Tag Archives: Creative writing

Researching Characters- An Example of Diving into the Rabbit Hole

In 2011, I was in a writing program called the Athenaeum through The Attic, a writing school in Portland, Oregon. I focused on my novel Zizkov as my “opus” of the writing mastery program. (If you want to check it out you can go to the category labeled The Novel- Hello from Zizkov, and that will I give you a general idea of the style.) I remember one of my teachers telling me that he never published his first novel. He wrote it. Put it in a drawer, and basically never looked at it again. I had thought at the time, “oh no, that will not be me. This baby’s gonna see the world.” Yet, it turned out to be me, but I think today I understand his point. It’s the lesson of writing. So, why am I writing this now? Well, I have been going through many old blog postings and cleaning house. I came across a post on researching characters for my novel. Since, I have been spending tie here breaking down processes and techniques and methods for writing (particularly creative writing) it seemed that this was a perfect platform for that old post.

It follows many of the points I had made on my blog posts about character development. It’s very detailed, and if I may say, rather impressive. I was surprised with the research I had put into building backstory and characterizations. Admittedly, I do enjoy research, and as some writers have pointed out research can be a distraction or form of resistance to writing your story. So be aware. That said if you read Game of Thrones you know that George R. Martin puts some serious time and research into his characters. Epic amounts of time equals epic stories.

Asking the questions

In the first part of this old post I reflected on some questions I needed to answer about the time and place of the setting (Prague) and what it would have been like to be a young person during that period.

I know a lot about Americans living in Prague since I was one of them, but I have some Czech characters to write, and where do I get the perspective on them? This has posed a challenge in the sense that, sure it has been easy to find a lot of books on Prague, and the Czech Republic which gives one a basic understanding of what it was like to be there between the year’s of 1939 to 1989, but what if you were too young to really know what it was like to live under an oppressive regime? Your parents did; your grandparents did; you know your history; but by the time you became a young adult it had already been 10 years of a new democracy.  The main Czech character is 24, and would have been 13 when the Velvet Revolution took place. My huge question is: what was it like to be a teenager growing up in a new democracy with opportunities? Opportunities your parents and grandparents never had, yet at the same time, experiencing an overwhelming flood of consumerism, and influx of foreigners, and a struggling economy. What would that have been like? (2008)

The Character and the Research

Next I wrote about one of the characters for my book. A character based on a real person I had met the first time I had lived in Prague. This real person’s history gave me a starting place for my first round of research.

My story is fiction, as I mentioned before, but the characters are based on real people. I remembered a conversation with the woman that Zuzana is based on; she had told me that her father was a member of the Czech Philharmonic– this is a very different upbringing from someone whose father worked in an industrial plant (which is where many people worked). So I started with music. I went back through Czech History dating all the way back to the 5th century when Bohemia and Moravia were first formed through separate tribes. No, I do not expect my characters to know this far back into their own history, but I felt that if I wanted to avoid making stock characters of Czech people why not know the birth of those people? I skimmed of course until I got into the 20th century, and along my journey through Czech/Czechoslovakian history I found what I wanted to latch onto- it was called Charter 77 and then something called the Jazz Section. (2008)

Imagining the Characters

At this point I imagined a scene with this character and the history of her life. I even included a little quote from the book that I had written at the time.

As I would go for a walk, I would imagine the main character’s, Annabelle, conversation with Zuzana as they visited a small town outside of Prague. On these walks Zuzana would to speak in my head, and she would tell me the story of her family. As soon as I’d return home I’d sit down and hand write out Zuzana’s family history dating back to her grandparents on both sides: When they were born, how they met and married and the years Zuzana’s parents were born. From there I moved onto her siblings and so on. It was a lush history that took me through 6 decades of Czech History. Will I write any of this history down in my novel? Hardly, but without a doubt I know who Zuzana is and why she is the way she is, and although a small character in the book she is a rich and beautiful character. (2008)

When the women get off the train in the small neighboring town, Zuzana tells Annabelle that when she was a girl her mother moved her and her two brothers to live here.  It was after her father was arrested. She says: My family is of a long line of teachers and musicians. It is almost expected that myself and my brothers will also be teachers or musicians but now that Czech is open, my brothers do not agree. They both have left  the Czech Republic. Which no one has done since before 1930. Even before the war I don’t think anyone had wanted to leave. Not from my family. It is good in Czech to be a teacher or a musician, at least it was.” (2008)

The Music, The Books, and The Research Links

I ended with sharing what music I was listening to at the time to help influence my writing. I also wrote about who I was reading at the time, again to help influence and inspire my writing. Then I added many links to the research on the history of Czech jazz and music subversion during the communist era. If you have the time allow yourself to fall down the rabbit hole. There’s some fascinating stuff there. Maybe you’ll find yourself inspired to write your own story.

Since I was basing a lot of Zuzana’s family history around the music of Jazz, that was what I decided to listen to while I wrote- so once a again thanks to pandora.com, along with this line of incredible musicians; Charlie Parker, John Hendricks, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Charlie Mingus, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Shorty Rogers, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey, Al McKibbon, Thelonius Monk, Sonny Stitt, Kai Winding, Gerry Mulligan, Lucky Thompson, and  Joshua Redman.

And of course,  always following with Mr. Stephen King’s advice, I’ve been reading. My reading material has been of course from Czech writers. I just finished Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal- it is a perfect book for a lover of books. The main character/narrator compacts trash and has spent his 35 years saving books from the hydrolic press, he has been unwittingly educated. It is a beautifully written book and at some parts disturbing, I’ll leave you with this quote from the book:

“I can be by myself because I am never lonely, I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.” Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal

Here is a link from the NYTimes about the Jazz Section.

Here is a link from the NYTimes about the Jazz Section.

Here is a link about the 1986 trial when seven people of the Jazz section were arrested.

An article on the Prague Spring of 1968

A blog with music info (among other things) in Prague specifically and the Provakator a webzine that the blog spot mentions in a post. And lastly an article about the The Plastic People of the Universe another dissident musical group out of the Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia

How ever you go about your writing, taking the time to do some serious development on your characters will make your characters more believable. The degree of that development is up to you, and as you can guess you can get lost in it, but don’t skip it.

Keep writing those stories.

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A Final (but not truly final) Note on Characters

Many years’ ago I took a screenwriting class. Amazingly enough I still have some of the notes. These notes focus on asking yourself development questions. It was a screenwriting class, but the genre doesn’t matter. These notes can still apply to any other writing format.

  • Whose the main Character? Why? What so great about them that they get to be main character?
  • What’s the character look like? Who are they what are they like to the other characters in the story what are they like to the readers? To the narrator? What’s their history?
  • What do they want and and what’s in their way? What do they need to do to get what they want? I was watching the Last Lecture by Randy Pausch which he gave at Carnegie Mellon and he talked about things that we dream about. Things that we want out of our life. He described obstacles as the brick wall- Randy said, the brick walls are there for a reason- they are there to see if you want it enough- they separate those who do from those who don’t. You can break down, climb over, do whatever as long as you get over that wall. What is your character’s brick wall, and do they want it enough? My teacher expressed this idea as the “spine” in a film story. Actors use this too- it’s the ultimate goal, what drives the character.
  • What are the conflicts? They have a problem but they can’t just solve it easily, there are all these tiny obstacles that lead up to the main obstacle- the devils in the details, right? Try to think of it from every angle, think of the idea prompt- the most unlikely thing to happen. Make a list-a list can turn to a scene in a film a scene in a book and scene on a stage.
  • How do the characters change? How do they grow? This is something I’ve asked myself and oddly struggled with, I’d write something and then ask myself, but did they change? How? This is where you can build structure. What happens along the way to move the character towards change? Again my teacher had described the structuring of events as what builds the plot- and yes there are stories without plots or where the plot isn’t the main driving point, but most stories have plots. What’s it all about?
  • What is the dramatic situation that sits at the center of the story, around which your plot will form? So I took that one word for word from my notes. Those are my teacher’s words. The dramatic situation is the set of circumstances around the plot that are the events that affect the character as they try to achieve their goal- like what are the circumstances involved in the characters life at the moment that something happens? What does he/she want and what brought him/her to the place where they are now?
  • How does the character affect the dramatic situation- if the character wasn’t the way he/she is then how could things be different? What is so unique to this character to this circumstance that this story is being told?

Why tell your story? Because you must.

What drives us? What’s our obstacles? – And of course there is the eternal why? WHY? Why is it this way or that? Why am I living? Why are any of us living? Most of the time there isn’t even an answer in our own lives, but this is your story, your character, your world. You can see the purpose and the outcome and it’s up to you to let us know if we should see it or not. Isn’t that exciting?
Go be exciting.

Learning to Write by Reading

I’ve nearly forgotten how to do this. Days, months, year’s have gone by and I haven’t written. I’ve written a comment, or a post on facebook, a journal entry here or there, but no real writing. The last post I’d made on this blog was in 2016. It is now 2018. Two long years of not writing.

I can not say what brings on writer’s block. Apathy perhaps. Depression, mental fatigue, life fatigue there are so many reasons. At this moment the why doesn’t matter to me. Right now, what matters is the “How to get out of this rut”. Up! Up! and out. My writer’s mind has been too much like Sartre’s No Exit, and I’m ready to find a door. I need a door. We all need a door. Not for any particular reason other than to DO something.

I’ve had a student for nearly 3 years now. A poetry student. We meet via Skype once a week and discuss his poetry. My boyfriend has recently expressed an interest in writing, and I gave him the whole spiel on ways to improve the writing processes. I gave him all types of advice on building the craft of writing. I talk like I know what I’m talking about, but get me to the table, and there is nothing. Get me to the table? I’m not even getting to the table. I have always struggled with the things I want to do. If someone gives me a task to do for them, I’ll do it. If it’s something for me, I don’t do it. Maybe there is some deep psychological belief that say’s that I don’t deserve it.  Again, I don’t think it matters much; the source. I’ve written posts like this before, many, many posts, and the result is the same. I say some thing about how I’m going to change, and then I don’t. I’m an addict. Addicted to not fulfilling my own dreams. Some day I’ll get a head doctor, and we can explore. Maybe if you are stumbling across this post you too have had a similar pain of not being able to write. Today, I’ve decided to write down some tips I had offered my boyfriend and my poetry student. Maybe, one or two of these “tips” on improving your writing will trigger something in you and you’ll get up and go to the writing table. I hope you do. I hope it serves you. I want it to serve you as much as I want it to serve my boyfriend, and as much as I hope it will serve me. One day. Maybe. My last post from 2016 was about reading like a writer. This post continues where I had left off.

There is no order or rule to follow just think of it as learning from your teachers. We stand on the shoulders of greatness may they lift us to the stars.

1. Read books, but study them too.

I can’t remember the professor who taught me about private plagiarism. Stealing to learn. You may shudder at what I am about to tell you to try, but the key to this practice is not to publish what you write but to learn how other’s write. When you read a book you should read it for enjoyment, and if you really loved the writing, if you love the author then go back and study the writing. Go through your book like you are taking a lesson on the craft of writing by (author). First, find all of the words you don’t know and build your vocabulary. Sure as you read for enjoyment many of the unfamiliar vocabulary may be understandable in context, but don’t leave it at that go back, find that word, write it down and define it. Put the definition in your own words. Write it in a sentence. Use it. Put it in your vocabulary bank, and one day when you are writing that word that perfect word that you needed will rise up and be there for you.

  • I’m studying Tim O’ Brian’s The Things They Carried. I love the book. I think his writing is eloquent and moving. He carried me through the memory of his and the other soldiers’ experiences in The Viet Nam war. I’d like to learn his voice, and take what he has so graciously offered to me in his book.
  • I know a lot of the vocabulary in Tim O’Brian’s book, but it didn’t stop me from digging a little deeper into the meanings of things.

I wrote down the names of many weapons used in the war so I could see and know what these weapons could really do to a person and how much they weighed. Claymores, bouncing betties, toe poppers, bandoliers and more. I wrote down places in Viet Nam that O’Brian mentions in the book. I also looked up words that I knew, but at the same time felt unsure of because of it’s placement in the sentence, for example:

As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man, his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet.

  1. Hedge /hej/ noun: A fence or boundary formed by closely growing bushes or shrubs.

  verb:   A. Surround or bound with a hedge.

B. limit or qualify (something) by conditions or exceptions. (Ah ha, here, I think to myself, is the meaning he is using.  So I write some synonyms: confine, restrict, limit, hinder, obstruct, impede, constrain, and trap. I think that perhaps he is using the hedge as both the verb and the noun, as the verb to protect and as the noun in a metaphor to surround him self with boundary like a fence of protection.)

  • Your own words: A wall of bushes or a fence something to keep people out or from seeing into your space. To place a limit on something like a caveat.
  • Your own sentence As a hedge against further roommate arguments we put together a list of guidelines regarding the use of shared rooms.

2. Find a sentence you love.

Write it down. Then copy the sentence using your own words. *Remember to write a note that you copied the sentence from another source because if you don’t you may forget. The you’ll think you wrote this brilliant line and it turns out you stole it. On accident of course.

His eyes had the blueish gray color of a razor blade, the same polished shine, and as he peered up at me I felt a strange sharpness, almost painful, a cutting sensation, as if his gaze were somehow slicing me open. (p.46)

Tim O’Brian, The Things They carried

What an intense sentence. When I first read it I thought, “God, if only I could write like that; come up with a metaphor like that. So I might as well practice the craft.

Copy the sentence structure with some of your own words. Comma for comma: Pronoun, noun, verb, article, modifier, modifier, adjective preposition, article, modifying adjective, noun, and so on.

Her eyes had the greenish black of a bottomless forest lake, the same somber darkness, and as she looked down at me I felt a strange pulsing, almost painful, a drowning sensation, as if her stare was somehow pulling me down into the abysses of water. –Mine

 

This can be tedious. This can be joyous. If you are in a rush to write the novel, and to find your great voice maybe you don’t want to play around with other books. Perhaps for you it is merely a resistance to the actual act of writing, and you just want to get on with it. You should do what you need to do. I’ll do what I need to do.

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Writing Exercises for Generating Ideas

Originally posted: July 6, 2008

A story always starts with an idea, and the following exercise was designed to get the brain working on an idea for the purpose of writing a screenplay, but all things start with an idea so I think the following list is applicable in all forms: one idea can be the same theme for a poem, song, painting, a story, film, and so on, it’s nearly endless.

In class we were meant to write a 10 page simple story- I say, try the magic ten minutes of writing out an idea, but if you have a problem coming up with an idea, here is a list of things to try to get your mind flying.

  • your life- some real experience- for example the book I’m working on is taken from events in my life that took place while I lived in Prague.
  • News stories events- In the movie Bad Education the character who was a writer would search through news articles to find ideas for stories- in it he found and article about a priest who had died the priest happened to be someone who had a profound affect on the writers life. If you can make it relate to you great if not let your imagination tell the story.
  • Historical events- I once had the idea to write a short story about a young man who was a tunnel rat in Vietnam, I had gotten the idea from reading real life accounts of these men during the war.
  • Fantasy- we’ve all been kids- remember sitting with your legs straddling a low hanging branch pretending it was your pirate ship and the twig in your hand was your sword? You had it raised as winged monsters flew towards your great vessel. Or was I the only one who did that?
  • memories-I say this also falls under your life although it could be someone else’s memory. It can be a brief fleeting memory- the story doesn’t have to be truth.
  • a single image- in Write Around Portland we would often take pictures from magazine like an image of a single tree in a desert and then have a prompt like-“by this time next year” then have people write about the image- you don’t have to use a worded prompt.
  • a philosophical idea- this could get one going on a really wild story- I love science and philospophy- since both have a belief that our world, our universe is finite then our stories can be too.
  • A situation- two men walk into a coffee shop together one is holding a child. The man with the child recognizes the woman behind the counter for some reason there is an uncomfortable tension.
  • adaption of another story- this of course applies best to a play or screenplay, anything other than a story since the story has already been written I’ve always wanted to do a film adaptation of Under a Cruel Star and also I want to write a story about the love affair between Nikolai and Alexandra before he became the Czar of Russia.
  • adaptation of other media- honestly I’v never put too much thought into this one. I guess you could get an idea from a commercial or a song even and turn that into a story- why not?
  • Dialogue- I once overheard a two women on a greyhound bus talking about how it shouldn’t be against the law to pick up road kill, after all it’s just a waste of good meat. Now imagine the story line. Huh? huh?

Stealing Sentences to Get Inspired to Write

 

I have been mentally preparing myself to get into full writerly mode by being writerly all the time. I haven’t actually been able to focus on my book at this point, although, I did do one character study, and I feel pretty secure with her, but there are so many characters involved. When I think about how much has to be developed in order to create a world for my characters, I feel overwhelmed. I immediately beginning criticizing my work as I write. I need to stop that. So to help me rework my brain and derail that monster critic, I have created a writing exercise. It serves two purposes for me.

1) It helps get my head in a new place because most of these writings will never be seen and they allow me to be as free in my fiction and imagination as my journal writing.

2) It forces me to keep writing and I have no excuse not too. The brain is like a muscle in our body and it needs exercise in order to work at it’s optimum potential, and this exercise is one way to go about it.

I can’t take 100% credit for this exercise since the bases for prompts has been shared in many of my writing classes. I had learned the beauty of prompts and timed writing while I was a facilitator with Write Around Portland.

The Exercise:

This is meant to be a ten minute write but it often ends up being longer, and this is A-okay since the minutes are just a trick to force myself to do it. Inevitably, I’ll have that never ending argument with myself about writing:

“I don’t feel like writing.”

“You should write.”

“But I don’t want too.”

“Come on it only takes 10 minutes. You can spare 10 lousy minutes.”

“True. okay I can do ten minutes.”

See how that works? If you’d like to try the exercise it can be done with just one of the prompts, two or all, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you write for at least 10 minutes. I really believe that it takes a good solid three minutes to be able to let your mind just go, and 10 minutes can send you into a beautiful world that you- yes YOU created.

  1. Take the last sentence from a book and poem whatever type of writing of something that you have read.
  2. Take four random vocabulary words- I have tons of vocabulary words on note cards and I just pull from those. The purpose for this is that I am always trying to increase my vocabulary. Some words are archaic but they are still fun to try and use properly.
  3. Pick an object in room
  4. Choose one or more of the other five senses- I notice I’ve been leaning toward scent and I hardly use touch which makes me think I should use some touch.

Then give yourself ten minutes and try to write a story/poem using all the above elements.

This was my first one:

Sentence: He told her that it was as before, that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he’d love her until death. The Lover- Marguerite Duras

Vocabulary:

Baroque– Marked by extravagance, complexity or flamboyance.

Labile– Lacking stability, readily open to change

Machination– And act of planning, especially to do harm.

Obeisance– A bow made to show respect or submission, Deference, homage

Sound: clapping

Scent: poo

Object in the room: lighter

Here are a couple of sentences from what I created out of the exercises- It turned out to be about a 30 minute write- which was great-I’m not super comfortable with the use of the vocabulary in the second paragraph, but they are new words, and I do not use them often. They may be words more appropriate for a different type of writing, but the point is the effort to try and use them as correctly as possible. Once written you can follow up later.

-Enjoy

There was a stench that filled the room and she could not describe it as anything other than shit. Marguerite stepped over the piles of clothes and papers, the stacks of books, strewn newspaper articles, shredded bits of card board, the yogurt cartons, the bottles and cans of beer, the accumulated mess of months of a recluse; a terrible, terrible recluse.

She was not going to obeisance to him or his space or even the memory of him. She was labile at this point and had no room to honor him in anyway. She could drop from the window as easily as he did and with that she let the cigarette, lit and hot, fall from between her fingers.

Step up to the Plate More Often

This is an image I took in Saigon, Vietnam las...

Image via Wikipedia

I write. I write every day. Still I am not writing enough, not the right writing. I’m journaling every day which certainly has its merits, in fact I would never have written my novel Zizkov if it wasn’t for my daily journaling.

I started a new blog post, that I am only doing for one year. It is about journaling everyday for a year. I decided to do it because I was curious if I could and because one day I wondered; if this was my last year of life what would I do with it, then that translated into, what do I do every day. Sometimes the days just rush and blur.

But, it’s still not enough. I need to be doing more creative writing. Exercising my brain. I’ve decided that at least one day a week I have to write a new flash fiction or timed writing piece or a writing exercise. Once a week. That isn’t that much. I wont have time to go back and flesh anything out until I complete my novel, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the practice.

The more I swing the more times I will hit and eventually I will know the exact speed and curve of the ball.

Above the auto shop for Dinner

Appetizers began with a bean spread with garlic and pesto sauce over toasted baguettes and figs wrapped in brie and prosciutto drizzled with crème fraiche. We each had a cold beer, Pacifico.

First course: gazpacho with a lot of garlic and fresh tomatoes, along with a glass of red wine. It had a rich oaky taste. The main course: beef flank medallions wrapped around roasted red peppers with golden raisins, prosciutto, and rosemary. The side dish: spanish rice with a spicy kick of chile pepper and fresh organic green beans sautéed in olive oil and citrus; lemon.

Another bottle of red wine and a cheese platter; blue cheese, goat cheese, creamy and served with freshly cut peaches.

The evening ended with homemade liquor: limoncello, a shot each. It slid down the back of our throats, smooth and came out in a cool stinging breath.

All devoured and enjoyed in a stylish loft in Seattle above an auto shop where the Asian mafia may or may not hang out.

Skoll.