hat, or try to comb his remaining hair in a way to conceal everything. To really emphasize the point, the character can consider the horrors of a comb-over as a last-ditch way of hiding the sin of his hair.

Exercises like these are how we drag out not just the external traits but the internal dynamics of the character. This way, we understand not just how they look, but how they react and feel. The character gains depth and we can write them as complete people that the reader can relate to. If the reader never finds out about the eye color, well that's fine. But if that whole nose thing is used properly, the reader will not just know about the character's insecurities, but they will wonder about just how it was broken. And at that point, they are invested in your character.