GPS for the subconscious

GPS for the subconscious

Gwynn Scheltema

I call it mind mapping. You might call it clustering or brainstorming. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this visual technique works to generate ideas and get subconscious thoughts down on paper before you lose them.

What is mind mapping?

Mind mapping is a my non-linear way to organizing thoughts without my internal critic getting in the way. At the same time it allows me to link and organize those ideas, so that the finished exercise is something I can work with.

Sound contradictory?

Perhaps, but it is based on some interesting studies on the way we think. Ralph Haber’s study of memory, found that we have nearly 90% success rate recalling images rather than words. Tony Buzan’s research found that those who took notes using key words learned more effectively. Mind mapping combines keywords and visual representation.

Mind map mind set

Start with an open mind and playful attitude. Mind mapping is a “brain dump.” Expect that many of the ideas you produce will not be useful. That’s not important. You can harvest the valuable nuggets later.

Your brain works best in short, intensive bursts (5 minutes or so), so once you begin, work fast and write down only key words, symbols, images, phrases … not sentences. Strive for an explosion of ideas.

Write with a pencil, your favourite pen, coloured markers, crayons or whatever helps to make you feel creative. Same goes for the paper you choose: with or without lines, coloured, big or small.

Where do you start?

Begin with one central keyword or concept in the centre of the page. Starting in the middle of the page gives the creative right brain a head start, as our non-creative left brain is used to starting in the upper left-hand corner.

You can put the keyword in a circle or a cloud shape or not enclose it at all (this is a creative process, so there are no “rules.”)

You can use an idea you want to work with or a random word picked from a book or given to you by someone else.

Then what?

I started with the word GERANIUM.

Write down/draw anything that keyword suggests to you, and then a word or symbol associated with that new thought, and so on, until you have a chain of linked ideas moving out from the central theme. Do not judge your ideas at this stage; simply write them down.

Put an idea down even if it seems unrelated – your subconscious probably knows more than you do.  DOCTORS OFFICE showed up on one of the branches. What does that have to do with geraniums? Seemingly nothing now, but when I organized the ideas afterwards, the link became clear. (I’ll explain later).

Keep your hand moving. If ideas slow down, take your hand back to the central concept and begin a new branch. Draw empty lines, and your brain will move to fill them automatically; or inject more energy with a different colour pen.

Eventually you’ll have several trains of thought, all different from each other and yet linked by the central concept. You can now organize them to fit your purposes.

Organizing and using your mind map ideas

Ways to use the ideas you’ve generated can be as varied as the ideas themselves.

Say I’m looking for an idea for a non-fiction article. Perhaps my first instinct around the word GERANIUM is to do an article on container gardening, I take a highlighter and highlight all the ideas that fit in any way with that slant. In the example, I’d highlight: POTS, RED, HANGING, TRAILING, VERANDAH, PATIO, SUMMER, SCENT. Hmmm….. boring!

But in the process, the word SCENT reminded me that geranium leaves can be used to scent and colour sugar. The mind trail on HERBS, TEAS, SPA suddenly becomes more interesting. A non-fiction article on “Using Flowers for Special Teas” now has possibilities. I might do another mind map now with the word TEA in the centre.

Use a mind map over and over

But don’t stop there. The same mind map can be used several times, at different times for different styles of writing.

The phrase DOCTORS OFFICE has me curious. I follow the branch back towards the centre, trying to work out what PINK and SUGAR have to do with it. Then it hits me… when I was a child, our doctor used to hand out tiny cylindrical candies that smelled like scented geraniums. I realize that I haven’t seen them in decades. What other sweeties from that era are no longer around? Hmmm….. Another article? A scene for my novel? A short story? Things are brewing now.

Later, it strikes me as interesting that I have two trails that contain the word VERANDAH, and I’m drawn to the references to LATIN WORD; SECRETS; SCHOOL FRIENDS; IVY; OLD BUILDINGS; ENGLAND. I think I feel a poem emerging…..

Even the trail that started out with the boring POTS; RED, ended with SQUIRREL; CRINOLINE: HIBISCUS. Now I realize, that’s a story my subconscious has unearthed about a little critter that came to my garden last year. He loved hibiscus shoots, and …

When should I do a mind map?

Use a mind map whenever you want to generate new ideas. Use it to focus in on a particular problem area. Use it to expand something you are already working on. Use it to reveal hidden subconscious perspectives on a seemingly boring topic. Or just do it for fun and see where it takes you. Quick. Easy. Worth it!


The perfect spot to be creative – and mind map to your heart’s content – is at Spring Thaw 2018 on beautiful Rice Lake in Keene, Ontario. Come for 3 or 5 days and escape to write with Writescape.Tailor your weekend to suit your needs.There is an agenda and formal programming, but you choose what sessions and activities will work for you.

One way I write a poem

One way I write a poem

Gwynn Scheltema

Outside my window the snow is piled layer upon layer. It’s quite beautiful, but it does seem like winter has been here FOREVER. There is a spot near the pathway where bulbs will poke through in spring, and although it is mid-winter, I still look there in the hope of seeing a crocus nudging its way to the sun. But, nope! Not today. It’s as if winter knows how I feel and is teasing me, telling me to be patient. I feel a poem coming on…..

Poems are inspired by many things, and each poet usually has a preferred way of entering into a poem. For me it is an image, often an image from landscape, an image that evokes an emotion in me, an image that begins to tell a story…

Emotion first

Painting a pretty picture with words is all well and good, but if the picture is flat and emotionless, you don’t have a poem. I believe a poem’s prime function is to connect with the human heart, to evoke a reaction in the reader, to find common ground with emotions and experiences we all know.

So I work with the emotion first. I mentally or physically jot down what emotions the scene evokes in me and what that makes me think of. Even if my thoughts don’t seem to “match” or if they “fight” with each other, I just let the random subconscious thoughts bubble and land on the page:

 hope to see a crocus – frustrated with winter already – amazed at how those squirrels survive out there in the cold – awed by the beauty of everything – awed by the determination of a tiny flower pushing through all that snow – anticipation of spring coming in just a few weeks – resignation that there is still winter to live through – teased by winter – foreverness -winter teaching me a lesson in patiencepromise….

Emotion in context

Then I ask myself if there other times in my life that I have felt some of these emotions? This helps me relate what I’m seeing and feeling to “universal” themes.


waiting for Christmas as a child – anticipation of anything exciting – my mother telling me that “patience is a virtue”- watching a small child struggling with shoelaces – waiting for a lover who has gone away – bad dreams and how they are gone in the morning

Sensory details next

Then I list all the specific details I notice about the physical scene or image using all the senses and remembering extensions of the basic five senses like texture, quality of light, and temperature. And I always ask myself “What is missing?”


layers of snow – fluffy – heavy, bare knobbly branches – purple shadows – black squirrels – lake covered in ice that will leave soon – grey sky – cold – no warm sun- no crocus poking through – imagined honey smell of crocus – chatter of squirrels – creaking branches …


Then I ask myself what some of those images remind me of. Again, I don’t worry about it “fitting”. Just let the subconscious thoughts fall on the page

the creaking branches and knobbly branches remind me of my bony arthritic fingers – the squirrels are like busy moms dashing about making sure everyone has the things they need – layers of snow like blankets- ice is a blanket too  – crocus and saffron spice – sun like a returning lover

Finding nuggets

I read through my notes and see what jumps at me; first impressions, no overthinking:

  • hope to see a crocus- foreverness- anticipation of spring
  • waiting for a lover who has gone away
  • bare knobbly branches- ice that will leave soon
  • arthritic fingers – sun like a returning lover – saffron spice

Reading through this list I’m starting to get a feeling about spring being almost human like a lover – how that lover is gone but will return when the time is right if I can just be patient and determined like a crocus. And I really like the word “foreverness”.

First pass

Trees wave knobbly fingers

ice on the lake fades against grey sky

it bides its time

before it moves on

so my love can return

I will be a honey scented crocus

waiting under the purple shadowed snow


waiting for spring and my love’s return

waiting for the saffron sun to warm me

once more


Hmmm. It’s got some decent images, but it’s too wordy and too obvious. I need to let the images speak for themselves. Style is too linear and conversational. I need to get rid of unnecessary articles and other words. Knobbly is too soft a word. Images need focus to give the contrast of cold colourless hard winter (lover gone) and softer brighter spring (person in love waiting and hoping) And as much as I love the word foreverness, I’m not sure it fits. I also need to give it a title (a well-chosen title will set up expectations and help with defining what the poem is about).



Bony tree limbs wave

gnarled knuckled fingers

lake ice stretches to grey sky

bides its time

before moving on


as the patient honey saffron crocus

nudges to the sun

beneath purple shadowed snow

I wait for spring

and your return


So there it is for now. It’s got a way to go, for sure, but it’s started and on the page.  Now, I’ll let it rest a couple of days or weeks and come back to it. Distance will tell me what changes – if any –  to make next.


Image result for saffron crocus flower

Saffron spice is harvested from the stigmas of a crocus flower. Each saffron crocus bulb produces only one flower and each flower produces only three stigmas.  To get 1lb of dry saffron requires 50,000–75,000 flowers which require about 20 hours of labour to pick. 

It reminds me of counting words!

Add to your word count this spring with 5 days away at Spring Thaw retreat. Get written feedback and a one-on-one consultation with Ruth and Gwynn.  You can tailor your weekend to suit your needs.There is an agenda and formal programming, but you choose what sessions and activities will work for you.

My Digital Idea Archive Project

My Digital Idea Archive Project

A reader left this comment on one of our recent blog posts: “Great blog! I’ll be saving this to my Digital Idea Archive.” What’s a Digital Idea Archive??? We contacted the reader, Leah Murray from BC, and asked her to explain….

Guest blogger: Leah Murray

Do you sometimes need a new idea to get creative and writing again? I do. But now I know what to do about it, thanks to my Digital Idea Archive Project.

I figured my project needed to be tackled in three parts:

  1. Find inspirational ideas I want to keep
  2. Stash ’em someplace safe for future reference
  3. Find ways to retrieve them after we’ve passed through the ancient mists of time (gulp).

Getting the archive set up was straightforward. Sure, it posed a few questions, but I found the solutions and in the end it was worth the effort.

 Find ideas I want to keep

Google’s computerized searches are well up to the work of finding inspiration. If Google could do it online, could I harness that for personal use?

Yes. There’s a handy thing called a Google Alert that will scour the web and bring back whatever it finds about your interests in the form of a daily emailed digest. It took me no time at all to set up Alerts for books, writing tips, photography, farming, small business, and other topics that interested me.

Emailed items turned out to be another piece to the puzzle:  if I can see the original text or image that triggered my idea, I can recreate my train of thought in a flash.  Getting ideas emailed to me or emailing myself and then archiving those emails appropriately seemed a good way to start. My Google Alerts became  part of that

My written work is often triggered by images, so Pinterest was the next stop. There I set up “boards” for books I wanted to read, writing craft, punnies, inspirational artwork/photos, places I want to go, and my perennial interest in self-help/DIY things. Like Google Alerts, Pinterest also sends me a weekly email based on my preferences.

My newest venture is Instagram, a mobile app a lot like Pinterest, but which I find good for sourcing and organizing videos and the people who produce them, like this video on what Instagram can do.

Idea archive part one, check.

Stash ’em someplace safe

I live in a tiny granny suite in the southwestern corner of BC, where space is at a premium. I can no longer keep physical archives, and I didn’t have enough empty file storage space on my existing computer. My archive still had to exist in a form that was

  • accessible with minimal effort,
  • human browsable, for when I’m leisurely searching files for a fresh idea or slant on a perennial topic, and
  • computer searchable, for when I’m working on a broad topic with lots of disparate notes from different times.

A quick poke through Staples and London Drugs websites unearthed the perfect solution: a hefty 2 terabyte Passport drive that plugs in to a USB port on my computer, and holds LOTS of files. All I needed was a sale and less than $100 to end my space challenge.

Most mail programs allow you to print your emails to pdf and put them in disk folders, but I’m lazy-fingered and find that inconvenient. Gmail for example: Right-click on any white space in the email you’re looking at, choose Print, and then use the Change button under Destination to select “Save as PDF”. Most recent versions of Windows and Mac OS have this built in – if yours doesn’t, an Adobe Reader download – – will install it for you.

But my emails get sorted into archive folders under my in-box: I just drag and drop them from inbox to mail folder as I’m checking email each morning. I then use Office 365’s Outlook archiving features to put folder structure and emails onto my Passport drive.

All social media platforms have been known to lose links to information, so things I want to keep, I save to my own archive. In Pinterest I just click on the image, then the “Read It” button at the bottom right hand corner of the image, and copy-paste the article into a Word document and store it in an appropriate folder on my computer. LinkedIn lets me copy and paste entire conversations the same way.

Consistent folder names across the various storage, email, and social media platforms make retrieval much easier. Folder structures work best for me if they are named in the ways that I think, so I created my own. A couple of hours saw my folders labelled and matched on every platform.

I write a LOT about photography and digital imaging, and write poetry, essays, and fiction, so here’s how I organized things.

Occasionally I create a desktop or browser shortcut, aka a bookmark, if I think a topic is a passing fad rather than a long term trend. Bookmarks are easy to create both in Mac and Windows.

For stuff I’ll work on in the next month or two, I save browser bookmarks in folders (yes, you can make – and search – your own folders there too)! ( Chrome does it this way; Firefox this way, )

Idea archive part two, check.

 Retrieve ’em when you need ’em.

Getting things back from storage, of course, is key.

Emails (in individual folders OR across the entire inbox and all sub-folders) are searchable by subject line, content, keyword, date and sender and by some or all of the above in every mail program out there. You just have to learn how. Every email program is slightly different, and not everyone uses my beloved Outlook. For Gmail, I read the search instructions first, learned about search operators next, followed up with a couple of questions in the support chat forum, and I was away to the races.

I then started to learn how to use my File Manager search function to retrieve things. I was astonished to find that my computer has a collection of lovely internal searching systems tucked away in its version of “plain view” – here’s a Windows tutorial on how to find and use those effectively. Macs aren’t wildly different: you use Finder there instead of File Manager, but the principles are identical.

Et voila: one big idea archive, for zero physical space, a few dollars, and a bit of head-scratching.

Digital Idea Archive Challenge conquered!

Meet our guest blogger – Leah Murray

Leah Murray operates byteSMART Strategies from the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada.

Following a career in the Canadian Forces, Leah opened her first technology support business in Oshawa, Ontario.  She closed that business in order to work with scientists in the Research & Development division of an international pharmaceutical company headquartered in Toronto. Several years in rural Ontario developed her passion for small businesses, artisanal, agricultural and otherwise, and today she devotes her energy to helping these enterprises plan, transition and manage their technology.

Today, her raison d’etre is the bringing of technology into the service of the arts, and she writes about it!

Rinse and repeat

Rinse and repeat

Gwynn Scheltema

Okay, I know; I know. New Year is yelling out “GOALS” and “RESOLUTIONS”, and no one really wants to hear it, least of all me. But when I got to thinking about it, I realized I have a few ongoing goal-setting and goal-achieving tools in place already. And they work! So I thought I’d share them with you.

Little and often

While I’m a great supporter of having big long-term goals and a vision of where you want to go in life, I find that sometimes the big picture can be overwhelming. I believe that those big concepts should be the background canvas on which you paint in the details as you go—and re-paint them if you choose.

The writing critique group I belong to understands this perfectly. We meet every two weeks and at the end of each meeting we all set a writing goal for the next two weeks only. We each set our own goal depending on what we are working on at the time and what is happening in our lives.

We encourage specificity— “5000 words” or “edit 3 chapters” or “fill plot hole in Chapter 7 or “four meaningful bum-in-chair sessions”. At the next meeting if we miss our goal, we pay up to a charity fund. But we also encourage life balance. It’s okay to not set a goal if your life dictates. We also recognize that sometimes “thinking about” a plot or character qualifies as long as sooner or later that turns into “writing about.”

This system works because it is frequent, achievable, and there is accountability. Small goals and small successes that add up over time.

Eat that Frog

Mark Twain once said that if you start the day by eating a frog you will have the satisfaction of knowing that this was probably the worst thing you had to do that day. The frog is a metaphor for your biggest and most important task of the day and has become a popular procrastination-busting technique.

When I’m trying to avoid that “frog”, I play solitaire, disappear into social media or sort the kitchen junk drawer or….. I’m sure you have equally pointless—and time consuming—avoidance tactics.

Learning the skill of attacking the most important task first (writing related or not) and getting it out of the way frees you up. You’ll have more time, less guilt and a clear mind to be creative. It’s a skill that helps you accomplish whatever you set as your priorities—including your goals.

It does take practice, but like anything in life, the more you consciously do it, the easier it becomes. Most writers can perform to a deadline. Perhaps putting your own deadline on your “frogs” will help?


Make your bed

Now this may seem contradictory to the “eat the frog” principle, but getting through your to-do list and achieving your goals begins with making your bed.

Your mom probably drilled that in to you, but the idea came back into popularity with Navy SEAL Admiral McRaven’s speech to grads in 2014: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another.”

All I know, it works for me.

Your frog for today

So there you have it.

Today, go make your bed, then sit down and decide on a reasonable achievable goal to be accomplished within the next two weeks. Then break it down into what needs to be done first, and then next, and next after that….

Tomorrow, make your bed, look to see what is #1 on that list and eat that frog.

Day after tomorrow, eat frog #2

Rinse and repeat…rinse and repeat…


A writing retreat is a great way to focus on your writing projects and goals and registration for Writescape’s Spring Thaw 2018 is now open, and already half full.

This all-inclusive writing retreat is held at the fabulous Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake in Keene. Stay for the weekend or treat yourself to an extra two days of writing.

    • 10-page manuscript evaluation with written feedback from Ruth and Gwynn
    • one-on-one manuscript consultation with either Gwynn or Ruth
    • private writing time
    • optional daytime creativity sessions to fire up your pen
    • a companion workbook with inspiration, prompts and supports
    • optional evening activities to network and share ideas and inspiration with retreat colleagues
    • comfortable cottages with wood-burning fireplace
    • first-class amenities and delicious meals

Brochure-Spring Thaw-2018

Gardening with words

Gardening with words

Gwynn Scheltema

I was out on a walk and practicing the art of noticing, when I was drawn to a garden and stopped to look at it a little more closely. It was functional: a small patio under a huge maple, a swing for the kids hanging from an overhanging branch, herbs growing in an old wheelbarrow, flowers, veg and a patch of lawn.

Given that it’s autumn, the fallen leaves, frosted hostas and general state of waning made it messy and a little sad. But it wasn’t the kind of yard that looked as if it had been delivered from the local big box store: linear and precise, shallow and predictable – in other words: no message, no heart. This garden had soul.

I’m addicted

Whenever I travel, I visit gardens; I seek them out in concrete-jungle cities and have a vast one of my own. My mother and grandmother taught me to create landscapes that worked with nature, not against it. They taught me how to create a green space with soul. And I realized as I looked at this tiny urban gem on my walk, that creating a garden that has a heart is very much like writing.

Let it speak

To create a garden that lives and breathes, a gardener must understand that fine line between control and releasing what is already there. This example on my walk was not about control or even taming the wild. It was about using what was already there, unearthing it and allowing it to blossom. To speak. That maple tree killed the grass but welcomed a small shaded patio sitting area. The overhanging branch was perfect for a swing.

Like writing – don’t control and delineate as you write. Allow your characters to speak as they want to, to do things you could never dream up. Allow the story to unfold. Let the subconscious through.

 Work with what you have

We all have big writing dreams: maybe the next best seller, perhaps an award or earning enough to live on. But on any given day, don’t worry about what seems unattainable. Work with what you have.

This garden made the most of limited space. If you only have limited writing time, write bits that are already in your head, finish something you started, or plan or research or edit. If a novel seems overwhelming, begin with a single scene, or a short story.

If the dialogue you are producing seems flat, or you don’t really know how to punctuate it, write it anyway. You can always read up or take a course on dialogue later. And you can come back to your piece and edit it when your skills improve. But if you are always waiting for the perfect time or the perfect ability or the perfect story, you’ll be waiting a long time. And as Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

And keep things manageable. Better to finish small projects or one large one than to have twenty projects that never see the light of day. There’s nothing like being able to write “The End” to motivate you to write some more.

Don’t throw good bits away

Not everything we write is worth keeping, but often you write a really good scene or stanza that just doesn’t fit with the piece or poem you’re working on. It might even be one of your proverbial “darlings.” Keep it. It may well be the start of another piece or fit into another project. Or it may serve as inspiration and impetus for a new piece that—like the wheelbarrow used as an herb garden—is very different from its original intention.

Give to get

I belong to online gardening swap sites, picking up free rhubarb plants and giving away hostas. I scour the roadside ditches for day lilies and black-eyed Susans and give them new homes. As a writer, you need to have a writing community—maybe just a writing buddy, maybe a critique group or membership in several writing organizations, or perhaps all of them.

But you’ll find that you get more out of your writing community when you contribute: give of your time, your expertise and your encouragement and support. We all have high and low times as writers and whether you need someone to help you with a practical plot problem, to celebrate a success or just give you a kick in the pants to submit or get writing, your writing tribe are the best people to do it. But, offer the same to other writers. I know that over the years, I’ve learned more about the craft by talking to fellow writers and giving feedback to others than from any book.

Tend and nurture

Without planning and fertilizing, weeding and maintaining, gardens wither or become something else you have no use for. Your writing, like any art form, is the same. You wouldn’t expect to play the piano well without practising regularly. Writing is no different. Write, write and write some more. Plan writing time into your schedule. Fertilize your craft with workshops, reading and communing with fellow writers. Weed out all your negative attitudes about not being good enough. And fill your creative well often.

Dare to be different

The garden on my walk was different from all the others on that street. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. The gardener (maybe a young mother?) created what was personally important and meaningful to her, created what was within her creative and maintenance capabilities at the time, what was pleasant and functional for her family’s lifestyle. I’m sure she also hoped that others would like it, but I doubt she created it based on what others wanted. She followed her creative path, made a garden that spoke with her voice and embodied her heart and soul.  Let your writing do the same.


My garden at Glentula reflects my heart and has served as inspiration to many writers. Custom “Just Write” retreats and one-day escapes are offered every summer. Gather your group, pick your date and contact Writescape to put together what you need to get writing and stay writing.

Reading outside your genre

Reading outside your genre

Gwynn Scheltema

My last post was about defining what genres we write in. Which got me to thinking about what genres we read. And the value of reading outside our usual genres.

Books that move me

I love language and wallowing in words. I love to reread evocative passages, to stop mid story to share a sentence with my husband that I find particularly beautiful or thought-provoking. I like skilled play with fiction forms. Consequently, I often gravitate to literary fiction. Story is important to me, but plot is not. I prefer internal character struggles rather than thrilling events, or fast-paced action. I’m happy to spend time in people’s heads, seeing the world from their perspectives. Recent reads (which I highly recommend) have been: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

I also like the books I read to be set in exotic places, in other cultures, and affected by political or natural turmoil that I am never likely to be faced with. I like to learn about other customs and occupations. The Bonesetters Daughter by Amy Tan (historical fiction), Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenston (non fiction/memoir) and In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (historical fiction) fit that bill.

Broadening my reading horizons

But I’ve also had to spend a fair amount of time this year away from home, and have found myself reading books passed on to me or chosen for me by others, books I likely would have walked right by in the bookstore.

I learned a lot in the process. Reading time is limited and with the books I have to read for a variety of reasons, the time left for reading for enjoyment is really limited, but I was reminded that broadening my reading horizons was a necessary—and enjoyable— part of being a well-rounded writer and editor.

What I learned from the books that found me

Of the books that found me, let me tell you about just three of them. Turns out, I enjoyed them all, and reading as a writer, I learned a lot too:

The first one: Spud by John van der Ruit is a YA humorous coming-of-age story set in a fictional private boys school in South Africa in 1990 around the time of the release of Mandela. It’s written in a diary style like The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

Apart from bringing back a lot of memories of my own schooling in an Anglican Church School in Zimbabwe, Spud reminded me that humour is a great foil for addressing tough and often brutal circumstances. This book tackled bullying, attempted rape, mental illness as well as the usual problems of growing up, boarding school and relationships. It showed me that sometimes less is more, and that young boys and girls face many of the same problems. Structurally, the diary format allowed much to be said without embellishment or long drawn-out scenes. It allowed room for things to be left unsaid.

The next: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, listed as a contemporary mystery thriller, is a multi-voice fiction about a seemingly ordinary small-town and what really goes on behind closed doors.

Rowling’s dialogue in this book is superb. She handles the dialogue of different ages, cultures and socio-economic characters in way that their speech and dialect is distinct, authentic and utterly believable. I had a hard time getting into the book because there is an enormous cast of characters, and Rowling “head-hops” a great deal, but once in, I was hooked. From this book, I learned that multiple viewpoints can work well as long as each voice has their own story not more or less important than the others.

And the third: Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler is a memoir by Trudy Kanter, an Austrian Jew who used her connections as a hat designer to escape events in World War II and find safety for herself and her husband Walter. Like Spud, this book handled grave situations with humour. What really struck me though, was how Trudy spent a lot of time talking about hats and fashion and parties and décor and other things that at first seemed frivolous and inappropriate for the dire war situation and terrible and frightening circumstances she was facing. But then I realized that that was Trudy’s coping mechanism. It got me thinking about the different ways different people use to handle a given situation. Just because I might handle a situation one way, my characters (and readers) might do something completely different.

Other reasons to read out of your usual genre

Stephen King famously said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Yes, you should read extensively in the genre you write to become familiar with it on all levels, but reading on a regular basis outside your genre, outside your comfort zone, makes you a better well-rounded writer. It clears the cobwebs away in your creative brain. Gets you out of a rut. New perspectives, new craft approaches and new possibilities. Same-old-same-old in your reading leads to same-old-same-old in your writing.

Who knows, you may discover a new genre that really speaks to you. Perhaps that coming-of-age story you’ve been struggling with as an historical romance might be better reworked as a dystopian YA. But you have to read some dystopian YA to find out.

And not just different genres, but different writing forms: short stories, poetry, plays…  Each form can teach you different writing skills that will help with your novel. Plays are excellent for studying dialogue, poetry can remind you about image and metaphor and the economy and power of words.

So take the plunge, be adventurous, make a pact with yourself to include a new genre or new form when you pick up your next book. You’ll be glad you did.


Ruth and Gwynn are off to the Niagara Region this month to deliver a workshop that explores writing in different styles and genres, called What’s in Your Writing Closet. If your group is interested in this or any of our workshops, explore our on demand workshop options.



Courage Writer & Change the World

Courage Writer & Change the World

Ruth E. Walker

There’s all kinds of courage and lately, we’ve been witness to so many types of bravery that it seems the well of human strength could very well be bottomless. Sadly, the well of inhuman cruelty seems equally deep at times. Add to the mix: natural disasters of epic scale and all the chaos is no longer extraordinary…or surprising.

While the world can be a frightening and hope-sucking place, there are ways that writers can power through the mess.

And in the process, not only could you find a prompt for a story, it just might help you stay grounded in a troubled world.

The sanctuary of imagination

What would you do if what you thought were fireworks became bullets? Would you race away? Or stay to apply pressure on a stranger’s wound, never knowing if the next hail of gunfire would reach you? I’d like to think I would stay but there’s a small voice in the back of my head that whispers: who are you kidding?

If your neighbourhood is under military attack and you had only minutes to escape, what would you grab? Me? I’d like to think it would be our passports and survival kit but in reality, it would probably be some token, some useless item like a stone I picked up on vacation or a group family photo.

What if the water is racing up the basement stairs and the torrential rains outside show no sign of stopping? Do you move up to the second floor or head outside and hope to get to higher ground? And do you take anything with you — passport, wallet or a silly sentimental rock?

EXERCISE: Explore your characters: put them in a crisis situation and see how they handle it, watch what their hands reach for as the volcano explodes or the peaceful demonstration becomes a riot. Let the crisis arrive as if it is a film in your mind.  And it is especially interesting when you use a crisis that is not what you or your character would expect.

When you have the crisis, begin to write freefall (see About Freefall in Seven Tips for Inspiration.) This works well if you don’t “direct” the action; instead, follow the energy of the scene. Don’t stop to edit. Keep writing and see where your character will take you.

The Human Condition(s)

Every time I follow the news, I am struck by the misery so many people endure. Mass migrations. Earthquakes. Civil wars (though what is civil about any war is beyond me.) The scale is always so overwhelming that I struggle to process it.

But then we see the people who respond with kindness. With practical help. With shining a light on it all so we living-room observers can somehow hope again. Uplifting!

But then we see the people taking advantage of the turmoil. Looting. Profiting. Victim-blaming. Depressing!

But then we see the survivors who, despite everything against them, rise up and move forward. Inspiring!

We are a contradictory, unpredictable, amazing, terrifying, confusing and incredible animal, we humans. Will we ever all learn to be positive, to be present and listen to others, to find a way forward that benefits the world?

EXERCISE: Take a walk in the science fiction and fantasy sections of your local library. Look for Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The two titles show how from the darkest of times, one person can change the world when they take on an extraordinary burden. It is a theme explored in many works of these genres.

Consider the various Star Trek television series or any of the films in the “Star Trek” universe. The idea of the complexity of human behaviour is explored repeatedly in science fiction and fantasy. Any Trekker will tell you: boundaries are crossed. Preconceived ideas are challenged. There is hope.

Draft a plot outline or write an opening scene for a science fiction/fantasy story that explores human behaviour in an imagined world that is socially broken. Kick the editor off your shoulder and envision another world in chaos. Will you make room for hope? Surprise yourself.

The gift of the writer

Have you ever learned something life-changing from reading a story or book? Indeed, some of the best writing has altered thinking because it caused readers to question what they thought to be true.

Charles Dickens often wrote about the appalling conditions of the poor and working class in 1800s England. Because he created characters that readers cared about, he nudged more than a few into rethinking social responsibility. Consider this scene from A Christmas Carol where the wealthy protagonist is asked to help the less fortunate:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?”
“Plenty of prisons…”
“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“Both very busy, sir…”
“Those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

EXERCISE: Cold words presented from a cold and unfeeling character can help readers take a glance into the mirror. Create a contemporary scene in which a character reveals disdain or disinterest in a social issue of today. Opiod addiction. Famine in a faraway country. Indigenous rights and reconciliation. You pick from the dozens waiting for your attention and write the scene without any emotional embellishment. Just like Scrooge: cold and steely eyed.

Later on, you can opt to give your character a chance to care. But not in this scene. Not one bit.

Remember: the world may be a mess but the pen, and the hand that moves it, can craft stories to change attitudes and ideas. The redemption of Scrooge is a timeless and hopeful tale that continues to resonate more than a century after Dickens put pen to paper.


There’s a way to get a daily dose of positive. Upworthy is an online media company with this stated mission: Upworthy is on a mission to tell stories that bring people together — because we’re all part of the same story.

Here’s a Hallowe’en tale from 2016 that still holds power when two best friends of different faiths discover a way to celebrate their unity. Kids could teach us all.

Upworthy is based in the U.S. but many of their stories are international. Not every story Upworthy drops into your INBOX is a happy one. But they usually bring more than 11,000,000 subscribers a smile and often, offer ideas and inspiration for artists of all kinds. Because, after all, any organization that focuses on story understands its power to persuade and influence thinking.


Women Killing It

Women Killing It

Gwynn Scheltema

When I read Julia Cameron’s seminal book The Artist’s Way, she introduced me to the concept of a writer’s date: a block of time set aside to nurture your creative inner artist.

The idea behind this concept is that as we create, we run the risk of emptying our creative well, so we need to constantly refill that creative well by consciously experiencing new things, taking time to observe, taking time to breathe and reflect.

The Artist’s Date

There are many things you can do on your artist’s date. Because our creative brain is a sensory brain, anything that stimulates the senses or fires up the imagination will work: a walk in the park, making soup, lying on your back and watching clouds, going to a food or music festival. It doesn’t matter as long as you do it mindfully.

This coming Labour Day weekend, my artist’s date will take me to a new writing festival being held in Picton, Prince Edward County. It has the fun title of “Women Killing It.”

In the morning, I’ll be taking a workshop titled “So You want to Write a Mystery?” with author Mary Jane Maffini. In the afternoon I’ll join four writers of mystery and suspense for “Murder at the Vicarage”, an afternoon of readings, discussion and sumptuous Victorian high tea at Macaulay House.

Women Killing it

This Crime Writers Festival showcases nine Canadian women authors of crime and mystery. On Friday evening at “The Mysterious Affair,” a table-hopping event introduces each of the authors in turn: Mary Jane Maffini, Susanna Kearsley, Nazeen Sheikh, Elizabeth J. Duncan, Melodie Campbell, R.J. Harlick, Barbara Fradkin, Maureen Jennings and Robin Timmerman.

Saturday features the workshop and event at Macaulay house I mentioned earlier, and the day finishes with an evening event, “Appointment with Death (and Dessert).” Here, authors writing on the darker side will discuss murder, motives and MOs.

Why have this festival?

The festival was the brain child of mystery author Janet Kellough and Vicki Delany, also a crime writer and then Chair of the Crime Writers of Canada. They felt that Canada’s talented pool of women crime writers needed to have more exposure. I’m glad they did. What a treat! All this talent in one place, right in my backyard.

Perhaps you’ll take yourself on an artist’s date to “Women Killing It.” Find out details online or on Facebook.

You might also like to listen to two recent interviews with the organizers Janet Kellough and Vicki Delany on Word on the Hills radio program hosted by Felicity Sidnell Reid and me. These two prolific writers talk about the festival and their latest books.



Co-organizer of Women Killing It, Vicki Delany, will be our guest author at this fall’s Turning Leaves 2017 Retreat. Vicki is one of Canada’s most varied and prolific crime writers. Her newest cozy series is the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery Series. The first volume Elementary She Read was published in March 2017, and the next in the series, Body on Baker Street will hit the shelves on September 12.

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Gwynn Scheltema

At the recent Just Right at Glentula Retreat, we used a number of writing prompts. Most writers have tried them at some point in their writing journeys. Some love them; some not so much. I find them invaluable. I’ve used written, verbal, visual, and textural prompts. I’ve even used smell and taste prompts.

Some writers resist prompts, because they feel that their writing time is limited and they should be writing the “real stuff.” But remember that “completing the prompt” is not the object. The goal is to get you writing, to get you writing what has the most energy for you, and to lead you into your writing project.

How do you do that?

Follow the energy

Often when you begin writing about the subject of the prompt — say swimming in a lake — it can take you  somewhere else — say an experience of drowning or crab baskets in Italy or how your father never believed in taking vacations. Go there. Forget the prompt and go where the energy is.

Prompts unlock memories and experiences, and when you write honestly about them, about how you felt, what you observed, and perhaps even capture some of the dialogue that was spoken, you can take that piece and adapt  it later for your “real” writing.

Prompts are not precise nor prescriptive.

Understand the possibilities of “You”

Prompts often use the pronouns “you” or “your”: “Write about your greatest fear” or “Imagine yourself beside a body of water…” Of course, you can write about your own experience, but you can also approach it as if you are one of your characters. And not just your protagonist or your viewpoint character. Often it is more revealing to pick your antagonist, or a minor character.

Switch it up

Try the same prompt from two different characters’ points of view. If the prompt says “What’s your favourite colour?”, get your character to answer. What colours does she/he have an aversion to? Perhaps you don’t know. Write about the fact that you don’t know that about your character. Why don’t you know? What else don’t you know? Or have characters answer that question about each other. What did your protagonist’s mother think were his /her favourite colours? How did that play out in your protagonist’s life? Did the mother always dress your protagonist in blue for example?

If you are a memoir writer, remember that the people in your life are your characters; they are just called Mom, or Dad or Great Aunt Mabel. And like a fiction writer, you can stretch by writing as if you are another character.


Prime the Muse

Prompts take you places you don’t expect, but I’ve also found them useful for getting into scenes that I was planning to write. Start by identifying a scene in your story you want to work on. For instance, you might want to do a scene where one character makes the first show of affection towards the other. Using the prompt “What’s your favourite colour?” as a line of dialogue could take you to a scene at a fair or in a mall where he is buying her something, or in a garden where the flowers are in bloom, or just in the kitchen choosing a coffee mug.

Write what you know  

The facts of your life may not be the stuff of wild imaginative novels, but your human reaction to events is as valid as any character in any novel. Perhaps you haven’t been in a dugout canoe in the Amazon Jungle, but you know how it feels to sweat. You also know how helpless you can feel in a strange place. Could the feeling of being swept down the river with the jungle crowding in also feel like being swept along in a crowd at a frenzied rock concert or at busy subway station? It’s not the facts from your life that connect with readers, it’s the emotions and commonalities.

The Senses

Like the things you feel, what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell also relate to what we all know. When writing from prompts, the senses will always ground you and lead you forward. Make use of ALL five senses. Also consider the temperature, the quality of the light, time of day, the weather, the seasons, the historical period.

Move into Metaphor

When you have considered the senses, move into metaphor. Ask yourself: What does this remind me of? What is it like? What is it not like? Explain it to someone who’s never seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted it before. What would a child relate it to? What would your character compare it with?

Be specific

As you write, imagine being in your scene. Notice and write about specific sensuous details: not “a car” but “the dented yellow Edsel-Ranger taxi.” Write about unusual details, incongruous details. Write about what’s missing. Imagine the scene with and without people — general people, specific people. Listen for snatches of remembered or overheard conversation.



Turn the prompt around and do the opposite. Substitute “hate” for “love”, try “old” in place of “young”, use “like least” instead of “favourite”. Write using both approaches and consider the similarities or juxtapositions created. If you can’t remember, start with “I don’t remember.” If you’ve never experienced the prompt, say singing for a crowd, start with “I have never sung in front of people because …” or “I have never sung in front of people but I have …”


Sometimes a topic seems too big to approach with authenticity. For instance, if the prompt asks you to write about someone you fear, and you’ve always feared your father, you may not feel comfortable diving into writing about him. Instead make a list of all the people you fear. Try to make the list really long. The items you add to the list last are often the ones buried deep. At the end of your list may be a kid from grade school. Write about him. Chances are you’ll find you feared him for many of the same reasons you feared your father.

Or make a list about all the emotions you feel about your father, and write about any one of them.

Give it a go

Prompts have been the source of many of my “keep” scenes. I may end up only using a portion of what I wrote, perhaps just one paragraph, but the prompt usually takes me where I’ve been resisting going and anything that gets me writing is a good thing.

Need a prompt now? There are lots of online sites. Here are a few for fiction, non-fiction and poetry:

Now, go and write, write, write ….


At Writescape retreats, we provide optional creativity sessions to tickle your muse and a companion work book full of prompts and ideas to take your writing to places it hasn’t gone before. Join us at our next retreat: Turning Leaves 2017.

7 Ways to Keep Writing Every Day

7 Ways to Keep Writing Every Day

Gwynn and Ruth are on vacation for a few weeks. So we’re bringing back a couple of our favourite Top Drawer topics to share with new readers and to nudge long-time followers. The last two blogs explored finding time to write and finding inspiration. This week Gwynn’s April 2016 post rounds out the message with tips for writing every day.

Gwynn Scheltema

We’ve all heard the old maxim, “Write every day.” In the bogaiman quoteok Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Whether you believe in the 10,000 hours concept, or simple BIC [Butt in Chair], there is no denying that being a writer means actually writing—real words—lots of them.

“Write every day” is the number one piece of advice given by successful writers—and they should know. But it’s often easier said than done.

So here are 7 ways to keep you writing every day:

  1. Set aside writing time

paper-606649_960_720If writing is important to you, it needs to be built into your routine in the same way that you build in any other important activity in your life. If you need to schedule writing time like dental appointments, piano lessons, or hockey practice, do it. Think of writing as your “job” and block out set times like you would if you were going to work.

And perhaps once in a while treat yourself to really dedicated time on retreat, like Writescape’s Spring Thaw or Just Write at Glentula.

  1. Get buy in

Talk to your family and friends about how important your writing time is to you. More importantly, talk to yourself about honouring that time. Are you the one who gives up your creative time to do extra chores, or make way for what someone else wants to do? Ask yourself, “Would I take a day off work to do chores?”

  1. Know yourself

The right time to write is different for everyone. You know when you are most creative. If you feel guilty taking “family time”, get up earlier, or reserve after-bedtime time for yourself.

  1. Have a dedicated writing spacewriting-828911_960_720

If you learn to play the piano, you invest in a piano. If you play hockey, you buy skates and sticks and all the rest of the hockey paraphernalia. Yet so many writers believe that perching on the end of the kitchen table and clearing up when someone else needs the space is okay. It’s not. Claim a writing space that is yours. It doesn’t have to be a whole room, but it should be a place where you can be alone when you want to, and where you can leave things in progress.

  1. Get dressed and show up

While it’s comfy to write in your jammies, getting dressed to go to write lends a validity to the activity, like getting dressed to go to work. And as Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up”. If you can physically get your butt in the chair, then writing that first word is that much easier.

  1. Know your writing style

Stephen King says he writes ten pages a day; Hemingway wrote 500 words a day. Some writers set a fixed time—write for 3 hours. It doesn’t matter what writing goal you set for yourself, as long it is achievable, and doesn’t set you up for failure. Start small. Even 3 paragraphs done every day will get you further ahead than a full chapter not even attempted because it is too overwhelming.

  1. Use prompts, timers or ritualsteapot-574025_960_720

To make the transition from the practical world to your creative world, have a ritual: light a candle, play music, or make tea in a special pot. To get the words flowing, make use of writing prompts or timers or idea files. Anything that will get you started. Think of them as warm-up exercises.

From the picture at the top of this post, it looks like that writer channels Star Trek to get started. My writing ritual is to clear my desk, get a coffee and win three hands of solitaire. What’s yours? Share it in the comments below.

Other articles you might like to explore:

Strange Writing Rituals of Famous Authors

Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers

Sit Down, Shut Up and the Muse will Come.