Tag Archives: fiction 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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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.