Found Poetry

Found Poetry

Gwynn Scheltema

Last week, Ruth blogged about Anna Swanson’s “The Garbage Poems” inspired by words on garbage Anna picked up at favourite swimming spots. That reminded me of the fun I’ve had over the years writing “Found Poetry.”

What is a found poem?

I like to think of found poems as word collages. That is not to say I actually cut out the words and paste them (although you can if you wish). I create found poems by recording existing text that I, well,—find.

Like Anna, I could find them on garbage, or on all manner of other things like newspaper articles, graffiti, ads, menus, posters, billboards, brochures, letters, book pages, or even other poems. Charles Reznikoff in his book Testimony, created his poetry from actual criminal law reports! His poems spoke about human violence and suffering in a time generally considered peaceful.

The found poem became popular around the same time as Andy Warhol’s Pop Art and similarly it uses and makes a statement about the everyday text all around us.

Writer Annie Dillard says, “Turning a text into a poem doubles that poem’s context. The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles.” In more recent times, “Blackout poetry” has embraced the text aspect of found poetry with art. (And it’s fun to do).

What makes a found poem a found poem?


Image by Sue Rickhuss from Pixabay 

I don’t know if there are “official rules” for writing found poetry, but the rules I impose on myself are:

  • consists exclusively of found text, in whole or in part
  • the words of the poem remain as they were found (same order and syntax)
  • omissions allowed but NO additions
  • form, line breaks and punctuation are left to the poet
  • the poem as a whole should make a statement about the source it was extracted from

For me the last point is the most important. It’s not just a case of putting pretty words together, but of recognizing where they originated.

The creation process

My found poem “J.T. Winik, “Lovers” oil on canvas” won first place in a contest some years ago. I used a December issue of The Condo Guide Magazine, one of those free ones that you pick up from newspaper boxes at the street corner or at the GO Station. The poem is printed below and here is how I created it:

I flipped through the magazine and wrote out snippets of interesting phrases from the ads and the articles, and the cover. I ended up with about three pages of “bits.” Most of them were to do with “uptown” or “downtown” and the overarching theme was how condo living was the ultimate way to live. (Not surprising). My poem therefore—according to my self-imposed rules—needed to make a statement about condo living.

One ad/article spoke about renting original artwork from galleries for condos. “Where the Art is” (I used that line) had a photo of Canadian artist J.T. Winik’s painting, “The Lovers”, as one of the illustrations. I ended up using that as my title. Next I noticed that in my list I had the phrases “Uptown girl” and “Downtown queen,” and realized that the phrase “Where the Art is” could be used for its implied meaning of “Where the [he]art is.” I thought perhaps I could contrast the two “women” and their lifestyles and in the process make my statement on condo living.

Image by Gary Ross from Pixabay

With this in mind I chose the phrases that best fit the theme I was building and discarded the rest. I arranged and re-arranged; I joined some phrases together, or used only half phrases, to give new meanings. I played with punctuation and line breaks. For example, “Moonlight washes a glow over snow-blanketed streets” and “Artfully ILLUMINATING” (a title for a piece on light fixtures) became “Moonlight washes, artfully illuminating.” I made sure there were absolutely no added words, and I hadn’t rephrased or reordered any of the snippets.

The final result:

“THE LOVERS” OIL ON CANVAS
Found Poetry in the December issue of THE CONDO GUIDE
 
Right downtown urbanation looks at
Where the Art is
A rather windy November evening
Moonlight washes artfully illuminating
Bohemian city nights in winter – Luna vista?
 
Uptown girl: Silent nights
Live in the glasshouse
Finding ways to hide the light
A perfectly proportioned concrete shade
This is your world
Small, unobtrusive; melody
Bending and refracting
Keyless, virtual
Do you daydream green or grey?
Cool is the underlying theme.
 
Downtown queen
Heady mix of the creative—SOHO
Rent original art steps from the Art Gallery
Celebration of the urban life on the edge of the moment
Connecting them
The dust of everyday life; Garden in Red #7
Bliss coming soon; Navy blu
Mixed media
 
What surrounds you?
Metal and concrete like islands
Niches and unused spaces—intimate
Drawn in by the buzz; late-nighters and
Out-of-towners; Quick move-ins
Dip in the infinity pool; massage rooms?

Desire this palette?
Purchase price does not include parking
If you think you’ve seen it all, think again
Perfection consists of doing ordinary things
What are you in the mood for?

The Poetry of Garbage

The Poetry of Garbage

Ruth E. Walker

I love old sayings. They’re like echoes of little stories, scenes that happened long ago and stuck around like a cautionary whisper through the ages. 

A stitch in time saves nine. Somebody procrastinated into a real mess and the deadline for that edited version is at midnight..

A change is as good as a rest. When you can’t take a vacation, move your computer desk to the opposite wall.

There’s an old chestnut I really like: One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. And it has never been more true when it is trash that finds its way into poetry and visual art.

I recently attended a poetry reading and artist talk at the Haliburton Highlands Museum. A poet and an artist were coming to Halls Island Artist Residency and the program was part of their community engagement for the residency.

April White
Anna Swanson

The poet was Anna Swanson, an award-winning Newfoundland poet and the visual artist was April White, also an award-winner from Newfoundland whose watercolours have been shown nationally and internationally. Both Anna and April live in St. John’s, and in 2016 joined forces for a collaborative work about garbage.

Anna Swanson wrote The Garbage Poems, inspired by a swimming hole in Flatrock, Newfoundland. She loves being in the water — as someone with a chronic illness, she said moving in water gives her physical and emotional freedom. Anna also cares about nature, so she started picking up garbage left behind by other visitors to that swimming hole.  Sorting the garbage at home gave her a chance to look more closely at the trash. Beer cans. Fast food wrappers. Chip bags.

Lo and behold, that garbage was covered in words. Expected words like drink vitamin  antioxidant  burgers soda fresh and so on. But the unexpected words were intriguing to Anna: festival, dream, promise, stormbrewing…she even found the word trigonometry.

Well, that did it. She realized she just might have the making of some found poetry, using only the words on the trash. Anna ended up with a poem series titled The Garbage Poems. But she knew there could be more to this series than words on the page.

In 2016, she teamed up with artist April White after seeing her stunning exhibition “A Day in the Life.”  Watercolours, drawings and texts chronicled one full day in April’s life.

Their collaboration became the perfect match of poet and visual artist. April created watercolour images for the poem-inspiring trash (and subsequent bags of trash as Anna continued to visit various swimming spots.)

Finally, Matthew Howlett, writer, artist and web designer, created an interactive website that invites visitors to create their own poems using the words found on Anna’s trash. April’s renditions of each piece of garbage can be viewed individually. Click on the image and all of the words on that piece of trash appear below for you to take them to create poetry of your own. You can even choose the entire set of all the garbage words, in both official languages, and see where that takes you.

If Anna’s trashy treasures don’t inspire you, the website has a copy and paste option, where you can take a piece of random text and then by deleting, rearranging or repeating, you can create your own found poetry. Here’s the first two lines of a poem I’m working on from the words of an 1860s book on etiquette:

            The true language of a heart

            may not enter a crowd gracefully…

Okay. Not yet genius. But it was fun and perhaps the start of an idea for me to work on.

So now it’s your turn. Visit The Garbage Poems website and read Anna’s poetry, view April’s images and see if you can turn trash into treasure.

Book Nooks

Book Nooks

Gwynn Scheltema

Ever since I was little, I’ve loved hide-away places and I’ve loved books. Put the two together, and I’m in heaven. I was lucky enough to have my own bedroom growing up, and could close the door and read in comfort on my bed. But for all that, I still preferred and created cozy, secret “book nooks” in the bottom of my closet, or under my desk covered with a blanket. I longed for a padded a window seat.

Book nooks don’t have to be fancy, or requiring of great space or large funds. Below are a few ideas gleaned from the internet:

Whimsical window seats:

No need for a window with a wide sill. Just frame out any window with simple shelves, a purchased bench or custom built box. Outdoor furniture cushions, or fabric covered foam and a few throw pillows and it’s done.

This vertical shelf design comes from The Habitat Collective at the habco.com

The horizontal design is from Googodecor at googodecor.com

Convert a closet or old wardrobe

Do you really need all that “stuff” in the closet in the spare room, or the basement? How about converting it to a book nook for your kids or grandkids?

Ever since reading the tales of Narnia, wardrobes have had a magical feel for me. As a child I would have LOVED this Narnia inspired wardrobe book-nook from Blesserhouse.com

Reclaim under the stairs:

Harry Potter made good use of his spot under the stairs. Why not use that space for a child’s Harry Potter hide-away?  Or make it a bit more adult for yourself?

These designs come from media.bookbub.com; http://gurudecor.com/ ; and https://gowritter.com/smart-ideas-for-under-stairs-storage-space/

Repurpose space and furniture you already have:

William Morris said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” But when you have a small house, the furniture has to fall into BOTH categories –

Think outside the box.

Here Ikea spice racks become picture book shelves; vertical shelves and cabinets are laid on the floor with a mattress on top. A curtain is hung from the ceiling around a hoop.

These ideas from kidsroomideas.net; https://www.clubmamans.com/ and  www.prettylittlerowhouse.com 

Last word.

In the end, it doesn’t matter where you read, as long as you do. Happy reading!

A Writer’s Voice

A Writer’s Voice

Ruth E. Walker

In my workshops, I often remind writers that their voice is unlike anyone else’s. No one has their life experience, no one thinks with the same brain or writes with the same heart. Writers may share the same topic or scenario or even characters, but none will produce the same story in the same voice.

The voice with which we write is unique to each of us. It’s found in the types of words we prefer to use, the kinds of sentence structure that fits our imagination, the things we choose to include or exclude, the punctuation, verbs and metaphors. Our writing is full of signposts for readers: This is a story by…Margaret Atwood, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro…

At the same time, a writer’s voice is not exactly a static quality. As we experience life, our deepening well of compost combines with new material and alters our perspective and thus, affects our writing. But essentially, the core of our voice—the beating heart of our motivation and the words that flow from that core—that doesn’t change.

So what does that change in perspective bring us if it doesn’t affect our voice?

Tone.

Tone is the mood of our writing

It’s in the email we fire off to a company to complain about a faulty product. My preferred tone in those emails is more like I’m disappointed but giving you a chance to fix it versus You people suck and I’m never buying a thing from you again. We may be using our writer’s voice with word choice and punctuation but a complaint email is not the same tone one uses to invite friends and family to a party, right?

A recent trip to the Stratford Festival in Ontario got me thinking about the difference between a writer’s voice and tone.

Our playbill included a matinee performance of William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (a history play that should appear on the stage more often, especially if Martha Henry directs it) and an evening spent chortling away during The Merry Wives of Windsor (a comedy both hilarious and uncannily fit for our times.)

Same author (I thought) on the playbill. Same iambic pentameter. Only…I thought Henry VIII‘s prologue sounded off to me. It all seemed a bit “loud” and “instructive” in tone. Same with the epilogue.

Will didn’t write it all!

A bit of research revealed that a collaborator, playwright John Fletcher, worked with Shakespeare on Henry VIII and likely contributed the prologue and epilogue, as well as nearly half of the play. Admittedly, I didn’t notice the change in voice elsewhere, but I think my reaction to the prologue and epilogue relates to how non-Shakespeare they felt.

Is that because I like Shakespeare’s work so much that I noticed when the featured lines didn’t quite deliver The Bard to my ear? I’m not sure. This is not the only play on which he had a collaborator. But it was a revelation to discover that someone else contributed both prologue and epilogue to Henry VIII, along with full scenes including the last four scenes of the final act.

Nonetheless, the production at the Stratford Festival is outstanding: high moments of drama, tender pathos and a healthy dollop of pageantry is expertly delivered.  Of course, Shakespeare’s trademark irony brings occasional smiles, but the tone of the play is serious and reflective, with a shift into pomp and ceremony at the end at the baptism of the infant Princess Elizabeth.

The Merry Wives of Windsor could not be more opposite with “pomp” placed squarely in over-amorous Falstaff’s pompous conceit and “ceremony” delivered through weddings—only one of which was real. Farcical and staged with plenty of visual hilarity, the tone of this play is decidedly different from the serious historical Henry VIII.

And yet. There is an undercurrent that suggests the mistaken conclusions of a jealous husband  could have unhappy consequences. And how very modern to have two women as central characters, devising a plot to shame a lecher. Thrice. (Falstaff is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.)  And to have a daughter choose her husband, instead of the choices of her parents, is likewise a modern twist in a time when marriages were driven by economics and social standing.

Tone can’t hide voice

Despite the collaboration in Henry VIII, both plays held the trademarks of Shakespeare’s voice: iambic pentameter in free verse, rhyming couplets to emphasize dramatic moments, themes of love, betrayal, confused identities. His metaphors and similes enrich meaning in a language that is almost foreign to contemporary audiences. And his invented words—nouns and verbs—remain in current use.

Critic.

Bandit.

Swagger.

For more on his wordsmithing, See Grammarly’s 15 words invented by Shakespeare.  But more than inventing words, the worlds Shakespeare invented were stories that hold lessons for our world today.

Not born a genius; he worked for it

As he honed his craft, the sometimes stilted structure of Shakespeare’s earlier plays gave way to more natural breaks and punctuation. His characters moved from near-stereotypes to more nuanced humans with flaws that made them shine. Like all of us, he learned to make language work for what he wanted to achieve on the page…and, on the stage. And his voice remained, naturally, his.

Shakespeare’s plays hold different tones: from sombre and heartbreaking tragedies to hilarious near-slapstick antics and imaginings. But they carry the same voice, one that keeps us coming back to productions since the 1590s. And that is a track record any of us would long to have.

Serendipity. Curiosity. Chutzpah.

Serendipity. Curiosity. Chutzpah.

Ruth E. Walker

For writers, serendipity, curiosity and a dash of chutzpah will uncover treasures: a great story or fascinating characters. Recognizing that moment and then acting on it can make all the difference.

A recent trip to meet colleagues for lunch gave Gwynn and me a chance for a leisurely stroll up Bay Street in Toronto. Spring was everywhere. Warm air and gentle sunshine. Pedestrians wore the slightly bemused smiles of people waking after a long and lingering winter.

And all along the sidewalk, cement planters outside of massive glass-walled corporate towers were a riot of spring blooms.

Gwynn was in photo op heaven, snapping pictures of especially vibrant flowers.

Purple pansies. Heady-scented hyacinths. Daffodils dancing in the breeze. And tulips.

Oh my, the tulips. Cupped heads reaching up, announcing the season, green spikes of leaves catching the sunlight. Red. Pink. White. Yellow.

And at one especially beautiful set of flower-rich planters, white tulips with the red streaks. “Canada 150 tulips,” I called to Gwynn. I so wanted to have those tulips in 2016 to plant for 2017 and celebrate our country’s sesquicentennial. But they sold out so quickly, I missed the chance.

I noticed a woman working on one of the planters, a large plastic garbage bin next to her and her hands busy yanking out any tulips that were drooping or beginning to widen their blooms. I couldn’t believe that they were replacing the tulips already. We had a long way to go before spring would give way to summer-stocked planters.

Gwynn and I walked over to her and, after a short conversation, learned that any spring flowers close to the end of their bloom (yes, tulips have a fairly short bloom time) would be removed. And if they drooped, they were doomed.

“What happens to the bulbs?” I asked, eyeing the garbage bin nearly full of bulbs, leaves and flower heads.

For this office tower, garden companies are contracted to fill the planters. Building staff — like this woman — maintain the planters, removing any tulips and bulbs. The bulbs? “Compost,” she said. “Garbage.”

Gwynn and I left there, continuing our walk to lunch.

And our pockets and purses? Full of bulbs.

The woman thought were nuts but happily let us pick up half-a-dozen bulbs each and squirrel them away in our purses. And I nabbed a solitary Canada 150 tulip to decorate our lunch table.

From bulbs to books

If we had just walked away, empty-handed, regrets would have followed me home. Regrets are a part of life but they should be the exception. How many times have you regretted something you should have captured in your writing?

Waking from a dream, full of a story that vanishes like wisps of clouds by the time you brush your teeth, grab a quick yogurt, pour your coffee and sit at your computer.

Listening in on a fascinating conversation at a bus stop, box office line-up or café and promising yourself to write it down as soon as you get home but life was busy as you walked through the door and by the time you sit at your computer hours later, those words are now jumbled snatches that lost their energy.

Visiting a new place — a different city, a trip to the country, a historic building — any opportunity to tickle your muse and fire up your creative juices, can be gold to a writer. And that gold can crumble like pyrite if ignored–or turn into platinum if the writer mixes serendipity with curiosity and a dash of chutzpah. (I’m still toying with a story idea about the Roman gladiator who left behind graffiti on the Colosseum.)

Essential ingredients

Serendipity: The timing of the lights at the corner of Bay and Front Streets crossed us over to the east side of Bay. It’s the shady side before noon and Gwynn prefers the sunny side. But the lights ignored her preference.

Curiosity: Gwynn and I could have simply walked past that woman, assuming the tulip bulbs were destined to be stored dry and cool and replanted in the fall. But I wanted to know why she was taking still blooming tulips from the planter.

Chutzpah: I asked if the bulbs were garbage, could we take a few? (note: for me, this is chutzpah. For others, this might have been a no-brainer. But I’m shy by nature and pushed myself to open my mouth and ask.)

Result

Gwynn and I both love gardening. Gwynn’s lakeside property is a gorgeous mix of flowers, forest and winding walkways. And I’m slowly rehabilitating a former urban backyard dumping ground into a perennial pleasure. We share plants and both our gardens will boast Canada 150 tulips next year (as long as the squirrels can be convinced to leave them alone.)

Bonus result for this writer: I have a character and story cooking in my mind. She’s a maintenance worker, spending her days in the shadows of a 75-story office tower, picking up trash from thoughtless passersby and trimming plants that almost no one notices. She pays her rent on her two-room west-end basement apartment by working weekends and midnights cleaning inside those tower offices. She’s tired all the time. But if she works hard and saves enough money, she can hire an immigration lawyer to help her bring her three children to Canada.

And then the lawyer disappears with all her money…

Serendipity.

Curiosity.

Chutzpah.

I highly recommend it.

Logic Glitches & Inspiration

Logic Glitches & Inspiration

Ruth E. Walker

Inspiration for a writer can arrive at the most inconvenient times. Nonetheless, it’s good to answer the call of the muse. Even if that call comes via another call that is less than charming.

A recent 7 a.m. long distance phone call woke me with that moment of panic. Was someone ill? Did I forget that I was supposed to be somewhere? And why in heaven’s name does the phone have to play Ride of the Valkyries? [note to self: consider changing the ring tone.]

I managed an almost-awake hello and received the bad news. My credit card had been compromised. It had been used on two large online purchases, and did I authorize them?

Just three days earlier at a party, a good friend told me about her credit card being used for $1300 US-worth of Marriott hotel stays and fine dining. Which, of course, she hadn’t been at either hotel or restaurant…or in the US for that matter. Fortunately, she didn’t have to pay for the theft, just the inconvenience of waiting for a replacement card.

So it took me a few seconds to realize what I was dealing with.

Scammers.

Thinking is good

My logical side kicked in and I ticked off the boxes of How Stupid Do They Think I Am:

Box Number One: The call was a recording. A woman’s serious tones, in an vaguely English-accented voice, advised me “Your credit card has been used recently in two large purchases online. Two-hundred-and-fifty-dollars on Amazon and a one-thousand-two-hundred-dollars on eBay.” A recorded call. Seriously?

Box Number Two: The call didn’t identify the credit card company.

Box Number Three: Nor was my name used (um…it was a recording. Duh.)

Box Number Four: The detail provided on the amounts and places of purchase was in stark contrast to the lack of identifying info (see Box Two and Three.) This is the genius method of sounding legit whilst scamming.

Box Number Five: I was to “press 1 now” if I hadn’t made those purchases. By now, the caller’s tone was downright threatening. Customer Service 101 was clearly not in her background.

Bonus Box Number Six: I took the call at the cottage. My bank and credit card contact info is not my cottage number.

Thank goodness I have a logical side. I hung up. But as a writer, now my brain is working overtime.

Inspiration is really good

Who is this woman? Did she know she was making a recording that would bilk lots of ordinary folks out of money? Is she a victim or a willing participant? Does she know credit card companies will cover these sorts of losses so she thinks she is only scamming the corporations?

Is her vaguely plummy accent real or does she have a range of accents she pulls out for various countries or regions? That accent might not do as well in other English-speaking countries. Does she have a lovely southern drawl for US calls south of the Mason-Dixon Line?

Where was she when she made that recording? In a sound studio between music recording sessions? Or a dingy backroom in some illegal call centre in southeast Asia or downtown Toronto?

And what about the rest of her life? Was this a harmless one-off that somehow ends up costing her in the future? Was she tricked into this recording, told it was an audition for computer voice in an upcoming film? And then later on, in an audition for a real film, the casting director recognizes her voice as the one that scammed him a few years ago and he vows revenge…

See? One inconvenient and potentially disruptive phone call, and my imagination is off to the races.

Before you think this is one crazy idea, take a look at Will Ferguson‘s unsettling but terrific novel 419, a deep dive into the world of the insidious Nigerian Internet scams, and the people who, worlds apart, are drawn into the trap of a better future. You remember those emails…”Sir or Madam, I am the son of an exiled Saudi prince. I need your help in getting my late father’s treasure and promise you 20% of the millions hidden in Swiss bank accounts…”

Combining thinking & inspiration is best

My 7 a.m. cottage phone call proves that my muse is alive and well, even if not conveniently timed. It confirms I possess a vital skill that I employ as a writer and an editor: Logic. And logic drives all narrative arcs. From science fiction or fantasy to police procedural mysteries, logic forms the base of all the story elements: plot, conflict(s), character motivation and behaviour, setting, and resolution.

That last one, resolution, is the place that many writers lose the thread of logic. Have you ever read a good book only to arrive at the end and be confused or disappointed by how things are wrapped up? The ending just isn’t logical. Maybe there was nothing in the preceding pages that set up that ending. Or maybe the author thought “Surprise!” was a neat way to end.

Logic works in real life. So it has to work in your writing. If it’s logical that your character would give up their life’s work as an astrophysicist to become a hermit on the mountain top, you better give us something in the story that supports that change.

If it’s snowing heavily in the beginning of the chapter, the characters better have their coats, hats and boots on as they squint into the flakes. And for heaven’s sake, don’t have the cop showing up on his motorcycle at the end of the chapter. Are there even snow tires for a motorcycle. [note: research is an important step to ensuring logical writing.]

Logic in writing. Use it. Because if you don’t, we will notice.

Last Word

Writescape workshops help writers focus on the important elements of story, including logical plots and characters with motivation and behaviour that makes sense.

June 15, 2019: Create Compelling Characters. Join Ruth E. Walker at her Haliburton cottage for a one-day focus on the people in your story.

Fall 2019: Watch for Gwynn Scheltema’s Tax Tips for Writers at the November 10 meeting of The Writers’ Community of York Region, and for Gwynn and Ruth’s Master Class at The Writers’ Community of Durham Region.

5 Ways to Actualize Your Writing Dreams

5 Ways to Actualize Your Writing Dreams

This week we welcome Writescape alumnus, Donna Judy Curtin as she shares her writing dreams and 5 ways to actualize them. You can find other writing-related blogs by Donna at Ascribe Writers blog.

Guest blogger: Donna Judy Curtin

In Grade Two, I declared I was going to become a veterinarian and even though my personality quizzes in high school suggested I would make a better florist, my heart was set on becoming an animal doctor.

I’m nothing if not determined.

And I’m great at dreaming.

Throughout my gruelling university undergraduate courses, I kept visualizing the moment I would receive my acceptance letter to the Ontario Veterinary College. I could hear the envelope ripping, smell the glue, feel the rasp of the paper between my fingers, see the welcoming words on the page and when I was exhausted and frustrated and about ready to give it all up… I imagined a victorious jump into the air with a viscous fist pump.

This wasn’t actually how this moment occurred. I called the College to check on something and a very kind receptionist informed me, when I wasn’t expecting it, that I was listed as a member of the OVC class of 2002. I think I fell off the phone (if that’s even possible). After picking up the receiver, I remember stuttering out, “What did you say?” as the tears rolled down my cheeks.

These precious moments never happen exactly how we imagine them, but regardless, we need to keep envisioning them.

Visioning

Since I started writing seriously, I’ve been picturing small successes. At first I dreamed of completing my first novel, then it was editing that novel. When I needed a break from my first story, I started writing the sequel, which led me back to edit the first novel again and again and again. Then I began to dream of completing a trilogy and started to imagine getting all three books published as a series.

Now, my new adventure is QUERYING.

This is by far the scariest thing I have ever done. It is bold, fearless and requires stripping down to bear my heart for all to see… but I know it’s time to get out there and I’ve given myself a very specific goal for this year – to find an agent who loves my story as much as I do.

In order to stay motivated, I’m going to embrace the actualization that helped me to get into Veterinary School, because there is no better time than now to have something to motivate me through the hard work.

Getting Your Kids to Reach for the Stars

I’m going to reach for the moon and grasp onto the stars.

  • What are your writing goals?
  • Can you imagine how it will look and feel when you get there?
  • Have you shared these goals?
  • Here’s how to get started…. 5 Ways to Actualize Your Writing Dreams

ONE – WRITE IT DOWN

Even if it’s only in your private computer, write your dreams down. Make them real. Live them.

TWO – START SMALL

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Pick a fun goal. Something you can completely achieve.

One of my goals is to make the front cover of the Cargill Area News. It started out as a joke about ten years ago, but now, I want this in earnest. The Cargill Area News, locally and lovingly called the CAN, is our village newspaper. The heart and soul of the paper is the editor, Brian, this imaginative and friendly man who still publishes poetry to his now deceased love and wife. Someday, I will make the cover of the CAN as a published novelist. I can see my smiling face in black and white, holding up my book.

THREE – UPDATE YOUR DREAMS

You need to revisit your dreams often – in order to be sure they are still relevant. It won’t do to still dream about sitting on Opera’s couch for a book discussion. She’s moved on and so must you.

My other goal was to see my book on display at our local bookstore. My veterinary practice is located in a pretty small town. We don’t have an Indigo or Chapters, but we have a quality local bookseller. I had this vision of popping into the store to pick up the latest edition of The Selection Series for my daughter or the next Maze Runner for my son, and stumbling upon a desk-top display of my book with a printed sign declaring ‘OUR VERY OWN LOCAL VETERINARIAN and AUTHOR, DR. CURTIN!’

The fact is though, we all need to update our dreams occasionally and create new ones. Sadly, my local bookstore is going out of business. The owner is retiring and our town is losing this quality business.

My new dream is to someday bump into a reader purchasing my book, and then to offer to sign it.

FOUR – SHOOT FOR THE STARS

You need to dream big. Think of the best possible outcome and have some fun.

My current big dream is make a surprise visit to a book club discussing my book. It would be so much fun to be invited as an unknown guest and then part way through the night to reveal my identity by contributing to the discussion, “So, when I wrote that chapter, I actually thought it would end up going like…” and then see what happens.

FIVE – DEVISE YOUR OWN PERSONAL REWARD

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Maybe it’s something you want to do with a signing bonus. Perhaps you have a nay-sayer who teased you and you can’t wait to show off your success. Regardless, set a reward and imagine the moment when you will get it.

I’ve had this special evening planned from the moment my first beta reader completed reading my first novel, first draft. How do you reward the time and effort it takes for someone to read your work when it isn’t good? I’m planning a fabulous dinner party. Starting with my high school teacher who read through my very first draft, to the writing partner who read aloud chapters with me for over a year, and many more. When I finally get a signed contract with a publisher, I’m going to pick up everyone in a big-ass limo and we’re going to go for a fancy dinner. It will be an amazing evening of laughter and shared dreams. I better get there soon, because the longer this takes and the more people that help me, the bigger the limo gets… and soon I will need a bus!

When you complete these five steps, hold them dear to your heart and then… get back to writing. I wish you every success and hope all your dreams come true.

Donna Judy Curtin

Donna Curtin practices veterinary medicine in Bruce County, Ontario, close to her poultry and cash crop farm where she lives with her husband and two children. As a complement to her veterinary career, she aspires to become a published novelist. In Dr. Curtin’s writing, animals play important characters just as often as people.

Recipe for Creating Characters

Recipe for Creating Characters

Ruth E. Walker

Sometimes, the people I create for my novels and stories wake me up at night. They rattle around in my head like restless spirits and refuse to quiet down until I write a scene they’ve been waiting for.

Wait a minute. A scene they’ve been waiting for?

Exactly. I guess that’s how real they’ve managed to become in my imagination. So real that my subconscious gives them room to believe themselves to be alive.

All writers discover and develop their characters by a variety of approaches, each as unique as the writer themselves. But sometimes, our imaginations can use a little help.

For one of my workshops, I developed a simple and fun exercise for finding a new character. It works for villains, heroes, secondary folks, and even walk-on characters. Use it any time you hit a wall and need a nudge to add new people to a story or scene. It can even help when you have no idea what you’re going to write: bingo! a character to build a story around…all from a recipe.

Follow the recipe

1 cup of a real person: I find a visual source most helpful (a magazine photograph, portrait in an art gallery or people-watching expedition) Perhaps for you, there’s a person in history — recent or long ago — who has fascinated you. Whoever you choose, it’s time to build a story character from an image. Note some vital statistics about this person, (age, gender, eye & hair colour, etc.)

Then go a bit deeper into who they are (family, education, social position/job, hobbies, favourite foods, pets, etc.) Allow your imagination to take you to counter-intuitive places: thing — and people — are never completely what they appear to be on the surface.

Finally, answer three questions:

  • what does this person want?
  • what does this person actually need?
  • what does this person fear the most?

Of course, this outline of a person is open to change once you start to write the story. But by this point, you should have a sense of a personality coming to life. All you need now is to add the rest of the ingredients.

1 cup of story idea:  Maybe your new character has inspired a story idea already but if not, here’s a quick option: choose a central theme (quest, coming of age, gods vs humans, humans vs nature, etc.) and a genre (romance, sci-fi, contemporary, literary, thriller, historical, etc.) Write down the theme and genre (or blend of genres) and add in a few lines about the possibilities to come (escape of star-crossed lovers, a search for a missing “x”; a defense of a territory; a coronation gone wrong, etc.)

2/3 cup of setting: place, era, season, time of day. Here’s where you add in some sensory elements: temperature, quality of the light, smells in the air, sounds near and distant, etc.

1/4 cup of backstory: Careful, too much backstory up front and it will overtake your story stew. Go for subtle flavours: a hint of betrayal, a whiff of loss, a sprinkle of insecurity or shame.

Flavour bouquet: Just like that cheesecloth bag of spices in your chili sauce, here’s where you can mix up an interesting blend for your new-found character. Characteristics. Idiosyncrasies. Behaviours. Qualities of goodness and evil because no person is completely honourable, good and kind. And all of it affects the kind of person you are cooking up.

The garnish: An exciting way to serve up your character is through a line of dialogue. A few intriguing words can be all you need to set in motion a scene for your character.

Make it more than parsley on the plate: “Quick man! Jump overboard or die!” “Before the three moons rise, I promise to find your starship.” “My lady, the castle road and all who travelled it are gone.”

Of course, like any recipe, it’s always open to personal preference. So go ahead and experiment. Add new ingredients. Use more spice. Go heavy with the garnish. The point to all this is to muck about in the kitchen of your creativity and see what ends up on your page. At the very least, you’ll have something on the table that you’ve never had before. Hopefully, it’s one tasty treat.

Last Word

If you want to cook up more characters or spice up ones you already have, Ruth’s offering a one-day workshop Create Compelling Characters on June 15 at her Riverside Cottage property in Haliburton. Registration is open now.

10 Places to Find Characters

10 Places to Find Characters

Look for Writescape’s 10 on the 10th for writing tips, advice and inspiration on the 10th of every month. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along.

Where does a writer come up with ideas for a new character? Do you always find characters the same way? Maybe it’s time to explore new ways to find the people who populate your writing.  

1. Everyday people:

Spend time in any public place and someone is bound to catch your attention because of what they are saying or wearing or the way they are acting. Play the “Who are they?” game. Name them. Give them an occupation, a family (or not), and a problem. Watch, listen, take notes, and then let your imagination take over.  Read literary voyeur Julie Wilson’s Seen Reading, a collection of micro fiction inspired by people on Toronto transit.

2. Historical people:

People throughout history have done amazing, stupid, brave, cowardly, horrific, heart-warming things. Digging into the past can uncover all kinds of people, both those who are documented, and those that were —or might have been—in their lives. Check out museums, plaques, archives, diaries, statues. If you don’t want to write about a famous person, think about siblings, spouses or colleagues and imagine their lives. Think of Susanna Moodie Roughing it in the Bush, or Philippa Gregory’s book The Other Boleyn Girl.

3. Historical events:

Pompeii excavation

Whether you are a fan of Tudor times, fascinated by the destruction of Pompeii, read avidly about the great wars or have your interest piqued by the voyage of the KonTiki, historical events are filled with possibility for creating characters. Anthony Doerr creates a blind French girl and a young German radio operator for his WWII novel All the Light We Cannot See.  In his book Pompeii, Robert Harris creates four characters – a young engineer, an adolescent girl, a corrupt millionaire and an elderly scientist – in a luxurious world on the brink of destruction.

4. Art forms:

Flip through a magazine or visit an art gallery. Visual art and photography can always inspire. Degas’s art inspired Cathy Buchanan to write The Painted Girls; Vermeer’s art inspired The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.  The same goes for books, plays, movies, dance, comedy, music and oral storytelling. Think of Annie Proulx’s Accordian Crimes, a novel that follows the lives of characters who successively own a green accordion.

5. Travel:

Travelling always offers fresh perspectives on everything from the scenery to the way things are done, the foods people eat or their attitudes to life. You can set the story in the foreign place, like Frances Mayes did in Under a Tuscan Sun. Or write about the effects of travelling like Vicki Pinkerton’s Reflections on the Road. Or tell a home-grown tale with characters influenced by other cultures like Wayson Choy’s Jade Peony.

6. Media:

News text, TV and social media are a goldmine for finding unique characters. If you read a headline and it gets you asking questions, (Why would anyone do that? How did they survive? Why didn’t anyone help? How did they get away with that?) then you likely have the makings of a story and a character. Ask lots more questions, flesh them out and go your own way. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie was published two years after the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites was inspired by Agnes Magnúsdóttir who was convicted of killing her employer. Of course, the personal ads are always a fun place to start. Julia Wertz wrote the graphic anthology, I Saw You, based on real-life missed connection ads posted on Craigslist and in local papers.

7. Death:

While thinking about death might not be everyone’s cup of tea, gravestones, cemeteries, obits, and death masks offer great opportunities for creating characters. In Edinburgh, Greyfriars’s Kirkyard, just steps from The Elephant House where J.K Rowling penned the first Harry Potter book, you will find five gravestones she used to inspire characters in her books: Potter; McGonagall; Moodie; Scrimgeour and Tom Riddle.

8. Names:

And while on the subject of names, remember that many of them reflect ethnic and cultural connections, have religious or folklore connotations and can suggest era too.  Want an Irish character? Try Googling “Irish Names”. You’ll find lists for boys and for girls; meanings and popularity by year. Or page through phone directories and baby-name books. Notice street sign names and names on buildings. Want to write about rape or feminist themes, using the mythical name of Philomel (who was raped, and voiceless, but was transformed into a singing nightingale) adds a layer. Check out Margaret Atwood’s use of that connotation in her novella Nightingale published in The Tent (2006),

9. Opposites & reimaginings:

The despised Wicked Witch of the West in the movie The Wizard of Oz becomes a much more sympathetic character when we see things from her point of view in Gregory McGuire’s book (and later musical)Wicked.  If you read Jane Eyre and can’t stop thinking about the secret madwoman in the attic, then read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea  which follows a young Antoinette Cosway who is sold into marriage to Mr. Rochester and slowly descends into madness.

10. Traits:

Start with a character trait and create a situation where someone with that trait finds themselves facing it/using it/fighting it.  Then ask questions. Why are they in this situation? Who is the other person in the scenario? What happens next?

A woman who reads body language well:
Maddie knew Ashton was lying. His eyes looked down to the left, and shuffled his feet.

A hero who is uncomfortable around weeping women:
Tentatively taking Auria’s elbow, Gaston said, “Don’t weep. It does not become you.”

A womanizer:
As Alysha seated Tyron between his new love and his ex at dinner, he loosened his tie and looked for an escape route.

So many ways to discover characters, and this list is by no means exhaustive. So stash a notebook in your backpack, put on your hiking boots, and get out there to see who you can find.

February 6: Just a date?

February 6: Just a date?

Ruth E. Walker

Why is February 6 an important date? For James II of England/James VII of Scotland, this is the day in 1685, he becomes king upon the death of his bother Charles II. In ancient Pompeii, AD 60 to be precise, a bit of wall graffiti shows February 6 as the earliest date the day of the week is known: Sunday apparently, though it would be Wednesday using our calendar. And for British women over the age of 30, this day in 1918 gave them the vote. At last, some women were considered to be adults…

From facts to inspiration

I’ve never paid attention to this particular date, February 6, and many other days that pass me by, year after year. But I got to thinking about how writers and other artists can find inspiration and ideas by checking out a day here or there.

Right now, I’m thinking that my friend and author of historical novels, Cryssa Bazos, would be able to tell me what inspired her to write about 17th century England. Perhaps she was just Googling dates when all the intrigue, civil war and passions of that time caught her attention.

And Pompeii? The place that captured the people and places of the ancient city, buried beneath a mountain of volcanic ash, is rich with high-tension moments. Unable to escape, families, friends and strangers succumbed to the poisonous gasses and then were covered with ash in their desperate last seconds, frozen with an arm extended in fear or draped around a loved one to protect one last time.

It was so sudden that tables were set with food, prepared for a meal never eaten.

Archeologists unearthed a time capsule, including that February 6 day-of-the-week discovery. And for writers, there’s been no end to the stories imagined by the vignettes revealed.

“Nice women don’t want the vote.”

Thinking about British women’s right to vote February 6, 1918, I was reminded how hard won our right to vote is in Canada. Not so very long ago, it was meted out, inch by excruciating inch, province by province, until Canadian women finally got the right to vote federally on May 24 1918.

Of course, there were exceptions. And there were restrictions. You had to be 21 or older, and not a Status Indian or Inuit woman (or man, for that matter.) And restrictions applied to anyone disenfranchised provincially for reasons of race. Thus, Japanese, Chinese and South Asians in B.C. and Chinese in Saskatchewan were kept from voting.

As a writer, this rabbit hole of research got me thinking.

Japanese Canadian soldiers WWI

I’m driven by character, and I try to imagine what the power to vote might have meant to a woman who, on May 23, 1918, couldn’t vote.

I’ll call her Edith.

And what it meant to a woman who, on May 24, 1918, still couldn’t vote.

I’ll call her Miko.

Consider the opportunities for tension if I put these two women in the same house. A Japanese immigrant, Miko is a cook in a boarding house. She is 48 and widowed. Her only child, her son, died fighting in the Great War. Edith’s mother owns the boarding house, and 25-year-old Edith joined the women’s suffrage movement with exuberance. She doesn’t understand why Miko is so quiet on this day because it is a day to celebrate. Whatever is the matter with Miko?

From character to plot. And all because of a date.

So, what about you? Did any of this tickle your Muse? Have you ever checked out an innocuous date and discovered a treasure trove that inspired you to release your Muse and take you on a journey to people or places you’d never thought about before?