I use greens as neutrals, and thought I could make all greens blend. I was wrong. Greens can be persnickety. The photo above is proof (and those are all greens – the one that looks blue is actually more of a greeny-teal in person). The green laces and beads I chose for my kudzu piece are another proof, but the results so far are so hideous I don’t even want to show it. I won’t give up on the idea, but it needs a rethink.
While I am not pleased with this lack of success, I won’t let it beat me. I’ve put the kudzu piece aside, and am returning to other projects that have deadlines and places to go. Perhaps by clearing some of the clutter when these projects are sent off, I’ll be able to hear what the laces and beads want me to do with them.
The lilac in our backyard is blooming again. I’ve never seen it blossom at this time of year. My first reaction was, “Cool! I love lilacs!” My second thought was about what this means for the health of the plant. Is it getting too stressed? Will it bloom again in the spring? Then it occurred to me that had I lived even five hundred years ago I would have asked, “What kind of omen is this?”
Omens can be good, or bad, or both, depending on who is interpreting them. I’m reading Plutarch’s Lives and he writes about a little infowar between two opposing parties and the meaning of apparent omens. It would have been hilarious except the omen was used to start a war, but that’s a blog for another day.
Writers don’t have to limit themselves to fantasy or horror to use omens in their plots and/or character development. We all look for meaning in our lives, and sometimes that involves deciding when something is a sign from the universe – which is sort of the definition of an omen, yes? The need to make a hard decision could force your character to rely on superstition, or revert to child-like behavior (“eeny, meeny, miney, moe” and all that), because there is no obvious right answer. Similarly, making a wrong decision could be both a plot point (or the beginning of a subplot) should one character decide everything would have been fine if the protagonist had only used some sort of faith-based option in the decision-making process.
In the ancient world, anything could be an omen. Give yourself the freedom as a writer to use whatever comes your way to make your story what you want it to be.
I finally had an idea for a kudzu-inspired art piece using stuff I’ve saved and stuff I was given. The base for this piece is a cardboard packing insert that I thought looked like a mask. However, when covered with batting and fabric it turns into something entirely different. The green fabric was given to me by Rebecca Buzsaki, who has even more glittery stuff than I do thanks to her years of making dance costumes. I was hoping to use some of the wrapped floral wire that I bought for COVID masks (the wire is too heavy for that use), but of course I put the wire in a very safe place. While looking for it, I discovered some stiff paper that I used for making hat bands, and some stiffer paper that claims to be for making waists in dresses neat and tidy. Since my own waist is neither of those things, I have no problems using the paper tape to hold the lace I’m using for kudzu leaves – unless and until I find the floral wire.
There’s no pattern for this piece, which means it may languish for weeks until the various bits tell me where they want to go. I’ve never done anything remotely similar, so every technique will have its own learning curve. And I have no place whatsoever to display it. Why am I doing it? It’s art, sweetie. I’m making art.
I read a book by a botanist who divided life into the species that move a lot and those that move only a little. He framed it as a choice. “Self,” I said, “there has to be a story in there somewhere.” So far I don’t have an entire story, but I do have some ideas about using this choice for character development.
Very often those characters who choose to move a lot are divided into useless gadabouts or visionaries. That gets boring after a while, but if I dig a little deeper into our evolutionary history can I make something more layered out of a choice to move a lot? Could the visionary have found a way to fulfill her potential without leaving everything that made her?
Similarly, the ones who stay are generally divided into hidebound traditionalists or saviors of the collective past. Ditto on the boring bit. Perhaps a choice to stay could mean both more and less about the fear of change, and at such a deep level that the character will never fully understand her motivations.
And this is why you should always read outside your genre. You never know where your next characters, plots, or high-concept projects will come from.
My husband mentioned – not for the first time – about the long-lasting impact of ancient Greek ideas on what were proper questions to ask for modern science. For the ancient Greeks, truth had to be beautiful and beauty relied on symmetry. Okay, I’m oversimplifying, but those notions about beauty are still prevalent in the art world, and still determine the kinds of questions we ask about what constitutes art.
This leads me to a confession: I like ugly fabric. Not all ugly fabric, mind you, just some. Ask any of my quilting friends about me heading straight for the least attractive bolts on the shelves in every single quilt store. It’s not like I feel sorry for the uglies and think I have to rescue them. I honestly enjoy including them in my work. Those batik frogs, for instance, are just waiting for inspiration. I know they’ll look fabulous. At any rate, that’s my truth about beauty.
Putting emotion on the page can be vexing. Too much, and the reader rolls her eyes; too little, she won’t fully understand the scene. Subtle emotions are – as one would expect – the most difficult to peg (it helps to observe the emotional reactions of family and friends, but they aren’t always delighted to see themselves in your novel). With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, writers have a chance to observe thousands of people deal with the emotion of change, which is a complicated emotion indeed. Even if you aren’t an Anglophile or closet monarchist, tuning in to some of the coverage of the rites and rituals is a useful exercise. Watch how people say “pay respects” or “be part of history” – their expressions and body language tell as much as the words they use. Your next project may be easier based on these observations, and you don’t have to worry about ticking off the people you love by using their emotions for your characters.
I took a class from Karen Bolan about designing a minimalist quilt. When I told my husband what I was doing he laughed. “Right, the Bling Queen is going to go minimalist.” In my defense, I had chosen mostly tone-on-tone fabrics that I thought would lend themselves very well to a minimalist style. Then the class started and all bets were off.
We were doing freezer paper foundation piecing, which I’ve done before, so you would think that I would have remembered that whatever I designed would turn out backwards. You would also think that I would have remembered that foundation piecing doesn’t work well with directional fabric if you put in a lot of funky angles. I put in angles that I totally forgot were going to face the other way in the finished block and the background I wanted to use was one of the few that had a directional print.
The good news is that before I started cutting fabric I realized what I had chosen was not going to work. The better news is that this was a Zoom workshop so I could easily make a change. My eyes fell on my Halloween collection, and the block above is what I did.
So, yeah, the workshop was an epic fail as far as doing a minimalist quilt. It was an epic fail as far as doing an entire quilt as well, since I only made one block (and I know that I won’t be making multiples of it).
But the workshop was also a major win because I now have an idea for those directional fabrics. Furthermore, that idea will work well for a donation quilt, which takes a lot of pressure off me if I don’t have to make a minimalist quilt that I want to hang in my house. There is a benefit to making an attractive experiment that can go to someone who really needs a quilt.
Even better, the workshop was a major win because I really like my little Halloween block, I’ve got more of the fabric with the moon faces if I decide to make a full quilt, and even if I do nothing more with it this year I’ve got something new to look at for my second favorite holiday.
When creating a backstory for your characters, it helps to write a list of turning points – times when a choice or a chance event changed the character’s life. The bigger the turning point, the more likely it is to appear in the story itself. The small turning points are things the writer needs to know in detail, but the reader might not. That doesn’t mean small turning points are unimportant. Case in point – the small decision my son made that changed my life.
My son wanted to take karate when he was six. I thought he was too young, but told him I would enroll him when he was eight if he was still interested. He was, so I enrolled him in classes. Small decision so far, yes?
Yes and no. He continued in karate, earning a black belt, but in the process my husband got interested in the sport, then my daughter. I followed along because it was something the family could do together. Small decision, yes?
Yes and no. I took classes for twenty years. I liked the discipline, the people who ran the dojo, and the other students. I’m also really bad at letting things go (as my sewing room proves), so it wasn’t until I accepted that my joints couldn’t take the impact anymore that I retired.
Here’s where plot development comes into the conversation. The effect of exercise on brain health is amazing. Moderate exercise can help maintain cognitive function well into old age. There is evidence that adding more exercise can improve cognitive function even when there is some brain damage or cognitive decay in progress. The decision to take karate doesn’t advance the plot of my life, but it does influence the quality of choices available to me as I age. If I were basing a character in a novel on me, this would be part of the backstory, but might I be able to incorporate it into plot development as well?
For instance, if my character ended up being a caregiver for a family member, I could have her family be susceptible to a disease that she avoids because of a small decision regarding diet or exercise she made years ago. That could become the basis for animosity against her by other family members who are envious of her apparently undeserved good fortune, and that is definitely part of plot development.
I discovered that I can embroider and bead on the drape fabric without much fuss. I marked the pattern with a sliver of soap, and the markings lasted throughout the whole process. The floss looks great, and although it was fussy getting on the needle, it eased through the fabric nicely. I planned to use round beads for the circle around the tree, but the oval beads were readily available. I like them better. This tree doesn’t need sequins, but I might do another one with sequins for leaves. After all, I have plenty of fabric to experiment with.
My husband and I were watching the sheepdog trials at the Scottish Games, and we started riffing on imagined conversations between the dogs and the sheep. It suddenly occurred to me that I could use this technique if I find myself stuck writing dialogue for my characters. While I love writing dialogue, I can become so focused on what I want to say that I forget I’m not the one speaking. It’s my character speaking, and she has her own voice. Getting out of my own head can be a challenge, but if I were to take a few minutes to focus on the animals around me, I might be able to hear my character’s voice again.
Dogs are great animals to watch because their faces are so expressive, but other animals will work. We’ve got crows and squirrels in the neighborhood that put on quite the show when they feel like it. The hummingbirds aren’t so interesting – pretty, yes, but too results-driven. The mourning doves, on the other hand, are a real hoot. They raise their young in our back yard so you would think they’d stop wasting their energy trying to divert my attention from them. If I haven’t eaten a single one of their young for the last twenty years, why would I start now? Nevertheless, every time they see me they start their script: “Oh, woe is me, I’m a poor wounded bird. Don’t look in the corner, look at me. Oops, guess I wasn’t wounded after all.”
The next time you find your voice seeping into your character’s dialogue, try to break that cycle by finding the voice of the animals you see around you. You can start by captioning the photo above of my brother Glenn and me and Daisy the dog.