Thursday, January 21, 2016

Just cut it in layers

by Helen DePrima
As a writer, I’m a heartless scavenger. I mine tidbits from every encounter, every memory, every situation. I try never to be mean-spirited in picking through the details of other people’s lives, but everything is fair game. A word, a phrase, or a fleeting expression is more than likely to surface in a future plot.
          A recent local news story told how a young man paralyzed from the chest down in an accident has pushed himself to regain almost total function. Heaven forgive me, I plan to ask him to share details of his recovery for use in my next book. I’ll approach him with the respect and admiration he deserves, but I’ll pick his brain like a vulture.  
          More frequently, a single impression will strike me so vividly that I stop wherever I am to record it – a freshly-plowed field looking as soft as wide-wale corduroy, a fragment of conversation rich in local color overheard on the subway, the sound of a street musician’s violin rising above the snarl and grumble of traffic, the sweet scent of freesias from a sidewalk flower vender.
          I particularly love creating dialogue with the correct regional tone, like the variations between city-Southern and country-Southern, never mind the differences
between Kentucky and Georgia and Texas. In some cases, it’s possible to research an exact word or turn of phrase, but mostly I depend on listening. The dialogue in my books about the sport of bull riding comes from hours spent at events soaking up details of how cowboys from Texas, from Oklahoma, from the deep South and the Pacific Northwest really talk. The pleasure of the quest is at least as satisfying as the finished product.
by Liz Flaherty
We are storytellers here. Harlequin Heartwarmings are contemporary stories where we write about people we know or are or want to be. We try to tell them in layers, so that the story’s residents are people and animals you care about and the events are ones you believe. When you reach the end of one of our books, we hope you sigh with pleasure because you feel like you’ve been there and go on to the next book.

So this morning I was thinking—I do this (or say I am) when the words aren’t coming and I’ve only written like 12 of them in the last hour—about where those layers come from.

From the past. My grandparents had a fire in the big brick house where they lived. My grandmother,
skinny as a rail except for her advanced stage of pregnancy, picked up the treadle sewing machine and carried it downstairs and outside. I don’t know what else they lost, but no one was hurt and Grandma had her sewing machine. This was over 100 years ago, but the story hasn’t changed by so much as a syllable in my lifetime. I don’t know how she did it—I have one of those treadle machines and I can barely move it to clean under it—but she did.

I model my heroines on that one incident. The women I write about will never be extraordinary in looks or intelligence or accomplishment, but if life demands it, they will be able to carry the sewing machine down the steps.

From experience. If not our own, ones that are close to us. An accident happens in my next 
Heartwarming, Every Time We Say Goodbye, the result of which is that entire families’ lives are changed forever. Two accidents much like the one I wrote about have happened locally. One of them was nearly 50 years ago, another 25 years ago. Our community still feels the ripples.

From listening. My nephew Kory and his wife Amy have seven children between them, so when they go as a family, they usually take two cars. In December, they went to a family gathering several hours away. The three teenage girls rode with Kory. He listened, laughed, learned, and was scared, and he knew all the girls better when they got there.

From airports. I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t love airports. We sit with our Starbucks cups and watch people and write their stories in our heads or even on our laptops if we haven’t already run our batteries down. We hear accents and close our eyes to try and remember them. We feel the emotions of people saying Goodbye. Of others saying Hello.

From music. Although I write in silence, I hear music in my stories. I see my people dancing in the kitchen—they all do—and there is joy in Writerville.

Where do you find your layers?

57 comments:

  1. Helen and Liz--The two of you have covered all my best strategies for layering. Being an unrepentant eavesdropper and mining the past/present always work. Thanks for letting people know how we do it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by, Judith!

      Delete
    2. Hi Judith -- yes, we all use variations of the same strategy. Being super-sensitive to our surrounding enriches life as well as writing.

      Delete
  2. Can’t think of anything to add. You both pretty much touched all the areas where we get our inspiration. Very nice blog.

    ReplyDelete
  3. As a reader I'm always curious about how writers develop their stories - where the ideas come from and how they're ultimately transformed into a story the length of a book. Thank you for telling us how you achieve this. It was fascinating. ( :

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Laurie. I still have plenty of trouble getting stories to be the right length!

      Delete
    2. Hi Laure -- thanks for chiming in. Speaking of story ideas, I keep a file from the news for situations and setting. I've been kicking around an idea for years for a novel set on the Maine coast -- got the idea from a news story in the Portland paper. Maybe once Cameron's Pride runs its course.

      Delete
  4. Great post! Some folks probably don't believe some of the scenarios I've used in my books, but as the saying goes, truth really is stranger than fiction. You can't make that stuff up!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Craig Johnson of the Longmire mystery series says he gets most of his plots from news stories and police blotters. Scary that such mayhem exists all around us.

      Delete
  5. Liz and Helen, you've covered it very nicely! Brainstorming with a craft partner also helps me. She'll make a suggestion that triggers an idea and off I go.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, yes! Just a conversation is sometimes enough, isn't it?

      Delete
  6. Hi Patricia -- Early on I shared critiques with a fellow writer I've know since high school, but eventually mechanism seemed to lose effectiveness because we knew each others' work too well. Now I depend on critical readers who give me great feedback because they're not writers but respond they're reading for pleasure.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Terrific post, you two! Here's hoping your week's end and weekend are wonderful!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Loree. My big celebration this weekend will be not getting two feet of snow; apparently the big storm will track south of New Hampshire.

      Delete
    2. Thanks, Loree. No plans this weekend, which is sometimes the nicest way to spend it.

      Delete
  8. Everything you've both said is so true. We are unapologetic scavengers. Denny used to say he knew when he'd lost me to the conversation going on in the restaurant booth behind me. And he knew I hung out around the rodeo beer barn when we lived in Texas---since I don't drink beer, but to get the flavor of the cowboy walk and talk that Helen mentions. I have noticed in public lately there seems to be less conversation and more people on their cell devices--sad to say. Love the post, makes me want to get out and start eavesdropping again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a good way to spend some time, isn't it, Roz?

      Delete
    2. Hi Roz -- You make me jealous; I've never been to Texas but it's sure on my bucket list. People who know what a big PBR fan I am ask why I haven't been to the Finals in Las Vegas. For me, it would be too much of a good thing. I'd much rather attend events throughout the year, ideally in cowboy country. This summer I plan to hit a special event in Bismarck sponsored by last year's top stock contractor. I've never been to the northern Great Plains -- that region should be beautiful in June.

      Delete
    3. Me too, Helen! Love rodeo and bull riding. Want to go to Vegas after all together? Congrats on your first Heartwarming. Terrific post, ladies.

      Delete
  9. Beautiful post, ladies. I'm like both of you. I draw from news (respectfully), people watching or things I've witnessed, personal experiences and so much more. Sources of inspiration are endless for a writer! A drop of rain trickling down a window can trigger an idea in my head.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Although I'm woefully short on ideas and always have been--sigh--I do love being able to make pictures in my head. The one of rain on the window is a nice one, Rula.

      Delete
    2. Hi Rula -- And sometimes an image emerging with no identifiable source. I've carrying a picture in my mind of a man with a woman carrying a baby stepping off a dirt road into deep jungle. No idea what I might do with that -- I have no love for jungles.

      Delete
    3. LOL, Helen! I get insane images/scenes like that in my head too! Either my imagination runs wild or I drink too much caffeine lol ;).

      Delete
  10. Great post, guys--and congrats on the debut book with Heartwarming, Helen! I wanted to ask: as scavengers(!), do you ever feel you have to ask permission over anything you've scavenged? Or is it fictionalized enough that there's never any need? (Or is that what the acknowledgments page is for?)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank heaven for acknowledments pages! I do ask permission before I use anything personal, though.

      Delete
    2. So far I've been able to base all my information on publicly-available research although I did pick a friend's brain for details of his illness to confirm what I already knew. In an earlier book, I cut pretty close to the bone about family relationships, but all my kinfolks were okay with it.

      Delete
  11. Great post, ladies! I like to read the "good news" stories on the internet for inspiration. What good news, eh? It's there, you just have to dig through all of the bad.
    I wish I wrote suspense...working for the police department gives me a ton of inspiration.
    For some reason these posts haven't been arriving via email the past few days.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jill. I wish I wrote suspense, too, but my mind tends to go blank when I even try thinking that way, and I have enough trouble with that as it is! :-)

      Delete
    2. Hi Jill -- Boy, could I use your resources for a future project. I've got a mystery "under the bed" waiting for its time in the sun.

      Delete
  12. What wonderful posts, ladies! I don't think I've ever really stopped to think where the "layers" come from--I do find myself asking "what if" a lot--for all sorts or reasons, especially when I see something interesting going on around me. Those writers' brains of ours just never seem to stop working do they .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No, they don't. I wouldn't mind gaining a little control over which direction mine goes, but I don't think it's going to happen at this point!

      Delete
    2. Hi Anna -- I think your "what if?" is the best possible jumping-off point for a plot. I generally start with my main character in a situation and then give her/him a push and see what they do next. Sometimes they grab the bit and take off cross-country without me -- this happened in The Bull Rider, the second book in the Cameron's Pride series. I had no clue it was coming.

      Delete
  13. I was once in a LA bayou on a scenic tour boat and overheard the captain and this gorgeous guy roughly teasing each other. Figured they were cousins but GG had left the bayou to become a cop in New Orleans. Their reunion was affectionate but testy. Voila, a romantic suspense book was born. I just need to sell it! Saw a FB post the other day with an intriguing idea that would make a good story. And in the grocery store last year the song that was playing through the air inspired another. The treadmill for me is the greatest brainstorming tool; I can solve any plot or character problem (ha) while I'm walking. Inspiration is all around us, for sure.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Leigh -- Love your bayou story. I took one of those trips years ago. The captain was something straight out of central casting: lean, grizzled, and sardonic. His best line re. hunting/fishing territory disputes in the swamps. "We handle things out here ourselves, and bones don't float." And like you, exercise, swimming for me, straightens out any plot kinks.

      Delete
    2. I walk mine off, too; however, I'm a fair weather walker, so exercise has been lacking lately!

      Delete
  14. Great post guys. Will forever live with the image of your pregnant grandmother, Liz, saving her sewing machine. I guess she knew she was going to need clothes and blankies for that baby. I like the plotting stage, but it's harder for me than it used to be. I do a chapter, print out, read and think, "Rats! I haven't physically described anybody." So I go back and do that, then realize, "Do we even know where they are?" So go back and put in better setting. I think at my age, it's all so internal and my lifestyle is pretty much my house and my office and walks to town. Not that there isn't plenty to draw from there. Didn't Kafka, or somebody, boast that he could write a story about anything and he was challenged to do it about a piece of string? And now "The String" is a classic. The stories are there, like the sculpture in the rock, we just have to find them. Great start to my morning, Helen and Liz!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry. Looked it up - wasn't Kafka, but Guy de Maupassant.

      Delete
    2. I remember the quote, but didn't recall who said it. :-) Grandma had something like eight kids, and I don't know which pregancy she was on, but the sewing machine was definitely necessary to her.

      Delete
    3. Hi Muriel -- Re. plotting: I remember a writing workshop where the presenter had her whole book outlined to the nth degree on a roll of butcher paper. She described opposite approaches as "organized vs organic." If I had to plot ahead in any detail, I would never start. I just have faith in my characters to do interesting stuff with minimal nudging on my part.

      Delete
  15. Great post, ladies. Liz, I can picture your grandmother with that sewing machine!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Kate. If you could see how narrow the staircase is in the old house, it would be even more amazing; however, I'm not sure it's the original staircase, either. It is a story I've always loved having in the family repertoire. :-)

      Delete
    2. Hi Kate -- Grandmothers are always good material for family anecdotes. Mine was terrified of snakes. As the story goes, she saw a snake while pushing me in a stroller (only back then it was called a Taylor-tor) and ran screaming into the house, leaving me with the snake.

      Delete
  16. I have an old sewing machine. My 93 year old aunt promised to teach me how to use it. I should have taken her up on it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I learned to sew on the treadle one I have--it was my mom's--and I will say if that was the only way I could sew, I'd take up knitting. Before she let me sew on the treadle, I had to make an apron by hand, which was even worse. To this day, I try not to do anything more laborious than sewing on a button by hand.

      Delete
    2. I also learned to sew on my grandmother's treadle Singer, much more satisfying than an electric. I loved the rhythmic pedaling motion and the hum of the belt driving the needle up and down. Sadly, I lost that machine in a fire.

      Delete
  17. Great posts ladies. I get a lot of layers from music. I am inspired by simple lines to entire songs. I am also a huge people watcher and love making up their stories in my head. Glad I am not alone!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm with you on lines in songs, Amy--don't you think it's because songwriters tell a whole story in a three-minutes song that each line is so...well, profound, for want of a better word?

      Delete
    2. Hi Amy -- Like you, I'm a people-watcher. I don't have much occasion to use public transportation, but I love to ride the T in Boston and make up stories about my fellow passengers. Boston has such a concentration of international students from places I only dream of visiting -- great fodder for imagination.

      Delete
  18. Great post! I too get my inspiration from all the places you mentioned, and also foreign movies. I love Bollywood in particular but I watch french and middle eastern ones too. While following the story lines, I love watching how the characters react to situations, their simple daily routines (what are they eating for breakfast?) etc.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's so cool, Sophia! I haven't seen many foreign films, and when I have I've spent all my time looking at differences.

      Delete
    2. Hi Sophia -- I'm also addicted to international films. It's fun to observe the nuances that draw differences between my life and those in other lands. I'll probably never set a story in those locations -- I can write about only places I've actually sniffed the air -- but observing is great training for creating realistic settings.

      Delete
  19. This is such a fascinating post, Ladies. I think I'm a bit of all of the above. But mostly my characters do things or say things and it goes on from there. (Yes, there's a lot of deleting that goes on in my work.) I wish I was a better plotter because I feel like that would make me a faster writer. Thanks so much for sharing. I loved reading all the responses, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Carol. I do a lot of deleting, too--even though I just know those words are pure gold! :-)

      Delete
    2. Hi Carol -- Ah yes, deleting. Or as Hemingway said (supposedly), killing your darlings. I keep a file of deletions I can't bear to discard completely; maybe some version will show up someday in a completely different incarnation.

      Delete