Teachers Write – 7/17 – Tuesday Quick-Write

It’s time for our Tuesday Quick-Write, and I am super-excited to introduce you to guest author and scientist Loree Griffin Burns. Loree is a gifted author of nonfiction, and someone I’m also lucky enough to call a critique partner and friend.  She writes award-winning Scientists in the Field titles like TRACKING TRASH and THE HIVE DETECTIVES and is also the author of the newly released CITIZEN SCIENTISTS: BE PART OF A SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, which is one the best books I’ve ever seen for classrooms and families that value inquiry, exploration, and time spent in nature. Learn more at Loree’s website.  And now here’s Loree with some thoughts on characterization.

I love that I get to follow Sarah Albee’s Nonfiction Friday with a Nonfiction Tuesday. And how could I start anywhere else but with a link to the Nonfiction Monday that fell in between?  It’s the perfect way for me to be sure all you teacher-writers and librarian-writers know that on Mondays, nonfiction bloggers around the web celebrate children’s nonfiction with reviews and book-related links and activities.  You can find the weekly roundup by visiting the official  Nonfiction Monday website.

Now, on to the subject of my guest post: characterization.

 Be honest: are you surprised that a writer like me—one who writes about ocean trash and honey bees and backyard science—would choose to write a feature on the topic of characterization? Do you think of character development as a strictly fictional device? For a long time, I did too.  For most of my reading and writing life, in fact, I had it in my head that fiction writers were storytellers and nonfiction writers were, well, reporters. The former, in my misguided mind, had access to all the neat storytelling tools—characterization, setting, conflict, foreshadowing, pacing, etc—and the latter were meant to simply share the facts.

 This misunderstanding was blown to bits when I read THE BEAK OF THE FINCH back in 1995. In this nonfiction title, Jonathan Weiner opened my eyes to an important truth: all writers must use every tool at their disposal to make their storytelling engaging. Weiner shared the true story of Peter and Rosemary Grant—evolutionary biologists who have recorded, over the course of more than twenty years of Galapagos fieldwork, the process of evolution in action—in a book that reads like a novel. (And remains, for the record, one of my all time favorites in the genre.)

 Let readers know your character, ground those readers in a setting, entice them with a unique voice, thrill them with tension and strong pacing, include telling details, rich dialog, and don’t forget to share memorable images, literal ones of the sort Sarah talked about on Friday, or figurative ones you draw with your words.  Structure your story so that all these elements work together, pulling your readers through the narrative page by page.  These are tasks for all of us who share stories, whether the stories we tell are true or are born from our imaginations.  

 Here’s an example from my current work in progress …

 I’m drafting a book about an entomologist.  Clint McFarland is a passionate scientist and a true lover of insects … and yet his job (and this is the heart of my story) is to kill every last Asian longhorned beetle in North America. A man who kills beetles for a living will be hard enough for my young readers to take; when I tell them that the way one kills this particular beetle is by cutting down and chipping every single host tree in its range—no matter if those trees shade a schoolyard or sport backyard treehouses—well, I might lose them.  Before I share this part of the story, then, it’s important that I let readers see Clint as the caring and passionate guy he is. This man adores insects. Passionately. Deeply. How do I show this side of Clint? By sharing his personality on the page. By paying close attention to how I introduce him. In short, with careful characterization.

 To this end, I spent several hours last week reading through all the interviews I’ve conducted with Clint. (For the record, our five in-person interviews resulted in forty-one pages of transcribed notes.) I hunted for details that will help readers understand the type of guy Clint is. There was the surprising confession that he cuts his long hair every so often in order to donate a ponytail to Locks of Love. (I told you he was a nice guy!) And evidence of his passion for insects was everywhere: the set of ladybug life cycle toys on his office bookshelves (“biologically accurate egg, larva, pupa, and adult,” he told me), the worn copy of Thomas Eisner’s <i>For Love of Insects</i>. My favorite detail by far, though, was a scene I recorded when a member of Clint’s staff found an insect in the parking lot and brought it in to show Clint during our interview. “You’ll love this,” the staff member said, holding out a cup with a dead Dobsonfly inside.  I’d never seen one before, but I can now tell you this: Dobsonflies are sort of hideous. This particular beast was over two inches long, but gained almost another full inch from the set of curved, scythe-like mandibles stretching out the top of its head. The mandibles looked like pincers, and as I was trying to figure out if they could pierce human skin, Clint turned the creature into his bare hand, marveled over its ‘amazing wings’, and ran a gentle finger over its ‘gorgeous mandibles.’

 If I can craft a chapter that shares these details with readers, I won’t need to tell them Clint is a compassionate man with a heart for insects. They will have learned it for themselves.

 Writing Exercise:

The good thing about this prompt, I think, is that everyone can play along, fiction and nonfiction writers alike. 

Choose a character from one of your works in progress—a real person (if you are working on a nonfiction piece) or a made up person (if you are working on a novel or a short story).  Comb through all your files—physical or mental—on this person, and pull out the details that tell you the most about his/her character.

If this feels overwhelming, start small. Does s/he have an office? Go there and look around. Is it messy? Or crazy-neat? What’s the desktop look like? Is there a half glass of orange juice on board? A reusable thermal coffee mug? An army of old Dunkin’ Donuts cups? What is the dust situation? Is there anything hanging on the walls? Are there bookshelves? Are the books on them just what you’d expect to see, or does something there surprise you?

I think you get the idea. All writers can benefit from some quality time spent observing the little details—settings (as I’ve talked about here and in my post), but also habits, dialog, and actions—that tell us who our characters are.  

Nonfiction writers will finish this exercise realizing, if they hadn’t already, that the best way to get these details is to meet your subject—or someone with a passion for your topic—in person. Push your nerves aside and set up that interview!

29 Replies on “Teachers Write – 7/17 – Tuesday Quick-Write

  1. The music was too loud. Travis laid his head on the back window. He loved how the downtown lights shined against the night. The blackness of the sky etched hard against the light, but the streets stood strong. Each lamp post a single soldier standing their ground.
    “We are getting crazy tonight!” Randy hollered before taking a swig of his “Mad Dog Bomb,” a mix of 20/20 and Mountain Dew. Travis sipped his. Dan and Billy slammed theirs with a “hell ya!”
    “Come on Travis, drink up. We are going to do this right tonight.”
    Travis took a serious swig, then turned back to the battle between the night sky and the streetlights. And at the age of 17 started to wonder if this was the best life had to offer…

    1. I like the etched hard, battle, and standing strong imagery. It makes me want to read on to see if Travis’s life will mimick the scene or veer off with a surprising twist.

    2. Thank you all for reading. Travis and Steven (character I wrote a poem for in this workshop) will cross paths in the story I am working on.

  2. I clearly remember the book that shattered my notions of non-fiction. It was “Dark Tide:The Great Molasses Flood of 1919” by Stephen Puleo. In an opening scene, a man (Isaac?) awoke from a nightmare about the molasses tank exploding and ran through the streets of the North End of Boston to open the tap and release some molasses. I was dumbstruck. I thought, “Isn’t this non-fiction?” How does Puleo know what this man was dreaming back in 1918? I was annoyed, I admit it. I thought the author made up a dream sequence for dramatic effect.

    What did I do? I read the author’s note and the credits only to realize he DID NOT make any of it up. Puleo had discovered 20,000 pages of court documents about the event. The man had told the story about awakening from the dream in open court. WOW! I devoured that book and told everyone I knew about it. (Side note: Deborah Kops wrote an awesome Young Adult version of the story, “The Great Molasses Flood,” that came out this past spring).

    Anyway, my opinion of non-fiction changed that day. I started reading more adult non-fiction which ultimately lead to me reading more children’s and Young adult non-fiction. I’m especially partial to picture book biographies and other non-fiction picture books (like Over and Under the Snow) and the Scientists in the Field series. And, of course Citizen Scientists is my most recent favorite!

    While I mostly write fiction, inspired by these works, I now have several non-fiction projects in the pipeline.

    1. I love this story, Michele. I’ve not read the book, but I know that feeling of suspicion that wakes up when you are reading a work of nonfiction and something seems too good to be true. And I *love* author’s notes, especially when they reveal a treasure like this. Twenty-thousand pages of testimony? Suddenly my hundreds of pages of transcribed interviews seem underwhelming …

  3. My room is pretty bare, on account of mom selling most of our furniture. Well, furniture, books, toys, whatever she could get her hands on to make a bit of cash. No worries, because I tend to be in my own little head world anyway. My room hasn’t been cleaned in a million years: mom’s too depressed to do anything, and I’m not the cleaning type. Since I only have the bed and my computer, it can’t really get that dirty. There’s one thing I won’t let my mom near. That’s my picture of dad that I have sitting on the floor right next to my bed. Mom tore it in half when the big split happened, so all I have is the dad half. But that’s ok, because I found this great frame in the trashcan down the street, and the photo fits pretty well. I know I shouldn’t still love my dad, but I do, and I wanted some reminder of him. Mom wasn’t just getting rid of stuff to make some money, she was also getting rid of anything that had to do with dad. I think if she could have reached into my head and plucked out all the memories from the past of how our family used to be, she would have done that, too.

    1. Diane,

      But that’s ok, because I found this great frame in the trashcan down the street, and the photo fits pretty well. I know I shouldn’t still love my dad, but I do, and I wanted some reminder of him. – WOW! The details give a description of the setting, but they give an even better description of the character. Nicely done!

    1. Ditto. Awesome closing image and subtly powerful implications in saving the torn photo. Thanks for sharing, Diane.

  4. He’d said it was messy and not to go in.  But, the eyeball-doorhandle cover of the nine-year-olds bedroom was calling my name.  Stealthily, I opened the door.  It was different than I’d seen it before because the T-crossed bunkbed was away from the wall.  That pathway looked clean, as was the ten-inch wide path that led to it.  The rest of the room was a sight.  Strewn with clothing, toys, sports equipment, and I don’t know what (because I backed out quickly to avoid being caught) was his room.  I could see where he slept on his camo-sheeted top bunk, between his camo wadded-up comforter, a camo-covered pillow, and a Mickey-Mouse-and-friends-covered pillow.  There was also a cleared space on the end of the bottom bunk where he sat to play his video games.  Oh my, should I suggest that we work together to clean the room?  Where would we start?  What could we do with all of that stuff in a house that was already too small with too little storage?  His three-year-old brother was supposed to be moving into the room to sleep on the bottom bunk.   Could I organize those two as a team to tackle the job?  No, I backed out of that thinking as quickly as I’d backed out of that room.  Instead, the boys and I have GONE FISHING.

    1. Wendi,

      Nicely done! Your details help the reader see the room (I love the cleared space to play video games) and also imagine the character.

      Favorite sentences: Oh my, should I suggest that we work together to clean the room? Where would we start? What could we do with all of that stuff in a house that was already too small with too little storage? – Having four kids, I ask this question daily. You nailed it!

  5. Hi, Loree. When I think about the nonfiction I read as a child (lots of bios), I think the details about the individuals’ lives not related to their fame interested me most. I remember a professor telling me years ago to look for the same characteristics of great fiction in nonfiction and to use these in my own writing. That’s such fabulous advice. BTW, I’m rooting for Clint. I know from first-hand observation the devastation beetles wreck on Lodge Pole Pines. The beetle is a real problem in Yellowstone, and I remember the first time I saw it’s destruction of the Targhee National Forest. Trees were stripped bear for miles. The beetle is a predatory, invasive species.

    1. That WAS fabulous writing advice, Glenda.

      Clint is after a different beetle than the one that’s devastating pine trees in Yellowstone, but the situations are similar in a lot of ways. I’m rooting for him, too. Because he is my protagonist, of course, but also because I live in the area that is currently infested. We are making huge sacrifices to our landscape–tens of thousands of trees have been removed already–in hopes of sparing the northeast hardwood forest.

  6. Ben’s parents liked antique furniture more than he did, which is why they bought the roll-top desk. He didn’t know why they put it in his room, but unlike many gifts they foisted on him, he actually came to like this one. The desk’s rich bronze wood glowed in any light. Its burnished metal pulls always felt unexpectedly cool to his touch. Sometimes, he would pass minutes just tugging the roll-top up and down, enjoying the rhythmic clacking of the slats. The desk was a warren of hiding places – a double deck of different-sized cubbies behind the work surface; six drawers of varying heights, divided eccentrically into compartments; and the deepest, widest pencil tray he had ever scene. The trouble with all these thrilling stash spots, he soon learned, was that he filled them up. The pencil tray was now a jumble of utensils, plus stray paper clips and brackets of homeless staples. All six drawers choked on magazines and old toy cars. Curled papers poked from the cubbies, along with an occasional granola bar. A more recent tide of clutter covered the desktop. He rolled his eyes and yanked the roll-top closed. Yes, he definitely loved that desk. It was all the other junk he could do without.

    1. I love this description. It reminds me of how excited I was to get my first desk when I was little–not so wonderfully elaborate as this one, but exciting just the same. This writing is so inviting–I don’t know how certain types of writing can give you that feeling of wanting to sink comfortably into it and curl up, but this one does that, if that makes sense!! And then that sort of violation of the beautiful desk by being junked up, great.

    2. Excellent description of the desk! I once owned a desk very similar to that one, but like Ben, I used it as a rolling storage closet instead of a desk. Thanks for sparking that memory. The funny thing is that my desk at school (not nearly has nice) always becomes a storage counter for my stuff. 🙂

      My favorite sentences: The desk’s rich bronze wood glowed in any light. Its burnished metal pulls always felt unexpectedly cool to his touch. Sometimes, he would pass minutes just tugging the roll-top up and down, enjoying the rhythmic clacking of the slats. – AWESOME!

  7. All of the lockers look the same on the outside. Why are Mom and Dad so insistent on seeing the inside of my locker? I should have cleaned my room like Mom asked last Saturday afternoon. If I had, I would have found that open, half full bag of Doritos from last summer and that book that needed to go back to the library two years ago. And why on Open House Night? Of all nights, they want me to open it in front of a hallway of friends, parents, and teachers. Well, here goes. Phew! It doesn’t look as bad as it usually looks, but the look on Mom’s face is one of horror. Dad reaches into my locker and for a few seconds his hand disappears into the bedlam of clutter. But, he pulls out two empty water bottles, gym shorts from September or October (it is April), the literature circle book that Mom had to pay for because it was lost, a piece of chewed gum wrapped (or should I say crumpled) in Mrs. Riley’s grading policy that we got on the third day of school, a note with hearts all over it from Danielle (How embarrassing?), a lunch tray that I must have not returned, and about a dozen tests that should have been signed by Mom or Dad. Yikes! I guess I can forget about going to my lacrosse game tomorrow night.

    Loree, thanks for the lesson and the writing prompt. While reading about characterization, I kept thinking about the nonfiction book entitled Surviving Hitler. The author Andrea Warren brings Jack Mandelbaum, the boy whose story she is telling, to life. My students and I laugh with Jack and cry with Jack, and it feels like we know him by the end of the story. A must read!

    As for Clint, I can’t wait to read more about him. 🙂 Thanks again!

    1. There is a room in my house that resembles that locker … and it is NOT mine!

      Thanks for sharing this, Andy. And for the book tip, too. (My To Read list is growing as a result of this post!)

    2. I laughed out loud at the grading policy wrapped in chewing gum wrapper. It’s so funny how we’re all such little pack rats! That could be a really tension-filled scene if there was something super embarrassing in there! Interesting idea.

  8. Andy and Michelle’s book recommendations reminded me of a craft book I was going to recommend in my post. If you are interested in thinking more deeply about creative nonfiction, consider THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER: ART AND CRAFT IN CREATIVE NONFICTION, by Dinty W. Moore. It’s one of my favorites.