“My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.”
- Anaïs Nin, French Writer
First, I need to say that last week the lovely Evangeline at Edwardian Promenade awarded the I Love This Blog to me, and I have to spread the love around. See the end of this post for the award, and my nominations. <3
This week’s exercise is to take a look around you. So often do we writers get lost in the act of writing, that we forget we are supposed to be writing about life. Who are these characters that we spend our every waking moments with? How can we possibly know who they are, and how to make them distinct, if all we do is sit around our houses dreaming about them?
NaNoWriMo is a difficult time for any writer, whether you have a plan/outline or not. I found that during the second week, I began to lag a little. Things weren’t coming as quickly, and I was losing some of my pep.
I knew I had to leave the computer. There was something about sitting in the same spot day in, day out, writing to fulfill the daily goal, that exhausted me. I took a digital camera and small writing journal, and went for a walk.
I took pictures of whatever I saw that inspired me, with the plan to print them out and tape them to the walls around my desktop. I sat by the little lake at the center of my campus, and absorbed. I never wrote anything.
Three years later (i.e. a couple of weeks ago), that moment crystallized into the following:
At Ohio State, my favorite place on campus was Mirror Lake. There are beautiful flowering trees there in the spring, and ducklings that swim in time with The Truman Show soundtrack on my mp3 player. In the winter, the lake freezes over and everyone tests their courage by walking across it. In the fall, the most zealous Buckeyes jump into the lake to show their loyalty against M*ch*gan. There are benches, and sometimes people play their guitars. I would walk around the lake, usually listening to classical music, and breathe it in. I’d stare at the fountain in the center, and how it sometimes made a rainbow on very bright days.
Simple, reminiscent, evocative. Do you have such a moment, and can you use it for your writing?
Awards to Blogs I Love
“Don’t talk of stars, burning above! If you’re in love, show me!
Tell me no dreams filled with desire, if you’re on fire, show me!
Here we are together in the middle of the night.
Don’t talk of spring, just hold me tight!”
Show Me from My Fair Lady
Think of your book as a court case. Would you, as the jury, believe the prosecutor if he screamed, “The defendant is guilty!!! …And I rest my case.”
No. You want proof so you believe beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.
Apply the same idea to your writing. What proof do you have to convince your reader that your character is bored, that her hero is unhappy, that his antagonist is delighted? Let’s look at an example.
Belinda was bored. She had a lot to do and her friends, while hilarious, had no idea what sort of deadlines she faced. Three C++ programs and an analysis of Moby Dick to write? She had to figure out how to make her excuses and get out of there, quick.
What’s the problem? I’m telling you she’s bored and has a lot to do, but I don’t tell you how she’s reacting to these facts. Let’s try again.
Belinda twisted her ring around her finger. A paper and three programming assignments. She crossed her legs. Maybe she could write the Moby Dick analysis first? She uncrossed her legs. No, Moby Dick would take much longer, better do the programs first. Belinda glanced once at her cell phone, pressing the side button to illuminate the little screen and see the time. Class in twenty minutes. She stood to stretch, and no one said anything, knowing her history with back pain. She pushed her chair back to its desk and straightened the other empty chairs around her, inching for the door.
What is different? I rely on shorter sentences to portray an anxious mood. There are descriptive verbs: twisting, crossing, uncrossing, glancing, stretching, pushing, inching. Can you see someone doing this? Too polite to say they want to leave, but showing you they want to, anyway?
The Point: Use small details to reveal the bigger picture without flat out explaining the bigger picture.
Movies and songs do this because they don’t have the luxury of 80,000 words to explain everything. Love songs describe missed phone calls, the smell of an old shirt, the empty half of a bed. Small details showing us the singer is alone and heartbroken, which is more powerful than the singer repeating, “Oh, I’m heartbroken, can’t you see I’m heartbroken?”
Treat each scene in your book as if it were a scene in a movie. What details would the camera show the audience?
Showing Through Body Language
Watch your co-workers, family, friends and enemies, the strangers on the street. Can you tell what is going on without hearing the conversation? Are they standing upright? Are their shoulders hunched? Are they looking away as they speak? Are they sweating?
Showing Through the Environment
Sure, maybe it was a “dark and stormy night,” but we’ve all heard that before. What about your five senses help you realize that it is storming, and that you wouldn’t want to be caught in the middle of it? Are the gnats gathering into furious swarms? Is the heat pressing against your skin, making you feel like you can’t breathe? Are the trees swaying? Can you smell the heavy dampness?
Showing Through Architecture
What about the buildings that your characters live in? Are they worn down, a sad testiment to what once was? By the way, don’t ever say “the house was worn down, a sad testiment to what once was.” That’s telling.
Show me the house is worn down by describing spider webs in the windows, so thick they prevent the full sunlight from shining into the room. Show me how the roof is badly patched with pieces of rotting bark collected from the nearby forest. Details, details, details.
Comment on the Show Don’t Tell mantra to enter in the Worderella free critique contest. Do you think it works? Are you tired of hearing it? If this is the first time you’ve heard about it, does it confuse you?
This five part series is my participation in Lynn Viehl’s Left Behind & Loving It (LB&LI) convention. I’ll tackle a different facet of editing each day:
- Monday: Put that shitty first draft away
- Tuesday: Be brutally honest
- Wednesday: Show me, don’t tell me
- Thursday: Tell me, don’t show me
- Friday: Focus on those nitty gritty details
Read more for details about winning a free Worderella critique at the end of this week!
If anything deserves more attention in my research, it’s the setting. Not for lack of trying, though; it’s something I tend to obsess about, if you’ll remember, but the resources about my little village are sparse at best. This concerns me because character histories often depend on the character’s environment, so it’s risky not to know the nooks and crannies hidden in your location.
Enter Google Earth. I finally caved in and installed the free application on my computer. This, despite my misgivings that I would waste hours studying the landscape rather than studying how the structure of a material changes depending on the number of vacancies at the atomic level. (I’m so glad I graduated.) Heaven help me, I was at the computer for two hours squealing about all the little physical details that, without technology, I would have had to journey to the UK to see it myself.
Thanks to the internet, I did manage to find 1885 maps of the area. But seeing actual color photos of the landscape around the manor house, and the relative locations of local ruins Mary walks to when she needs to let off some steam… and then to see photos taken by other Google Earth users living in the area! Oh, when I found Wayland’s Smithy, I knew, I just knew, that Mary spent hours there as a child, and returned there when bereft as an adult.
And if this isn’t enough, I also installed Google Sketch Up, a 3D modeling application. People use it to make 3D renderings of buildings on Google Earth… you know what I’ll be doing in my free time pretty soon. Yes, that’s right, making mock-ups of my characters’ not-so-humble abodes.
For those of you struggling with details about your setting, take a peek at Google Earth. It’s free and works on all major platforms, it seems. If you’re writing historical fiction, you might have to imagine what the city looked like during your era, but many places (especially in Europe) still have the old streets and some of the old buildings to give you a better understanding of what is within walking distance, etc. If you’re writing a contemporary piece, you can watch traffic patterns, the weather, and more.
A great resource for anyone curious about the world, Google Earth is an awesome research resource for writers.
I often find interesting bits of information floating around that don’t necessarily correspond to an entire blogpost. To compensate, sometimes I’ll have a Thursday Thirteen to collect and spread the knowledge-love, bringing me back to the original point of Worderella Writes. But I reserve the right to have a Thursday Seven, Thursday Two, Thursday Whatever-Number-I-Manage-to-Get-To… even though they don’t sound as good. Today’s theme is tools to help you research and/or write your setting. #1 – 7: Everyone can enjoy. #8-13: Probably for historical fiction writers only.
- Google Maps, MapQuest, etc. Use these websites for distances to known locations, driving routes, etc.
- Google Earth. This is great free application for those of us who are writing about places we may never see. This application allows us to see landscapes, weather patterns, traffic, and more, with the added benefit of seeing the pictures other Google Earth users took of the area and posted online.
* Disclaimer: Don’t blame me if you find yourself spending hours staring at the local landmarks of your chosen location. I can’t help it if Google Earth is that cool.
- Google SketchUp. If your WIP is at an existing location, together with Google Earth you can actually render a 3D model of the building. Not only that, but it has the capability to render floorplans and you can put little people in there, too. You’ll never accidently put your character in the drawing room when you meant the library ever again.
- Architectural Details. Can’t remember what that one arch is called on your building? This is the layperson’s guide to architectural elements to help you describe the places your characters visit/live.
- Wikipedia. A good place to start when you’re beginning your research on a particular location, but not something that should be the end-all-be-all for what you know about the place.
- Writing the setting. A nice essay on things to keep in mind while working on setting.
- Setting > Worderella collection. Sadly, I don’t have a lot about setting, and I should have more, but this will give you all the posts that pertain to setting in some way.
- A Dictionary of Victorian London. A collection of articles, journals, and diaries posted online and in book format, I’ve been meaning to buy the book because I reference this site almost as often as I check e-mail. Which is to say, religiously.
- Dickens’s London. Predictably, London as Dickens knew it in the 1880s.
- History Link. A subscription website supposedly full of links that guide you through your research for your novel. I’m not sure whether this is better than trolling the web and library for information, so if anyone has experience with this place, please comment.
- Victorian Web. An indispensible website full to the brim of information about Victorian England.
- County Maps of England. This is where I found my 1885 maps of Berkshire, and how I know that Compton Beauchamp belonged to Berkshire at the time, and not Oxfordshire as it does now.
- Edwardian Promenade. A blog focused on a series of essays about Victorian and Edwardian life.
I know I missed some resources. Let me know in the comments what you use to get a handle on your setting!
Summary: Stuck in a relationship and job where he is a whipping boy, Richard Mayhew breaks free of his daily not-caring ritual when a bloodied girl dressed in rags literally drops at his feet. By helping her, he loses track of his entire existence (literally), and must embark on a journey through “this city of shadows and darkness, monsters and saints, murderers and angels, if he is ever to return to the London he knew.”
pg 7 – There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar apart: first, Mr Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr Croup; second, Mr Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr Vandemar’s eyes are brown; third, while Mr Vendemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr Croup has no obvious jewelry; fourth, Mr Croup likes words, while Mr Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing at all alike.
pg 49 – To say that Richard Mayhew was not very good at heights would be perfectly accurate, but it would fail to give the full picture. Richard hated clifftops, and high buildings: somewhere not far inside him was the fear–the stark, utter, silently screaming terror–that if he got too close to the edge, then something would take over and he would find himself walking to the edge of a clifftop and stepping off into space. It was as if he could not entirely trust himself, and that scared Richard more than the simple fear of falling ever could. So he called it vertigo, and hated it and himself, and kept away from high places.
pg 93 – Varney looked like a bull might look, if the bull were to be shaved, dehorned, covered in tattoos, and suffered from complete dental breakdown. Also, he snored.
Why should you read this book?
I love Neil Gaiman. This is the second book I’ve read by him (Stardust was the other). I saw the movie MirrorMask and loved it. Gaiman’s tone is clever and funny; when you read his books you feel like he is sitting there telling you a story, rather than you reading a book (especially so with Stardust, where the characters are more archetypal). His descriptions are precise, accurate, and oftentimes hilarious because he doesn’t give any of his characters a break; see my excerpts above for an example.
If you like Doctor Who or Monty Python, this is a book for you. If you write fiction that takes any hint whatsoever from fairy tales, mythology, or legends, Gaiman is an excellent example to read to get a feel for what other writers are doing. (Another good example would be Marquez, but I’ll save that for when I review Of Love and Other Demons.) Gaiman, to me, is what I imagine the Grimm Brothers were to their contemporaries. All three men take inspiration from life, make the most mundane or horrible facts fantastical, and demand in the nicest way possible that you get something out of the story by the end. I highly suggest reading the author note at the end to really drive this point home.
A guest post by Blair Hurley from www.blairhurley.com listing some hints on how to make sure you’re writing on the go.
Writing on the Go by Blair Hurley
Writers use their own environment constantly to enrich their stories. We draw upon our settings and the people around us to create worlds. So when we travel, it’s crucial to take advantage of the new environment and use it to improve our fiction. But when you’re on the go in a new place, how’s a writer supposed to get down information? Read on!
Get a notebook! It’s hardly rocket science to decide to have a notebook handy, but when you’re traveling it’s especially important. Find a small, easy-to-handle notebook (I suggest a Moleskine, which are very popular right now and are affordable and tough) and slip it in your purse or back pocket. While on your trip or just during your usual daily travels, you should get used to being attached at the hip to that notebook (and a pen, too). Whenever you leave the house, take the notebook with you. Eventually it will become a habit and then you’ll never be without writing material when an idea or an interesting observation strikes.
Write down even the obvious. Our brains are pretty extraordinary and we’re all used to storing a tremendous amount of varied information without writing it down. But once you start writing down your observations, you’ll realize how much you actually lost before. Whenever you see an interesting-looking stranger, a beautiful building, a food you’ve never seen before, or an unusual event, jot down some notes. Later, when you’re wondering what to write or how to make it seem genuine, you’ll have these interesting details to call upon.
Use all your senses, and participate in your world. When we travel around, too much these days we shut ourselves out from all external stimulation by putting on headphones. Listening to music is great, but it closes us off from the world, as evidenced by the number of traffic accidents that are iPod-related. The more you engage with your surroundings, the more you’ll notice and the more material you’ll get. So if you’re going to a new place, turn off that Mp3 player and look, listen, smell and touch. Remember not just how a place looked, but how it smelled and felt as well. These sensory details are invaluable material for your fiction.
So in conclusion, whenever you’re on the go, you don’t have to wait until you get back to write about it. Take down notes on all aspects of the experience — while you’re on a subway, while walking down a street, even on a plane. Use your small moments to pull out that notebook and record the details of your environment, and it will prove a gold mine of resources for your next stories.
Blair Hurley is a creative writing student at Princeton University. She writes the blog Creative Writing Corner at blairhurley.com, which offers daily writing exercises, how-to’s, and thoughts on the writing life.
Next week, a guest post from Bethany (Word Nerd). She’s going to give us a guide to reading science fiction/fantasy!
Title: Silent in the Sanctuary
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Length: 552 pgs
Summary: Lady Julia Grey is back from her Italian getaway, where she recovered from the loss of her husband, the shock of discovering who killed her husband, the confusing emotions toward the detective hunting her husband’s murderer, and the smoke inhalation from the night all these factors came together in a literal blaze of fury. Home for Christmas in Sussex, Lady Julia is shocked to see among the guests Brisbane, the aforementioned detective, who is newly engaged to one of the silliest women she has ever laid eyes on. When murder happens in the abbey, it is up to Lady Julia and Brisbane to solve the crime despite their tumultuous history.
pg 158 – She proceeded to comment on everything we passed–the symmetry of the maze, the magnificence of the bell tower, the cleverness of the carp ponds.
And then she saw the gates. She went into raptures about the iron hares that topped them, the darling little gatehouse, the pretty shrubbery by the road. Another twenty minutes was spent on the straightness of the linden allee, and by the time we reached the village of Blessingstoke, my ears had gone numb with the effort of listening to her.
“So many words,” he murmured. “I did not think one person could know so many words.”
pg 482 – “That’s the trouble with women,” she said wonderingly. “We know what we oughtn’t do, but when a man comes along, we only hear his voice, and not our own.”
pg 497 – I finally ran him to ground in the library, gamely working his way through Pride and Prejudice. He sprang to his feet when I entered, smiling broadly.
I nodded to the book. “How are you enjoying Jane Austen?”
He waggled his hand from side to side. “She is a little silly, I think.”
Now I was more certain than ever in my decision. I could not love a man who did not love Jane Austen.
Why should you read this book?
Contrary to many of the reviews that I read on Amazon.com, I really liked this book precisely because the continued love-hate relationship from the previous book, Silent in the Grave, was in no way resolved, and in a way that was true to the characters. That’s genius, if you ask me, because it keeps the true fans of the series panting for more. This book is funny, charming, and portrays High Victorian Society oh so well. The setting is well-written without overtaking the plot, the characters are snappy, and my favorite device is used: giving tertiary characters their own subplots that affect the whole.
Read this book for a sophomore attempt that was as good (if not better) than the first, for a lesson in creating characters that don’t fit in their own society and yet seem genuine to the reader, a true puzzle of a crime, a charming and funny narrator, a passionate romance with no real sense of a happy ending (must continue to read the series!), and the only series in a long time that has an alpha romance lead that doesn’t make me want to shoot him.
Title: Hurricane Moon
Author: Alexis Glynn Latner
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 397 pgs
Summary: It is the late 21st Century. Catharin, an idealistic astronaut-physician, is part of the crew of Aeon, a starship sent out to find a new Earth. She wants to help society start anew, now that medicine has solved all major problems; molecular biologist Joe Devreze, however, just wants to run away from Earth, for reasons Catharin can’t figure out. Everything goes awry when Aeon reaches a double-planet system: one dubbed Planet Green is covered with vegetation, the other, Planet Blue, is consistently covered with hurricanes. As Catharin and Joe start to settle into Planet Green, Catharin discovers problems with their DNA… to the point where they might be the last humans in the universe. Can she trust Joe, and his shady motives, to save humanity? And just how much attention should Catharin pay to her subconscious warnings that Planet Blue is more than just a watery moon?
pg 118 – To Catharin’s consternation, Miguel laughed like a carefree man. “Oh, but we need [Joe]. Most certainly, we need him. You see, the gods who are creator and creatrix, especially of small worlds, always take themselves too seriously, and they want their work to be perfect. But evil spirits appear and they start spoiling things, and the gods would give up and throw the world away and start over, if they could. Fortunately, in almost every creation myth, soon there also comes the trickster god. His name is Coyote, or Pan, or Raven. He does absurd and mischievous things that annoy the creator gods. He saves the world, too.”
pg 198 – Maya had glittering green eyes and long dark hair with auburn highlights, and a willful attractiveness that Joe sensed as tangibly as feeling wind or heat.
pg 234 – What the hell had he been doing those years? Working. Walking. Inventing. Suddenly Joe thought about fairy tales, the ones about changelings who grow up to find out that they have no soul. It was an uncomfortable thought.
pg 256 – “Catharin is a cool customer,” Joe said to Wing.
“She’s like a violin. Quiet and tightly strung.”
“D’you suppose she ever lets her hair down?”
Wing answered with a promptness suggesting he’d reflected on this topic before. “I think her nickname, Cat, is apt, Joe. I think she has the soul of a tiger.”
pg 329 – “Luna is hundreds of light-years away, but her influence is woven throughout our evolution, our bodies,” said Sam. “We women are joined to the powers of life and change and birth. Birth scares the men. That’s why WE scare them. But change doesn’t have to scare US.”
Why should you read this book?
This may not be the most unique ideas, that in the future Earth falls to ruin and we send our best out in the universe to find a new Earth, but this is definitely the best-executed idea that I’ve read in a while. Much of the story rotates around the biology and evolution of people and their environment; much speculation is made about why there is a Planet Blue and a Planet Green, and we never really know if it’s the truth, only that this is what the characters have decided must have happened. I loved the science behind it all, mainly because I used to be obsessed with the moon (I kind of still am) and how it affects us daily. The characters react as you expect people to react to something so foreign as two Earth-sized planets on spin-lock around each other.
Latner does a wonderful job of making you feel scientific by the end of the book. She explains without making you feel stupid, and so you know what these highly-scientific characters are doing without getting into unnecessary details. Her use of tension is subtle, but effective: I jumped twice and even yelped once when I was reading and a friend called out to me as he walked past. That hardly ever happens to me (I read so much that I’m almost jaded sometimes). A unique book with a good execution, and even with some romance, this book was entertaining and even informative.
Title: Hood: The King Raven Trilogy (Book 1)
Author: Stephen R. Lawhead
Length: 472 pgs
Summary: Rhi Bran ap Brychan, heir to the Elfael throne, has never been much for responsibility. Not since his mother died when he was a young boy. Bran is headstrong, selfish, and egotistical; rebellious against his callous and and tyrannous father. But now his father is dead–killed by Norman invaders determined to take over the Welsh and their lands. The people of Elfael have been enslaved, made to pay taxes they have not the money for, forced to work lands that are not their own and thus making it impossible to tend to the year’s harvest: the people of Elfael are starving, and they need a leader. Unfortunatly for Bran, he is their last hope.
pg 59 – So far as Bran could ell, to reign was merely to invite a perpetual round of frustration and aggravation that lasted from the moment one took the crown until it was laid aside. Only a power-crazed thug like his father would solicit such travail. Any way he looked at it, sovreignty exacted a heavy price, which Bran had seen firsthand and which, now that it came to it, he found himself unwilling to pay.
pg 60 – “Pay tribute to the very brutes that would plunder us if we didn’t,” growled Bran. “That stinks to high heaven.”
“Does it stink worse than death?” asked Iwan. Bran, shamed by the taunt, merely glared.
“It is unjust,” granted Ffreol, trying to soothe, “but that is ever the way of things.”
pg 123 – Bran, working with uncanny calm, placed another arrow on the string, took his time to pull, hold, and aim. When he let fly, the missle sang to its mark. The first warrior was struck and spun completely around by the force of the arrow. The second ran on a few more steps, then halted abruptly, jerked to his full height by the slender oak shaft that slammed into his chest.
pg 138 – Shocked, horrified, mournful, and leaden with sorrow, Merian moved through the first awful day feeling as if the ground she trod was no longer solid beneath her feet–as if the very earth was fragile, delicate, and thin as the shell of a robin’s egg, and as if any moment the crust on which she stood might shatter and she would instantly plunge from the world of light and air into the utter, perpetual, suffocating darkness of the tomb. [...] Anyone observing Merian might have thought her distracted or concerned. Knowing that nothing good could come of any overt distplay of emotion where Bran was concerned, she wallowed her grief and behaved as if the news of Bran’s death was a thing of negligible significance amidst the more troubling news of the murder of Brychan ap Tewdwr and all his warband and the unwarranted Ffreinc advance into neighboring Elfael.
Why should you read this book?
For one thing, it’s the story of Robin Hood set in Wales. Rather than the Saxons fighting the Normans, it is the Welsh, who already have fought with the invading Saxons and come to a grudging level of symbiosis, who now fight against the encroaching and greedy Norman-Ffreinc. Welsh stories tend to fascinate me, if only because they haven’t had much play time in the fiction world, at least by my understanding. However, in the last couple of years I’ve read some excellent books about the Welsh, such as Nectar from a Stone by Jane Guill.
This book, while well-written, could have used some editing in the length, I think. The character development is thorough, and for that reason alone you should read this book. The setting description is vivid and doesn’t take away from the pacing of the narrative. Yet, there were parts that dragged and had me wondering when I was going to read a portion that more closely resembled something of the traditional Robin Hood legend. So, if you’re thinking of reading this book, don’t start it with the Kevin Costner or Errol Flynn versions in mind. This Hood, Bran, is conflicted. He doesn’t want to be a hero; he actually spends most of the book trying to run away. An interesting new spin on the tales of Robin Hood, this book is the first in a trilogy, surprise surprise. The next one is called Scarlet, which I can only assume is a reference to Will Scarlet, Robin Hood’s second-most loyal companion, Little John being the first.
This is an article I found on the BBC – Get Writing website, written by Sue Chester. I took out the exercises and etc, focusing mainly on the content. If you’d like to see the original article, click here. It’s a pretty long article, so reader beware:
For the last few weeks I’ve been on a journey through the Caribbean. It was very cheap. Gabriel Garcia Marquez took me there personally for less than a tenner in Love in the Time of Cholera.
The setting of a novel is integral to the story. It’s the stage set where the action takes place, the unifying factor where the plot unfolds and where the characters develop. Not just the geographical backdrop, setting is also reflected in time and place. Time could mean the time of day, the season, the future, past or present. Place can mean anything from the specific geographical location to a house, kitchen, car, football stadium, a Swiss ski slope or a Norfolk beach.
Description is the first port of call when it comes to creating your setting, lifting your readers into a vivid, imaginary world that rings true and feels real – exactly why I enjoyed reading Marquez. A good descriptive passage isn’t just a random list of what was in the landscape or in the room, but has enough striking and original detail to paint an image of the scene.
So what makes description work? It’s a combination of observation, detail, imagination and creating a sensory experience for the reader; all through use of the writer’s kit – nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and figurative language.
Before you describe anything you need to really observe the world around you, just as a fine artist would when painting. If you haven’t properly looked and absorbed, how can you describe to others with enough accuracy and intensity to hold their interest?