“If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk.”
~Raymond Inmon (1920-1999)
Though widely quoted, I haven’t been able to find any info on Inmon — who he was, what was his art. But the advice itself is worth being remembered for. We’re all feeling a bit cooped up these days — the lovely walking trail above the river in my town, not far from these steps, is getting a heavy workout. There are scientific analyses of how shutting off the conscious mind and putting the large muscles into motion frees the subconscious mind to roam, making creative connections it might not have made while you sat at your desk. Let’s save those for another time.
Today, this week, lace up your walking shoes, find a spot where you can safely go, whether it’s a power walk or a gentle meander, and move.
Yesterday I drove to our valley’s “big town” to pick up books I’d consigned to a locally-owned and -operated gift shop. They’re closing because of the pandemic and the anticipated drop in tourism, the mainstay of many businesses in Montana but especially gift shops. I’m heartbroken for the owners, who have worked hard for years to build a business that has become a real asset to a downtown only recently become interesting. I’m sad for the hundred–plus artists and creators who sold work there, and I’m angry for the town and region, and over the loss of vitality the closure represents. Maybe you own or work for a business that’s threatened, and I’m sad and angry for you, too.
Each stop I made was necessary, each was safe, and each presented its own physical and emotional challenges. Even if you can’t imagine ever writing a novel even hinting at a pandemic, notice what you’re experiencing and feeling when you go to the bank, the grocery store, the gift shop that’s closing. You will never again go through anything like this, and the details will be lost at a distance of time. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a writer; you process by writing. So write it down. Doesn’t matter if it’s in your regular journal or a special Journal of the Plague Year. Write how you felt when you realized you automatically stepped back to make sure you kept six feet between you and a woman you’ve known for 30 years. The slight bit of anxiety when you saw a car with out-of-state plates outside the liquor store and wondered if the driver had quarantined himself. That moment when you washed your hands after pumping gas to get the sanitizer off so you could eat the chips you’d bought at the grocery store for the drive home—and realized the woman smiling at you from her car thought you were washing off germs, not getting ready to stress-eat!
Notice how you feel when you have to tell your customers, your employees, your vendors, your landlord, that you can’t keep the business going. Your kids, your parents, yourself late at night.
Notice the exhaustion and fear, the tensions. Notice the generosity and the kindness.
Once you write it down, it will be available to you forever. The next time a character feels anxious, or fearful, or guilty, or even amused, you can call on your own emotional research to deepen your portrayal of your character’s experience.
Notice the fun stuff, too. The way the gnome you bought on impulse when you were picking up your consignment books makes you smile. Because, I don’t know, Gnome Sweet Gnome. All Roads Lead to Gnome. Gnome is Where the Heart Is.
Since early last fall, I’ve been serving on a federal grand jury. (I’ll write about the experience later, without case specifics, when my term ends.) This week, jurors were asked to voluntarily appear for an emergency session, because our last regularly scheduled session had been vacated (legal-speak for “cancelled”) and crime does not stop for pandemics. (With some laughter-evoking exceptions I can’t tell you about—trust me.) For me, that meant a two-hour drive to get to the courthouse by 9 a.m., with a return trip late afternoon.
We were told we were likely the first federal grand jury in the country to convene since the pandemic hit; Montana is actually the ideal place, as we have a low number of infections per capita and meet federal metrics for a slow reopening. This, of course, was an emergency situation, and I can report that safe distances were kept, protocols met, and all went smoothly.
But that’s not what this piece is about.
A few times a year, I go to a mystery convention or writers’ conference, or take a vacation with my hunny. That often means walking away from a ms. in progress, sometimes at a critical juncture. I’ve developed what I call “the three things” exercise to keep me connected to the work in progress, aka the WIP: What three things can I take from the day and give to my characters? Is it the way a particular person dresses, a habitual phrase someone uses, an emotion I felt? An incident observed, a conversation overheard?
I’m well into the revisions of Bitterroot Lake, my stand-alone novel set for publication in May 2021. It wasn’t an easy time to take a day off. Twenty miles into the drive home, I started to play my audio book and realized I hadn’t done my three things. So I hit pause and started to think back to the day. It wasn’t long before I had three, and they just kept coming. Here are a few:
– M’s hair. I had realized the day before that I didn’t have strong visuals for a couple of characters. Another juror has striking hair, and I decided to give it to a character. I’ve done that, and it’s helped to give her another dimension.
– Bitterroot Lake involves four friends, all in their mid-40s, brought together by tragedy. I’d spent quite a bit of time considering how women that age dress, including geographic and socio-economic differences. I thought back to women I’d seen that day, and found several useful details.
– The story is set in a fictional town on a made-up lake in NW Montana, but by luck, it takes place in early to mid May. My drive took me through several valleys and towns and around a very real lake—in early May. What luck! Turns out the cattails have not begun to green but the cherry orchards are in bloom, both details I’d messed up. I knew the red-wing blackbirds would be about—I’d seen them close to home—but was delighted to see the yellow-headed blackbirds, too.
– Like the real lake, the fictional one is surrounded by old homesteads and new trophy houses. But what about those small bungalows and cabins now being expanded, by new owners or new generations? Perfect for my story.
– My main character rode as a young girl and thinks about riding again. She’d notice the horses grazing in the fields, and feel a deep connection to them. Put that on the page!
– And how could I not have realized that east-facing slopes would be dotted with one of my favorite wildflowers, the arrowleaf balsamroot?
That’s more than three, and not my full list—I’d primed the pump, and had to pull over a few times to jot down notes.
Next time you’re away from your WIP for any reason, even if it’s just for a few hours, look for ways to draw on your experience to deepen your characters’ lives.
I’ve been sharing thoughts about writing on my Facebook page recently, and thought I should share them here, too. I hope they hit the spot!
Writing Wednesday. You said you liked my weekly comments on some aspect of writing that I’m dealing with at the moment, so I’ll try to share them more consistently.
Several years ago, I attended a Don Maass Break-Out Novel Intensive workshop — which I highly recommend, by the way. He suggested “emotional research,” a phrase I’d never heard but instantly knew was critical for me. I was writing Death al Dente, the first Food Lovers’ Village mystery, with a main character who was 32 but lost her father in a hit-and-run at 17. My father died when I was 30, so not at all the same. I sat down with a notebook and hand-wrote everything I remembered from observing friends who’d lost a parent when they were in their teens or early 20s. (Handwriting is best b/c of the direct emotional connection it evokes.) I consulted online guides for teachers and counselors on working with students or young clients who had lost a parent. I quizzed a classmate who had two teenagers. And at the end, I was able to see quite clearly not only how Erin would have responded, but how her friend Kim would have responded — creating a central conflict that carried through the first three books in the series and made both women deeper and, I think, more relatable.
Today, I’m doing something similar with my killer. Not that I’m consulting actual killers among my friends, mind you 🙂 but I’m looking at news accounts, books, reports, and articles to help me better understand the motivation, the drive, that led this person to believe murder was the only choice, the right response, to a situation. And I’m following the lead of a once-famous criminal defendant and free-writing my killer’s “If I did it” confession, by hand, using his/her favorite pen.
“Before you can write anything, you have to notice something,” novelist John Irving said. And in these difficult times, when many of us are walking around — six feet apart — feeing as though a Band-Aid had been ripped off our entire body, leaving us raw and exposed, we wonder how we can create. Because the act of creativity requires some belief that what we do serves us and the world, that it answers questions about life and guides us forward. And right now, that belief isn’t easy.
So “since feeling is first,” in the words of the poet e.e. cummings, start there. Notice what you’re feeling. Just notice it. Don’t burden it with the obligation of action — not yet. When you’re ready, give that feeling to a character if you write. You don’t have to write about a pandemic; let the emotion tell you the story. Let it drive the character. Give the feeling a color or a shape if you paint, a sound if you sing or play, a movement if you dance. Let the feeling guide you.