August 28, 2011

Enthuse Your Muse With Strange and Unusual Places

Search online for places to inspire your next novel, and you’ll find scores of interesting venues just waiting for your characters to arrive and shake things up.

Here are several ideas to get you started.

Bithlo, Florida: Strange Sports
Head south to Bithlo for the “School Bus Figure 8 Races.” School buses, both traditional and custom designed, zoom around a figure-eight-shaped racecourse trying to navigate hairpin curves and avoid running into one another. What could be more fun than a place like Bithlo – the perfect setting for a quirky novel with quirky characters.

Cumberland Falls, Kentucky: Atmospheric Phenomenon
Moonbows occur regularly during the full moon at Cumberland Falls. A moonbow, or lunar rainbow, happens when moonlight refracts off the cascading water and creates a prism of light in the mist. Imagine that somewhere over the moonbow, a pair of lovers share a moonlit kiss in a romance novel written by you.

Ripon, Wisconsin: Historical Politics
Ripon considers itself the birthplace of the Republican Party. So does Jackson, Michigan. Dig a little deeper in Ripon, and you’ll find a granite marker near a small mid-1800s-style schoolhouse: “In this school house on March 20, 1854 was held the first mass meeting in this country that definitely and positively cut loose from old parties and advocated a new party under the name Republican.” What happened in that little schoolhouse when several dozen Riponians met to protest the extension of slavery? Is this sleepy, little town really the birthplace of the GOP? Here lies the plot for an historical novel about the evolution of the United States’ political system.

Darwin Falls, Minnesota: Unusual Landmarks
The world’s largest twine ball, rolled by one man, is displayed proudly in the town’s gazebo in Darwin Falls. Francis Johnson began rolling this ball of twine in his basement in 1950. He rolled four hours a day, every day, making sure that the ball was perfectly round. When it became too large for the basement, Johnson moved it to an open-air, circular shed on his farm. He kept rolling until he died in 1979. By then, the giant twine orb weighed nine tons and measured twelve-feet wide. My muse says 1950s Darwin Falls is the setting for a pre-teen novel about crop circles and a mysterious ball of string.

Annapolis Junction, Maryland: Secret Codes
The clandestine world of cryptology is unveiled at the National Cryptology Museum in Annapolis Junction. Are you thinking of an action-adventure novel full of mystery and intrigue? Then send your characters here to explore the code-making and code-breaking places, tools and techniques used by great masterminds of America’s national defense. Be careful, though. What your characters discover here might be a matter of life or death.

See? Just one unusual place is enough to inspire the setting, plot or characters for your next book.

Leave a comment, and share your ideas for other "novel" places.

August 21, 2011

Writing Tip: How to use Indirect Characterization

How well do you know your characters?

Good fiction digs deep into characters’ personalities. When writers go beyond direct narrative to show readers the depth of their characters, it is called indirect characterization. Indirect characterization is a subtle way of showing readers something about a character instead of telling them.

Here are the ways that indirect characterization works:

1. The setting, especially the contents of a character’s personal space (home, office, car, etc.), offers clues about the character’s personality.

When Linda Atkinson opened the front door, an overwhelming stench rushed past her; animal feces, rotting food, the unmistakable scent of mildew and mold. Slowly, carefully, she edged sideways through the narrow path in her aunt’s living room. Boxes packed with who-knows-what, stacked floor to ceiling, thrown precariously atop one another, blocked any light that might have come through the windows. Linda hesitated, fighting a crushing urge to run from the house and not look back.

2. Characters speak about one another giving personality hints to the reader.

“John always was one to procrastinate,” said old Mr. Potter. “He’s a selfish one, if you ask me. Too full of himself.”

3. Characters are what they do, say, and think.

Edward reached down and scratched Toby’s ears. The dog shoved its nose into the palm of Edward’s hand and licked it, wanting more. “You love me, don’t you boy?” said Edward. “You’re the only one who does.”

I wonder, thought Carolyn, if Ashley is really happy. She seems so on the outside, but there’s something about her that’s cynical and cold.

4. Characters are what they are compared to other characters.

Whenever Trevor swung the bat, at best it was a foul ball, but Wilson Mays, he connected almost one-hundred percent of the time.

The next time you read fiction, look for indirect characterization. Then practice using it in your writing.

August 12, 2011

Dreaming of a Writer's Retreat

My friend bought this as a gift to herself for her sixtieth birthday. It’s a fully restored 1946 Rascal travel trailer. She plans to join a group of vintage-trailer groupies who travel caravan-style to some of America's best campgrounds.

When I saw the Rascal, I thought: WRITER’S RETREAT! How cool would it be to haul this 12-foot writing hut to, say, Walden Pond (as it existed in Thoreau’s time, of course; writers don't need 21st Century tourists hanging around). I could sit in the Rascal, soak up the peaceful surroundings, and write to my heart’s content.

I fall asleep, almost every night, imagining the perfect place to write. I've always dreamed of having my very own writer’s retreat somewhere in a secluded woods overlooking a quiet, inland lake. No people. No sounds other than the gentle breeze rustling through the trees, tiny waves lapping the shore, birds singing, maybe an occasional grunt or howl from a wild animal, just to keep things interesting.

The other day, I got serious about turning my dream into reality. I Googled “writer’s retreats,” and I saw these. The web page said that I could order one and have it built in my garden (that is, if my garden were big enough for a retreat).

Here's the description for this one:

This wonderful garden retreat draws inspiration from the modest summerhouse in George Bernard Shaw's garden. This tiny, converted shed was where he created many of his masterpieces, including the Oscar winning screenplay for "Pygmalion" and the play "St Joan", for which he was to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

And this one:

The refurbished tool shed at the bottom of Virginia Woolf's garden forms the inspiration for the Reading Room. Despite living in privileged surroundings it was this distinctive outbuilding that was to provide her with the ideal place in which to write, think and relax.

If George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf could have their own little retreats, then why can't I? (That's a rhetorical question if you're thinking of leaving a comment.)

I needed to know more. The web site offered an online brochure, so I clicked on its link (you can, too, by clicking here). I discovered that the manufacturer is in the UK, and the prices were listed only in pounds. I liked that. I don’t do “pounds.” Unless you consider my weight, I’m sure that I don't have enough pounds to splurge on one of these retreats, let alone have it shipped across the ocean and built in my backyard. So, I left that web site and decided to keep hanging onto my dream. Who knows? Maybe when my friend isn't caravanning around the country, she'll let me write in her Rascal.

What do you dream about
when you hear the words “writer’s retreat?”

Click here to see how this woman turned her Airstream trailer into a studio.

August 3, 2011

3 Things I Learned About Style From Charles Dickens

If you follow my blog, then you know that a new project I’ve been working on (A Charles Dickens Devotional, Thomas Nelson, December 2011) renewed my interest in Charles Dickens’ writing style. Last month, I wrote a post about his descriptive writing, and today I’m following up with a few thoughts about his use of rhetorical devices—language designed to achieve a particular effect.

Here are three things I’ve learned about style from Charles Dickens:

1. Antithesis is a useful tool for subtle character development.

Antithesis—contrasting ideas by means of parallel arrangements of words, clauses, or sentences—can help to suggest what a character is thinking, not only about herself, but also about another character, as in this example from Great Expectations.

"So new to him," she muttered, "so old to me; so strange to him, so familiar to me; so melancholy to both of us!"

2. Polysyndeton can effectively move readers toward an important moment.
Polysyndeton—repetition of conjunctions in close succession—can get readers’ attention by adding emphasis where needed and by making the story flow more quickly and smoothly into a key part of the plot. Here is an example of polysyndeton, also from Great Expectations. Notice how the repetition of the conjunction “and” picks the reader up and carries him along.

A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

"O! Don't cut my throat, sir," I pleaded in terror. "Pray don't do it, sir.".

3. Personification expanded beyond a few words gives a specific object greater interest.
Personification—the representation of a thing or idea as a person or with human characteristics—is an elementary rhetorical device, but Dickens’ expands it and uses it to get readers to focus on a particular item, like these Spanish onions in A Christmas Carol.

Ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by.

Charles Dickens gave great thought to his words. He crafted each sentence carefully with a specific purpose and with his readers in mind. We can improve our own writing by studying his style and incorporating it wisely, carefully, and sparingly into our work.