Guest novelist Cathy Parker: Yes, writing what you know is exciting!

Write what you know—any craft article or book will so advise you. You read this advice and you think: What I know could put a cowboy to sleep during a steer riding contest.

I beg to differ.

Write Yourself. Today let’s limit ourselves to what you know best: yourself. The trick is to write “you,” as the character, and then supercharge what you know: tweak and twist “yourself,” drop “yourself” into unexpected places and crises for unexpected reasons.

You are the undercoat, and the undercoat consists of your experiences, occupation(s), and personality traits (cerebral, social, loner, mixer, one friend or one hundred, quick temper, calm as the sea at slack tide, voluble, silent, energetic or laid back?). Paint your characters with these traits. Create a “why” for such traits, or create your exact opposite. Or imagine taking such traits to the extreme—the uses are endless.

Pay attention to your idioms. Your pattern of speech. The way you interact with people. What, when and how you eat. Sleep patterns. Your relationship with animals. And on and on it goes. How could you create with what you see in yourself?

Details count in creating characters. Look yourself over. Notice what’s there. Find a way to use it. Your hair for example: what if something interesting happens because of a character’s hair? Maybe your protagonist falls down a crazy rabbit hole because he answers an ad for a clinic treating baldness. Maybe your character’s fortunes change the day she gives up trying for the long hair she’ll never have, and gets a short dynamite cut.

Know, and then imagine. This is only the beginning. You still have your experiences from childhood through school and all the big and little jobs you’ve held or wanted but didn’t get, stayed at or left. Friends. Vacations. Family. All stepping off points for the imagination.

            What you know will give your work truth.

            What you imagine will give your work wings.

            Come on now, go out and write what you now know!

Cathy Parker is a former journalist and attorney. She can be contacted through her website, AuthorCathyParker.com. Her book Power of Three is available on-line, and the sequel, Power Multiplied is available for preorder. Subscribers to Cathy’s newsletter who send digital proof of preordering will be receiving three stories surrounding her Power Rising Trilogy.

Picture by Ashim D’Silva, unsplash.com

Soul Vitamin: Idle Brain Time

Neuroscience rebuffs long-held prejudices against idleness and play. In Autopilot: The Art & Science of Doing Nothing, scientist and engineer Andrew Smart explains that focus actually suppresses our hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex.

This means that when we focus, we decrease blood flow and oxygen to our brains. But when we “space out”—yes, daydream—blood and oxygen supercharge those parts of our brain.

Idle brain time refuels the Default Mode Network (DMN). How important is our DMN? This network gives us our “aha moments.” Consider how vital ideas are in creative work.

So, if we as writers require such moments, how can we have healthy DMN?

1. Allow yourself time where you stare off into space, nap, walk, paint a wall or shovel manure.

2. Give yourself a union break, a sabbath and/or a good night’s sleep.

3. Cultivate solitude.

Excerpt from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process and Creative Soul Care. Available at cynthiabeach.com.

A Multi-Vitamin for Souls: Play

Zane Grey, a prolific wordsmith whose eighty-nine novels sold over forty million copies, learned about the importance of play the day he learned about fishing.

As a boy, his parents disapproved of those who fished. According to his biography, it offended their work ethic. But Grey fell in love with rivers and fish and the great outdoors, and when he met Old Muddy Miser, he learned an invaluable lesson:

You must make fishing a study, a labor of love, no matter what your vocation will be. You must make time for your fishing. Whatever you do, you will do it all the better for the time and thought you give fishing.

Old Mudd Miser’s words allowed Grey to put play higher on his to-do list than his parents would have permitted, and through it, Grey found that there was no shame in loving and doing an activity that didn’t seem to gain him much in the world of adult economy.

Why is an activity like fishing not a waste of time? Why might such things, in fact, be like vitamins for us creatives?

Fishing or walking or painting or tinkering “fiddles” with your creative dials, says Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic. It’s about opening our minds through creativity. It’s not about performance or perfectionism. Thus, when novelist Tracy Groot gets tangled on a plot, she knits.

Even Einstein recognized the value of giving ourselves quiet downtime. He names this “combinatory play,” writes Gilbert.

We who get too good at adulting need playtimes.

Apply It: How do you fiddle with your creative dials?

From Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care, available Feb., 2019.

Seeing Things: One Writer’s Call

The old weathered post wore a sculpted head, its curves elegant, shapely. Rising from the sand, it framed the right edge of the vista that spread beyond the crest of the hill that led me to Lake Huron.

As a teen living near the lake, I walked along shore to think. Up the hill I’d scramble, my feet sunk in sand. At the crest, I’d pause to gape: that horizon stretch of blue-silver with the post anchoring the corner of the picture I always imagined taking.

Then one day I climbed the hill and—no post. Gone. Disappointment surged through me. Later, when I lamented to family members about the missing post, they said, “What post?”

The post became my symbol for that Something About Me—that part of me that noticed things others didn’t. My physical eye saw details like the post. My inner eye saw other details—emotional currents, nonverbal signals.

This seeing, at times, propelled me into isolation. It wasn’t an attribute I prized. My pain echoed in the words of Lara, the character from the Russian novel Doctor Zhivago. For Lara also asked, “Why is it my fate to see everything and take it all to heart?”

As teachers encouraged me to write—to record what my seeing revealed, this trait gradually became a gift. I began encountering ways of understanding this seeing. Catherine Marshall’s novel, Christy, taught me that God might be the One asking me to see. Christy’s mentor explains, “God had to take my little girl hands off my little girl eyes.” This idea electrified me. I understood. Be willing to see. This was what He asked.

Other reading confirmed my calling to bear witness. Another Russian, poet Anna Akhmatova, showed me how needed is this skill:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold….Now she started out of her torpor…and asked me in a whisper, “Can you describe this?” And I said, “I can.” Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

A recognized poet—her power to see and to name—stirred a desperate woman’s hope. I would try. I would try to look around me, to be the one to see. My seeing was a gift, the writing too—to be the one who would.

Excerpted from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care (2019)

 

 

Dream Details: Corkboards and Character Pics

Corkboard lust. I have it in spades. Not one. Not two. Not even three. No, four corkboards hang in my writing room, filled with pictures. Crammed full, I should say.

These pictures guide the most basic ingredient of all in my fiction writing: specific details. They help me see my characters. It doesn’t matter that I’ve now traveled with my characters Trish and Maria and Pastor Goodman for ten years. The pictures support me like training wheels on a kiddo’s bike. They stabilize my mental image of a character’s face, hair, hands, pose.

Old pictures of a young Candice Bergen—yeah, that award-winning actor—saturate my description: the square watch face, the pigtails, the sunglasses on her head. Another Bergen shot in warm light is an extreme close up where her fingers curl around her forward blowing hair. These pictures coax me to see Esther, co-protagonist Trish’s mom.

Another actor coaches my ability to see Trish herself. I had clipped pictures of an Eddie Bauer model—who, like Trish had long blond hair. But then I saw Another Earth and Brit Marling in action. Trish! Marling’s appearance delivered needed specifics: dark level brows, a steady and direct gaze.

And what of Matthew Goodman? The face and hair of actor Bruce Greenwood feeds my imagination. Goodman needs good looks to succeed in broadcast. Greenwood, although now aged past my character, maintained a boyish yet dignified appearance. How? The deep forehead, the thick hair, the wideset eyes.

These pictures and their ready availability on corkboards fuel my imagination—and the dream details I need with which to lull my readers.

Excerpted from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care (2019)