Sunday, March 20, 2011

A two-dollar kindness

People who give hundred dollar bills to strangers at Christmas always make the news.  But it doesn't take big bills to make someone's day. 

My friend Marija Sommer told of a recent kindness that brought her to tears.  She'd stopped at a toll booth but was waved on by the worker, who said, "The person in the car ahead paid your toll and said to tell you to "have a blessed day."  Two dollars, and a blessing. 

While vacationing in Florida, I had an encounter with a local policeman.  He pulled alongside as I walked through a supermarket parking lot and asked, "Where in West Virginia are you from?"  He'd seen our license plate.  We had a short talk about West Virginia and he asked if there was anything he could do for me, like provide maps or directions.  I sure was proud of that West Virginian.

Marija's example happened in Florida, and her car has a Florida license plate, so her experience was not one of state connections, but I have to say I've experienced many small and major kindnesses from strangers in West Virginia, among them, being rescued twice when I ran out of gas.  I never saw those people again but I love them still (while keeping a sharp eye on the gas gauge). 

Unexpected kindness from a stranger creates a powerful, unusual feeling, like unbounded gratitude, or amazement.  Pass it on, and have a blessed day!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Using Tables to Generate Ideas

    When I don't know what to write next, whether the next action, solution for a character, or a brand new story, a word processing TABLE always helps.  I find those empty cells a lot more stimulating than a blank sheet of paper.

    I type a word in the upper left-hand cell

    and try names




    and situations.
    Possible actions
    Effects on story
    Tells a lie.
    Saves friend but the lie brings trouble for himself.
    For words, tables are better than spreadsheets because the cells expand to fit the content.  The cells can also be easily dragged to resize them.  In the next table I added a column to the right and a row below:
    Possible actions
    Effects on story

    Tells a lie.
    Saves friend but the lie brings trouble for himself.


    I use tables to learn about and expand my characters.  The empty box commands me to put something in it, right or wrong, it doesn't matter.   I don't always use these ideas but reading them later helps.
    What is difficult for this person?
    Waiting. wild thoughts. understanding. going ahead. thinking about anything else. doing nothing. sleeping, being realistic
    organizing, planning, going ahead with things, caring about anything
    being away,
    sharing thoughts,
    sharing himself,
    being loved;

    What result of the difficulty?
    tears for discarded, unwanted things;
    throws away her old work clothes;
    wants to buy a dress for her funeral; Asks Olive to take her
    stuck in time, marking time, waiting,
    The work self and the home self; affection side of him in the valley where he has more pleasant role;
    What is the person hiding?
    how much she wants to live; how little faith at this time; how focusing on any service lies close to her desire to live; what can she do for someone today?

    guilty that she’s glad Marsh is out of her life;

    does not like his job; has only work associates, no friends;
    As far as I know, tables in Word and OneNote operate similarly.  Tables are better than spreadsheets for blocks of text, because the cell will expand vertically, and it accepts a "return" or "enter" for a new paragraph without going to the next cell.  If the cell's small size breaks your text in odd places, the size is easily adjusted.
    If you're a visual thinker, making a table can help you plan and organize anything.
    For those who haven't used tables:  You can create a table with the number of rows and columns you want (See "Insert Table" under TABLE on OneNote's top menu; or in Word, "Table" under the "INSERT tab).  You can easily add and delete columns and rows later. 
    You can find video tutorials about tables, or you can learn by experimenting, or start with an official tutorial, here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Writing from Scratch

It's not necessary to have ingredients on hand to start writing a novel.  Unlike scratch cooking, you concoct most everything that goes into it and make up the recipe as you go along. 

Planning my current story began with a brief image from a dream that I recorded in a notebook some time ago.  The dream had a poor child huddled in bushes by the door of a privileged home, an open carriage driving up to the door, a man who pulled his children roughly to the ground, a girl who fell, and the small girl who rushed from hiding to help her.  The story, I thought, might be about the poor girl and the privileged children who'd just lost their mother.

I pursued that idea for some days, looking at pictures of carriages, imagining scenes for the child, creating her history, considering where and when the story might take place.  Eventually she became a different character; I didn't use the bush scene, reduced the children and their father to minor characters, and forgot about the carriage. 

To get to that point I did a lot of thinking in many directions, recording even the least promising ideas in my messy spiral notebook or the better organized OneNote Notebook, sometimes waking and writing in the dark to preserve a thought without coming fully awake.

It’s harder in the beginning.  Writing from scratch is not like cooking, but like working a puzzle of your own design, having only one piece and no clue to the whole picture. 

I thought a lot about the main character and possible bumps in her road, and tested ideas in brief scenes.  In a OneNote section labeled "Problems," I created a page of "Character Problems" and one of "Author Problems."  Author Problems included things like "Why would she be in that place at that time?"  Also inconsistencies to be fixed.

To make the setting and society authentic for 1900, I developed 49 pages in a OneNote research section and to answer questions that popped up, like "Would there have been metal barrels then?"  In the research section I also pasted pictures, thanks to Internet, of such things as decorative iron gates and primitive washing machines, and copied words to a Fanny Crosby hymn and quotes from Longfellow's "Evangeline."  Now that I'm 20 chapters into the story, I know I won't draw on most of what’s in those 49 pages, like the description of glove-making.  But I have a feel for the time, and the search has been fun.

When I get stuck I read back over all my notes and hope a new, logical direction will emerge when I wake in the morning.