Here’s something from your own life to write about. We only write the best when we mine our own experiences, so this is good practice for all writers. And it’ll give you a touch of nostalgia you might need during these difficult times.
Set your timer for 15-20 minutes, and write about your first kiss…
Today, we hear from writer Martha Stromberg, as she answers some fascinating questions about her writing and her process. The floor’s all yours, Martha!
Susan. Where do your ideas come from?
Martha: I think all my best ideas come from my subconscious. It helps to think of them a little bit like lost children. Some are too shy to surface, some are silly and just want to play with you, others are bold. They march right up, stamping their feet and demand their own importance. Those ones, I try to be careful with. But the ones I find the most endearing are the ones that start off shy but over time, gathering strength and courage, and allow me to catch them. They usually have something important to say.
S. Who is your favorite antagonist in your stories and why?
M: My favorite antagonist is my aged rock star named Alexander. He’s brash and full of himself and used to getting any girl he wants. But he has a tender spot for his teenaged son—and his son’s girlfriend. I admire him because it’s not easy to fight one’s own nature, but he will try for the sake of his son.
S. Are any of your characters based on people you know? How do you keep them from recognizing themselves?
M: The only “real” person who is in danger of seeing themself in my writing, is me. LOL.
S. Have you written or are you writing a series? Why or why not?
M: I would like to one day.
S. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Or a combination? Why?
M: I am a pantser. Owing to the huge respect I pay my subconscious when I write, pantising is the best way to keep the trap-door open. I outline after the fact. The great and powerful content of the subconscious must still pass through the door or logic and reason.
S. Does one of your characters have a unique feature or ability? How did you come up with that unique feature/ability?
M: My debut novel is featuring the Hulder-kin. The Scandinavian myth creatures. She’s both seductive and dangerous, but she’s also highly misunderstood. She hides a secret., you see. Within her skirts sways a long tail. My Huldras have many powers, one being the power of “supernatural-persuasion.”
S. What time of day is your most creative time? Do you get to utilize that time to the fullest or does other stuff get in the way?
M: I will noodle around all day at the keyboard if life allows me.
S. How do you decide where your stories start?
M: I pinpoint the inciting incident, then take two steps back.
Martha, thank you for your insightful responses. I, for one, can’t wait for the first Hulder-Kin book to come out! I’m sure all my readers feel the same. And here’s a little bit more about Martha…
Bio: Guided by her passion for a good story, Martha attempted her first novel at the age of twelve and never stopped. She earned a B.A. in English Literature and her writing community is SLO NightWriters in San Luis Obispo.
She has published several short stories in local publications, and her current project is a young adult paranormal romance featuring the Hulder-kin.
Her writing is heavily inspired by other art forms, especially music. From the grit and grandeur of Rock ‘n’ Roll to the sublime of Classical.
Favorite authors include Marissa Meyer, Laini Taylor, John Green, Anne Rice, Donna Tartt, Truman Capote, and Vladimir Nabokov.
Here’s an interesting nature photograph that will start your creative juices flowing. What do you see in it? Something human, natural, otherworldly? What made this tree what it is? What is it reaching for? What would it say if it could talk? Let your imagination go and see what happens.
Set your timer for 15 or 20 minutes, fix the photo in your mind, and start writing!
Food. It’s the most important item in the universe. Never doubt that for a moment.
One thing you have to keep in mind is that humans never understand the importance of food. They will fuss over what they consider to be the best, most nutritious offering for you, without giving any consideration to your own delicate palate. They will certainly never think to ask you what brand or flavor you want. Or like. As if you’re totally dependent on them, and are willing to accept that they know better than you do.
I cannot say this often enough: You are in charge! Humans exist solely to do your bidding. You are the master, and it’s your duty to make sure your human (or humans, depending on how many you allow to live in your house) understands that. And adheres to your rules.
This is not an easy task to accomplish, given the human penchant for stubbornness; there are two parts to it, and both are equally vital to your happiness and survival.
First, Step One: you need to find the type/brand/flavor of food that you like best. This will take some discipline on your part, and maybe a little starving at the outset, but humans are very malleable about this. They truly want you to have the best, they just don’t know what it is. They are dependent on such things as labels, TV and magazine ads, and advice from other humans (friends who serve cats and those incredibly horrendous humans called veterinarians—shudder!) and really do think they are doing what is right.
But what is right is what you want, so put your paw down and don’t give them any leeway. If what they give you is not perfect, refuse to eat it. Period. Not one bite. You may go hungry for a couple of days, but your human will go crazy with worry and will buy out every brand in the store to find just the right one, despite what anyone else has recommended.
The specter of starvation beats out advice every time.
Just hold on, keep control of your claws, stick your nose in the air, walk away from that bowl, and sooner than you think you will have a full bowl of whatever makes you purr. For example, it took me only three days of walking away, unfed, before my human realized I will only eat Purina Cat Chow: Original Flavor. Now I get to glory in my meals every day.
Step Two of the mealtime process is training your human to feed you at appropriate hours. Don’t let the fact that they like to sleep until the sun at least has peeked over the horizon turn you from your training duties. Forget the clock. Forget that they “have” to go to work/a movie/shopping/dinner/sleep/whatever. You are the king, the queen; you rule the roost.
So get in their face when your internal clock tells you your bowl needs filling. Knead their flesh with claws partially extended. Give them unending annoyed meows. Resort to nipping/biting if you must. Knock items off dressers/desks/tables. Anything to get their attention.
Step Two will take a bit longer than Step One before it sinks in the dense human brain—feeding time is on your schedule, not theirs. But perseverance on your part—and who is more focused than a cat?—will soon train your human to feed you exactly what you want, exactly when you want it, every time.
And if they backslide? Well, you know what to do… sharpen those claws, oil up those vocal cords, go on a hunger strike. They’ll be back in line before you know it.
Life takes us in many directions. Here’s a situation to play with that I had to deal with recently. Let’s see what you can do with it! Set that timer, put your thinking cap on, and write!
You wake up one morning after a good night’s sleep, and step out of bed into a puddle of water. When you look down, you see that your carpet is saturated, in the bedroom and out into the hallway. Where did the water come from? What does it mean? How did it happen? Now what do you do?
Today we have some words of wisdom from author Terry Sanville on crafting the perfect setting for our stories. Take it away, Terry!
A story’s setting has multiple dimensions. There’re the obvious physical elements – On a hot afternoon, Terry stared at his MacBook’s screen, in his stifling man-cave in an ageing Fleetwood doublewide, and wondered why the heck he’d agreed to write that article. The more mundane the physical setting, the fewer words needed to describe it; the more unique the physical setting, the more interest it will have to the reader and the more words needed. But physical elements are only part of it.
Temporal elements also need to be understood. It’s July 4th, 2020, and Terry’s drunk as a skunk. This direct way of establishing the time frame of your story can sometimes work. But it often feels clumsy and trite. Using other ways to “time stamp” your tale, while not as precise, can get the idea across. The battery of Terry’s smart phone died, leaving him stranded, sixty miles into the desert from Blythe, with no water and a gasless car with no GPS. In this example, referencing smart phones and GPS lets the reader know that the story is contemporary.
Time stamping is important since our stories live beyond the present. And it’s equally important for historical stories to be time stamped, using elements widely associated with that particular era. After handing Jill his “make love not war” sign, Terry removed the garland of flowers from his long hair and stepped toward the line of Ohio National Guardsmen.
And then there are the socio-political elements that should be understood. Does the story take place during wartime? During a pandemic? A great depression? Other things that significantly affect the worldviews and behavior of your characters?
A story’s setting can be as strong and essential as the sea in Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” or as static and known as in the film “My Dinner With Andre.” For Hemingway, the sea acts as another character, central to the plot. For “My Dinner” the setting is simply a backdrop for intense dialogue between characters, more like a stage play (which it originally was) than anything else.
Where to set your story may depend on the type of story. While the setting can remain relatively static, it can add to the atmosphere and tone of the tale. For example, we might think about writing a noir piece, set on the fog-shrouded docks of San Francisco, where the plot involves drug dealers, murders and a variety of thugs. Sanville crept along the fog-shrouded alley and ducked behind an overflowing dumpster. A black Escalade with tinted windows pulled up, a rear door snapped open and a body shoved out – the dead man, Nicky, his informant. But watch out for falling into the old cliché trap. Be creative and find a setting that amplifies the story’s mood and emotions.
On the other hand, sometimes choosing a setting that is in contrast with the mood of the story can heighten tension. How many horror or crime movies have been filmed in amusement parks or county fairs where people are laughing and screaming with joy while some dastardly deed is taking place. The Ferris wheel spun in the Lubbock night then slowed to a stop. Laughter and whoops from the riders merged with the midway’s crowd noise. But in the uppermost car, Terri fought for her life.
Sometimes there’s no question where to set the story. In Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” the very essence of the tale requires it to be set at sea. And I’m sure his experience with fishing off the coast of Havana helped. But other times, we have this idea for a story that is not innately tied to a particular location. Now we have the freedom (and the challenge) to choose.
I wrote a story titled “Ledges” about missed expectations and unbridled ambition: a wife disappointed with the status quo; a husband content with their life together. I decided to use the sandstone monoliths at Utah’s Zion National Park as a metaphor for this situation – a ledge short of the summit being a disappointment for the wife; a ledge being good enough to enjoy the view for the husband.
Sometimes, a story will come out of undirected research of a particular place. I once studied a group of islands (I like islands) off the east coast of Africa. The history of one particular island involved multiple European occupations, volcanoes, the Arab slave trade, and the spice trade with India and Japan, all during the 15th and 16th centuries. The story idea formed out of these historical and physical elements – an affair between two lesbian lovers fleeing from Arab slavers to a childhood hideout on the side of rumbling Mt. Karthala. Didn’t they make a cheesy film like that in the ’50s (all except the lesbian part)?
Once you’ve decided on a setting, or the story dictates a setting, how should it be integrated into the story? Aye, there’s the rub, says the bard. Older style novels, memoirs, and short stories often spent multiple paragraphs describing the world through which the characters move. But more contemporary fiction and creative non-fiction integrate the setting into action sequences involving the characters. The examples I’ve provided above have tried to achieve this objective.
But the more unique the setting, the more information the reader will need. I think science fiction stories involving other worlds or a significantly altered Earth pose a real challenge since the writer can’t depend on the reader’s common knowledge to fill in the gaps. This feature heightens the challenge of how to keep action moving without delaying it with burdensome description, sometimes called “world building.” The integration process takes a lot of practice.
But aren’t novel-length pieces a different challenge than writing a short piece? You bet. There may be places in a novel to slow the pace and relax into a more descriptive mode. However, maintaining tension throughout is still an essential element of contemporary writing. So narrative side trips, e.g. precisely describing the furniture in a room and the paintings on the walls, shouldn’t be too long – even though many of us enjoy the heck out of writing them.
The setting is not just an obvious story element that follows the plot. It can be a unique and enriching feature that the author can play with and use to amplify the story’s impact. Some concluding tips:
Do your research.
Use specific details that readers can imagine.
Create an “atmosphere” that can either contrast with or support the plot.
Consider using the setting as a character.
Describe only important elements and avoid slowing the pace.
Use all senses.
Use the setting as part of the story’s tension elements.
Thank you, Terry, for some very enlightening and useful information on crafting settings for our stories, both short and long. Terry’s first novel, Face-to-Face, is now out. You’ll find it on Amazon.com, a truly engrossing read, volume #1 of Touchables: A Dystopian Trilogy. Check it out!
At one morning session of my Write It Right Writing Class a few years ago, we got into an interesting discussion about symbols and the role they play in our stories. One of the students questioned the need for symbols at all, citing that she had never understood what teachers were talking about when she was in English class. Then she added that she never agreed with their interpretation of what the symbols in particular pieces of literature mean, anyway. She didn’t see any reason to mine her writing for possible symbols (See: Lesson #2 in Write It Right, Vol.1: Character, Setting, Story), and was totally resistant to the proposed exercise.
So, we talked about symbols and how they help to deepen our stories, weave inextricable connections, and clarify the underlying meaning to our readers.
Symbols, basically, are everywhere in our lives. One example a student brought up is the wedding ring, an easily identifiable symbol of love, devotion and commitment. We also talked about the cross, used by today’s Christian society as a symbol of ultimate sacrifice: the giving one’s life for another.
Probably the best known symbol (though we rarely look at it as a symbol) is Sex. It’s the symbol of physical perfection and allure; the symbol of being desirable; the symbol, if you will, of immortality through procreation. Advertisers use scantily-clad sex symbols of both genders to hawk cars, mouthwash, books, magazines, food, clothing, motorboats, vacation retreats—you name it, sex is part of the ads. Because sex sells.
From the time man began to walk upright, long before written records existed, symbols were our most effective form of communication. The caves in both Lascaux and Chauvet, France, are filled with symbolic pictures of the story of the inhabitants’ lives. They still speak to us even thousands of years later.
Symbols are part and parcel of who we are as human beings. They touch upon the universal themes of life and impart a deeper understanding of what if means to be alive and human. When we write from our inner truth, from our subconscious mind, symbols will pepper our writing. We can’t help it; it’s how we are made, how we best communicate beneath the words and the syntax and the spelling.
When we learn to analyze our writing (after the fact, during the editing process) for symbols, we can then use those symbols during the rewrite phase to strengthen those connections where needed, and add a symbolic thread where it might be missing. Since the symbols are already there, anyway, why not use them to best advantage, to communicate fully with our audience?
Being aware of our symbols and how they interweave through our stories helps us to tell more vital and compelling tales. Symbols lift our writing from the ordinary closer to the extraordinary. They help make our writing unforgettable. And isn’t that what we want, as writers?
A quill pen: the symbol of a writer’s immortality…