The Longest Night

“A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.” –Steve Martin

winterwoods-MimiLuikIf you’re in the northern hemisphere, tonight (Sunday, 21 December 2104) is Winter Solstice. Winter officially arrives at 23:03 p.m. EST (that’s 6 o’clock in the evening on the east coast of the United States). The days now begin to lengthen. For those who love the snow and cold of winter, it’s time for rejoicing. Winter is here. For those who dread the frigid conditions and wild weather of winter, this is still good news since each days draws us closer to the warmer temps of springtime. (But, our coldest days are still ahead of us since the earth continues to lose more heat than it gains during “daytime” for several weeks yet. So just hang in there.)

Equinox-orbitsThis year, I’m intrigued by Winter Solstice for several reasons, one of which (no surprise) relates to research for a few of my fiction projects. (You know I love my research.) For one project, my characters need to know Latin (which means I need to learn some phrases) and while surfing the information highway, I discovered something I did not know: the origin of solstice is from the Latin solstitium meaning “sun (sol) stoppage (-stitium). During the winter solstice, the sun’s path reaches its lowest point in the sky. At noontime, the sun is directly overhead on Winter Solstice. But for a few days before and after the solstice, the sun appears to be in the same place each place. It looks “stalled” and this is how the name came to be.

sun treeThe other reason Winter Solstice has intrigued me is because of its history and celebrations surrounding it. Again, I have another fiction project that is fantasy based and so I’ve been creating holiday celebrations for these characters. Learning about Yule and Winter Solstice traditions led to exploring how Christmas is celebrated in different cultures. This led to other winter holidays and they all made me see connections–the springboard to creativity–for fictional winter celebrations in books, games, and other entertainment. For example, the Feast of Winter Veil and Greatfather Winter in World of Warcraft and Hogswatch from Discworld.

In addition to enjoying the preparations for this year’s Christmas (and New Year’s) celebrations, I’m having fun weaving traditions, customs, and repurposed details into the beliefs and festivities my characters will take part in. Even if your stories are set in the present world, note your own traditions (and those you’ve heard friends share) and select a few customs for your characters. Holidays and traditions (and a character’s reaction to them) are great ways to reveal a life-like character to readers.

Happy holidays, and have fun writing!

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!

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!

The Nature of Characters

Another season and semester of writing workshops is drawing to  a close. It’s been especially hectic during the past five months and my body is demanding a real break this summer. I’ve structured my schedule for more writing time and more time to wander and generate ideas.  I decided I need more time outside, enjoying nature, because that recharges my creativity. Of course,  I can’t wait to get started.

So, yesterday I wandered. I visited a local park to take a break from my writing and workshops. Today I’m wondering about what I saw when I wandered. It will filter into two stories I’m working on. I’ve come to accept that this is my writer’s brain at work.

Here’s what I saw. This park I visited has a fantastic nature center and fabulous pathways to wander. Few people realize that it’s a natural filtration system in the middle of a city. I wandered off the walkway to the nature trail that meanders through trees and other vegetation. Eventually I came upon a grouping of Ficus trees with I thought were incredible. Some looked like carved and woven “figures” but these were actually formed by the Strangler Figs wrapping the trees. Like cloud gazing, I let my imagination go and saw lizards, a tree nymph, alligators and other figures.

Fingers grasping trunk, or a giant insect climbing the tree.

Fingers grasping trunk, or a giant insect climbing the tree. This is what I see when the vine “strangles” the Ficus.

As my friend and I walked on, my relaxed mind began weaving what I’d just seen into a fantasy story I’m working on. This W-I-P is actually a book but I’m still in the planning stages. A scene came to me in which my main character (MC) will need to find magically dormant creatures that everyone assumes are somewhere in the Forbidden Forest (or some such place) and awaken them. No one realizes that these creatures are “hidden” in plain sight on the very paths they walk daily. But my MC will eventually figure this out.

Later, on another path we wandered, I was startled when a breeze caused a patch of plants and fish tale palms to move. I thought it was a giant preying mantas! It sort of looked like one. It was green with palm fronds moving up and down as the insect moves its pinchers. While my friend laughed, I realized I’d let my imagination soar. We did spend a little time looking at the patch and imagining shapes as we’d done with the strangler figs. Now ideas are forming for a plant-based species in my SF story I’m working on.

So, today I am wondering what it would be like to be a walking plant. How would I eat? What would I eat? How would I move? I’ve already figured out how my MC in that story will meet her first plant-based creature. It will be meditating (praying?) in a garden and my MC will try to pick a “flower” from its head thinking the poor creature is actually a flowering plant. A nice subplot to show my MC’s lack of experience and ineptitude in her multi-species environment. (She’s had a lot of mishaps that show how naive she is so this could build on it.)

I’m eager to put my wonderings to the test at the computer. First, I’m wondering where my wanderings will take me next. It’s going to be an inspiring summer!

Gatsby Fever

We have only a week left until Baz Luhrmann’s  adaption of The Great Gatsby opens in movie theaters. Have you been waiting patiently? If you’re really looking forward to seeing Leonardo DiCaprio star as Gatsby, you can view stills and nearly a dozen movie trailers here

There’s been a lot of hype and build-up. Even my favorite writing magazine, The Writer, features the upcoming film with just a hint at what writers can learn from Fitzgerald. So, as I lay in bed recovering from a serious virus a few weeks ago, I rented the 1974 version of the film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. It was a quiet movie  but adequately captures the voice of Nick Carraway as he reflects on events of the summer of 1922. The pace of the movie mirrored the novel with the “ups” in the film being the exciting party and car scenes. I love the Roaring Twenties and the dancing, music, cars, and costume were accurate. This movie also did a good job covering the events from the novel, though little is explained about Jay Gatsby’s background. As in the early chapters of the novel, it is mostly speculation. Unlike the later chapters of the novel, in which details of Gatsby’s childhood are revealed, this movie version suggests  it  is not important. This version of the movie gives us a glimpse of the goodness that was still at the heart of Gatsby when his father arrives for his funeral and he spends some time with Nick.

I truly hope Baz Luhrmann will hold true to Fitzgerald’s work because what we learn about Jay Gatsby — and more importantly how cleverly Fitzgerald imparts this information — is very important to the story. In the novel, Fitzgerald delays character revelation for Gatsby which builds him up in the minds of the reader just as his reputation precedes him in the reality of the characters. The reader doesn’t see or hear from Gatsby until chapter 3. Throughout the first half of the novel, the characters speculate about this man and how he gained his wealth. The reader learns Gatsby’s background, finally, in chapters 6 and 7. (Actually, he reveals details about his childhood in chapter 6 and in chapter 7 his criminal dealings are finally confirmed.)

I recall discussing the “mysteriousness” of Gatsby’s character when I read the book first in high school, again in college, and yet again (at least twice) in writing classes and as a source to study in developing my own writing. Another detail covered during those school-related readings was the dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is when the reader has information about the story situation that characters do not possess. I know that when I read this novel the first time (in high school) I remembered having little patience or empathy for Tom and later for Daisy. At the end of the book, I remember thinking, “They truly deserve each other!” I won’t spoil the story for those unfamiliar, but the 1974 version of the movie evoked that same response, so kudos to director Jack Clayton on that account.

After having watched the movie, and seeing the movie trailers for the upcoming Luhrmann film, I think I’ll read the book again. I’m curious about the pacing of events in the book, especially after a quick check to see when exactly the reader learns about Gatsby’s past (and watching a trailer that confirms his past will be explained/revealed in the 2013 movie).

I also realize, now that I am a writer and teach writing classes, that Fitzgerald  had choices in which character should be the narrator and his choice of Nick makes the book a standout. He couldn’t choose Gatsby, since that would pose difficulties in the final chapters. How do you wrap up a story after the death of the narrator or viewpoint character? And Daisy is too self-centered while Tom is too boorish to notice details or instill pertinent information to the reader. Nick is a great choice, and I like the way the story reads as a sort of memoir—the events took place long ago  and with the feel that Nick is looking through keepsakes as he recalls that summer and looks over the lists of party-goers he kept which are now yellowed and deteriorating at the creases.

Finally, I’m taken with the description of characters and places in the novel. Even the fictitious East and West Egg and the Valley of Ashes are so descriptive. I see the events and what they seem to represent. I look forward to seeing the latest version of the movie. I only hope (and from watching the movie trailers, I really hope I’m wrong) the music is true to the Roaring Twenties and not an updated hip-hop rendition of those fast-paced jazz tunes.

Summer Buzz

Yesterday was summer solstice–the longest day of the year. It was also the hottest day we’ve had. My AC ran continually and I actually adjusted the shades to limit the sunshine. (Anyone who knows me well knows I thrive in my bright, sunlit home.) The plants wilted and so did my attitude as I began calculating what was left of summer and the poor plans I’ve made to rest and recharge. It didn’t help in learning before I left campus that all the meetings and planning for fall will begin in just a few weeks. I felt as if time were running out!

So my brooding built and escalated with the heat of the day. The summer solstice concluded with heat lightning and severe thunderstorms. Again, it matched my mood until, like the denouement in a story, I took action to better balance my “life wheel” and make a few plans for R&R. That emotional storm changed the “heat” I’d been feeling.

Today is a fresh day, cleansed by the rain. Today I’m tending thirsty plants on the lanai and listening to the buzz of insects. I love this part of summer. I love the sounds, which change during midday because it becomes too hot for the squirrels to chase each other through the trees. Too hot for the usual sounds of dogs or people. Even the splashing from the pool next to my building ceases for several hours.

But I’m tuned into the sound of the summer buzz. The whir of the insects intensifies and grows slightly louder with the heat. (One of these days my curiosity will draw me into investigating exactly what/how that sound is made and by which insects. For now, though, I focus on fiction over nonfiction.) With each cycle of the whirring insects, I am transported to the scenes from my W-I-P. What sounds does my character hear now? What does she smell?

Later I’ll also visit the created worlds of two clients and ask the same questions about sensory details. Today I am focused more on sounds than on other senses because the insects have guided me to notice sounds.

All that matters now is that it’s summer, I love the heat, and story ideas are buzzing through my thoughts. This is happiness. This is one way I want to spend my time. This makes summer wonderful.

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.