Monthly Archives: March 2016

Developing characters and an April adventure

Have you ever wondered why books can seem like good friends? You feel sad when they are over, you miss the story, the characters, the setting…

I’m fairly convinced that books become friends when we relate intimately with the characters, and we relate to characters who are credible and believable, who are realistic.

I think there are two approaches to characters; the people who map it all out and know their characters inside and out, and those who view the writing process as a journey to get to know the characters in-depth. Since I’m not a successful writer, I don’t know if one way is better than the other, or if one is completely unfeasible, but I know I tend to discover my characters as I write. It makes it more enjoyable for me as the writer. I get to experience things similar to the way a reader does, learning unexpected bits about my characters as I go along. However, module four of this writing course focused on character development, and the authors of the course suggest strongly that you outline the basics of your characters, making sure every trait fits together to lead to the desired outcome. (Maybe I just like to let my characters run wild and see where they end up, regardless of the outcome [but they always end up where they are supposed to be, so there is that].)

But I can definitely see the benefits of mapping and developing characters before you set out to write. An immature outburst may seem fitting in the moment, but creates an unstable character when, in the next chapter, she is shown in a position of responsibility and maturity. This is avoided by knowing who she is before you start and being able to refer to your notes to answer the question, “what would she do in this situation?” When I start writing my story, I suppose we will see how wild characters can be when the author has a personality map before them.

To develop credible characters, the course authors suggest keeping notes on individuals you encounter each day, making notes of attitude, actions, habits, dress and speech patterns. These notes can give you ideas for developing characters. These also come in to play when you have to describe your character.

a description that is only physical is boring (usually) and only surface deep. Adding in mannerisms (a phrase they always use, a gesture of greeting or the way they respond to a specific situation or stimulus) makes the character more real, more than just a pair of blue eyes above a pointed nose that comes out in the back as an auburn ponytail.

Though I have not gone through my writing to critically assess anything I am learning in this course, I think I tend to be lacking in this area. I throw in a physical description and tend to move on and focus on emotion and the action of the story. I’ve never given a character a specific mannerism or thought about how their speech pattern might be different depending on their geographic location or socioeconomic position. I’m going to go out on a sturdy limb here and say my characters are probably underdeveloped. Maybe not a lot, in some instances, but there is always room for improvement.

I will be taking all this into account when I start writing this new story. Some of you may be interested in knowing that I plan to start April 1 (no, it’s not a joke). November is know for National Novel Writing Month (by some of us, anyway), and during the month of April, the same organization that sponsors NaNoWriMo does Camp NaNoWriMo. It’s a little more loose and lax, focusing on simply writing, instead of specifically chasing a full novel. I’ve wanted to do it for several years but never bothered. And while I’d really like to tackle some of the projects collecting digital dust on my hard drive, I also want to try out some of these new ideas and have a fresh start before returning to projects that need a lot of help and work before I really begin writing again (though I am determined that some of them will be finished, someday…). In the week or so left before I start this adventure, I might revisit some of my projects and work out planning or revising bits, so stay tuned for that, if you’re really interested.

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The Girl in the Woods

One of my favorite parts of working at a bookstore is getting exposed to a variety of authors and books that I otherwise would probably never find.

The Girl in the Woods by Gregg Olsen was one such book. It was an interesting thriller with a couple different story threads that were neatly tied together at the end.

It begins with a severed foot in the woods, and launches from there into investigation and intrigue with the classic crime-solving duo.

I enjoyed that Olsen gave the characters detailed backstory, history, and draws readers in emotionally by establishing a sympathetic relationship between reader and character.

The glimpses into the life of medical examiner Birdy Waterman establish the character as more than a detective and fit perfectly into the story.

There was one time I felt Olsen went over the top, using prison sex to throw in a little excitement. And perhaps it’s realistic, but I thought it was unnecessary (and a little scarring).

The only other problem I had with the story: I wanted more significance from the foot. It was a great hook, but I wanted some closure from it too.

Writing for the senses

We’ve all experienced it.

That story that brings you there. You can see everything in detail, you know what it smells like, you can hear the surroundings, you know how the ground feels, how the air feels, you are in tune with the emotion.

Writing that appeals to the senses is the best kind, the kind you can easily lose yourself in.

Module three of my writing class focused a lot on senses. Especially for children, writing for the senses is key to drawing a reader in to the story.

But this has to be done carefully. Long gone are the days of the classics, where a description can be a few pages long. That’s just too much for most readers to handle.

Instead, description should be realistic. What would you notice?

Instead of going into detail about one thing, spend a few short sentences on several things. What did the character see? What did it seems like? Was it windy? Cold? And tie in emotions. How did it feel?

What this does is makes it real and relatable. When I read a Dickens description, I’m not there in the story, I’m looking for where it ends. (But don’t get me wrong, I love me some Dickens.)

These things comprise the setting for the story, and the setting is important. It’s easy to focus on the characters and forget the setting, but readers want to get lost in the story, and they can’t do that if they aren’t sure where exactly they are.

Writing for the senses can also help change the pace of the story, as does word choice and sentence structure.

We notice different things in different situations. In a moment of high intensity and action, do you notice the birds or the rustling leaves? Probably not, unless you’re an Anime character. But you might notice a fierce wind blowing against you or the hot sun on your skin. A fierce wind may help the story move quickly through a fast-paced action sequence, yet be inappropriate for a retro- or introspective moment.

Readers, and people in general, associate specific things with specific emotions or moods. For example, it is generally accepted that sunshine, birds chirping and brightness are associated with happiness, while rain, dripping water and gloom are associated with sadness. While these aren’t universally true for everyone (case in point, myself), we have to tread carefully when breaking the norm. The authors of this course say never to do it. And perhaps for a children’s book, that’s true. But I don’t necessarily agree, I think it just has to be done in the right way. You can create a realistic and relatable character who thrives in the gloom or one who feels sad beneath a cloudless sky, as long as you explain why and juxtapose the emotions against the senses. After all, I’m real, even if I’m not very relatable.

At the end of the day, descriptions and sensory writing come down to practice and identifying how much detail is needed, and what is relevant. 

I’m going to play with it as I write and see how noticing different things changes the mood of my character and the story.

Heroines of Mercy Street

When I saw Heroines of Mercy Street, I was instantly excited. I have thoroughly enjoyed the show on PBS, and I was exited to learn more about the individuals whose lives inspired the show.

I dove into the book and finished it in three days, despite its not being what I expected.

The name led me to expect a couple short biographical sketches of the real people who inspired some of the main characters of the show Mercy Street. What the book was instead was a brief history of nursing during the civil war, which led to the creation of nursing as a profession for women after the war.

Now, the book did also do some biographical sketching of Dorothea Dix, Mary Phinny von Olnhausen and Anne Reading (who inspired the character Anne Hastings in the show). And it was very interesting to get some of the back story behind these women and their characters. But I wanted more.

This book showed how nursing got started. It did a very good job highlighting the challenges women faced and it didn’t try to sugar coat the fact that most women came on as nurses with little to no training, learning on the job by trial and error. It didn’t represent them as these magical creatures who knew everything immediately and never grew faint at the sight of blood, and that, I thought, was refreshing.

Author Pamela Toler used diaries, correspondences, and memoirs to paint a general picture, but now I want individual portraits. I want to take the primary documents and paint an even more detailed picture of the life of one nurse during the Civil War. And maybe I will. Perhaps Mary Phinny von Olnhausen, or perhaps Louisa May Alcott. Heroines of Mercy Street highlighted several women, all of whom would make interesting subjects for an in-depth look at the life of a nurse during the Civil War.

So while the book wasn’t quite what I expected, I thoroughly enjoyed it, though as a disclaimer, I feel I must confess to be a history nerd. It gave me insight in to some of the characters of the show and satisfied its self-created hunger for more information, even as it left me wanting more.

If you are interested in the Civil War, nursing, women’s studies or you have just enjoyed watching the show, Heroines of Mercy Street is a quick and interesting read that’s worth the time.

The outline so far

Believe it or not, I did it.

I completed a semi-detailed chapter outline and synopsis of the book I will be writing, and I want to share it.

First, though, a few details about the book. It will be a novel, roughly 20,000 words, written in third person. My age range is about 10-12, though, as you will see, it will definitely be for mature 10-12 year olds. So, with no more ado, I present my story.

Molly is 12 years old and stuck in Modesto for the summer with nothing to do but babysit her younger brother. Her mom works two jobs, but there is no extra money for a babysitter or for Molly to go do things with her friends. Her only escape is her imagination, but that gets her into trouble.

She is constantly daydreaming and pretending to be somewhere and someone else. Molly finds herself in trouble for burning dinner, neglecting her brother and forgetting to to put the rent check in the mail box.

When she forgets to give her brother his cold medicine and he gets very sick, Molly feels guilty and responsible, until her mother explains that he has cancer, and forgetting the cold medicine had nothing to do with it.

Molly struggles to reconcile her emotions. She is devastated and sad, but sometimes she feels happy, sometimes she has fun and sometimes she forgets to feel sad, but she always feels guilty after. She has to learn that it is ok to be happy or have fun even when she is sad.
If you are still reading and want even more, here is my semi-detailed chapter-by-chapter outline.

1. Introduction of Molly and her family, set the scene for a boring summer, but Molly’s teacher tells her an imagination can take her places she can’t otherwise visit.

2. Her first imaginary adventure: she is a princess secret agent on a mission to save her country by recovering stolen top secret documents.

3. Molly is responsible for dinner tonight, but she gets caught up imagining how cute her newly-assigned partner is.

4. Molly’s mom comes home to find dinner ruined and Molly running wild (in her mind, anyway). Molly gets in trouble, and is sent to bed without dinner.

5. Molly’s brother sneaks his dinner in to her room to share and Molly tells him about her imaginary adventures, and he wants to join the fun.

6. Molly and her partner have to rescue a very important person who was kidnapped– her brother.

7. Molly is charged with mailing a letter, but after she and her partner rescue her brother, all three of them are pursued.

8. Molly’s mom finds the letters ect on the table, and now the rent is late and she has to pay a fee, and she isn’t happy with Molly.

9. It’s Molly’s birthday! But she’ll have to imagine it’s fun because the late fee used up the money her mother had saved up for her birthday. In her imaginary world, Molly get in a fight with her father the king, and she is removed from secret agent duty.

10. Molly’s brother has a cold and Molly has to take care of him. But she is busy sneaking out to continue pursuing her nemesis, the kidnapper/thief.

11. Molly forgets to give her brother his medicine, and now he is even worse. Molly lies about forgetting the medicine and Her mother takes him to the emergency roo. Molly starts to feel guilty.

12. When her brother isn’t getting any better, Molly confesses everything to her mom, explaining why it’s her fault. Her mother tells her that the doctors found cancer, and Moll’s forgetfulness had nothing to do with her brother’s sickness.

13. Molly’s brother gets to come home with a nurse, but he isn’t getting any better. Molly is so upset she can’t even play pretend any more.

14. Molly’s brother wants her to play pretend with him so she makes an effort. Then she decides to surprise him with a little play.

15. Molly recruits her friends for the play and they practice. Her mother gets a work bonus and uses it to buy treats to make the play more special.

16. The play is a success, Molly’s brother loves it and everyone has fun. But then her brother gets more sick and has to go back to the hospital.

17. Molly and her mother spend a long night waiting in the hospital, and the news is bad.

18. Molly’s brother is dying, but he wants Molly to keep playing pretend, he tells her she can imagine he is playing with her. Then he dies.

19. The nurse who stayed with them sees Molly at the funeral and tells Molly her imagination can help her accept the hurt, even when life doesn’t make sense.

20. Molly misses her brother and meets him again in her imagination, where they have great fun. But when she comes back to reality, she feels guilty for the fun. Her mother helps her understand that it’s ok to have happy moments and have fun even when she is sad. 
I know that this story will be intense for children, but I feel like it is important for several reasons. Childhood cancer is so prominent now, it touches so many kids, it’s relevant. And so is the message that it’s ok to be ok. I had a hard time accepting that at the age of 20, feeling guilty that I wasn’t moping around because I was sad. It’s ok to function, even have fun and be happy, when there is something sad in your life. Just because we don’t mope and cry all the time doesn’t mean we don’t care or feel less sad, it simply means we are giving ourselves the freedom to still live, and that is a message I want to share.

Into the Magic Shop

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up James Doty’s Into The Magic Shop. The synopsis on the back gave several impressions. This book, all about the mysteries or the brain and the heart, sounded a little new age-y, sciencey, and borderline religious, though the author makes it clear he isn’t religious quite early in the book.

The story is autobiographical and begins with Doty recalling his childhood, obsessed with magic, and how he met a woman by chance one day who promised to teach him powerful magic. This magic is essentially relaxation and meditation, training your brain to believe in yourself and your dreams by imagining that you already have achieved them.

Doty moves on rather quickly from his magic lessons in the book, and relates snapshots from the rest of his life and how he used this magic– and the consequences that come from using it incorrectly.

The most important aspect, according to Doty and his teacher, is first opening one’s heart to those around oneself. What I think the author is trying to get at is the idea of allowing yourself to forgive both yourself and others and be freed of any negative emotions, that way you can more accurately pinpoint the things that are truly important to you. If you are chasing a dream that is supposed to make you value yourself, you’ll forever be chasing. Self-worth doesn’t come from what you have but from who you are in your core.

Doty shares personal experiences and his journey to learn where his value and worth comes from. Hint, it’s not from all the money he earned and lost.

Doty’s book was interesting and had some practical applications. He went into detail on the techniques he used so that readers can easily copy it themselves. And for someone who is interested in science but doesn’t have a science degree, it was very easy to understand when he talked about the brain.

However, I did wish there was a little more to the story. We learn what he learned growing up and we learn through his experiences, but then he talks about an urge to learn more about how the heart and brain interact, and it felt a little disjointed from there. He concludes with how he approached research, not with what he found. It felt a little anti-climatic, like a cliffhanger for a sequel that doesn’t foreshadow anything.

I enjoyed the book, and I thought it was quite interesting, but I felt like it needed just a little something more to tie it all together. Perhaps that’s simply a byproduct of writing an autobiography of your life up to the present, it ends a little unceremoniously. In any case, the book was worth the read, and not a bad first book.