Where do you get your ideas?

Glass half full - Guenette photo

Recently, I was asked this question – How do you come up with the ideas for your books? The person asking was sincere in a desire to understand the inner workings of a novelist’s process. My first thought was that ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re everywhere, free for the taking. As Amy Tan wrote, “It’s a luxury being a writer, because all you ever think about is life.”

Neil Gaimon talks of how every profession has its pitfalls. Doctors are asked for medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal information, morticians are told how interesting their profession must be before the subject is quickly changed. Writers must bear the burden of being asked where we get our ideas from.

I scrambled to pull my thoughts together and make an adequate reply. I considered answering as Hemingway would. “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” From there all will flow. I rejected that idea. By quoting Hemingway I ran the risk of sounding like a literary snob and such an answer would have been unsatisfying to a sincere questioner.

Instead, I talked of how I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters. They are the ones who have all the ideas. I’m with Stephen King when he says that the best stories always end up being about the people, not the events. The only problem with this answer is that it begged the next question. Where do the characters come from?

Where indeed? Even after five forays into creating characters and stories that fill whole books, the process is as much a mystery to me as it might be to someone who has never done it. Fair to say, as Chuck Palahniuk notes, “My writing process isn’t a very organized thing.”

The more I think about how the books came to be, the more the indefinable nature of the work strikes me. It’s almost as if I have fallen victim to a strange reflective amnesia. Where on earth did those first characters in Disappearing in Plain Sight come from? I just don’t know. E.L Doctorow tells us, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” He might have been wise to add that when looking in the rear-view mirror, one can see nothing at all.

The writing process is a hard thing to discuss. Virginia Wolfe had it right when she reflected that, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of … life, every quality of … mind is written large in his [or her] words.”

All I know for sure is that all my life I’ve wondered about people. I’ve always been curious and I’ve always been prone to wild bouts of speculation. Questions of ‘what if’ have often driven my thoughts.

Maybe George Orwell has the answer. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one weren’t driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Orwell could have also noted that having to talk about such a process is worse than going through it!

A new bird in town - Guenette photo

On the Road Again

Big Hole National Battlefield, Montana - bruce witzel photo

I recently wrote a blog entitled – What kind of a traveller are you? I lauded the many opportunities a trip provides for a tried and true writer’s way to fill the time – people watching. I’ll soon be at that pursuit again, folks.

Bruce and I are in the process of turning our entire home upside down in order to prepare for an extended car trip to points afar. We love the car trips. There is an exhilarating freedom that comes from packing up a vehicle that one could never experience with a mere suitcase. Of course, this freedom can lead to excess.

If there’s one chance in a million we might need it – sure, throw it in! We excel at this type of thinking. We won’t leave home without a very large unopened jar of peanut butter stowed away somewhere. No way we’ll risk the chance of being stranded without a good source of high calorie protein. You just never know!

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We are constantly tuned to arranging the many items in our car in such a way that laying our hands on what we need will be as painless as possible. It takes a few days on the road for true organization to emerge – setting up a roadside picnic in a matter of moments, laying our hands on bathing suits and towels for that wonderful hot springs stop we can’t miss, finding the essential electronics when we stop for the day. But no sooner do we get into the swing of things than the early starts and late stops take their toil on our organizational skills – meagre at the best of times. The well placed suitcases, coolers and organized shopping bags start to shift. Travel guides for the day’s miles to cover and sights to see go astray, a precious chunk of cheese gets lost in the melting ice at the bottom of the cooler, and though I packed at least twenty-five hair ties, the one that is left can’t be found. All part of the joy of a road trip.

Watch for my posts as we travel the scenic byways. We’ll be in the RAV4 with all our gear perfectly organized. Not! My plan is to post every second day, keeping it short – highlights and a couple of photos. Feel free to follow along – we all love a caravan.

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Cloudy Skies and Collages

Creating with collage!

Fran's Collage - July 2016

I’ve recently been reunited with all my collage material. It is pure joy to haul all the brown envelopes of magazine pics out, dump them all over the table and get busy creating. Collage is a wonderfully creative and therapeutic activity. Give it a try if you are trying to work something out. Whatever comes out of the process is bound to be enlightening.

Writing Foibles and Personal Word Traps

Google images - binoculars

When the writing muse takes hold and my fingers start moving at lightning speed over the keyboard, I litter the pages with my personal word traps … combinations or single words that I dump into my writing at an alarming rate. I don’t see these repetitions going in and I don’t see them when I do multiple readings. As the perpetrator of these writing foibles, I am utterly blind to their existence.

You can only imagine my joy when I discovered the find function in Word. If you haven’t used this Word function magic – though I suspect I was the last in the world to discover it – you will see it on the upper right hand menu bar beside an icon of binoculars – so fitting!

I’m in the process of editing two novels right now. Yesterday, I plugged in the words – and then – to the find function and no less than one hundred and twenty incidents of using this troublesome combination came up. Another of my foibles is the word just. I sprinkle that word through my work the way a heavy-handed salt lover would dust a plate of fries. And once I get into the editing process, the word is as hard to spot as those individual grains of salt would be.

After going through the editing process with my first two novels and a book of short stories, I believed – quite naively – that I had learned my lesson. The problem words and combinations had been pointed out to be and I had set myself the task of rooting them out. Surely, I would now cease to write in this way. Alas, it is not to be. The find function continues to reveal my personal bug-a-boos.

Since I am probably the only writer guilty of such heavy usage of the find function to locate incidents of – and then, or just – I will share some of the other useful aspects of this word processor miracle. I have a notebook in which I’ve jotted down specific words that constantly trip me up. Things like – roommate is one word; full-time is hyphenated, halfway is one word. All I need do is plug in half way as two words and the find function will instantly alert me to all the times I’ve made this error. I also check my common typos – for example, Crate Lake instead of Crater Lake.

When we get to line-by-ling editing of anything I’ve written, my editor will be thrilled to learn that I have started a new section in my notebook entitled – Find function tasks before sending any portion of this manuscript for editing. The list is long but thankfully Word is fast.

I’ll leave you today with a small section of Chasing Down the Night – the third book in the Crater Lake Series, coming out in late spring of this year! Editor input made this passage smooth as a stone polished by the waves of millennium and nary a just or and then to be had.

Izzy stared out the window to the harbour. Sunshine danced above the surface of the choppy water and glinted off the metal of the boats jostling against the dock. The bright white bodies and yellow beaks of seagulls stood out against the clear blue sky as they swooped and set up a raucous cacophony of sound. Beyond the tightly-packed pleasure boats, the fishing fleet was coming in. Grey, hulking seiners lumbered past the breakwater towards the commercial wharf. Hemmed in by massive creosoted pilings, the wide structure dwarfed the vehicles and people that moved about on it like so many colourful playthings being pushed around on a toy room floor. The already noisy harbour was suddenly dominated by the roar of a seaplane. Wide pontoons skimmed the waves before the plane lifted into the air on wings buffeted to and fro by the wind.

Dock - Guenette photo

The Johari Window for Writers

Quebec City - Bruce Witzel photo

I recently shared a model of self-disclosure called the Johari Window on my Saying What Matters blog. In my post today, I want to discuss the use of this model as a tool for character development and transformation in novel writing.

Johari Window

If you study the model for a moment you will notice that it represents four distinct quadrants of knowledge. The analogy of windows is used to stress the fact that, for each individual, the window is opened or closed to a certain degree and this window configuration is always changing. Let’s relate these four quadrants to character development:

  1. What everyone knows about the character including the reader. If a character reveals a bit more about self, then this window opens wider.
  2. What a character knows about self and doesn’t reveal to anyone else – this can significantly drive a plot forward and be a wonderful means of creating dramatic tension. For the reader who is inside the point-of-view of a particular character, having this knowledge when other characters don’t can create immediacy and intimacy with a character.
  3. What another knows about a character but the character doesn’t know – when one character reveals a blind-spot to another all kinds of sparks can fly. We know how this feels in real life, so it is easy to imagine how our characters will react.
  4. What no one knows about a character – this becomes an area ripe for insights, epiphany moments and revelations, not only for the character in question but for other characters and the reader.

In the course of any novel worth reading, characters are emotionally transformed in a way that is significant to the plot by dramatic action in the story. No action – no transformation – no story. Action drives a character’s discoveries in these various quadrants and as the window configurations change, transformation occurs.

The Johari Window could become a valuable model for developing your character’s unique point-of-view and deciding the actions that need to take place to push your plotlines along.

Let’s take Lisa-Marie, one of the significant characters from the Crater Lake Series, and use this model to study her transformation.

When Lisa-Marie is first introduced, everyone knows she is Bethany’s niece who has come to stay at Crater Lake for the summer. She is sixteen, she’s witty and she has a bit of an attitude. But Lisa-Marie definitely has her secrets and though the reader is in her point-of-view often, these are not revealed all at once. Through the literary device of her diary, Lisa-Marie works at not only revealing things for the reader, but opening wider her own window of self-knowledge. Justin, the young man that Lisa-Marie has set her sights on, sees things in her that she hasn’t yet discovered about herself. When he reveals some of these blind-spots to her, dramatic tension ramps up. But ultimately, these revelations contribute to Lisa-Marie’s self-knowledge and along with the discoveries she has already made about herself she is transformed.

New Denver 2 - Bruce Witzel photo

Suggestions for using The Johari Window

Take one of your important characters and list in point form the types of knowledge that would go in each quadrant. Estimate the degree to which each window is open or closed. Do this exercise for that character at the beginning of the novel and at the end.

  • Has transformation occurred?
  • What action (taken by a character, created by character interactions, coming from outside the character) will move these windows?

Please, let me know what you think of the Johari Window as a tool for character development. I’m all ears!