Shelley Widhalm

Archive for June, 2015|Monthly archive page

Writing About Objects, Part I

In Getting Unstuck in Writing, Writer's Block, Writing About Objects on June 28, 2015 at 11:00 am

When I get stuck in my writing, I try to think of some of my favorite objects, such as the flash of color on fast-moving hummingbirds or the reflection of streetlights in puddles.

Studying or thinking about objects gives me a starting point for description in my writing, with the objects serving as writing prompts. Writing prompts are a way to get rid of expectations and goals and open up to whatever comes to mind, so that the writing is free and natural.

To get into your description of the object, say a hummingbird, observe closely by looking at the bird’s shape, coloring, feathers and patterns of movement. Use your other senses to get to know the bird, listening to the whir of its wings, smelling the nectar it drinks and tasting the stirring up of air. It’s likely you won’t touch the bird, but imagine the softness of its feathers, how they sink under your thumb, and the frailness of the small bones underneath.

Anchor your ideas about the object in the concrete, but also think about what the object makes you feel. What emotional responses do you have? What moods are invoked? Do your feelings become part of the object, and does what the object emit become part of you?

Ask why the objects matter. Is it ordinary or commonplace, or can you make something of it? Does the boring brick building with an ordinary door have history? Are there fingerprints on the glass from someone who was afraid to enter or left in a hurry, or does the brick have a stain from something spilled or thrown there?

What else can you pull out of the object? Think about its story. What memories does it invoke? What is its history? What is its scientific background? Does it have a personal or philosophical meaning? Or do we give it meaning?

In a story, an object can be symbolic carrying meaning that isn’t directly inherent in its physical characteristics. An object can be used to move the plot forward, to enliven the setting or to externalize a character’s emotions. It can indicate conflict. It can add to dialog. And it can give meaning to the unspoken parts of the story.

I find that writing about objects is a way to enter into my writing, deepen what I’m writing about and find my words when I’m not sure where to go next on the page.

(See how Zoey the Cute Dachshund handles objects in her blog zoeyzpaw.wordpress.com.)

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Writing About Characters, Part II

In Character Development, Writing, Writing About Characters on June 21, 2015 at 11:00 am

A character just doesn’t fall out of the sky onto the page, so building a character’s identity takes some planning and analysis.

To give the point-of-view or main character depth, the character needs to be complex with background information, personality traits and ways of acting, behaving and responding to the world.

That depth can be explored with a character questionnaire that includes physical description, place of birth and hometown, family and upbringing, relationships such as friends and family, schooling, job history, preferences for living such as in an apartment or a single-family home, culture, religion, style of dress, hobbies, pastimes and favorites like books, movies and songs.

Here are some questions to ask to build the character’s identity:

  • What are the character’s personality traits and temperament? What does the character think about him or herself? Is the character confident or insecure? As for temperament, is the character an introvert or extrovert or more thinking or feeling?
  • How do the people around the character see him or her? How would they describe the character? Do they like or dislike the character, and why?
  • What is the character’s emotional makeup? Does the character keep it together or react when situations don’t go the way the character wants them to?
  • How does the character behave in the presence of others? Or when alone? How does the character judge the people and situations around him or her?

Also, ask about the character’s purpose, both in life and in the story. What does the character want to achieve in the short term and for his or her long-term goals and plans? How will the character grow physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually as the story unfolds? How does the character face, respond to and handle problems? How does the character change by the end of the story?

As you answer these questions, ask why the character is the way you created him or her. Ask what it is the character really wants but also if that is what he or she needs. Why does the character see the world in his or her individual way? What in the character’s past makes the character the way he or she is now?

A complete history and “background check” isn’t necessary, but provides a starting point to identifying character and making the words on the page become real, seeming to turn them into a breathing, living person that resonates in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished.

Writing About Characters, Part I

In Character Inspiration, Characters, Shelley Widhalm, Writing Inspiration on June 14, 2015 at 11:00 am

When I write, I tend to base my characters, at least the females, somewhat on myself, maybe because I find my identity so incredibly interesting or I don’t know any better.

A writer friend asked me if writers have the authority to write about characters different from themselves, and I thought it was a good question to explore, especially considering how I handle my own characters.

To begin this exploration, it’s important that the point-of-view or main character is rounded with a full identity, not a flat or clichéd actor who only engages in action and motion and lacks any depth. Make the character distinct and different from the other characters by using a tag that sets him or her apart, such as physical traits, mannerisms, facial expressions or speech patterns.

Put yourself into the character’s mind and body, and then take yourself out. Start with physical descriptions and sensory details, working your way into the character’s mind and way of thinking. Write from your subconscious and knowledge and experience of other people who aren’t like you as you dig into the character.

As you write about the character—I’ll use Ty Banks, a male musician in my novel “Fire Painter” as an example, because I can’t sing or play an instrument and I’m not male—here are a few things you can do to gather material to build the character’s identity.

  • Empathize or imagine how it feels to be that person. Put yourself in the character’s body physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually and figure out how the character would think when alone and with others.
  • Interview people who remind you of the character to gather up details and sensations about how it feels to play an instrument, be on a stage with bright lights and have punk hair, using my example of the musician.
  • Listen to how other people speak and the words they use. As a general rule, women use more personal pronouns, such as “I,” “you” and “we,” and descriptive terms, while men use more active verbs and fewer adjectives. Women tend to state preferences instead of demands, such as “I would like to see that play,” and use apologetic language, while men are more commanding and do not divulge as much personal information in conversation as do women.
  • Figure out how the character will behave around others and how the character responds physically and emotionally to the plot situations. What is the character’s personality and behavior patterns as he or she grows and changes in response to the plot?

As an example, my book club found that “An Unnecessary Woman,” by Rabih Alameddine, demonstrates how a male writer fails to get into the head of an older woman. He writes about a book-loving, obsessive 72-year-old “unnecessary” woman who translates a favorite book into Arabic every year, then stows it away. The members of the book club said the writing failed to connect them with the main character, because the writer didn’t do a good job of projecting her thoughts and feelings.

Alternatively, Karen Stockett’s “The Help” about African-American maids working in white households during the 1960s is convincing, because she uses the language, mannerisms, identities and details of that time period.

Writing about settings (and how to make the setting of your story come alive)

In Settings in Novels, Writing, Writing Processes on June 7, 2015 at 11:00 am

The setting of a novel is a balance between being too stark and being overdone like the classics that start off with pages of setting before getting to the plot.

It’s best to give description of time and place in moderation without drawing too much attention to the words. You don’t want to describe every piece of clothing on your character, talk about a building from the sidewalk to the roof or detail a town with a precise map of streets with rows of businesses, stores and houses.

Instead, select a few representative details of the character’s surroundings to add color and dimension to her external world. Give enough of a description to establish historical period, location and mood.

Establishing the setting also is a way to draw out what is happening in the character’s internal world. Ask what her impressions are of the colors, textures, sounds, flavors and odors of the things within her environment. What do these sense impressions make her feel and think?

Ask how she relates to the setting? Is she distant, or too hurried to pay attention, or is she absorbed, noticing many of the details? The relationship she has with the setting, both physically and internally, grounds her in the plot of the story. Here are a few questions to ask about that relationship:

  • How does her external world relate to her internal world? What are her thoughts, feelings, beliefs, fears, memories and other psychological factors? And what is it in her external world that she notices outside her body?
  • Is she limited by or at odds with her environment? Or does she love where she lives, including her city or town and her home? Does she love where she works or goes to school? Where she shops, eats out, has fun?
  • How does her environment influence her identity and behavior? Does she act in ways or see herself differently because of where she lives? Is she a city girl stuck in a rural town because that’s where her husband got a job? Or does she need to live in a lush landscape but is stuck in a lease or with a mortgage?

Lastly, remember to show, don’t tell as you describe the setting and the character’s reactions to it to let your reader fully experience the time and place of your created world.