Author Archives: David

Creating Characters from Personal Experience

Although I have had limited time lately to engage in any long term writing, I have been playing around with character profiles for a story I am planning to rewrite. I say this because I want to refer back to a couple of my previous posts where I discussed writing from personal experience. In this case, however, I want to focus more on using that personal experience toward developing characters.

Instead of creating outline sketches for character development, as well as as for the plot and general storyline, I prefer to construct my characters from real people whom I know or have known and, there have been quite a few. It also means I don’t need to overtax my limited imagination – just my memory as I go along – plus, reality truly can be more interesting than fiction.

It is usually not just one person from whom I construct any single character, but usually two or three. For example, and without ratting out names, I know several people I draw on for ego-centric personalities, ranging from occasional selfishness to flat out narcissism. By the way, one of my red-line narcissistic “acquaintances” (code for meaning unnamed friend or family member) is at least somewhat aware and surprisingly unapologetic for their deep-seeded self-centered attitude. This particular “acquaintance” is actually rather proud that they use other people as if we were placed on this planet to serve them and only them.

Profiles like that, at least to me, are so rad and off-the-chart that they make it easy to create interesting story characters. Frankly, some of the people I know are so intriguing that it is nearly impossible for me not to apply at least some of their of traits to my characters. In fact, I enjoy character development so much that sometimes I prefer to wrap a plot around the characters or selection of characters, rather than creating a character to fit the plot.

Another “acquaintance” has influenced my character development positively and negatively. This acquaintance, having never driven, used a computer or spoken on a cell phone, pretty much has refused to leave the past and, perhaps not so coincidentally, is a bit conceited. They will never read this or any other blog and lives in their own stagnant comfort zone, actively rejecting any notion of expanding their horizons past 1950.

In this case, I applied their mature age and physical features to the character in the story, but flipped their personality to someone who, through drive and determination, adjusts to new cultures and an evolving world.

I could list several people, individually or in combination, I know that I have used for character development in my stories, but I won’t, because my life wouldn’t be worth the price of a milkshake. A couple of them, and they know who they are, suspect it anyway.

 

Operation Overlord: The Beginning of the End

D-Day Landing

 

Row after row of crosses and Stars of David at the Normandy American Cemetery and War Memorial mark the day, 71 years ago, tomorrow, that Allied Forces hit the beaches of northern France. But, reinforced by Germany’s “Atlantic Wall” fortifications, the beaches hit back.

While the D-Day Invasion was the beginning of the end for the nightmare of the Nazi Reich, the price paid in heroism and sacrifice by the US and other allies was tragically high. American forces landing at the beaches of “Omaha” and “Utah” lost more than 2,500 lives that day, while another 1,900 soldiers, sailors and airmen from Canada, Britain and at least another 10 allied countries were killed attempting to take the neighboring beaches, designated as “Gold,” ” Juno” and “Sword.”

The goal was to take the cliffs and bluffs, just a few hundred yards ahead, and to establish a beachhead. But, while most of the troops made it off the beaches, many, especially in the first wave of the invasion, didn’t.

It took two years of planning before 150,000 allied troops landed on those five beaches on that cloudy Tuesday morning of June 6, 1944. But, to read about it in an article or book does not do justice to the largest seaborne invasion in history.

Even having visited Normandy, beginning with Omaha Beach, as I did about 15 years ago, it takes a tremendous imagination to visualize the obstacles and challenges American and other allied troops faced as they stepped off their naval landing craft into the surf and rushed on to the sands of the Normandy beaches. Left in the open with no cover and the sea behind them, crossfire from bullets and shells from the cliffs ahead, as well as from the left and right flanks, weaved a ubiquitous net of death for many of those arriving in the first wave. Additionally, there were tens of thousands of tank traps and mines strategically placed by the Nazis over and under the sand to impede such an invasion.

My next stop was the coastal town of Arromanches, where the British had established a temporary pontoon port a week after the initial invasion to support and supply the D-Day invaders, who were already moving toward Paris. With a dozen or so of the giant pontoons, or caissons, still rusting and laying waste on the beach, the town’s invasion museum helped set the imagination on the massive logistical effort it took to tow the caissons one by one, across the channel from England.

Once in place, the port, referred to as a “Mulberry harbor,” landed more than 300,000 troop reinforcements, 50,000 vehicles and more than 100,000 tons of supplies. Considering this was all accomplished in the heat and confusion of war, how can we not be astounded and ever so grateful for the efforts and successes of the Allied Forces 71 years ago, tomorrow?

D-Day Caissons

 

Is There a Line to be Drawn?

For years I have considered writing a mystery with a crime or spy plot based on the 9/11 attack on New York’s World Trade Center towers. Even if I did have the time, however, I’ve never thought too seriously about it because I am concerned the plot would come across as being morbid or as though I was taking advantage of a horrific event. I mean, more than 3,000 innocents lost and nearly a decade and a half later I still have nightmare visions of so many of them jumping from the two towers.

Not that I have a shortage of story ideas (just a shortage of time to work on the half-dozen or so plots I already have sitting in my files), but this particular idea just keeps coming back to me like a boomerang.

So, the big question, at least in my mind, is whether piggy-backing on other peoples’ tragedies is fitting or appropriate?

My thinking, on a technical level, however, is that it seems as though fiction is best served with at least some reality for a point of reference. But, of course, this is one major heck of a point of reference.

By applying such a connection, such as a real-life event or of a noted individual, I figure readers can better relate to the story. For instance, I find it a lot more intriguing to read a story of fiction about World War Two, with at least some frame of reality, rather than a story about a futuristic U.S.-Russian nuclear exchange with people and events that may or (hopefully) may not ever exist. Although World War Two is fading into history, I grew up watching films based on the real-life war in Europe and the Pacific, along with knowing people who actually served in or survived the war.

And yes, I have not missed the irony here, at least on some level, between the tragedies of WWII and 9/11.  I’m just ignoring it until I can figure out what if any differences there really are.

While on a human level, I may be hesitant to write fiction based on the 9/11 tragedy, the subject in a practical sense, would open up opportunities for many plot possibilities and twists.

Of course, 9/11 could be viewed as just one of many examples. I am sure there are plenty of similar other instances, or am I just making a big deal of nothing?

Anyway, relevant or not, it’s been interesting sorting all this out in writing.

 

Sometimes You Just Gotta Let It Out

A few weeks ago, I explained that my writing background is in journalism. While I am genuinely working to develop my creative side of writing, I find my roots, at least on a technical level, are still firmly rooted in my journalistic education. Face it, after 30 years of working to perfect any trade, it is hard to execute an about-face or even a deviation in one’s path.

So, setting aside my emerging creative aspirations and focusing this week on my anal, journalistic side, I want to address a couple of issues – “pet peeves,” you can call them – that I have in the hopes, that by jotting them down on paper (or a blog), I can shake them off and, perhaps, get them out of my system so I can move on. By the way, can I even use the word “anal?”

My rant is not about creative writing, but is directed mostly at professional journalism and, specifically, news broadcasters, although print reporters are not entirely innocent either.

Try this on for size: “The tornado completely destroyed the high school.” With all the storms in our area, this type of phrase has been used lately, either out of carelessness or perhaps toward exploiting the dramatic effect. But, as I was taught and had beaten into to me by my teachers, that if a building is “destroyed,” would it not be by definition “complete” and total? If it is not “complete,” then it would be “damaged,” since “destruction” is already all or nothing.

You see, journalism is about using language effectively and efficiently, meaning that redundancies on the professional level, as I was taught, are not tolerated.

Another example comes from the news of a recent tornado in Oklahoma where it was reported that “a warehouse had been totally leveled.” Again, if a building is leveled, would it not be “total?”

Then there is the word “unique,” which is also abused constantly by broadcasters and just about everyone else these days. According to Merriam-Webster, “unique” primarily means: “being the only one.” I say “primarily,” because the word has been abused with terms such as, “very unique” so commonly that their dictionary has a sidebar dedicated to the debate of how some people accept the term. After all, if an item or person is unique, how could adding the word “very” make it any more of one of a kind.

There are other examples in contemporary journalism that I could discuss, such as how the word “literally,” which has come to be overused and abused; or how the small word “very,” as referred to above, is frequently added for emphasis where it is not needed.

So there, call me “anal” but at least I got my rant and a couple of my pet peeves out in the open.

 

Rewrite, Rework and Lessons Learned

Rewrite

Several years ago, I began writing a story with a roundabout target of 50,000 words to 60,000 words. At this point, the plot and storyline don’t really matter, but the experience and its revealing lesson I think will be of tremendous help to me and perhaps other writers. In fact, this particular lesson is not over because it is going to still be quite a while until I will be ready to have my Twisted writing colleagues critique even the first few chapters.

I have, however, had a few people look at the first chapter or two of the original version – what I had thought was the final draft. Their consensus, though, was that the beginning was weak. So, I looked over the first couple of paragraphs, reworking them three or four times, but saw, at best, little to no improvement.

It tuned out that I had missed their point, which has caused some frustration, but I think it will be well worth it in the end.

Originally, I had liked the beginning as an intro to the protagonist and for creating the setting of the story. But, it was not until somewhat later when I realized it was not just the first couple of paragraphs that were the problem, but the whole beginning. Basically, that was when the learning experience started, as I had misunderstood what they were trying to convey.

As I look over the story now, these few years later and drawing from other critiques, the opening chapters, I realize, fail to spark any true interest and, like a car with a flat tire, it falls short of getting to the plot and pulling in the reader. Additionally, even though I had been generally satisfied with the background and character development, the plot, itself, was, indeed, rather weak.

Since then, I have liberated the story from my files and began to review it for a rewrite – to rework the beginning and strengthen the plot.   My thinking was to take the story and basically insert new sections, as a contractor would refurbish a building, and then shore up the links to ensure continuity.

That line of thinking, at least in this case, has not been working for me. So, I have decided on an alternate approach of coming from the opposite direction. I figure that by sticking with the same story idea, but adding some life to the plot, starting with a whole new beginning, I can write a much improved version, based on all the alleged wisdom I have gained since starting this story. Of course, I will still use much of what I have already written, like constructing a new building with some of the old walls. So, instead of writing between existing sections, as I first mentioned above, I will attempt to add as many of the original sections that will fit to the new version.

This rework is going to take some more time than originally conceived and I will have to discard at least a few of the sections, if not whole chapters, but I am already envisioning a much better and engaging draft. But then, who knows what other ideas I am destined to come up with and lessons I will learn toward improving this and future stories.

 

More than Nostalgia

Television

I have finally had a chance this past week to sit down and watch a little television entertainment for the first time after a busy start to the spring. I don’t get cable because, well, I would rarely have time for it and I can’t see the value of paying when there are so many channels available these days over the free airwaves.

It’s amazing how many channels there are outside of cable and how many options we have compared to the few I had as a youngster. In fact, sitting here counting on my fingers, I figure we had about seven stations when I was growing up, including UHF, and about 17 channels now. And, those 17 are just the ones I have programmed into my television. I figure there has got to be at least that many over the airwaves available that I don’t watch.

Further, among those channels I watch over the airwaves, I have been noticing that nearly half are playing old television shows – some from even before my time. Their vintage, however, does not matter to me much, as I seem to enjoy watching the shows based more on subject and quality rather than mere nostalgia. I find that just because I watched and loved a TV show as a child, that does not mean I enjoy watching it now. Sometimes, as I’m just now discovering, the acting is worse than I ever realized or the subject is immature, but mostly I think it is because some of the plots of a TV series might generally have been the same week over week with just minor differences sprinkled in from episode to episode.

Yeah, I may be the last person on the planet to recognize that, but it is really hitting me now that my parent’s criticism of some of these older shows was more valid than I realized back then. I am sure this overdue epiphany is age-related or perhaps it has something to with me getting into writing more these days, but I am noticing some real differences of perspective in the quality of the scripts from when I was young to now. This goes for their production values, as well. Apparently, age, and I suppose maturity, really does have me seeing each of these shows in a different way all these years later.

I am not a critic, nor do I like to consider myself as one, but some shows really are mindless time wasters, while others seem to possess at least some value, no matter what year they began airing. Some shows that I once liked, now bore me, while there are others that I still like or enjoy even more. Sometimes, for good or bad, I may just understand them better now.

I recommend that, if you get a chance in your busy, non-stop life, it might be worth looking up some of these older shows, no matter when you were born or decided to grow up. With all these channels, even without the advantage of cable or satellite links, there really is a vast array of television options today for just about any taste, even without cable – that is if you can find time in your busy schedule to watch them.

 

The Evolution of Writing – A Personal Perspective

It is three decades this month since I graduated college. In some ways, it seems like it all happened a short time ago and in some ways, well, as if it was a whole different lifetime ago.

A former colleague of mine and I were talking about this earlier this week, but not just to idly reminisce. We focused on how the art of writing has changed just during these last few decades.

As a senior in college, the standard writing tool for a formal paper back in the 80s was still the typewriter, which had been around, even at that time, for 120 or so years. However, I thought I was something special in college, because as a lowly student, I had access to an IBM Selectric, electric typewriter and its moving ball. But, even that seems like ancient technology now.

For me, it was the next year, 1986, when all of technology seemed to change. That was the year I began using the Macintosh Plus and I considered myself ahead of the curve, being one of the first people I knew to buy one. I even forked out $800 for a simple, black and white laser writer. It was all such a marvel!

Aside from not having to struggle with the messy eraser or correction paper, I could do all sorts of formatting with my Mac, of which we take for granted today. The printed pages all looked so clean and professional, even for an amateur, like me. Of course, today, printing articles and stories with a professional look is common place. But, back then, just 30 years ago, I felt like it was a bright new world had been opened. Although I did try, I could not envision back then how much word processing would progress 10, 20 and 30 years later.

Of course, today, computers do so much more than word processing. For instance, who could foresee back then the arrival of the internet and that touch screen technology would move past science fiction within my life time. But, here we are, not that many years later, and touch screens magically seem to be yet another futuristic technology that is common place.

For someone who felt they had been a head of the computer curve early on, I now feel, today, like I am lagging behind with just a laptop. Sometimes, I’m amazed I managed to switch from a desktop at all, which happened, already, nearly 10 years ago. Does anyone even use desktops anymore?

As technologically lagging as I may be in these brave years of advanced gadgets – without an IPad or Tablet – I know a couple of people who have never even discovered a desktop, laptop or cell phone. I mention this because I don’t think it’s just an age thing – and they are older than I am – but a state of mind and a desire to engage socially and culturally through our life-changing apps and internet with the world.

We have, indeed, progressed so far in so few years that I hope I can find my way and time at some point to at least try to catch up closer to the leading edge of this thrilling curve.

 

Open House

In a couple of my blogs I’ve written about story ideas. Sometimes, I get the inspiration from paintings, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, but mostly I get ideas from real life experiences. There is one event that, although I have not used it yet, continues to stick with me. It is one of those experiences we all have that remains lurking in the back of our minds for months or even years. In this case, it was an open house I conducted just last year.

An open house is when a home seller, either through a realtor or by themselves, opens up their home for an afternoon for prospective buyers to parade through and give it a look-over. I’m sure you have all seen an “open house” sign in front of a home at some point. Anyway, as a real estate investor, I occasionally use this exercise when placing a property on the market. Actually, it has proven to be a rather effective tool by consolidating at least several individual showings into just a few hours.

One of the drawbacks to conducting an open house, however, is that anybody in the neighborhood or off the street may stop in, whether they are a serious buyer or not. Sometimes, neighbor families of up to four or five will stop in just out of sheer curiosity. This is what I like to cynically call, “real estate tourism.” Of course, these are not true prospects and, in a practical sense, a waste of time for sellers when the bottom line of the real estate business is all about “the numbers.”

With the cold, hard numbers in mind, one open house showing I specifically remember was early last summer when an elderly woman, perhaps in her 70s or 80s, stopped in with a friend. The woman, Edie, was interested only in seeing the house since we had cleaned it up. And actually, she and I talked mostly about everything but the house. She talked about her family and about when she was young, during World War Two.

Yes, when thinking about “the numbers,” as I mentioned, she was wasting our time. But, aside from being so friendly and kind-hearted, she actually was interesting.

However, what sticks in mind the most about Edie was her Alzheimer’s disease, which had her repeating her stories three or four times. In the beginning, it seemed rather sweet, but to this day, even a year later, I wonder how she handles it and hope, as I get older, that I don’t have to find out firsthand what it is like to forget that I already told “that story.” I wonder if she ever figures out that she tells the same stories and does the same things two, three or four times over again. At the time, she didn’t seem to grasp that she was repeating her stories, but what I still wonder most is if she gets frustrated by it all.

Then, a week or two later, as you might have expected, Edie stopped by to tour the house again. She was so curious and enthusiastic about seeing the home “for the first time” since we had cleaned it up.

It really hit my heart both times to watch Edie go through this. Her friend seemed to take it all in stride, though, probably because Alzheimer’s is a fact of life that, thus far, is out of our mortal control.

While this experience may or may not influence any of my stories or other fictional writings, it is obvious it has had an effect and, having written this, probably something I’ll remember for quite a while.

 

Breaking On Through to the Other Side

"Garden of Eden," by Michelle Olsem

“Garden of Eden,” by Michelle Olsem

 

Confession time! I come from the world of journalism. For those writing creatively all your lives, you may (or may not) know that both worlds are more or less opposites.

Journalism is all about following a formula of getting the lead at the top of an article and then covering the details to the end, starting with the most critical and working down in priority.

When I studied journalism, late last century, the rules were strict and we got marked down in class for errors, such as spelling, punctuation and grammar – basics you would assume professional reporters and news editors should know and strictly practice. And back then, at least, we did. These days, based on the newspapers and websites I read, not so much, even with spell check.

At first, it was a challenge to adapt to the world of creative writing using journalistic standards. The most difficult part has been proofreading, because I can drive myself into the looney bin double checking my spelling, punctuation and grammar, along with making sure my you-know-whats are dotted and my other you-know-whats are crossed. During that stringent process, of course, the creative juices are not flowing and the focus is not on the plot or story line.

Another big difference is that journalism and news reporting needs to be factual – ha, go figure. For some reason, making things up is frowned upon, as they expect you to research what really happened and talk to witnesses. It’s all about facts, and quoting sources with such phrases as “according to” or “the police sergeant said.” And, if one little fact is wrong or a word or two in a quote is inaccurate, you’ve got to go back and correct it, even if it requires a phone call back to the source.

Compared to news reporting, creative writing is like stepping out of a jail cell into a boundless Garden of Eden with flowing rivers and playful animals frolicking over lush rolling hills (music please). Even so, I tried fighting the change at first by sticking to my high and mighty standards. That, obviously, did not work. So eventually, it has come down to a gradual process of personal evolution, as I aim for what seems like a mythical sweet spot between the cookie-cutter parameters of journalism and the free-flowing world of creativity.

 

Inspirational Landscapes

The Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak by Albert Bierstadt

“The Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak” by Albert Bierstadt

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about writing from experience and basically, about “what you know.” I had been advised to use that method many years ago, when I was just starting out. In any case, believe it or not, that philosophy has worked remarkably well for me, as far selecting and crafting topics. Whether or not it has made me a good writer is a whole different question.

Another great source for topics and general inspiration for coming up with writing topics and plots, however, has been landscape paintings. Generally, landscapes, in particular, offer a snapshot in time and of a place with a wide view of a handful of events, even if it is just a couple of people in a wagon rambling down a dirt road. Any of these events in the painting, at least for me, can trigger an idea or plot for a story.

Beyond the two people in the wagon, for instance, consider what is in the background. Are there mountains? Think about what could be happening in those mountains and how does it connect to or affect the people in the wagon. Is there a forest off to the side? Think about what devious scheme someone hiding in there may be concocting and are the two wagon people linked to it.

Take the example above from Albert Bierstadt’s “The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak” and reflect on the plot possibilities based on the activity in the foreground, the mountains towering all around or perhaps just on the lake and waterfall in between. What are the people doing and who are they? How did they get there? And, if they are in lost or in trouble, why?

With the internet, you do not even need to visit a museum these days to view landscapes, although I much prefer a face-to-face as the best way to “become one” with a painting, especially with all the detail typically weaved into a larger piece of work. I could go through a list of favorites, but generally I am drawn to American and European landscapes from the 18th and 19th centuries.

They tend to transport me out of reality, at least for the few minutes I may be looking at it, allowing my mind to be released to create a plot based on the subject, as well as the background of the painting. As the imagination is set free, I find the possibilities for plots and scenes tend to flow unencumbered. I won’t apply the cliché that the possibilities are endless, but it really is not that difficult to conjure up at least a few story possibilities from just a single landscape.