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?

Just one sentence

Just one sentence

Gwynn Scheltema

Something I’ve learned from my yoga practice is how to calm my mind and rid it of swirling daily mental debris by focusing on my breathing. I take a few deep breaths and listen to the sound of it, notice the temperature of the air as it enters and leaves my body, feel the rise and fall of my belly as I inhale and exhale — and before I know it, my heart rate slows and a calm comes over me. Daily problems are pushed away and I feel renewed.

Mental filters

I do the same kind of mental focussing at the start of freefall writing practice. I learned this from my friend and mentor, Sue Reynolds. She explained to me that when we do this kind of breathing practice, we put ourselves in a state similar to that we experience just before we fall asleep, where we are aware but not necessarily thinking in the same rigid patterns that we would when awake.

Medical researcher Valdas Noreika is his study “Intrusions of a Drowsy Mind” hypothesizes that when we enter sleep, the brain steadily dismantles the models and concepts we use to interpret the world, leading to moments of experience unconstrained by our usual mental filters.

I believe that, yes, this works for writing because we are putting aside our usual mental filters like the inner critic; the fears; the lack of self-confidence; the desire to be and do what others want of us and on and on…. But I also believe that the act of focussing is just as important.

Focussing

The beauty of focussing is that we need only think about (substitute “worry about”; “imagine”; “create”) one thing—one small thing—at a time.

At our recent Writescape Turning Leaves 2018 retreat, we were talking about writing every day: how hard it is; how necessary it is; how productive it is. One of the participants said that she demands only two sentences from herself daily.

She went on to explain that having made the effort to sit down with her WIP to write “only two sentences” she invariably writes a lot more, but that having such a small focused goal is not overwhelming and easily doable, so she does it.

Go Small to go Big

In an article in Glimmer Train, Jane Delury uses the technique of writing just one sentence to get unstuck.

She says: “This sentence doesn’t need to have anything to do with the work that you are wrestling. Maybe it’s about the chip in the coffee mug on your desk. Maybe it’s about a phone call with your mother last night. Or the patter of rain against the window. Maybe it’s about the doubt that your story or novel has stirred in you, concretized in an image that will form if you stay long enough between capitalized letter and period for the clichés to flow away, long enough for the appearance of magical corpuscles.”

Just one Sentence

There is power in writing just a sentence or two. When I attended a retreat with Peter Carver and Kathy Stinson, we did an exercise that I use often now to get my writing flowing. It combines the principles of continuous writing, like freefall, with the focused goal of “just one sentence”.

Set a timer for one minute (when you get good at this, increase to longer times) and write without ending your sentence. Use any and all conjunctions and other methods of joining phrases, such as: and; and then; but; until; because; however; etc. Just keep writing and writing and writing. Afterwards, it is easy to erase the bits you don’t want and fix the sentence structure.

I find that this exercise forces me to stay with a topic, character or scene and go further with it than I would normally have done, and that is when the good stuff comes—when the mental filters are gone and I’m focused.

Try it!

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Your Anytime Writing Retreat

Your Anytime Writing Retreat

Ruth E. Walker

Shortly after our most recent retreat, Turning Leaves, I heard from a writer who wasn’t able to attend. She was disappointed to have missed the retreat and, of course, we missed having her there. But it started the kernel of an idea for me.

What to do when you can’t get away to write but you really need that getaway?

Do it yourself

A self-directed retreat can give you the boost you and your writing need. There are two basic ingredients necessary to create your own writing retreat.

  • permission — allow yourself this gift — whether it’s for 30 minutes or 33 days, gift yourself and your muse with writing time
  • difference — as simple as facing your laptop in a new direction or as drastic as getting in the car and driving west without a destination in mind, a different writing space will loosen your perspective

The “where” doesn’t matter as much as the “okay” you need to give yourself. Once you commit to accepting the gift of time to write, the rest will fall into place. So, you’ve said okay to a retreat? Now to focus on the “where.” Many writers don’t have to even head out the front door.

Retreat at Home:

Begin by creating the right space that will give you the retreat vibe. Turn off the TV. Log off the WiFi. Unplug the phone. Eliminate distractions — if you need to, hire a babysitter or dog walker. Maybe light a candle or incense.

Take your journal or laptop into a room you don’t normally write in. Stand at a window you don’t usually look through. Sit on your apartment balcony or the backyard deck. If you’re a morning writer, keep your jammies on before you start to write. If you tend to write later in the day, start out with a walk in your neighbourhood, but travel in a new direction.

Do a little fuel prep in advance of your self-curated home retreat. Put together meals and snacks in advance. I don’t mean potato chips and dip…treat yourself so this feels special. Crudité. Antipasto. Shrimp cocktail. Whatever will raise the bar for you to a place of being pampered.

Retreat away from Home:

If a retreat at home would never work (i.e., noisy neighbourhood, roommates, cramped quarters) consider where you might escape to. I know writers who write at their local library. They turn off their phones, squirrel away in a quiet corner and spend the day writing. And with so many libraries loosening up those old rules of no food or coffee, bringing your lunch and favourite munchies along is less of a barrier. You can’t sit there in your jammies but there’s nothing that says you can’t wear your old sweatshirt and kick off your shoes to get comfy. My local library has an upscale coffee shop onsite where you can write your book and eat your cake, too.

Another option is to book yourself into an inn or B&B to write for a couple of days. Book for the off season to get lower rates. A friend and Writescape alumnus, Ingrid Ruthig, is an award-winning poet and accomplished artist. She creates her own writing retreats by booking a room in a B&B and staying for a few days. She’s disciplined enough to keep her focus on why she’s there and uses the new space as inspiration for her work. And she notes that the breakfasts make for a stellar start to her day.

Be creative. Head to a coffee shop to write. How about the local museum? Do the kids have a backyard treehouse? Retreating away from home doesn’t need to be an overnight excursion. The main point is finding a place that is different; it is difference that can inspire creativity.

Look for artist residencies

An artist residence can offer time and space to writers. Some residencies involve a large financial commitment. But some are provided free of charge or have scholarships or bursaries to offset the cost. And some pay you to attend.

There are dozens and dozens of residencies in Canada, the U.S. and abroad. The Write Life has a list of 27 Amazing Writing Residencies. I’ll admit to being intrigued by the winery retreats — Writing between the Vines will give you a week-long, no charge residency in either California or B.C. You have to get there and you need to bring your own food but my goodness, imagine a cabin tucked away among the cabernet sauvignon in the Sonoma Valley!

Closer to my home in Ontario, the A-Frame Residency in Ameliasburg offers writers the use of poet Al Purdy’s iconic Prince Edward County home. $650 paid to writers weekly for a no-fee 4-week stay is a remarkable gift. Not to mention the hope that some of the Governor-General Award-winner’s creative spirit could rub off on you as you work. Applications re-open fall 2019.

Heather O’Connor, who’s attended many of Writescape’s retreats, wrote about her artist-in-residence experience at Quetico Provincial Park, west of Thunder Bay and bordering Minnesota. In that post, she shares how she also funded the travel expenses to get her to Quetico, which gives us a nice transition to the next topic.

Fund Your Retreat

Apply for writing grants to help cover the cost of any writing retreat, either self-directed or carefully curated by others. Local, regional, provincial and national organizations offer grants to help support you in this journey. We’ve written a few blog posts about grants and how to get them, including this story of a breadmaker’s grant. And Heather O’Connor, arguably one of the most successful writing grant applicants we’ve ever known, offered some sage advice in this 2016 blog post.

So, whether you hunker down at home or leave the country, there are many ways to create your own writing retreat. Whatever it takes to charge your batteries and keep the words flowing, we wish you well. May the muse be ever-present and the writing, sublime!

Writescape’s next retreat

Registration for Spring Thaw, our annual creative getaway at Elmhirst’s Resort, doesn’t officially open until December 1. But for our retreat alumni and subscribers to our Top Drawer blog, we’re giving you a bit of a head start.

Spring Thaw, April 26 to 28, 2019, is an all-inclusive writing retreat in cozy cottages on the shores of Rice Lake in the Kawarthas. We create an intimate and safe space in which writers can explore ideas and stretch their creative energy. At Spring Thaw, you’ll have:

  • editorial review on 10 manuscript pages
  • private feedback consultations
  • creativity sessions to inspire your muse each morning
  • private room in shared, fully equipped lakeside cottages
  • optional evening activities
  • full access to resort amenities: WiFi, indoor pool, whirlpool & sauna, trails

Writers can keep the energy going with our Extend-Your-Pen option, April 28 to 30, two more days devoted just to working on your writing.

Retreat alumni and members of writing organizations can take advantage of our special discounts. Spring Thaw is a wonderful escape to let you imagine, reflect and write.

Flesh Out Characters with a Sketch

Flesh Out Characters with a Sketch

Ruth E. Walker

As a character-driven writer, I love discovering the deeper layers of the people I create. Usually, I already have a strong sense of what makes my characters tick—it’s what draws me to the page to explore their lives. But not always. Sometimes, even a “character-driven writer” needs to develop a character sketch to have a better understanding or handle on one or more of the people in a story.

A sketch can be like a quick line drawing or caricature that fleshes character out when you fill in some blanks:

  1. the basics: age, gender, height, weight, hair colour, shoe size…
  2. add a sense of place, both physical and social: home location, job, education…
  3. toss in a bit of “flavour” with likes/dislikes, idiosyncrasies…
  4. go even deeper: fears, longings, secrets (shhhhh!)…
  5. get a clue to motivations: what happened to them before the story starts?

It can be far more detailed, using shadow and light to reveal facets of personality (key for reaction and interaction), motivation (key for tension-building) and subconscious desires (key for thematic development.)

For example, starting with an idea of a character, a person for a story:

Bob is a 47-year-old truck driver for a long distance hauling company. He’s overweight but not obese and his hairline is receding. He drinks Gatorade to stay awake when he drives overnight. Bob likes old movies, baseball and wine gums.

Bob’s name, age, gender, appearance are sketched in. I tossed in a bit about Bob and his likes. A just-the-facts-ma’am approach is fine to start. If you want more than “good enough”, dive deeper. Everyone has a story. Even our imaginary “Bob” has more than one reason for what he does…or doesn’t…do.

A character sketch can offer a writer more than just an outline of the people in a story. In fact, the act of developing a sketch of a character might serve as a springboard of ideas for plot, setting or themes:

Bob, a 47-year-old truck driver has been hauling long distance rigs across the country for over twenty years. These days, even climbing up into the cab is chore; he knows he should drop a few pounds but it’s hard when he keeps getting the inter-province routes and shorter and shorter deadlines. Some guys pop pills to stay away on night runs but he keeps to power drinks, even if it means he has to piss in a bottle to avoid stopping. Besides, even when he does stop these days, sleep won’t come or at least not for long. Even pulling out the tablet and firing up a few old movies doesn’t do it for him anymore. Two Turner Classics and his eyes are still wide open, and then he’s chewing on wine gums for breakfast and pulling on his Blue Jays cap to get back on the road. His cap doesn’t really hide his thinning hair but still, it’s the Jays so that’s gotta count for something. That’s what his dad always said to him. Life, Bob—it’s gotta count for something. That is, until the day his dad hung himself from the barn rafters.

With genre fiction, there are certain types of characters we expect to show up. A cozy mystery needs an amateur, or even reluctant, sleuth. A fantasy should have supernatural or magical characters. A horror works best with a terrifying and evil villain. Etcetera. Of course, a wise writer takes those expectations and plays with them so that the reader gets some surprises. Like villains who turn into heroes or heroes with murderous hearts. And it’s those character surprises that open up tired plots and overused themes and can take your story on a whole new track.

Drawing out personality

There’s another kind of sketch that may prove helpful in understanding your character. In my workshops, I’ve used photos of people to inspire writers to discover new, unexpected characters for their stories. But I have also scoured magazines and photo books looking for faces or expressions that can help me solidify a character in my mind. A couple of years ago, I was a bit lost working on my science fiction novel. My main character had some “wobbly bits” to the person I thought she should be; in other words, she was a bit fuzzy. Never good for a writer.

I turned to a police sketch program online. After several attempts, I finally came up with her face and that helped me firm her up as I continued to write the latter half of the novel.

The free program I used is no longer available but there are several online services that can do similar work. You need to pay for and then download the program, for example, Flash Face and Portrait Pad. I haven’t tried either one but if you have, let us know in the comment section.

For those of you who use Scrivener for organizing and drafting your work, you probably already know the many uses of this program for sketching out characters, from visual aids to templates to file folders. The Write Practice blog shares some of the Scrivener character sketch features. For those of you not using Scrivener, The Write Practice reminds writers that most of these tools can be adapted for use without any specialized software.

And check out the five links to character worksheets in this All Freelance Writing blog. Writers are offered a range of approaches to finding and developing characters: questionnaires, checklists, guides and charts.

A character sketch is useful at any point in writing. From inspiring a new story to adding extra character touches to a third, or fourth or fifth or…later (!) draft, diving deeper into a character’s life is a tool all writers need in their creativity kit. So go ahead. Get sketching.

 

 

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