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 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.
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.
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.
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.
I buy fabric by the yard and use it by the inch; I buy books by the pound and read them by the page. That means my house is full of unread books. “Self,” I said, “either find a way to make time run backwards or start on those books you haven’t read.”
While it is true that I write science fiction it is also true that I’m not actually a scientist – or a magician – so the task of finding a way to make time run backwards seems beyond me at the moment. That’s why I brought The Persian Wars by Herodotus with me on vacation. It helped that our copy happened to be a good size to hold while stuck in those little bitty airplane seats. The good news is I discovered I can actually focus on non-beach reads while on vacation. The better news is I had an epiphany about my unread books, one that will help me as a novelist.
Many of my unread books are old classics – you know, the stuff you were supposed to read in college buy only read part of and begged your roommate to tell you how it ended. There’s also a lot of history and philosophy in my collection. As I was reading The Persian Wars I was struck by how much information Herodotus made up, or someone made up and told him. I had the advantage of two millennia of research when I was reading, but for centuries this was the only work available. It took a lot of time to combat the conclusions drawn and prejudices created by this text. Similarly, my characters may not have all the information they need to understand that the conclusions they draw and the prejudices they cherish may not reflect reality.
Now I am anxious to pick through my bookshelves, not only because of what I could learn but also because of how I could use the experience to make my characters more nuanced, more interesting. Who knows – perhaps I’ll even find a way to make time run backwards hidden in the pages of those unread books.
I’ve been building my gratitude skills, because things have been working as expected and I don’t want to take that for granted. During my vacation my flights were on time, my luggage arrived in good order, my phone had service, and I found food I wanted to eat (not always a given for a vegetarian). When I returned my estimation of what bills would be waiting was correct and the plan I had for catching up with my deadlines proved to be adequate. These are things I once expected, but now recognize for the miracles they are. No one gets a guarantee in life, so when things are going well I try to acknowledge the gift. I also try to think of what else I might need in the toolbox for when things aren’t going well, which is why the photo above is filled with stuff I use when I’m cursing or weeping or both. Things break, things change, things wear out – that’s the nature of life. I don’t have to like it, but I can be grateful for the moments when I can relax.
While I didn’t do any writing on the road (aside from journal entries), I did bring back titles for short stories, quilts, or both. The first is The Pickle Hotel. One of the hotel rooms we had smelled of dill pickles. I’m not sure if someone broke a crate of pickle jars, or if the disinfectant had some odd scent added to it, but the smell was definitely there. I’ve got notes for including the smell of pickles in the novel I’m working on now (spoiler alert, critique partners!), and I believe I can make a small jar quilt using the greens in my stash for pickles.
The second title is Swamp Rabbit Trail. That was the name of a road we passed. I would have loved to explore it, but time did not allow. Perhaps I’ll rework the Alice in Wonderland stories with Swamp Rabbit instead of the Mad Hatter.
Last is Salted Caramel Moonshine. We saw a sign for this product outside Palmetto, South Carolina. I’m not sure if the product is actually hootch or a liquored-up truffle or what. If you ever run across it, let me know. In the meantime, I’m thinking flash fiction is the best use for a title like that and I’m looking for a story that fits.
I’m getting a vacation this year. That wasn’t part of the plan. Oh, there was an idea of a vacation, but ideas are not plans, and this vacation is more of a gift than anything else. I’ve been spending the last few weeks juggling where I am and where I will be. Once I’m on the plane, however, I intend to be where I am until I am back – which is a convoluted way of saying I won’t be posting for a couple of weeks. I hope you give yourself the gift of being in the moment. You really are worth your attention.
The solstice is a month behind us, and the minutes of daylight are shrinking rapidly. The sky is falling. I am lost.
Okay, so I’m not lost, the sky is firmly anchored overhead, and there are at least 14 hours of daylight to play with for the next few weeks. My inner voice of doom is still screeching, and it’s getting on my nerves.
“Self,” I said, “you need to turn this bug into a feature.”
Which brings me to the title about dark and plot. While many plots pivot at the point where the protagonist moves forward in faith because there is no other option, what if I pivot my plot with a bit of comic relief? Our heroine, who has become increasingly paralyzed by tiny losses, is dope slapped with the realization of her abundance. She understands there are people who love her and resources at her command. She then has an epiphany that her story isn’t just about her, but about everyone in the community, and her role as leader will be one thread in the tapestry.
This isn’t the typical hero story, but perhaps it is more realistic. No matter how important a role we play in our time, there is no guarantee our names will be remembered two generations hence. Still, if we’ve done our job right, if we’ve promoted kindness rather than cruelty, the people who come after us will have a better start to their stories. That’s worth more than being remembered forever, yes?
Now to use those 14 hours wisely and not mourn the three minutes lost since yesterday.