Scent-sational Holidays

It’s no wonder I focus so much on sensory detail in my writing workshops (and in my writing) since I naturally key into sound and scent. I was reminded of this as I decorated for the holidays. It’s not just the tradition of listening to Christmas carols while we decorate either.

musicalMost of my ornaments and decorations trigger childhood memories, especially those items given to me by my mother, so decorating turns into time for nostalgia. But this year I realized that many of the ornaments make sounds–bells are most common–and I have more than a few decorations with wind-up music boxes that play tinny versions of Christmas carols. Many of the decorations also include potpourri or scented candles. I recall my college days when bayberry candles were a staple of gift giving and I still buy that scent for holiday candles.

This year, as I miss my father, I find myself also missing my mother and have been flooded with memories of her holiday preparations. These began with baking (and freezing cookies) in early November. While we were at school, she began baking and decorating dozens of pinwheels and sugar cookies. I still love the smell of entering a house and smelling the mild scent of crisped sugar, nutmeg and vanilla, with undertones of chocolate. There were always nibbles of cookies (which she claimed got broken or burned) as after-school snacks.

pumpkinpiesAs Thanksgiving neared, the scents of apples, cinnamon, pumpkin, and spices from pies and quick breads greeted us after a long day of math, science, social studies, reading, and holiday crafts. But my favorite days were those a day or two before Thanksgiving when the tang of tart cranberry sauce and brown sugar and cinnamon sticky buns wafted from the kitchen.

cookiescoolingAs December’s snow and chill took hold, holiday preparations continued but the scent of baking now mingled with the odors of Thanksgiving leftovers and hot, nourishing but easy meals such as vegetable soup or beef stew. They simmered all afternoon while Mom wrapped gifts to hide under her bed and at the back of her closet. Progress made daily for holiday magic to happen.

By the time school let out for Christmas break, we children were banned to the basement to play, and it was the perfect opportunity to sneak frozen cookies from the freezer in the corner. While I served as lookout, my brother peeled back the plastic cover of Mom’s massive Tupperware container and nabbed a few cookies. We shared them, breaking off pieces and savoring the chewiness the of mouth-thawed treats and tried to find the willpower not to sneak another and another. Oh, she always noticed that at least a dozen cookies were missing (by the time she pulled them out late on December 23rd), but it never prevented Santa from arriving to deliver presents to the cookie thieves.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Though I’ve updated the traditions of which cookies and quick breads to bake, I do make sure to have a pot of soup simmering in my slow cooker and fresh dinner rolls rising and baking as I put up the tree and untangle the lights. Sausage, carrots, and lentils mingle with the yeasty scent of rolls and the lingering aromas of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon as well as the tinkling of glass bell ornaments. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

So, when you’re writing, pull out the memories and use them as a springboard for ideas and events in your current project. Even if you’re writing fantasy fiction, consider what holidays your characters celebrate, how they react to them, what their happy (or unhappy) memories about them are, what they would change if they could. And don’t forget to focus on sounds and scents as you write those scenes.

Happy Holidays, and happy writing!

With a Writer’s Eye

Wow, August zipped by in a flash so I had to remind myself how much I got done. More organizing, more planning for both career and business (including an itinerary to submit to a few contest and launch some ecourses), and more refilling of my creative well. I’ve blogged about some of these topics before and you can click the links to read more if you’re interested.

On way I refilled my creative well during August was through extensive reading and watching movies. Not only was I entertained and inspired with ideas for my writing, I had the chance to study how stories were pieced together to engage the reader (or the viewer). Reading with a writer’s eye is one of the best ways for a writer at any level to improve his or her craft. It’s what made the difference for me (more than 25 years ago, now) in moving forward to repeatedly selling manuscripts.

The idea is simple and on the first day of my writing workshops, I suggest all participants pursue it. In fact, at their request, I taught a course in June called Reading with a Writer’s Eye. Basically, after enjoying a piece of writing, go back and study how the author helped you so enjoy it. How did the author use sensory detail, metaphor, string words together into vivid and engaging sentences? In essence, dissect the piece and then ask how you might do the same in your own writing.

During the course, I joked that in the past year I hadn’t read as much as I did in the past though I did watch a lot of movies and TV series. In fact, I’d signed up for Amazon Prime and so I was able to do “marathons” of entire TV seasons. And in viewing episode after episode, I saw how and understood story arc as I never had before. I noted how the writers left the viewer hanging until the next episode (which I was luck enough to be able to immediately watch). As I joked about it, the entire group realized that this, too, could be an aid in improving plot and character development. The class sessions soon included sharing of the story elements we discussed for each short story we covered during the 6-week course, but each week people compared the stories to favorite TV programs as well as favorite authors. It was organic and thought provoking todiscuss story a different levels.

So, during August, when my body was exhausted but my mind was restless, I discovered that Amazon Prime also allows one free pre-release ebook per month and free borrowing. (If the author publishes using Kindle Select, he or she still receives a royalty.) Thus, my month of marathon reading and viewing to refill my creative well with stories and spark new ideas and motivation for my own writing. If you weren’t aware of this service, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial. It’s made a huge different in my life and writing.

Fresh Step Forward

I always enjoy this time of year. Granted, it comes earlier here in Florida, but back-to-school time is ripe with fresh starts. As a kid I loved buying new clothes and school supplies. As a writing instructor I stocked up on pens, pencils, markers, highlighters, and paper for my own use as well as to offer to my students who needed them. As a freelance writer I find uses for quirky and unusual office supplies.

InsectPaperClipsMore important than these things is the mindset for a fresh start. This year I prepared by refilling my creative well during a week during which I “retreated” from social media and distractions. My intent was to give myself time to create new routines, but I now realize it allowed me to take a fresh step forward.

Like a true retreat, my aim was to quiet my mind so I could make decisions on which direction to take my coaching/teaching business as well as my writing career. To quiet my mind and refill my creative well, I spent time:

Devour books!

Devour books!

Reading. Not only did I devour books from one of my favorite services, Book Bub, but I discovered Overdrive, the service my local library system uses for ebook borrowing. I read so much there were a few days I only ate, slept, and read. When the stories began to merge together, I knew I needed to slow down–and work on some of my other goals for the week.

A coloring page from my Weekly Bloom e-mail.

A coloring page from my Weekly Bloom e-mail.

Reorganizing & Planning. This was another key goal for my “retreat” and an important step toward creating new routines. (Not to mention releasing the clutter so I could make decisions to move forward, which I blogged about earlier.) I also returned to diligently using my planner. This year I bought it from May You  Bloom and love the quotes and petals on the “life wheel.”

Fun with watercolors.

Fun with watercolors.

Tapping into my inner child. I love the May You Bloom site and weekly Blooms I receive by email. One of the best parts about this site is the “permission to be playful” and do something for ourselves every day. So, I embraced that idea and pulled out paints, colored pencils, and markers. I colored as if I were still a kid. Then I painted quick and simple quirky angels to place around my office. They inspire me.

Meditating and relaxing. You can’t “retreat” without tapping into the quiet. One of my favorite guided meditation coaches is Max Highstein. I love the Healing Waterfalls and others, which I used during my downtime. It helped me find calm center from which to make these important decisions and to work toward goals.

Two weeks later I’ve maintained a balance of work and relaxation that is both creative and energizing. Though I’ve cut back on all my teaching (dropped the college level altogether), I still keep my hand in through local workshops. So, technically, I’m not facing a new school year. Still, it’s gratifying to to put a fresh foot forward toward new goals. And my “retreat” helped make it happen. What are you doing to create a #freshforward this autumn?

Itching for Change

I have to confess a habit acquired from my mother. I get the itch to move about every 4 or 5 years. When I was growing up, if I came home from school to find furniture rearranged or I would now live in a new bedroom, it was a sign a move was in our future. It meant our large (and growing family) had, as Mom would say, “outgrown the neighborhood,” but it really meant we needed more space, or more space on a sprawling one-level (to save my mother’s bad legs from having to climb stairs).

It was also a convenient time to sort our toys and clothes and books and belongings to settle into our new home in a streamlined and organized manner. I recall finding games and toys that had been forgotten and choosing to keep those over frequently played items.

Ironically, we stayed in the same school district so I had the pleasure of attending 7 schools before heading off to college (instead of the 3-4 the average student attends). The good thing about this arrangement is that I knew so many more kids when I went to the district’s high school campus.

Once I headed out on my own, that “itch” followed me. I truly thought I would buy a home and stay put but I didn’t. And, like my family, I kept moving, first to larger apartments, then to more conveniently located homes. Like my family, I also used each move as an opportunity to thoroughly sort, toss, and reorganize. Then, as I settled into a new space, I created fresh routines in that different living environment.

Now I’ve been in this location for 5 years and am feeling that “itch.” But, having just cleared out my dad’s condo, the thought of packing up and moving my condo leaves me with sudden fatigue. Instead, I’m channeling that “itch” into reorganizing and creating new routines. (Okay, I’ll admit that I did rearrange my office.) It feels great to take action. It feels even better to clear out unused items (including new school and art supplies from children’s programs) and donate them so someone who can use them will benefit.

And while I’ve been busy doing all of this, I’ve been thinking about transition. Transitions in life are moments for growth. Taking action to create positive change in our lives. Most of us can’t grow without some change taking place. Of course, those changes we choose are certainly easier to navigate than those forced upon us.

Like real people, characters need to take action too. What is it your character needs to do? Readers also itch for change within characters. How do your characters grow? Or, at least your main character. How is he or she different at the end of the story than at the beginning? The growth part isn’t difficult since gained knowledge equates with growth but once the character takes action, real change is in store.

Think about yourself as a reader. Do you want to invest your time in a story only to discover at the end that there is no growth, no action taken, no realization on the part of the character? So, as a writer, think about all the times in your life that you’ve chosen to make a change (get married, buy a car or make a major purchase, attend college) or those times when you’ve been forced to make changes (find a new job, go through divorce, get transferred out of state). You survived, but whatever the source of the transition, you grew and changed and your characters can too. Hope you’re itching for change as much as I am!

For more on the story/character arc, see Veronica Sicoe’s blog  or Scriptlab on Character Arc.

Click the links for related posts on change and character:

Hello to Autumn’s Change

Out of Character

Summer Buzz

Distracted by Mother Nature

Creek in the woods, northern Michigan (lower peninsula)

Creek in the woods, northern Michigan (lower peninsula)

Nature inspires me. It has since I was a child playing on dirt mounds surrounding the newly dug basements in my subdivision playground and exploring the fields and woods down the road. Last night I was inspired by the lunar eclipse.

They’re calling it the Blood Moon because this eclipse makes the moon appear reddish orange. (It’s also part of a tetrad–4 such events this year and next.) Reading about this phenomenon in the past few days has caused me to think about a YA fantasy WIP rather than complete revisions on an MG historical novel. (Again, Mother Nature distracting me.)

I’m glad I got to see this lunar eclipse though it wasn’t as “blood read” as I

Blood Moon April 15, 2014 via RT.com http://on.rt.com/el2l6s

Blood Moon April 15, 2014 via RT.com http://on.rt.com/el2l6s

expected. To me it looked more blush colored. But, I was fascinated by the up-wattage of the surrounding stars. I usually have a hard time seeing most of the constellations in the city, but not at 3:15 a.m. this morning. Good thing I got up to take a peek at Mother Nature’s nocturnal display.

That didn’t work out the way I’d planned, either. I originally set my alarm, based on a report I’d seen that this phenomena would be visible around 3:30 and 4:30 a.m. Then I fell asleep watching TV and woke around 3 a.m. Still half asleep, I noted that it seemed rather dark outside and that it was best to wait for the alarm to wake me — if I would even hear it. I powered off the TV and stumbled to bed but couldn’t settle. A nagging thought told me to get up and look out the picture window. I tried to ignore it, telling myself I still had 30 minutes to sleep.

I’m glad I listened. It was amazing and I fell asleep thinking, this is what Kaelyne sees one night on her quest — and this is how she knows she is close to a hidden magic only she can uncover.  I woke again around 4:20 a.m. and again that inner voice nagged at me until I got up to look again. The bright white moon was a crescent along the bottom of the eclipse but still the surrounding constellations where extra bright. They, along with the edge of visible moon, seemed to glow more intensely than ever.

This time I went back to bed thinking of a different project–Kaia on her SF world–and lapsed into vivid dreams about both settings. I’m glad I experienced this event, though it will frustrate my critique group. (They wish I’d stick to just one project at a time.) What can I say? “Please excuse the inconvenience. This round of revisions has been interrupted by a message from Mother Nature.” Based on what I’ve drafted, the distraction was worth it!

May you each find and draw inspiration from whatever source spurs on progress. Happy writing!

Building Background

My writing students are often baffled when I ask questions about background for their stories. How did this come about? What is your character seeing at this moment? What sounds does she hear? What odors does he smell?  They want to know why it matters. It matters because the reader needs details to help connect him or her to the story. This creates reader engagement.

These writing students have vague ideas where their stories take place but the thought of “research” to build the background for their stories seems “wrong” to them. After all, they are the creators of this story—anything is possible, and everything they say “goes.”  True, but all the details need to make sense to the reader. It’s also true that fantasy and science fiction authors must make up every detail of their world while stories taking place in the present time need only mention a few details so the reader has some anchor point for painting the scene in his or her mind.  Fantasy and science fiction authors create the story setting and background by “world building.” But stories set in the here-and-now also need a little research. After all, if your character is in the woods of North Carolina and comes face-to-face with a poisonous snake, that snake had better exist in the North Carolina woods. If not, the writer’s credibility as a storyteller evaporates.

Whether I’m working on a contemporary story or one of my “other world” stories, I use sensory details to think about the setting and make decisions about the background for my stories. If I’m taking a walk and notice a particular tree, I wonder what type of trees my characters would see in a particular scene. What sounds would Kaelyne hear when she’s in training? What sounds and smells does Kaia hear at the compound, or while exploring outside? Does Kaelyne see squirrels or other small furry rodents that inhabit trees and chitter to each other? What strange species does Kaia see on her alien planet? Are they poisonous? Dangerous? How do made-up creatures (animal and insect) move? What do they eat? What are the native species of plants and animals? Are their invasive species, as we have here in Florida? What problems do they cause? (The answer to this question could lead to a subplot, especially if Kaia or the others in her compound are blamed for bringing those invasive species to the planet.)

I remind myself to look up, too. As a child I was a sky-gazer. I loved looked at the clouds and, during the evenings, at the night sky. So I think about both the day and night sky as I build the background for my stories. Clouds can alert characters—in any type of world—to weather conditions. Stars and moons in the night sky can immediately alert the reader that this is not Earth. But our stars have constellations with connected stories and legends, so what connections and legends do the stars in my other worlds have? How will this  help my characters as they work to resolve their story conflicts?

So, when a writer is creating a world for fantasy or science fiction stories, he or she has more details to sort out, but a writer with a story set in the here-and-now still has details to consider and decisions to make. The background he or she builds helps the reader engage with the characters and have a stronger story experience. Taking a moment or two to envision what the setting looks like, sounds like, smells like, and feels like and then weaving those details in as the characters notice them, will help make your story real no matter where or when it takes place.

Transforming Memory

It’s a dull day in sunny Florida. It’s been ages since I’ve been able to do this, but I’m sitting on the lanai drinking coffee and eating breakfast. It’s an hour later than it feels due to the overcast sky and steady drizzle. I’ve been watching the pond collect the raindrops for about half an hour.

Yes, it’s “winter” here in Florida, but this is unusual. Even during rainy season, our rain usually comes in steady torrents. When I first moved here, it seemed as if a faucet was turned on and then off. I recall waiting 15 minutes after the rain ended for the water to drain off the flooded parking lot so I could get to my car.

This is different. The sound of it is gentle and steady. It is just so odd to have a dreary, overcast day all day. The smell of the rain is subtle with a hint of moss and fish. The feel of it is less ominous than our usual storms. And, it is damp. Damp that lingers and seeps into every crevice. Again, unusual. The promise is different, too. Torrential bursts of rain or thunderstorms are short and followed by sunshine to quickly dry and humidify. Then life gets back to normal. This rain has no promise of stopping. It reminds me of the jungle movies in which rainy season arrives with a steady drizzle that lasts for days and weeks until the characters (explorers, scientists, anthropologists, whoever) face rivulets of water growing into streams through their camps until they are nearly flooded away.

It also reminds me of camping in Michigan. I remember being huddled in a light jacket in early July as a storm blew through during which the temp dropped into the 70s and then subsided into a steady drizzle. We’d sit drinking coffee and watching it rain, forced to put activities on hold. I’d watch the rain drip from the trees and notice details.

I’m noticing details now and wondering how rain in the setting of my fantasy novel looks. I allow bits of my memories to shift and morph into details for the setting for the world in which my fantasy is set.

My main character has been slowed in reaching her destination when her transportation is injured. Now a steady rain is complicating the situation. What trees and plants does she see as she sits, damp and miserable? Is she unable to build a fire? Why? What does she hear?

As I notice air ferns peppering a tree trunk and moss hanging from other trees here, I wonder about her world. Are there plants or creatures hanging from the trees there? Are they poisonous or will they bring comfort? Is there a plant that thrives in the damp and wet that might save her steed? What must she do to find it?

How does she distinguish the natural sounds, such as a woodpecker tapping and poking for breakfast, over the sounds of danger?

As I linger on the lanai, allowing the drizzle to sift memories to the surface, I transform them into pieces and details to create the setting or twists in the plot.