Retreating to Reconnect

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

April and May are reflective times of year for me. I often dwell on goals and achievements still unreached so I can set new goals, prioritize, and move forward. Interestingly, it has become a time to reconnect with past publishers. Not quite a week ago, I received an email from an educational publisher I worked with regularly for many years. The same happened with another publisher about a year ago. It’s even more interesting (and amazing) that this happened just before I left for a retreat and—perhaps due to the events/activities at the retreat—I received a

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

new assignment from this company two days after I returned home.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Feeling pulled in many directions and needing a moment (or many) of clarity, I made last-minute plans to car pool with a small group of friends also headed to Our Lady of Florida Retreat Center on the east coast. It was the best weekend I’ve had in five

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like "monks" holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like “monks” holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

years. (That’s about the time my father became so ill and much of my time centered around writing, teaching, and getting meals to him, or simply spending time with him.) I needed the break. I needed the peace, the fellowship, the downtime (no WiFi and I chose to limit phone use). I had time to think through life (and writing) puzzles and returned home restored and ready to reconnect—on a fresh frequency.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

Those who follow my writing and workshop info know that I am drawn to nature to recharge. The grounds of this retreat center were beautiful. So was the architecture and art throughout the retreat house, dormitories, and grounds. I came away fed–physically, mentally, and spiritually. I cannot wait to go back!

A Sense of Place: The Power of Observation

I don’t know exactly how it began, whether it was training for my goal to become an author or not, or due to journalism classes in which we focused on the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, why), but I notice details everywhere. The pattern of tile in grocery store. The flap of wall covering coming down in the corner of a room. The cut design of crown molding or the texture of plastered walls. The color of front doors, or a burst of color in flowering shrubs in landscape.crown-molding

These are important to writing because one such detail can provide a clue about a character or situation. When I was a new writer, I carried around a notebook and recorded names of people and streets and towns. I recorded brief scenarios and and bits of dialogue because I was told to. As a writer it was important, but I didn’t really “get” how this was going to help. Then the little things I noticed of someone’s home (such as those listed above) just appeared in a draft. They were brief and,like using an analogy, helped paint an image in the reader’s mind.

big-shoes-to-fillSoon I began noticing the things people did that hinted at their emotions or personality. The nervous clicking of a ballpoint pen, or the jiggling of a leg. As I began to teach, it was fun to notice how people controlled personal space—clutching a backpack on their laps, spreading books across the table into the next seat’s space, parking rolling bags in the aisle so no other student can easily pass to the seats behind. While I’m sure some of these students did these things unconsciously, I found them curious and intriguing and they provided insight into the anxiety these students must have felt (I taught remedial English and pre-comp writing and after the first class at least one student nervously approached to inform me he or she was “mistakenly placed” at this level. Sadly, they were not.)

Such details for both a setting and a character SHOW a lot. All can be provided in few words. They enrich the story. Now I cannot seem to turn off this observation. I often look around at the people, decor, and objects in a restaurant even as I carry on a conversation with those I’m with. It’s filed in my mind, even if I don’t pull out my writer’s notebook to jot them down.

blackbird-amcr7Sometimes a detail I notice triggers the next scene for one of my WIPs or an entirely new story idea. For instance, as I sit at a café a cacophony of crows (or some such bird) is out of my line of sight but not my hearing. They sound as if they are having a discussion, an argument, with a back and forth volley of calls that sound like a gruff “haha-ha” punctuated with a single “awk-awk.” This might trigger a fanciful children’s story or suggest the cadence for dialogue in a current story. Since it’s beginning to get on my nerves, it’s gone on long enough, it reminds me that the back-and-forth of dialogue shouldn’t drag on the reader. It’s a reminder to limit and ensure the dialogue adds to the story.

What details do you notice that can slip into a story to make it feel more authentic? For some writers it’s easier to practice with people we know well. What mannerisms offer insight into their personalities? For other writers, the unknown is an easier place to begin noting details that help show both place and personality. Whichever type of writer you are, take this challenge: For 3-4 hours, note at least one detail about every person or place you encounter. Once you begin, it becomes easier. Expand the length of time and the number of details (2, 3, 5?), or at the end of the day make a list of each new place and person and include as many details about each as you can recall.

Soon, these observations will become second nature and filter into whatever you are writing. Feel free to leave comments about how this challenge has improved your writing.