I have more than enough ideas to keep me writing, if only I would write. Thank heavens Patricia Boyle, the president of the Tri-Valley Writers Branch of the California Writers Club, opens our monthly meetings with a writing prompt. We get four minutes to write, then on to the next item on the agenda. Those four minutes sometimes rescue me from an entire month when I write nothing more momentous than the grocery list. Some of her prompts have evolved into short stories for me. I’m not sure where this snippet will go, but I like it. The prompt became the first two lines of the story.
She hadn’t seen him for six months, but there he was in the coffee shop. He sat by himself, weeping into his herbal tea.
“Rees, do you mind if I sit down?” she asked. “I don’t want to intrude.”
“Please,” he said, “join me.” He leaned over his cup again. The tears flowed off his cheeks into his drink.
“So, how’s the experiment going?” she asked.
“As you can see,” Rees said, “I’m expressing the antidote as fast as I can. Say, maybe you can help. Tell me a sad story about your divorce. Another quarter cup of tear solution, and I’ve reached my quota.”
My co-author for the Chenille series, Ann Anastasio, moved to another state years ago. That has made collaborative writing difficult, but not impossible. Last week we got together and talked about the plot for The Captain and Chenille. Within half an hour we had ironed out some nagging issues and added layers to the main characters. That is the benefit of bouncing ideas off other people. You may not want to write an entire novel with someone else, but do yourself a favor and find a person or group that will invest in you (as you, of course, will invest in that person or group). Record the session if you can’t take notes quickly enough. The ideas that start swimming around the room may not end up in your current project, but chances are you’ll find a way to use them somewhere, sometime.
I did some recording, not of our ideas, but of Ann reading from The Chenille Ultimatum. It’s under a minute – enjoy!
One day in an antique shop, I noticed a simple but elegant bookcase filled with beautiful linens. On top of the stack on the highest shelf I saw a very realistic toy cat. I had to stretch to reach it. I tugged on its foot to determine if it was stuffed with kapok or buckwheat.
The foot was warm.
The cat’s expression was not.
I considered myself lucky that a killer stare was the only thing the cat threw my way. It settled back to resume its nap and I retreated to a curio cabinet. Since everything was behind glass, I wouldn’t have to worry about mistaking a live critter for the work of a genius artist.
I was reminded of that experience when I told a writer that her character wouldn’t have reacted the way she wrote the scene. “The good news is I think of him as a real person. So real, that I’m ready to argue with you, his creator, about what he would or would not do,” I said.
We all laughed, but it’s worth remembering that the reader brings as much to our work as we do. The reader wants to see a fully fleshed character, wants to imagine having lunch with our heroine, or going fishing with our hero. If the reader tells you we’ve made the character act in a way she would not, could not, act – listen! Like beauty, reality is in the eye of the beholder.
I told you about finding inspiration for my characters in obituaries so my friends and family can’t complain that I’m using them for my stories. Sometimes, however, you run across a character trait that spans generations and just happens to fit what you need in your writing. That happened to me in The Chenille Ultimatum.
This is my father. He was a great guy, usually laughing unless some piece of equipment had the temerity to misbehave. He also sang to himself. We’d hear him puttering in his shop, and all of sudden he would sing a snippet of some song he heard years ago, or yesterday, or just made up.
This is my father’s mother. She sang to herself, too. I discovered that one day when she was making lunch and didn’t know I was still in the kitchen. She started humming to herself, then sang part of a verse, then went back to humming. “Aha,” I thought, “that’s where my Dad gets it.”
That’s also where I get it, because I sing to myself too. No one noticed except my children (it annoyed them, so I made sure to sing whenever they annoyed me). Then one day I was working on a scene in The Chenille Ultimatum and I remembered this multi-generational trait. “Self,” I said, “have a character sing a piece of a song she heard from her mother, who heard it from her mother, who heard it from her mother, who heard it from the aliens when they first landed on Earth.”
And so I did. The song becomes a plot point, since the aliens recognize the song and decide they can trust humans after all. The character trait comes from real people, but no one knew until I spilled the beans. Perhaps your family holds multi-generational character traits that will provide plot points too.
Friends and family do the most interesting things. You want to include their exploits in your novel, but you know they won’t be flattered. I’ve heard a family story of a man who kidnapped his own son and took him to a foreign country, where he abandoned him. There’s another story of a boy who ran away from home after a war and reinvented his entire life. Both of them would make great characters, but how many generations of relatives have to be safely dead before I can write about them?
The standard advice to novelists is to combine the traits and experiences of several real people to make your characters, but I found a new source. I collect obituaries.
Here are real people, described by those who loved them best, or knew them best, or were paid to research them. I can blend their odd facts and thrilling exploits with my characters. I’m not basing my character on any one person, and I’m adding enough from those outside my social network that they really won’t recognize themselves in my heroine, my sidekick, or my villain. Now I can allow my characters to do what the plot demands without hurting anyone’s feelings.
Except for the kidnapping story – that one may need a bit more time before it is ready.
One of the advantages of having an unusual name is that you pay attention when you hear it. Or read it, as happened when I ran across the term longshore drift.
The phrase has something to do with the accumulation of sand along a beach, but I enjoy the juxtaposition of words. Like pebbles in the surf, a thousand uses for the term rolled across my brain. It could be a command – “Longshore, drift!” I could pretend that I had been forced – forced, mind you – to spend the afternoon in idle amusement. Or it could be a suggestion for free-writing – drift along on a wave of sentences, tossing them on paper like leaves along a country stream.
Which brings to mind what I miss most about the demise of card catalogs – the lack of serendipity. Searching for books became so much easier, but the minutes I gain can’t outweigh the hours of pleasure I would get from a random discovery. It’s why I love my hardbound set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, where looking up the great photographer Yousuf Karsh led me to Tamara Platonova Karsavina, who danced with Nijinksy; which is next to Kars, a much fought-over region in Turkey known for its cheese; which is next to Paul Karrer, who won a Noble Prize for investigating carotenoids, which turn me orange when I eat too many carrots.
Despite having the blackest thumbs on either side of the Mississippi, I have committed myself to growing an orchid. The plant was a gift, so I’m motivated enough to research it. By research I mean I went to Alden Lane Nursery and asked Sue the orchid guru what to do. She said the variety I own thrives on neglect. Then she said something that I knew I could adapt to all my creative endeavors. “It needs light.”
This bit of wisdom applies to my stacks in the sewing room. They need to be turned over once in a while so the bits on the bottom come to light.
She also said if I paid attention, the plant would tell me when it needs water. As long as the roots are green, they’re hydrated.
That definitely fits with my fiber art and writing projects. The fabric and my characters often refuse to talk to me, but they will send out clues now and again. When I pay attention, I know what they want and the project goes smoothly.
I discovered other lessons I could transfer from the garden to my work. This is harder than you might think, as my husband is the gardener in the family (see above if you’ve forgotten why plants dread my approach). Still, he has created a garden that reveals surprises at different angles.
Here are massed lilies. I am especially fond of this view because I’m the clutterbug in the family. Yet here for all to see is the value of letting things run riot, creating their own beauty.
We bought this shrimp plant because I thought it was cute. It had one itty-bitty flower when we brought it home, and look at it now. Thus we see the value of planning for the best despite evidence to the contrary.
Here is my last lesson from the garden – find yourself a patron saint. Trevor the gargoyle doesn’t actually solve my artistic problems, but I laugh whenever I see him and sometimes that’s enough. When it isn’t, I’m taking a cue from my orchid and finding myself some light.