Category Archives: writing ideas

Brings Back Memories

My family and I just recently tried a local restaurant, Babes, famous in the area for down-home fried chicken and all the fixins served family style in a really homey setting. As soon as we walked in, the smell alone brought back memories of meals shared at my grandmother and grandfather’s house. The food was pretty yummy, but couldn’t quite compare of course to what I had growing up.

It is just remarkable how the smell or taste or sound or sight or feel of something can carry such a powerful memory. The smell of the food took me back to sitting in the kitchen while my grandmother fried chicken. I could have been sitting at the small table next to my Paw-Paw cutting up small bites of potatoes to boil and cream to go with the chicken, which by the way we always snuck a few bites of the raw potato when my grandmother wasn’t looking.  Did anyone else ever do that?  I could see the tomatoes fresh from the garden sitting on the shelf behind the kitchen sink that we might cut up to go with dinner or just sneak a bite of as a snack while we were waiting. I could hear the pop of the grease as my grandmother would put a new piece of chicken into the pan. I was back in those moments with just the little smell of the food at the restaurant.

When I write I have to be careful to remember details like the tomatoes on the shelf, or the kitchen sink facing a window that looks out to the garden, or the process of cutting up the potatoes. I don’t want to get lost in the details, but those type of little sensory details can help paint a much larger picture in a simple way that the reader may later color in with their own memories.

I could also fill in a character’s backstory with what he/she may remember based on a certain taste or smell or other sensory detail. Does the character deal with grief by listening to a song that he used to listen to with his wife? Does the character buy the house that is the setting for our story because the yard makes him think of the one he had growing up? Does the character hate the taste of beans because that’s all she ate growing up since beans and rice was all they could afford? Sensory triggers could be a starting point for a whole character sketch.

A solid go-to writing prompt can be taking one of the five senses and throwing it at your character. What is my character smelling in this scene? How does that smell affect her? Does the smell make her think of anything? It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it could be. How might your character react to the taste of a dish offered to him? And why? Does your villain try to torment your character with the sound of a certain song? Why might that impact your character?

For me, I am going to think some more about the beauty of the simple moments like sitting in my grandparent’s kitchen and wish I could somehow take a time travel moment back in time to be with them again. Perhaps someday I will write about that. 😉

What sensory details always trigger memories for you? Is there a certain smell or taste that takes you back? Have you ever read something that really did a good job capturing a sensory detail? Do you try to include these details in your writing? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. 🙂

Thanks for stopping by. Have a great week!

 

~CJ

Just The Tip of The Iceberg

I write on the principle of the iceberg… 7/8ths of it underwater for every part that shows. – Ernest Hemingway

This past weekend my family and I went to an arts fest held at a local museum that included free admission to a lovely new exhibit travelling from the National Galleries of Scotland. We listened to music, saw some dancing and watched a battle with swords and shields that was probably my three boys’ favorite part. I was most excited for the exhibit so I brought the boys while I was able to walk through and look at the art. My oldest made more of an attempt to seem interested than most of the boys we had with us, and though he wasn’t that impressed, he asked me what I liked so much about looking at the paintings. I had to think about how to answer.

How to you explain art appreciation simply and quickly while in a crowded exhibit full of people huddled up in front of a Picasso? I told him there’s a lot that can be studied, the color, the brush strokes, the mood created, but what I love is how the picture makes me feel. There may be layers of things going on in the painting in front of me, but inevitably I’ll be drawn to small details, or will just be moved by the overall impact of the painting.  I think his response was “Hmmm” and then he drifted off back to his friend. Such a parenting win – haha!

I left, though, thinking more about it, and of course thinking more about it as a writer.

When we read we do the same thing as when we look at art. Usually we don’t read to appreciate the word choice or the writer’s ability to plot, we read for the impact the story or essay or poem has upon us. As a writer, it’s our job to lay the groundwork, as artfully as we are able, for the reader to fill in the blanks and carry it away to another place.

I submitted the beginning of a short story to my critique group this week, and what I loved to hear from one of the group was that she could see her own experience in the story. While it wouldn’t be exactly like what the reader had experienced, it was enough to pull up her own experience to color in where the writing stops.

So how much do we give? I like Hemingway’s quote above about the iceberg, and how what we show in the story is only a piece of what is going on, so that the reader can find or provide the rest of  the “iceberg”. Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is a classic example of his particular style of showing us a story that has hidden depths beneath. What seems to be a simple conversation tackles the much bigger concept of abortion.

I’m still learning how to build a story that gives you just enough to make you go a little further, thinking more about it, or that has an emotional impact that takes you somewhere else.

Hawthorne tells us “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” It’ll take a lot of writing with effort to get something that manages to show a little but give a lot, but it’s definitely something I’m aiming toward.

What about you? Do you agree with Hemingway – show a bit of the iceberg? What stories or poems do you think do this well? Or do you think there’s the danger of not giving enough? Feel free to tell me about it in the comments.

Thanks for dropping by. Have a great week!

~CJS

Writer’s A.D.D.

ideas

I’ve read a fascinating story that claims we’re heading for another Ice Age. Some strange goings on inside the sun is going to cause it to cool down to the point where we will experience another Ice Age by 2030. I want to write a story about it.

But wait. We just saw Jurassic World. I’ve always been interested in Dinosaurs. Maybe I’ll go back to work on that illustrated kid’s book I was doing about a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Then again, I’ve been dying to try a Western. I’ve started one that involves a Confederate soldier returning home from the American Civil War and getting into trouble in a small town in Texas. I should finish that.

And that Science Fiction novella I’m 20,000 words into. I should get that done.

Oh yeah, there’s that second novel that takes place in the South Pacific during World War Two that I still have to complete.

Oh God! I have writer’s A.D.D. Bad.

But there are so many terrific ideas out there. And being the type of person who is interested in just about everything, it’s hard to stay focused. I can’t understand anyone who claims to be a writer saying they can’t think of any ideas! My head is filled with them. Getting ideas is the easy part. Now, getting them finished…ay, there’s the rub. That was Shakespeare, by the way, in case some of you heathens didn’t know.

What I really need to do, I realize, is to lock myself up somewhere until I’ve finished what I’m working on. Somewhere that has no internet connection. No information from the outside world. I shouldn’t even be able to talk to anyone. If I do, something they say may give me, yet another, story idea. My meals would be slid underneath the door. I’d have a bucket for…well, okay. That may be going a bit too far. But you see where I’m going.

My first novel, ‘Jenny’, took me three years to write. Writer’s A.D.D is part of the reason. Not all of it, but certainly part of it. During the course of writing the book I found myself being distracted by shiny objects and wrote a bunch of short stories. I should have been concentrating on Jenny! But that damn A.D.D.

I’m trying not to let that happen with this present novel. I want to finish it this year. I know for some of you that doesn’t sound like such a daunting task, but that’s probably because you aren’t afflicted. But I can’t be the only one out there. Surely there are others. Maybe we should start a self-help group.

Really, though, I think that if I finished half the stuff I’ve started, I’d be one of the most prolific writers on the planet. I have a folder filled with the beginnings of stories, and maybe even entire books. If I could just sit down and get all of those going I’d…Hmmm…what’s that book over there on the shelf? Submarines? Yeah! A story about submarines. Love submarines. Maybe an American sub during WW2 sinks a Japanese ship and takes some of the survivors aboard as prisoners. The prisoners get together and try and take over the…Oh geez. I’m doing it again.

Help me.

Hand Delivered Story Ideas

NYSE

Wow, what a blinding great story we had this week with a simultaneous triad of crises on a single day! At the same time that trading on the New York Stock Exchange came to a screeching halt Wednesday, the jet fleet of a major airline was grounded by a computer glitch and the website of a major national newspaper was disabled. Although not the first time, it certainly is a rare occasion for an event of such economic significance to occur, especially at the largest stock exchange in the world. But, it is even more notable when, at the same time, the system-wide operations at United Airlines was halted and the Wall Street Journal’s website was taken offline.

The official reasons provided for the temporary shut-downs were stated as technical issues and had nothing to do with hackers or terrorism. Okay, I suppose I believe that – well, more or less. I suppose I have to, since I don’t have much of a choice. After all, in the scheme of things, who really cares whether I believe it or not?

But, without knowing for sure –without positive proof in my hand – my mind quickly began racing with conspiracy plot lines. What a great opportunity this is for a mystery story or a novel of international intrigue and economic upheaval. And for credibility, I could even base the central premise on Wednesday’s real-life event. Isn’t it great when story ideas are hand delivered; when “truth is stranger than fiction?”!

If I wasn’t already working on another story and I had the time, I would have been spending the past day or two developing that plot. What first came to mind involved a group of hackers, starting with the Chinese or ISIS terrorists. However, it could also have been a rising Mexican drug cartel or a European billionaire investor causing upheaval in the NYSE toward global economic and political domination.

But, that’s all too easy. I think I would rather dig deeper and make the reason more subtle and shrewd. I think I would want to sit down for a few days and really think it through so I could add a few twists and turns beyond the obvious for a more original read before revealing the twisted truth. Of course, the reason would still have to be earth-shattering to justify all the cunning work of shutting down a major stock exchange, airline and newspaper. But, it would also have to be something realistic that people can generally relate to and not some wild, out-of-this-world storyline.

I would want to start it offshore, in an exotic location. For me, that would likely be Europe, since I have some familiarity with the continent. I would look for secondary news events that have the potential to lead to such a dramatic climax, but don’t usually make the international headlines. It would be something that people could look back on and say, “Yes, I never thought of that, but should have seen it as a possibility.”

So, while I stash this idea in my files for possible use in the future, where would you want to take this story?

 

Some Memories Never Die

Since I keep talking about writing from experience, I thought I would write this week about an episode of my life that has been on my mind lately. I can’t explain why it just happened to pop up this past week or two, especially since it took place more than 40 years ago.

The year was 1971 and I was in my single digits, but old enough – at least back in those days – to get around town on my own. My family and I were living that summer in a flat in Bucharest, the-then capital of “communist Romania,” well behind the Iron Curtain. Bucharest, of course, is still the capital, but as this was a different time, it may as well have also been a different place.

When we were not touring the beautiful Carpathian Mountains or enjoying the beaches of Romania’s Black Sea, we pretty much got caught up in the city life routine of Bucharest.

I know this all sounds more like a story in itself, but the event I want to highlight occurred one morning in the courtyard, in the rear of our building, where I liked to play.

So anyway, during that particular morning, one of the neighbor women who I got to know, came out carrying a live chicken. She had, apparently, maintained a firm grip on the legs all the way home from the market, as it hung upside down squawking in her right hand.

If you have already figured what was about to happen, don’t spoil the “surprise.” Remember, I was just a young child from a big, modern American city, who wasn’t quite sure what the woman’s next move was going to be and certainly did not want to believe it.

Oh yeah, I suspected what was about to go down, but it all happened so fast, that I didn’t have time to digest it until it was all over. Even if there had been time, which there wasn’t, I couldn’t ask what she was doing, since my Romanian vocabulary encompassed little more than “good morning” and “thank you.” It did not include, “What the bloody hell are you doing with that chicken and cleaver?!”

The deed was done in only a second, but the main event had just begun. The chicken’s severed head flapped around, bobbing up and down, clucking wildly, as if it had taken on its own life and personality. I’m sure this was all a weekly routine for the woman, but up until then I had never seen anything like it, especially as a small kid from “big city America.” Had I mentioned that? After all, it was enough of a shocker to have to stand in long lines for fresh milk; that is if you could even find a market that had it in stock in this country where most farmers didn’t have the luxury of a tractor and still used a horse and cart to get produce to the market.

But then, over in “ring number two,” the chicken’s headless body did its own act, running – not walking – around the courtyard in a circle and in a state shock, as if it could see where it was going. It was as if it, too, had taken on its own personality, not realizing the cleaver across the neck deal meant it was supposed to drop dead.

Okay, so even though I have yet to use any part of this particular incident in any of my stories, this is the type of personal experience I draw on when I type away on my keyboard. It is an event that, 40-plus years later and for better or worse, remains vividly imprinted in my mind. And, while it is rare that I will use an entire event in a story, I will take bits and pieces to combine and embellish to fit my needs.

A Dangerous Place To Write

dangers

Don’t envy me because I’m in Sunny Florida. (That sounded pretentious, didn’t it?). This is not a safe place. It’s downright dangerous. I’ve already had to pull a snake out of the pool!

And I was talking to my sister, Annette, a couple of nights ago. She said she doesn’t go anywhere near the beach. Sharks. Loads of ‘em. And if they don’t get ‘ya the rip tides will.

My sister Lucille, has a lake in the back of her house. They have to be careful when they go outside. There are three alligators in it and they like to come out of the water, every now and then, and and walk around their property.

And now people are telling me about bears. Black bears walking around the nieghborhoods. What? Oh, yeah, they say. You’ll see them sometimes in people’s back yards. Don’t feed them, someone told me. Like she had to tell me that! As though I’d be outside calling out, “C’mon over here, seven foot bear, and take this bread from my hand.” The idea of feeding a bear that was in my back yard would never occur to me. But I guess there are people who need to be told that kind of thing. It’s the reason they have to put warnings on stuff that say things like, “This lawn mower is not to be used for cutting hair.”

And Panthers. Can’t forget those. I was warned about them, too. And don’t let your little dog go outside alone. Hawks will grab her. Okay, what the hell did I get myself into? I had visions of sitting out in the sun with a cold drink at my side and my laptop in front of me, happily typing away at the keyboard. I imagined writing with the warm rays on my face and the sound of the pool’s gurging water in my ears. How relaxing. Now it seems as though I’ll be taking my life in my hands.

Oh, okay. It’s probably not all that dangerous (glances out the back window looking for bears). But there really is a lot of wildlife walking around. We heard a racket one morning and ran to the front window. A flock of four foot high, grey birds, with long legs and necks were coming down the street like they owned the place. About eight of them. They were screeching loud enough to wake the dead. It was like they were daring anybody to come out. They were like feather covered gangsta’s. “Come on out! I dare ya’!” We all cowered inside our houses until the went away.

It’s cool, though, really. There’s a huge conservation area nearby and people really did tell me all those things to watch out for. Being a writer, this is all just more material. There are stories, here, just waiting to be told.

I’ll tell them from inside the house, though. No, I’m not scared of the animals! It’s the sun. It’s very hot. Really.

Remember when…

I wrote this post following a big ol’ gathering of extended family at my house this weekend. I have an aunt visiting from out of state who is always good at getting us all together even when our busy lives seem to keep us from doing otherwise. We had brothers, sisters, parents, kids, aunts, uncles, and cousins (plus my little over-stimulated dog) filling up our house for a very pleasant summer afternoon. Since this is Texas and it was a large family gathering, there was a big buffet of food, a whole lot of sweet iced tea,  a mess of noisy kids running and playing everywhere, quite a few loud bursts of laughter and then, of course, lots and lots of stories.

You know the stories I am talking about, the ones that start with “Remember when…” and end with smiles and nods and laughs, then inevitably lead to another story which adds on to the previous one.  Even the normally quiet ones in the group can’t resist chiming in with a “Remember that old place in such and such a town”, which some will remember with an “Oh yeah, I do” and others might not remember as clearly. Some stories are new, tales of recent adventures or something never shared, but for the most part there’s a lot of shared memories brought back up amid laughter and occasionally some tears.

As a writer, I love listening to all the little details, not just to learn more about a history within my family I might not know about, but also because I can always tuck it away for a potential story idea later.

One story this weekend talked about an old ice house in the town they grew up in where some family members would go to get blocks of ice. Blocks of ice? Not nice bags of crushed ice from the local convenience store? Well, I’ll tell ya, that that’s about as foreign to me as having to get up off the couch to go change the TV station without a remote control would seem to my young kids.  Whose to say that doesn’t somehow work its way into a story of mine someday?

Quite a lot of those “Remember when” stories are just chock full of potential details for a scene or interesting character development possibilities. The grandmother who sold war bonds could work her way into a story or the great grandfather who was such an imposing figure could be the basis for supporting character in my novel.

But even beyond the possible story ideas, the idea of exploring a character’s own possible collection of stories as a way to develop some depth to the definition of a character seems intriguing to me also.  What would my lead character talk about at a family gathering? Would her stories be ones she would share and laugh over, or would her family be one that never spoke of their stories for being too painful. Does my character have core stories that help establish who she is and where she comes from? Probably very little of those stories would make it into the novel but knowing that about her might help make a weaker character a little stronger.

Do you have a lot of ‘Remember when’ stories in your family, too? Do you use them for your writing? Or do you find yourself rolling your eyes or dozing off as you hear the one about that time in the place with the people for the zillionth time? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Thanks for stopping in and have a great week! 🙂

~CJS

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.

 

So Many Ideas…So Little Time

story ideas

Where do you guys get your story ideas from? There’s gonna be a lot of different answers, I know.

It could be a movie you saw, a book you read, a video game you played or even a dream you had. Or, of course, something that you experienced. There’s no right or wrong way. Whatever works! A lot of my stories come from history. Some, just pop out of my head. They’re swimming around in there, all the time. Just got to reach in there and grab one of the little buggers.

I got an idea for a story, once, by seeing a street sign. Out by me there are two roads that cross one another. One is Anita and the other is called Bourland. I saw the signs hanging over the street;  Anita Avenue and Bourland Road. Hmmm…Anita Bourland. What a great name for a character. I started running the idea around in my mind. Who could that be? It sounds like an old film star. Maybe she’s in an old age home. Yeah…she’s being taken care of by a young girl who works there who doesn’t believe all of the stories that Anita is telling her about the great old movie stars of the past. Now, I’m driving and I’m thinking about all of this. Such is the messed up brain of a writer. I got home and started writing it. It’s one of the many stories out on the back burner.

That’s the way it happens for me, sometimes. There are so many story ideas all around us that I can’t understand some of the things I see people asking in the writers sections of Facebook. “What should my character do for a living?” somebody asks. “I’m trying to think of a good idea for a story that I want to have take place in my home town. Any suggestions?” says another one. My favorite was one who wants to do a non-fiction, self- help, book. She says, “I’m writing a book called, ‘How to make a Million Dollars on E-Bay in 14 Days.’ Does anyone have any ideas on what I should put in it?”

I had to answer that one.

I said, “If you are writing a book called ‘How to make a Million Dollars on E-Bay in 14 days,’ and are asking US what to put in the book, then maybe you shouldn’t be writing a book called ‘How to make a Million Dollars on E-Bay in 14 Days.’ Because you obviously don’t KNOW how to make a million dollars on e-bay in 14 days.”

I did start the post with the words, “No offence, but…” I’m not all that bad a guy. But really, was that a bit too harsh? I don’t think so. How can anyone who calls themselves a writer be asking other people what she should write?

It’s got to come from you. Having ideas is actually a lot more important than knowing how to write. That part you can learn. Nobody can teach you how to have an imagination, however. I see two people arguing in a car and I see a story. A text message just came over their cell phone. The wife is angry because it’s a woman asking her husband about getting together. Uh…oh, busted. “Are you cheating on me?” she’s screaming as he’s trying to navigate through the traffic. I was sitting outside with my laptop one morning and sipping my coffee when I heard a motorcycle roaring by. I was annoyed at the racket at that time in the day and began typing a little snippet about a ‘bike rider who is screeching through a quiet neighborhood one morning and runs a stop sign. A car is coming and, well…you know. Yeah, I killed him. Felt good.

Sometimes I worry myself. My wife is from Chile and we spent a week down there on vacation. We were at a beautiful beach and I saw a girl walking into the water. My brain went into story mode. I imagined my character sitting on the beach watching the same scene. All of a sudden some men run up and try to grab her. He saves her and winds up getting tangled up in a story involving drug dealers and the white slave trade. I thought all of that just by watching a girl walk into the water. Is that even normal?

But that’s the way my mind works. It’s not always a good thing. It means that I have what OUR LEADER calls “popcorn kittens.” Ideas all over the place that aren’t complete. But boy, if I ever get to them all and finish them, I’ll have quite a body of work out there!

So much is going on around us all the time that a story idea should be easy. And if you can’t think of any fictional ideas than maybe non-fiction is for you. But if you need to ask others what you should put into your book about becoming a millionaire on e-bay, then maybe that’s not for you either. Maybe, just maybe…(Dare I say it?) you aren’t a writer. And that’s okay. It’s not necessarily a good thing to be someone who drives around talking to himself about a story idea he got after reading a street sign.