Painting the Story with Words

Such is the strength of art, rough things to shape.

James Howell

Sculpture and painting have the effect of teaching us manners and abolishing hurry.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

As artists, we belong to an ancient and holy tribe. We are the carriers of the truth that spirit moves through us all. When we deal with one another, we are dealing not merely with our own human personalities but also with the unseen but ever-present throng of ideas, visions, stories, poems, songs, sculptures, art-as-facts that crowd the temple of consciousness waiting their turn to be born.

Julia Cameron

Kate Flora: If going on sabbatical was a rehearsal for retirement, I am not meant toquestion marks
retire. I lasted less than a month before the call of story lured me back to my keyboard. A new character arrived on the page, presenting herself as my protagonist for the story, and it has become my almost obsessive challenge to find out who she is.

I have always found this the most fascinating part of writing—the way a character presents him or her self and then, as I being to shape the story, the character’s story and voice begin to emerge. In the beginning, it is very much a process of two steps forward and one step back, sometimes even two steps back. I set my character in motion, she begins to interact with other characters and her environment, and I have to step away from the work and ponder.

Along with her appearance, questions about her childhood, her world view, and what is going to make her different from all the other female detectives out there arise. Why is the mystery going to open with this particular crime scene, and how do the elements of that scene—who the victim is, how that victim was killed, etc.—affect my new character? I need to learn how she sees the world and how her background shaped that. Much as Joe Burgess’s mother taught him to be patient and observe, and Thea Kozak’s family made her the peacemaker and rescuer, I am now in the process of discovering what, in my character’s family, education, challenges and traumas, shapes what kind of detective she is when we first meet her on the page.

At least in the beginning, getting to know a character, even though I am creating her, is fascinating. I will spend a few hours writing my thousand words, and for the rest of the day, I’ll be rehashing what I’ve written, rewriting it in my mind, asking myself a lot of questions about who she is, whether that’s genuinely how she’d react in that moment, and how the answers will shape tomorrow’s revisions. Sometimes a character will simply begin doing or saying things I didn’t consciously know about, showing me who she is.

Whenever a new character she will be interacting with appears, more questions will arise. Is this someone she trusts? If she is distrustful, where is that coming from? If the person is a friend, how did that friendship form, and if that person is suspicious, is the suspicion coming from another character’s behavior or my protagonist’s background, experience, issues, or flaws?

Discovering Samantha Warren is like getting to know someone new, someone I’m going to be spending a lot of time with over the next six months, but also different, in that new beginnings in books tend to occupy more of my mind than friendships in the real world. When I’m cooking, Sam is there. When I’m trying to read that immense biography of Grant, she keeps poking herself into my thoughts. When I lie down to sleep, I will spend half an hour or more rehashing what I’ve written and considering what it reveals about her and whether I’ve got that right or it will need to be rewritten tomorrow.

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2 Responses to Painting the Story with Words

  1. Well said. I keep coming up with odd character names, but tend to forget to write them down. One of these days, they will most likely gang up on me like a horde of zombies, screaming “Exist Me!”

  2. Julianne Spreng says:

    Even though you weren’t really, you found out what many do when they ‘retire’. It isn’t stopping something. It’s moving on to something else. You moved on and found out that you were ready to move back! That brief break opened up a new path. Congratulations!

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