Tag Archives: ideas

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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Journal Writings as A Resource for Inspiration

This is an old post from a blog I wrote back in 2008. It’s interesting to me because I have not been journaling as I had in the past, and only recently I had tried to return to the practice. I’ve been working through my old blogs, and deciding if I’ll keep them and what purpose they serve. This blog is of course all about writing. I decided to repost this one here because it is about an source of inspiration which can be yourself. It was many years ago, but some of the concepts and the feelings behind the post remain. My friend is still dead, the relationship is long over, my cat is long dead, and now I can add my mother to the list of losses, but that is life. These losses are our stories. Go journal. Collect your life. You don’t have to make a book of it, but perhaps you will inspire yourself to be the best of you.

(Originally written and posted, November 24th, 2008)

I’ve been journaling since I was 15. My first journal was given to me by a friend from high school. I’m sure I had “dear diaries” when I was younger, but honestly I doubt I wrote much in them aside from what I was going to name my latest cat. My journaling started with that 15 year old birthday present.

There have been a lot of losses for me lately, and after looking back on my life with a great deal of perspective, I have come to realize that these losses actually count and mean something to me. My friend died, I’d been tangled in a complicated and heartbreaking relationship, and my cat, thankfully still living and appearing comfortable, has been diagnosed with cancer, so although alive, she doesn’t have much time left. These things have weighed, and are weighing heavily on my mind. My sadness is real yet it’s refreshing. It’s something I can deal with: I’m alive.  I find that each thing, among with my general reflections on my life, so far, have given me a value that I had never before noticed. What has all this to do with writing? We’ll for me, everything. As a writer, a portion of my tools are the events that mold and aid to direct my life, they are the essence of where I begin to write. I don’t know why any of this is coming to light to me just now, and it certainly isn’t easy, O’god not easy at all, but I think it has had something to do with love.

Three days ago I awoke with a sense of anxiety and I couldn’t figure out why. I felt overwhelmed with the need to get rid of things, like photographs and more importantly journals. My nearly 20 years of journals, my purges of teenage angst, woes, and heartaches, my twenty’s failings, and my newly thirties confusions. I felt that I needed to go through them first to see if there was anything worth keeping. In the beginning my journals were very introspective, but as I grew and became more interested in writing and as I studied the craft of acting, which forced me to view the world more outside of myself, I found that every once in awhile my journals would reflect these changes and occasionally I would write something worth keeping- something to work on later. I threw away so many pages of my past. It wasn’t like a denial of who I was, but more of a conscious decision to not think and react to life the way I had and have in the past. There wasn’t much to save, and this is not to insult myself, this is fine, more to recycle, and less to carry, but there were a couple of meaty gems, and I was able to look at them through new eyes as if I was some random reader that came across some new sentence that I found interesting or powerful. This is a pretty exciting sensation it’s like stepping outside of your body to look at yourself and then to think, hey I’m not that bad, in fact I’m pretty interesting.

There are some journals I haven’t touched. Some are from when I traveled and I have plans for them so until that time they sleep quietly on a shelf. Then there are others that I am not ready to open and don’t know if I ever will. There will probably be new journals to fill. Notebooks to collect my ideas, random images and weird sentences, dialogues and gems from the past- already in three days I’ve gone back to these notebooks and scratched and re-wrote added and subtracted. I feel like I’m working. To me I imagine my notebooks to look like the pages of some artist’s sketch book except instead of lines making images I have words making images. I’m just there to enjoy the process. I wrote in a post, about the disillusionment of parents, that I just wanted to open myself up like a chest and carve all my insides out, or to scream so loud that I shatter my reality into tiny particles of dust, and I think in the past three days that is exactly what I have been doing. As a result, I think my writing has gotten better. When I look back on my posts and previous writings, I feel like my descriptions and voice have become stronger more direct, and it hasn’t mattered so much to me whether anyone reads them as much as whether I am clearly saying what is on my mind.

 

It seems as if I am always looking back with new eyes. Thankfully. 

Student Ideas for New Stories

 

In my final year at Portland State University, I took an advanced writing class with  Mary Rechner.  In the class we brainstormed some ideas for generating characters, or stories of poems. It’s been many year’s since my time at PSU, but luckily I have my ever growing student loan to remind me that I was there.

What I’ve written in this post are copies from the notes of that class. I put the name of the student who came up with the prompt.

Pretend that you are an inanimate object and write from that voice. -Naomi

I actually did that once! I wrote a story (very short story) from the voice of a pitchfork and a shovel. I wrote it so long ago it’s hard to know if I still have it somewhere in my papers. There are a few novels out there that have inanimate objects as the characters look at Tom Robbins book Skinny Legs and All.

Use a stranger with whom you have recently had a brief encounter as the main character in a scene.-Julia

Maybe that strange guy on the bus that always wears the yellow rain coat even if it isn’t raining, and he carries his little lunch box everyday as he pushes past people yelling- “I need to get off! I need to get off!” Once he is off the bus he does a little sideways run to his next stop. What’s his story? You can write it.

Imagine the least likely end to your day-Gretchen

Like, I’m sitting here on my bed writing this blog and all of a sudden my cat turns to me and starts talking- telling me about her day- how she really thinks I ought to try a new type of litter and why am I never around. I just look at her, like this is normal for my cat to talk- and I say I’m on it. I didn’t think you cared for the litter you made it kinda obvious-And then she tucks me in bed. Now that’s an unlikely ending to a day.

Write a scene where there is food but no one eats it, and there is both internal and external dialogue- Ashlee

This one is interesting. There are so many whys for you as the writer to answer.

Write a story where everything that’s better is bigger and vice versa for smaller. Lame I know. I really wanted to do something about the Lumberjack Song from Monty Python because I had that stuck in my head all morning.I figured that wouldn’t be fair though, since not everyone has seen the Monty Python shows.-Jeremiah

I just thought that was funny. I don’t remember the guy, but I somehow saved his quote.

Once you have an idea and you’ve maybe sketched it out and let your imagination run wild you might want to take it further really explore where this idea can take you-could it be a story?

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.

Brainstorming Fiction Short Story Ideas

Doctor Who and the Temporal Paradox: Episode 4...

Brainstoming

Step One: Brainstorm

Europe Tales

  • Mons
  • Amsterdam
  • London
  • Paris
  • Munich
  • Prague
  • Florence
  • Venice
  • Barcelona
  • Fugares
  • Granada
  • Logos
  • Train Rides
  • Scotland
  • Bus rides
  • One Night
  • Ireland
  • Ghost stories
  • Drugs & Drunkeness

Garmisch Tales

  • Too Young A&J
  • Falling down mountains
  • The Doctor’s visit
  • The Drowning
  • The Abraham Ghosts
  • The Lost German Lover
  • Oktoberfest 1
  • Oktoberfest 2
  • Dirty Disco
  • Austria throw up
  • Neurmburge
  • Soulfly
  • Birthday party womack
  • Cows & Farmers
  • The ski competition