Good morning, everyone! I’m traveling this week into next week – first to the annual Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Conference in Los Angeles, where I’ll give a workshop on “The Magical Unexpected” in picture books and speak at the Golden Kite Awards Luncheon celebrating OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW and the other winners. I’ll fly from there to the Millersville Writing Institute in Pennsylvania, where I’m presenting on writing and revision (and looking forward to spending time with amazing teacher-writers!) And then it’s on to St. Louis, where I’m speaking at a Scholastic Book Fairs event because CAPTURE THE FLAG and EYE OF THE STORM will both be featured in the fall book fairs, which delights me to no end.
Don’t worry – all your assignments and quick-writes and everything else are scheduled and will appear as if by magic on the right days, even while I’m gone. But I will be checking in more sporadically than usual and wanted to let you know that I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth. I’m probably just stuck in some airport with a dead laptop battery.
Anyway…you will have some great guest authors in my absence, starting with Kristy Dempsey today! Kristy is a teacher, picture book author, and poet whose books include MINI-RACER (Bloomsbury), ME WITH YOU (Philomel), and SURFER CHICK (Abrams). Her website is http://www.kristydempsey.com/
At the end of this school year the first graders were studying the elements of story through fairy tales. We talked about imagination, we talked about the cultural aspects of fairy tales from around the world, we talked about what gave these characters believable qualities even though the stories themselves might have magical elements.
Toward the end of our unit we watched the film, “A Little Princess”. I was rather amazed as the first graders identified that Sara’s locket and the importance it held for her made the story feel believable to them. One student even said, “It’s like her locket held everything her daddy had ever given her and when Miss Minchin took it away from her, Sara knew she still had all that in her heart.” These first graders understood the importance of emotional truth!
Think of the physical item that is most important to your main character. What does it represent? Now, imagine it being lost or taken away from your main character. How would he/she respond? Sara Crewe’s response, of course, was fairly noble. But what if your character pitched a fit? Or what if he/she embarked on a series of misadventures to try to recoup what was lost? (In fact, one of the funniest scenes in the movie is when Sara’s friends enter Miss Minchin’s office to try to get the locket back.)
Write a scene that shows the emotional importance of this physical item to your main character and then show us how he/she responds when it is lost or taken. I can’t wait to read the serious or funny or fantastical emotionally true scenes you come up with!
EDITING TO ADD THIS: Sorry, everyone! I accidentally repeated Kristy’s earlier quick-write. Here’s her new one for today. Consider it a “Bonus Write” if you’ve already done the first one!
“Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?…”
– Eudora Welty
I don’t know about you but setting is one of the last things I deliberately consider when crafting a story. Oh it sneaks in, of course – I usually have some sense of where my characters are when they’re doing whatever it is they’re doing. They aren’t just hanging in mid-air. And I usually know what part of the world they might be located, but truth be told, most of the setting is in my mind and not on paper until later drafts. Is it sunny or raining? Has the grass they’re standing on been freshly cut or is it tickling their ankles? Do they live above or below the Gnat Line? If the answer is “below,” how does that affect them every single time they step outside? (And if you don’t know what the Gnat Line is, ask me in the comments. And also, if you don’t know what the Gnat Line is, you must not be from the South. ☺ )
These are the kind of setting details that can add life to your story. The easiest way for me to add these details into my writing is to free write about something my character does often, some sort of ritual or habit that may not even be part of my story but that gives me more insight into who he/she is and how he/she relates to the world around her. These rituals could be simple things like walking to the mailbox to get the mail, washing and putting away the dishes, or riding a bicycle to the market to get a freeze pop. I add as many sensory details into this free write as possible. What does my character see, hear, smell, touch, taste? When doing a free-write like this, let your character be a little ADD. Let him/her get distracted and wander around a bit.
For me, these sensory details bring life to my setting. No longer is my character just riding her bike to the market but now her bike tires are squeaking with every rotation as she bounces along the dirt road. A mockingbird cries back in response from the maple tree up ahead. She stops to listen then squawks herself to see if the bird will mimic her own call. She hears the gurgling of a creek and lets her bike fall to the ground (the kickstand is broken) so she can investigate. Beavers have begun building a dam that has formed a pool of water deep enough to swim in. She wades in up to her knees and feels the cold clay bottom and creek stones worn smooth by years in the water stream . . . (At this point, I would continue, possibly writing about the smell of wet leaves and the water bugs that are flitting across the top of the pool of water. And on, and on until she finally makes it to the market for her freeze pop. And then I would describe the market . . .)
(As a side note, sometimes free-writes like this give me ideas for plot fixes. For example, that beaver dam could now play a key role in my story as the county moves in to minimize the damage to the land and wants to relocate the beavers. That’s just the sort of thing my character might get up in arms about!)
After finishing the free-write, I find places where I can sprinkle the details throughout my work-in-progress. (Like that broken kickstand. It had nothing much to do with the scene in the free-write but it could show up as a frustration in several places in my story.) Often, these details add more depth to my characters as I consider their responses to their surroundings. You may not even have a main character you’re working with right now. That’s okay. If you don’t, I want you to do this exercise about yourself. Take pen and paper with you as you go about one of your daily rituals if you have to. This will teach you to capture some of the details of your own setting that you might otherwise miss.
As a short example, one of my own rituals from when I lived in America was to sit on the front porch and watch for deer in the pasture in the morning. As I sat on a slightly damp cushion in the rocking chair, there was often mist rising from the ground in the quiet of the morning. Glints of dew shone in the sunlight on the peace lily at my feet. The sweet smell of honeysuckle hung in the morning air. A few sips of my warm cup of coffee and I was already sweating in the humidity. The slats on the back of my rocking chair creaked with each sway back and forth and the rails on the bottom bumped against the uneven tiles of the porch floor. It was a rhythm that matched the beat of my heart, slowed my breathing, focused my contentment. When I saw a deer in the distance, my breath caught in my lungs. I couldn’t move. Afraid to even exhale, I silently straightened my spine so I could see more of him over the rise . . .
I could continue on and on but I want you to get started! You’ll see from my very short examples above that this is not the sort of free-write that you will lift and put directly in a story. Since this free-write includes no dialogue (not that it can’t, but mine doesn’t), it’s not the kind of thing that will move your plot forward significantly.
When I free-write like this, my writing tends to involve my character wandering around in the woods or walking to school in the city or cleaning up his/her bedroom! It’s fairly boring as a whole, but the purpose of this is to give you the details of your character’s surroundings to use in your larger work-in-progress. You will likely write more details than you will be able to use.
Easy-Peasy Bottom Line:
1. Choose a habit or ritual or a daily event (your own or your character’s).
2. Describe what your character sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes while doing this activity.
3. If you want to expand the scene, add your own touches. (Broken doorknobs, the sniffles, dog poop, a spider web, etc. are all things that might make your character respond differently to their habitual daily event. And if you fear your writing seems simple or boring, remember this quote from John Wooden: “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”