Teachers Write 8.4.16 Thursday Quick-Write with Tracy Holczer

Good morning! It’s Thursday Quick-Write day, and we have guest author Tracy Holczer with us this morning. Tracy is the author of THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY and joins us today to talk about creating characters readers will remember.


Digging Deep: Creating Memorable Characters

“Go deep, not wide.”

I don’t know who to attribute this quote to, but I think about it often in life and in my writing. Because no matter how well a story is plotted, for me, it won’t come to life unless the characters ring true and deep. Although everyone has a different personal story, and each book is different in terms of circumstances and plot, the deepest shades of the human condition tend to be the same. Wanting to be loved, feeling disconnected or lonely, yearning for acceptance to name a few that are universal. These are themes covered over and over again in stories because they strike the heart directly. And if we can strike the heart, we connect to our reader, and that is the whole point.

So how do we show this emotion on the page? The only way I’ve found (and believe me, I have tried to work around this more than I should) is by digging deeply into ourselves.

As a child growing up, I felt outcast. Like I didn’t belong. Whether this was actually true or not is irrelevant. It felt true. And as we all know, feelings and reality don’t always go hand in hand. And although adults and children alike have these types of overwhelming feelings, adults can more often talk themselves through it. We have the tools we need to deal with life on life’s terms. And if we don’t, we can pay someone for their expertise or read trucks full of books on the subject or beat phone books with a hose (very therapeutic) or take a yoga class or drink wine, or, or, or.

But children? They are at the mercy of the adults in their lives. How much they learn about their own emotional landscape is up to adults. Here is where fiction can help. As a novelist, I try to explore every layer of emotion that characters may be feeling, and the only way I can do that is by tapping into my own.

This is when I think of the Big Feelings in my life. Like when I was seven-years-old and my mom sat me down at the foot of her bed and told me she and my father were divorcing, how it literally felt like my entire world was falling apart. Everything I believed to be true about family, suddenly wasn’t. Or my first crush in the seventh grade, how I chased him and caught him to be my date to the Sadie Hawkins dance, which filled me with an exhilaration unmatched to this day. How when we were “married” by the minister in front of the haystacks at the dance, and he turned to me to “kiss the bride,” and I leaned so far backwards that I fell into said haystacks. As exhilarated as I felt, I wasn’t ready for that first kiss.

There are so many of these memories to explore and mine for their emotional truth. So much in our own lives that carry the universal. This is the way we connect to each other. Through shared experience and hope. And for me, digging deep into my own emotional truth is the only way to tell a story.

Today’s Assignment: A great writing exercise is to fictionalize an actual event in your own life. Take a Big Feeling and tell a story around it. Texturize it. Give it sounds and smells. Sit with the memory and look around. Who was there? What did they add or take away from you? Who were you before that moment and how did it change you? Explore, explore, explore. And bring it to life. Not only will your readers love you for it, but you will love yourself, heal yourself maybe, just a little bit more.

Happy writing!

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  1. Mona
    Posted August 4, 2016 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this post, Tracy. I love your quote, “No matter how a story is plotted…it won’t come to life unless characters read true and deep.” True!

    • Posted August 4, 2016 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      Yes! I love this about middle grade. Not that it doesn’t happen in all genres, but middle grade has some of the most memorable characters for me.

  2. Martha Willey
    Posted August 4, 2016 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Dear Tracy, thank you for your post today. It is challenging and encouraging. I really like your line about “What did they add or take away from you.” What a powerful thing to keep in mind when writing a scene and then later again in the editing process. Thanks again and best wishes.

    • Posted August 4, 2016 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Martha!

      These types of memories are so powerful. I’m glad this idea spoke to you and I’d love to see what you come up with.

  3. Posted August 4, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Wonderful post! It reminds me of a workshop I took with Patti Gausch at Highlights. She told us to “go to the well” to bring raw emotion to the page. By the end of the first writing exercise, I was in tears. Thank you for this exercise, Tracy. It’s equally impactful.

    • Posted August 4, 2016 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      Patti Gauch!! She is the one who first spoke to me about the heart of a novel being character. I’m actually going back to take another workshop with her in the fall and I can’t wait.

      I hope you dig up some great stuff 🙂

  4. Posted August 4, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Tracy. This post got me digging into a personal story I had always planned to revisit and put down on paper. For that I thank you.

    • Posted August 4, 2016 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      Dig, dig, dig!

      It makes me SOOOO happy that you are doing this. Personal stories are the best stories.

  5. Kate Schoedinger
    Posted August 4, 2016 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Hi Tracy-
    This is a great post and your word TEXTURIZE resonated with me. I’ll give this a try:

    Walking to school was a straight shot of eight blocks but divided in two distinct parts for me. The first was solitary. The second was accompanied by my nemesis, Betsy McNamara. I had no choice but to walk with her since I passed her house every day. Twice a day. The timing just worked out so we each endured it.

    I much preferred walking alone to peek in people’s houses as they hurried for school and readied for work. Betsy put me on edge. Some days were icy silence, some were deep discussions about heavy backpacks and mounting homework. Layered throughout was competition. Orange and red leaves danced across my tennis shoes and I kicked rocks along the sidewalk.

    Betsy darted out her front door as her dog barked from behind the screen and her dad backed out the driveway. “Guess what?” she beamed.

    And so it begins, I thought. “Do tell,” I said in a snarky tone. I was counting the blocks until we reached school and we could go our separate ways.

    “I got into Liberty!” She did a little dance of joy and hoisted her backpack. “I’m going to the best girls’ school in the city and you’re not!”

    The words flew out of my mouth. I truly had no idea where they came from. “I’m already in,” I lied.
    That deflated her balloon in seconds.

    Now I had a bigger problem coping with the fallout of that lie.

    • Posted August 4, 2016 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      First, love your sub. Wow.

      Next, I totally agree with you on the word TEXTURIZE. I was in a teacher institute last week and we talked about “adding layers”…similar idea.

      I haven’t had writing time today. But, I’m looking forward to writing something with layers and texture!

      • Posted August 4, 2016 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        Go for it! And I’d love to see what you come up with 🙂

    • Posted August 4, 2016 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      Love this so much! And I can feel the texture of the surroundings and feelings. Also, a fabulous cliffhanger! I would love to see you keep going with this and see where it leads.

      I can also relate so much because my absolute nemesis, the one girl who picked on me with vigor in junior high school, lived in a house at the midway point between mine and my best friend’s. And her family liked to set out chairs in their driveway and hang out, so they were ALWAYS out there. And even the parents didn’t seem to care that she would call out to me. Ugh.

      Great work in bringing out both specificity and the universal with your work. Keep going!!

      • Kate Schoedinger
        Posted August 5, 2016 at 9:28 am | Permalink

        Thank you, Tracy and Linda! Maybe this does have legs for a future story! Everyone knows a Betsy!

  6. Posted August 4, 2016 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Great post! Go deep not wide, something I will keep in mind from now on. I find I need to go back into an MG ms to add strong emotions because, like in real life, I tend to hide them in an innate sense of self preservation. But if my character is doing that, the reader needs to know. I don’t seem to have the same problem with shorter works, maybe because I illustrate the feelings. I loved reading The Secret Hum Of A Daisy.

    • Posted August 5, 2016 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      <3 Lisze.

      I struggle so much with this – and it usually means I'm avoiding something specific. Once I figure that out, the floodgates open. And thanks for reading hum 🙂

  7. Gloria Jeanne Johnso
    Posted August 4, 2016 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    I loved this post. I am ready to try it. The word “texturize stood out for me also. I am eager to read your book. Thanks for working with us today.

    • Posted August 5, 2016 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      Yay! So glad you enjoyed it. Texturize is a fantabulous word. Good luck in your own endeavors.

  8. Posted August 4, 2016 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this great exercise. I’m a little burned out from revising my middle grade and all the phrases and words are starting to sound the same. I really like this idea for focusing and adding uniqueness to sections of the novel.

    • Posted August 5, 2016 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      It does get overwhelming. Sometimes a break is needed (I’ve taken many!). I also have to revise in layers. This one for overall cohesiveness. This one for character depth. This one for texture. I wish I could do it all at once, but…my brain. She doesn’t work that way. Good luck in your writing!

  9. Angela Berent
    Posted August 4, 2016 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    How fun to fictionalize the event – got a little thrill of some justice for Eddie all these years later!

    Splat! The tiny crystals of dirty snow came out of nowhere and dripped in a clumpy mess from my face and down the front of my jacket. I seethed. The edge of my beloved baby-blue, hand-knitted hat rested just along my eyebrows, and I scowled at my tormentor: Eddie. He’d been harassing me on the playground since first grade; I never knew how I came to be the focus of his torment. Now he laughed, as he always did, satisfied that he’d bullied me once again. To his shock, the rest of the rambunctious third grade class thought he’d started a playful snowball fight. Without warning, the hulking fifth grader was under attack, and I smiled in victory.

    • Posted August 5, 2016 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      Love it!! And Eddie gets what he deserves. Perfect scene for a middle grade audience. Sigh. Why do we all have to have an Eddie in our lives? Thanks for sharing your work.

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