Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light, The blue and the dim and the dark cloths Of night and light and the half-light, I would spread the cloths under your feet: But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. — William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”
Now the great Irish poet was imploring his love, the woman he saw as his muse, but I think the final lines apply equally to any artist presenting his or her work — be it a painting, a song, a poem, or a novel — to the world. When we’re asked to read, or view, or listen, we owe the artist whatever level of critique they ask of us, though sometimes that’s none at all. But always, we owe them — we owe this world — an open heart and, I think, the awareness that their work is a piece of their dreams.
In my Building Character class, one of the tools I describe is the free write, an exercise to delve deeper into a character. Use it with a character who is not forthcoming about their experiences, one who is very different from you, or even one you know well. In writing the stand-alone currently circulating with publishers, I used a free-write session with the main character who is in many ways much like me but whose particular motivation wasn’t clear on the page. I’ve also used it in revision, as with the forthcoming Bitterroot Lake, when my editor suggested that the killer’s motivation needed more depth. I combined a free-write with some emotional research to delve deeper and even found the basis for another scene I knew I needed but had resisted adding because I didn’t know what the story needed.
A student new to the concept asked how to get started. The keys are to write by hand, write in first person, and open yourself to the voice and experience of that character.
Why by hand? Grapho-therapist Jamie Mason Cohen said in an interview that “[w]hen you write by hand, the act itself slows you down, resulting in single-tasking and focused concentration on what you’re doing in the moment and fully present.”
I believe that free-writing these snippets of our characters’ inner lives by hand frees our creativity by creating a direct link to the subconscious. It frees us from judgment. This same effect comes from writing in first person, in the voice of the character we’re exploring, even if the story itself is in third, or in first but in the voice of a different character. For a few minutes—five to twenty—you’re giving that character a chance to speak directly to you. To tell you their story. You may not use it all on the page, but you’ll learn details and detect emotions that will help you understand that character, their emotional responses to the story events, and what they do as a result. In other words, this simple exercise will advance both characterization and plot
Try asking yourself a some questions, almost like a guided meditation. One of my favorites for mystery and crime writers comes from my friend Ramona DeFelice Long, a writer and editor, who called it channeling your inner OJ. You’ll remember that after OJ Simpson was acquitted of double murder, he claimed to be in search of the real killer and wrote a book called If I Did It, giving a hypothetical description of the murders and how and why they might have occurred. Talk to your suspect and let him or her tell you how and why they might have done it. Pay particular attention to the why, their motivation, and see what surprises they reveal.
Other prompts to ask your character, writing for at least five minutes: What I most want is… If I don’t get this, I will … The thing that stands in my way is… What I am most afraid of is…
This week, I recorded a short video (really short!) as part of Sisters in Crime’s SINC-Up series of writing tips. My topic: emotional research. Watch it here.
In the unedited version, I also suggested talking with people who have had the experience you’re writing about, if you can, or folks who work with it professionally; and searching out articles, personal accounts, and other resources. In the example I gave, from my Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, I found guides online for teachers and school counselors that were enormously helpful.