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“You enter the extraordinary by way of the ordinary.” ~Frederick Buechner

Friday, December 30, 2011


When you’re really rushed for time, do you find yourself toe-tapping when someone gives you a long explanation? What is the point, you wonder. Racing from here to there doesn’t allow for leisurely conversation and even less for stories or riddles.

Yet, what if the meandering is really an invitation to a mystery that can enrich your day, or your heart, or your soul beyond your imagination?

In The Land of Darkness, by C.S. Lakin, Callen and Jadiel are running out of time. With each new clue or riddle they unravel to bring them closer to their goal comes an even more mysterious saying and confusion. Callen’s impatience grows—he wants a direct answer now. But a life-changing mystery, like a parable, needs time to uncover and even more time to discover the meaning.

“Callen’s head swam with images: the king-priest buried under the terebinth, with its boughs in the heavens. The tree cut down, but sprouting again. A king returning, blowing breath into dry bones. But not the king-priest of Antolae—a different king. The boar’s words swam dizzily in his head. ….. How were all theses stories tied together? And the one image that wouldn’t come was the one he yearned for most—the bridge.”

At the end of the encounter all they have is another city to travel to with even more questions that need asking.

Journal Prompt:

1. Even if you do not have a mystery in your novel choose a situation to become a mini-mystery parable with long reaching significance.

2. Pick a scene where your character is pressed for time. Make a list of possible obstacles, such as a flat tire. Have a good ‘helper’ come alongside to assist, but keeps making the situation worse.

3. Then, when your character finally reaches his goal, he realizes that the interference saved him in some way—maybe from a huge embarrassment. How does that change his perspective on his frustration?

Friday, December 23, 2011


Memories are like emotional mirrors, reflecting back the image that connects us. The strongest ones often come through our senses. Is anyone baking Christmas cookies this week finding a more than average visitor trek to the kitchen? The memories can show up in unexpected places or be ones we hold tightly, so as not to forget a place or a special person. Traditional hymns are not heard as often recently and it is a special treat for me to hear “The Old Rugged Cross” sung which was my Grandmother’s favorite, and brings her immediately present to me.

When times of chaos, or tragedy, or stress strike, these images can become lifelines as well when they hold goodness and love.

In The Land of Darkness, by C.S. Lakin, Jadiel holds onto her mother’s memory to give her strength to cope first with her stepmother’s cruelty and then to face a harsh quest to save her father. She reaches for her flute and the songs her mother taught her. When her soul bows under the strain the remembrance restores her. It reaches across emotional time. And also across physical distance as her father, now trapped in a hawk’s body, crisscrosses the sky searching for her.

“He singled out the breathy melody, a thin strain wafting his way—from the south. ….The farther south he glided, the more sonorous the music. Now he was certain he heard a flute, its crystal-clear notes stringing into a tune that resonated deep within his soul. A tune his wife M’lynn had sung many nights in the drawing room, beside the fireplace.”

What special images from your past give you hope?

Journal Prompt:

1. Pick a song that is familiar to you from your childhood. Hum the melody. What memories does it raise?

2. Now choose an instrument that is familiar in your story world and give your character your emotions. Does it give him strength or sorrow?

Friday, December 16, 2011


Usually maps are meant to be helpful. Sometimes we resist thinking they’re necessary, but still appreciate the assistance when we’re ready. We search them out when planning a trip, or when we get lost, either literally on the road or emotionally needing counsel. Roadmaps give clarity.

Occasionally we have experienced asking directions and becoming even more confused due to a rapid fire answer or an explanation so complicated we can’t track; however, how often have we ever had someone deliberately falsify the right path, or threaten bodily harm if we continue?

In The Land of Darkness, by C.S. Lakin, Callen’s only map for his quest to find the bridge is verbal prompts that are more confusing than logical. He is seeking a bridge from the past that is also to be his future and they’re both in the same place, although nowhere to be found. Yet despite all the barriers he finally arrives at the edge of possibility in a small town almost as forsaken as his search. Rumble. He and Jadiel are received with kindness until Callen states his destination and the room becomes hushed.

“The barkeep stopped pouring ale and glared at Callen. ‘Surely you’re not taking a child into the Valley Perilous? Man, have you lost your beans?’

Jadiel turned her head and caught the wide-eyed expressions on the faces around her—disapproving, incredulous glares that made her shiver. ……….

‘Here in Rumble, anyone venturing onto the plain is our business’. …… The man set down a tall glass of ale before Callen. His voice softened, but his eyes remained full of judgment. ‘Because the foolish likes of you go stirring up the dead, making the ground shake and the animals spook.’”

One man spits at Callen as they leave town and he worries his search will put Jadiel in more danger. However, he must continue to follow this map, this journey, to find an answer.

Journal Prompt:

Put your character in a situation where he knows he is within a few block radius of his destination, but is missing the last few directions. Whoever he asks for directions either ignores him or becomes angry. How does he react? And what does he do to cope?

Friday, December 9, 2011


We’ve looked at how one metaphor can open up a multitude of possibilities. What can happen when it also opens up a stream of new metaphors, and they’re all tangled together like knot ends on the back of a tapestry? How willing are we to follow the various threads?

The Land of Darkness, by C.S. Lakin, immediately pulls you into a multi-layered richly textured world that you don’t want to leave. Myth and parable, scripture, imagery and mystery blend into a fresh fairy tale. It breathes mythic impact with inviting metaphors, maps, memory and mysteries.

Callen, a woodworking apprentice, sets on a quest to discover a bridge. He wants to see up close the beauty of its designs that he has found in sketches on parchment scrolls. He is practical and hard working and has no time or patience for riddles or abstract references. Yet his search plunges him into myth, into the extraordinary that could change his life if he is willing to see beyond the surface, in both thought and action.

“Speaking in stories and riddles. Talking about circles in circles. And just who was that landowner he’d mentioned, the one who had built the bridge? Callen gritted his teeth. Why wouldn’t that pest tell him how to find the bridge and who the builder was? ‘You’re not ready to hear those answers.’ What nonsense!”

Callen could attempt to dismiss what he perceived as a deranged or sun-stroked prophet, but he couldn’t dismiss the deepening yearning to find the bridge. Threads of connections, warnings, faith, beauty and art wove layers of metaphor into his heart. And drove him to find the answer regardless of the cost.

Journal Prompt:

What ‘bridge’ does your character need to cross, either as a decision or a life-altering truth? Choose a familiar item from her everyday experience to become a springboard metaphor. Then with each new insight add another metaphor.

Friday, December 2, 2011


Thresholds as Connectors

Do we open the locked door at the end of the spider-coated hallway? Are we ready to hear the words written in the old manuscripts found buried under the house?

When Eve saw that the tree God had forbidden, “was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave it also to her husband with her, and he ate.”

Pandora couldn’t contain her curiosity and opened the box. “Out flew every kind of disease and sickness, hate and envy, and all the bad things that people had never experienced before. Pandora slammed the lid closed, but it was too late.”

Both these women were well warned before they succumbed to temptation, but what about the times there are no clear directions. We have good reason to hesitate before the unknown. When do we need courage to resist a threshold, because the consequences are beyond our control and could bring great suffering, or risk stepping into the unknown to bring light into darkness?

If Lucy had not opened the door at the back of the wardrobe and discovered Narnia, she and her siblings would not have been instrumental in breaking the White Witch’s spell. By willingly entering the Beast’s palace, Belle breaks the curse. Hercule Poirot follows every lead possible until he can bring a culprit to justice.

Often the clues needed to solve a mystery, bring about justice and bring the truth out begin with ordinary things and familiar words. The investigator needs the insight to see them in the right light and respect warnings when given.

“..stop and look around and step forward with courage and cognizance across otherwise invisible Thresholds into Discovery.” Tim Wynne-Jones

Journal Prompt:

Look at the literal thresholds in your character’s daily world and choose one to explore as a figurative threshold. Think of ways they could become a life-changing threshold for your character: doors, windows, cupboards, gardens, railroads, or books.

Friday, November 25, 2011


“One is poised on the Threshold of life waiting to be born. It’s an ongoing process. Some of us are not happy unless we are born over and over again, still trying to get it right.” Tim Wynne-Jones

Thresholds of Ambiguity

Memory gives us the process of choice and decision-making and thresholds. Our understanding grows and our perspectives shift. A right choice made once before has now become a wrong choice. An ordinary day shifts suddenly into the unexpected—sometimes by events—sometimes morally.

Scripture stories, fairy-tales and folk-tales speak this language into our hearts. We’re not left without access to wisdom or experience. Others have taken this journey and we find hints how to find our way through.

The day began on an ordinary walk through the woods with their father searching for food, but this time Hansel and Gretel are abandoned. They step into the unknown. Many of their choices are made without mature knowledge but they rely on instinct.

Red Riding Hood travels a familiar path to her grandmother’s house, but comes back from one visit completely different, or is she?

The added beauty from a journey perspective is that the reality of common day-to-day activities can be developed into shadows, as passages from long ago or as foretelling to the future. All also have the potential to tap into echoes and allusions and metaphors. It opens up creativity and new beginnings. “Which way is in and which way is out.”

In the movie Avatar, new arrival Jake Sully has no qualms about gathering intelligence on the Na’vi and their world. Jaded by his twin brother’s death and his own injuries, he just wants to walk again. And then he begins a dual life living among the Na’vi and reporting on them. Gradually his values change as he recognizes the threshold he is aiming for has moral consequences far greater than he imagined.

Will the journey chosen to find shelter bring death or freedom?

Journal Prompt:

Although nothing illegal has happened to your protagonist, she begins to notice some discrepancies in the paperwork. When she asks her boss he dismisses it as unimportant. However she realizes that only her signature is on the documents. And she really needs a job. What are her options? What course of action does she choose and why?

Friday, November 18, 2011


Thresholds as Commitment

Just as we plot out a map to a new location, this category requires taking a deliberate step of faith. We are not forced. We choose with as much insight as possible, even with an unknown outcome. Sometimes the decision is plotted out ahead of time, and sometimes it’s spur of the moment. But we accept the potential consequences before we act.

Alice follows the rabbit down the hole even though the crossing feels as if she’s in a dream. Her curiosity overrides the penalty she fully expects for wandering away.

Consider a character’s rationalization in a space movie when someone who has never traveled through a time warp has to choose to get "beamed up.” Their career is in the line and that desire to be a part of exploration and discovery is strong enough to squash legitimate concerns.

Do you know anyone who manages to get into an airplane when terrified of flying? What makes the person choose--commit to this action?

Or go backwards. A person refuses to cross the threshold and is held in her immediate sphere, much like phobias trap people, such as agoraphobia. How does a life get mapped out that is restricted by fear?

And yet sometimes choosing a restricted boundary line can be freeing creatively. Emily Dickinson lived a reclusive life. The majority of her poems only became know after her death when her sister discovered the extensive works.

Journal Prompt:

Make a list of your character’s fears from childhood. Then put her in a situation where she has the opportunity to change it. What steps does she take? When does she hesitate? What gives her the ability to push ahead?

Friday, November 11, 2011


“Thresholds are necessary in the creative process in giving an idea somewhere to go.” Tim Wynne-Jones

Change, no matter how small, can create mental and emotional chaos as you turn into a different direction, physically or emotionally. To cross a threshold though requires a choice, even if it has been forced upon you like a refugee fleeing his war torn land. All sensory memory is heightened and sharpened. It is not just the moment that is at stake, but the journey that follows it. Thresholds become part of our soul shadows as much as our physical bodies cast their shadow. And the question can linger. “Did I choose the right fork in the road?”

In a recent workshop, students and I wrestled with this metaphor and concept using categories suggested in “An Eye for Thresholds,” an excellent essay written by Tim Wynne-Jones in the book Only Connect. As we explored each category we noted that the metaphor opened several tension points as choices challenged beliefs, values and possibilities, either personally for a main character, or in relationship to family or society.

So as I share these ideas, over this next month’s sequence, I hope you’ll join in the discussion.

Thresholds as Crossings

Here we deliberately make a choice to step into new stages, probably never to return: a passage of some moment. It can include walking away from a place, or a relationship, or choosing to no longer be who we were a few minutes earlier. Often that moment of decision become a life metaphor or signpost.

For example, in the novel, The Hero and the Crown, protagonist Aerin made that crossing when she arrived at her first dragon slaying. “Talat halted, and they stood, Aerin gazing into the black hole in the hill. A minute or two went by and she wondered, suddenly, how one got the dragon to pay attention to one in the first place. Did she have to wake it up? Yell? Throw water into the cave at it? Just as her spear point sagged with doubt, the dragon hurtled out of its den and straight at them.”

Despite the moment of hesitation Aerin acted upon all her preparation and stepped into a new role as a dragon-slayer. The threshold changed her life.

Journal Prompt:

Put your character into a moment of choice. Overwrite all the sensory details in the initial draft. Then write up the brief scene twice, once for each possible decision: to flee or fight, or to submit the accepted ‘dogma’ either socially or personally.

Friday, October 28, 2011


Have you ever played the character game where you guess what a person’s job is based on how they’re dressed? With the business industry’s more relaxed protocol over the past few years, it’s a little harder to gauge apart from a uniform or a logo. The next step is to guess what the duties are in their section of the tier. Society still seems to measure people by position, regardless of vocation. And then find ways to lever an advantage.

In the BBC series Downton Abbey, each servant is well aware of their responsibilities and, in some cases, jealously guard their distinction. But they show no hesitation when ferreting out any personal secrets as a power play. In fact some take great pleasure in seeing another servant publicly humiliated or embarrassed.

A young housemaid is ridiculed for taking a typing class. Her attempts to leave ‘service’ are considered snobbery. Two other servants conspire to get rid of the new hire, because they resent his personal connection to ‘The Earl.’ Plus he guards his privacy. Upstairs is not immune either, as a rivalry between two sisters puts their family in jeopardy.

The personal mysteries are as varied as the daily menu. A few seem harmless and a little comical, while others raise ethical dilemmas. To protect his own secret, and therefore his job, a servant stands by while a daughter of the house is placed in moral danger. Later he manipulates and blackmails to attain another position before his own thievery is made public. The lure to uncover secrets for personal gain is as old as time. Cain resented God’s favor of his brother’ offerings over his own and his anger resulted in murder.

Journal Prompt

Put your protagonist in a new workplace situation. What is one thing her co-workers must not know about her? How does she sidestep their questions and remain friendly? Give one version where she answers with vague comments and another where she bristles at intrusion.

Friday, October 21, 2011


Some memories we hold on to with such fondness that they gain a saintly status over time. Likewise, parts of our past we’d rather not be reminded of increase in regret to the point we lock them away. Sometimes we actually forget they exist. Until a memory surfaces as in a jolt and we’re forced to acknowledge them.

The very proper and fastidious butler Mr. Carson, in the BBC series Downton Abbey, crashes into his past face to face as an old acquaintance forces his way into Carson’s life. It also shows the social atmosphere now shifting that this charlatan would actually dare enter the estate, especially by the front door. But he is made bold by Carson’s own fears and attempts to keep him quiet from exposing his previous life as an entertainer.

Faithful to ‘his’ family and the position he holds, Carson sees only the possibility of disgrace and loss. In fact, he offers his resignation when all comes to light. Fortunately his employer sees through the blackmail. He also recognizes Carson’s longtime service to the family and sets that commitment as more valuable that Carson’s previous life. Although mildly amused at the concept of Carson in show business, he does not give the situation the weight of shame that Carson himself has. Now Carson is able to see his own memories with a different perspective and interpretation. And yet, his initial concern would have been completely accurate had the Dowager been in charge. She would have immediately dismissed him without even a hearing.

Journal Prompt

Make a list of activities your character participated in when young. Choose one that could become an embarrassment for her if told in her workplace, or publicly at a social function. Make the teller someone who is putting a sinister or shameful twist on her participation. What does she stand to lose if the story is accepted at face value?

Friday, October 14, 2011


One tiny smudge on a map, or a slight error, can be enough to send a traveler miles off their route. The delay may be a minor side trip, or a serious delay in destination. An east coast conference I once attended had to revise two days worth of lectures and speakers because the airlines had inadvertently sent a main presenter to a western state in error. They had made an assumption based on the city name and didn’t take the time to notice the state address. Then winter conditions aggravated the correction.

Misheard or misunderstood conversation fragments can also send a character down a wrong path. In the BBC series Downton Abbey, a servant is chastised for crossing respectful boundaries and, instead of acknowledging her error; she fusses and bears a grudge. Then while eavesdropping, she overhears a snippet of conversation and believes she is to be replaced. From then on her attitude and actions become increasingly hostile. Finally she acts on her feelings and makes an immoral decision. Even though she immediately regrets it, and turns to undo it, she is too late, and a death occurs.

While grieving both her own choices and the loss in the family she discovers that, rather than replacement, her mistress had been holding her up as an example of a quality lady’s maid.

Journal Prompt

Make a list of possible comments someone close to your protagonist might say about her actions. Make the range from very negative to glowing support.

Have your character overhear a portion of one of those statements. How does she ‘hear’ it emotionally? What is her immediate reaction and her long term reaction to this fragment of conversation?

Thursday, October 6, 2011


It’s interesting how a metaphor can contain a number of meanings, and that even when it has the same meaning it may also carry a variety of perspectives. Over the past year I’ve watched several ‘period piece’ series from Britain. Downton Abbey and Lark Rise to Candleford top the list with their quality of actors and setting. However all have phrases, metaphors, and references to common historical threads that don’t necessarily transfer over to other heritages.

For example, the central importance of the manor and all that it implies. “To the manor born” reflects an inheritance to prestige and wealth. Or it also means a personality is well suited to manor living. But in many circumstances it’s not only the titled families that are born and raised into the manor, but also many servants can trace their heritage back decades to a life style bound to the manor.

Tenant families considered a position tied to the estate, or in the manor itself, as the highest possible opportunity for their children. Both segments of the societal hierarchy took their position and privilege seriously. Newcomers to the manor though often saw it simply as a job and sometimes with disdain. Not all inheritance manor families accepted their position as a responsibility but took it as a right and misused their power.

Using the word manor, even literally as a location, has the potential to create emotional tensions, questions and perspectives. One word alone can open up multiple threads of possibilities.

Journal Prompt

Choose an expensive dinner celebration, such as an anniversary or graduation. Choose four people involved in the actual meal and write a few sentences for each showing their feelings. Suggestions: guest of honor, family member attending, a staff person in the restaurant, a server or cook in the kitchen, a passerby, another diner close enough to overheard pieces of conversation.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


“Thresholds are necessary in the creative process in giving an idea somewhere to go.” Tim Wynne-Jones

Change, no matter how small, can create mental and emotional chaos as you turn into a different direction, physically or emotionally. To cross a threshold though requires a choice, even if it has been forced upon you like a refugee fleeing his war torn land. All sensory memory is heightened and sharpened. It is not just the moment that is at stake, but the journey that follows it. Thresholds become part of our soul shadows as much as our physical bodies cast their shadow. And the question can linger. “Did I choose the right fork in the road?”

In the movie Green Dragon Tai is forced to make a deliberate choice for himself and his newly melded family as a threshold crossing into a fresh beginning. He must face a country filled with mystery, compared to the one he left behind and probably never to return to.

On the surface it is a passage of a moment. Yet it includes walking away from a place, and choosing to no longer be who he was a few minutes earlier. At first fear paralyzes him from taking that step into discovery. There have been too many changes, too many losses and disappointments. Then his American friend takes him for a drive, over the dried-up hills to investigate the small town just beyond the camp walls, just beyond sight. And he returns with a grocery bag filled with familiar foods. He returns beaming with possibility and encouragement, not only for himself but also for the other refugees. A new possibility has bridged the gulf of despair into hope. He is ready now to face mystery with anticipation and curiosity.

Journal Prompt

Choose a psychological threshold that your character must face at each main stage of the novel structure categories: set-up, response, attack, and resolution.

Which one has the most emotional impact? Write it up as a new scene.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Shared memories can open up windows into broad horizons. Even when the memories are painful, or contradictory, the willingness to talk about them creates a space for wholeness. Or at least a different perspective. If left unspoken hurtful scenes may board up bitterness and destruction closing off any fresh air.

The movie Green Dragon depicts the story of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon. Crowded into army tents and Quonset huts the assortment of survivors covered a broad spectrum: young and old, civilian and army, educated professionals and laborers. And across that divide were religious, political and economic stratas, now all together experiencing a common grief from their individual sorrow. In the movie there is at first a stoic silence, even within a family unit. No one is willing to share. Bit by bit the numbness eases. One day a man takes out his instrument and begins to sing a national song, and the camp quiets into listening and then gradually adds their voices and their tears.

This common ground, experienced through a beloved song, drew them together in memory. And as they began to share with each other their escapes, their fears, their losses, they took steps towards a new horizon.

Journal Prompt

Choose a situation for your character with a sibling or friend where they have opposite emotional memories, one positive and one negative.

Write up a page of dialogue between them as they remember.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


What happens when the ‘map’ of existence as you know it disappears? Instead of a broad landscape you have only a tiny space allotted to you. What will shape your new reality, emotionally and geographically? Going camping in nature gives us a taste of adventure, but fleeing your home with a few grabbed possessions sets a different tone to the journey.

In the movie, Green Dragon, many find solace in establishing daily routines. One young woman volunteers at the sewing tent, and a young entrepreneur tries to set up a mail order business—to both help ease the circumstances and begin to learn to adapt to this new ‘land’ as he is anxious to move forward as soon as possible. Others try to settle in this new location and physically resist leaving the camp when the opportunity arises to find an outside sponsor family. Even with nothing left but a cot in a corner, they still are among their culture and language and refuse to be separated from the threads they still have.

The young children map out their new surroundings and then make a daily tour. Minh in particular makes sure he watches the old man watering his patch of dirt and visits the cook to watch him paint. He diligently reads the notice board, watching for any hint of his family, takes a stand at the arrival gate, checks the bathhouse, the eating tent, and the women washing clothes. He comes to know the routine and lives the camp inside out. When the time comes to leave his understanding and adaptation to new territory becomes the bridge across his uncle’s fears.

Journal Prompt:

Put your character in a situation where she either dreams, or actually experiences, a ‘refugee’ relocation. It can be either by war, or natural disaster. What is the first thing she does to give her space a personal focus? Or how does she resist?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


“Symbol is a technique of the small.” John Truby

When a character is in an unfamiliar external or internal environment, familiar creative pursuits such as gardening, cooking, music, or art can become mirrors, reflecting a spiritual alliance to another place. They can translate the characters’ soul landscape into some sense of stability as they respond to these metaphors. Sometimes these responses come in action, sometimes in desire or longing, sometimes in a symbol. These images often find a ‘voice’ within the small common ground creativity built into everyday activities.

The movie Green Dragon has an abundance of metaphoric symbols that on the surface are not at first recognized as connected. For one, the commanding staff sergeant takes photographs throughout the camp. He thinks he is doing so to keep a record of the historical circumstances and of the people who have been impacted. But it is through the photos and their images that he himself comes to terms with his own secrets and need for healing.

And in another small action, an elderly refugee general plants a seed. An orphaned refugee boy, Minh, watches intently as the old man daily waters a tiny dirt patch. Minh tries to understand why he is even trying to grow anything in the makeshift camp. But like a living photograph Minh is drawn to watch the daily routine. And when the old man dies Minh takes his place, watering and waiting to see what exactly lies under the ground. The general had lost his ‘voice’ to give to his people, and turned instead to a symbol of hope. When Minh presented the first offering from the tiny growth it shook the camp.

Journal Prompt:

1. Choose two different movies from your personal favorites and watch the immediate opening of each with the sound on mute. What images stand out?

2. Re-watch with sound. What changes—if anything?

3. Apply to an ongoing activity for your character. What are some repetitive common actions? Make an image list for them.

4. Choose details that turn them into metaphoric symbols.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


To unravel a mystery involves many choices, decisions, and persistent questions. But to unravel an historical one requires another set of problems regarding where even to begin. How to know what elements are important enough to pursue?

Phantom’s opening scene is shadowed with possibilities, all coated in shades of gray. All the viewer has to lean towards is the two interested bidders, so seemingly out of place in the opera house mausoleum. Yet they must be there for a reason. They have obviously chosen to attend this auction despite adverse conditions.

When the elderly man and woman vie for the same item, they repeat their initial respectful nod. Yet they still choose to bid against one another. So the mystery is not between them as a relationship, but is held somewhere within their mutual desire for the musical toy, a commonplace item.

It is such a deliberate purposeful action that makes clear choice will be a major theme in the story about to unfold. The atmosphere of the first scene is ominous, one student noted, but it does not “yet have the measure of how choices effects the characters.”

Only a beginning hint, resting in a child’s battered toy.

Journal Prompt

Make a list of old-fashioned toys such as the ones that every generation has enjoyed. For example action figures have longevity, even though once they were regimental tin soldiers and now may be space aliens.

Choose the least likely from your list and place it in your antagonist’s room or suitcase or deluxe office. How incongruous is it to an acquaintance. What questions does he wish he could ask?

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Memories are often like torn spider webs. You follow the thin thread a little unsteadily and then suddenly there’s an open space. What’s missing? You look down to the next tier of strands, or perhaps up, hoping for a closed portion, but the ends straggle in the emptiness.

It’s a muddle, like an early morning gray fog that shifts around you in swirls.

Phantom of the Opera’s opening scenes, shot in black and white, give the same sense of movement, as different objects fade in and out of highlight with different degrees of shadow. Why is it important to remember that particular item? As the camera light passes over each object it further shades them like a passage of time. One student commentated that; “there are shades of gray in all of life’s stages.”

So when we look back into memory, to gauge our progress or to find a foothold for the future, sometimes uncertainty hangs in wisps like the spider web. And then a slight flush of air pushes another strand into view—just over there—just near the empty space. Now comes the decision. To jump, or not.

And suddenly the image is blazing with color.

Journal Prompt

1. Choose a turning point memory in your own life, or for your character. Write it up with as many details as possible. Don’t worry about overwriting it. Pour in sensory specifics.

2. Now color code the sensory highlights as if you were filling in a stained glass window or a paint-by-number. Which color is predominant?

3. Now re-write as a scene capturing that particular focus.

Friday, July 29, 2011


Emotional maps are unique, even from within a shared experience. Have you ever reminisced over a family incident or vacation, and be astonished at the different highlight memories? The geographical location was identical, but the perspective diverse. Or discussed a memory that to you is almost as vivid as the day it occurred, but another family member shrugs with no recollection at all?

The opening scene in Phantom of the Opera sets up the common physical map ground of emotional experience, first present and then past. It is a bleak day. The access route to the opera house is cold, wet, and icy. The elderly need assistance. And once inside the interior proves even more hazardous. There is no shortage of concrete physical metaphors in the decayed building. One student in the discussion remarked, “I saw it also as the future being the death of the past.”

Upon arrival the elderly bidders nod to each other with respect. In that moment they acknowledge their common ground for being present to this auction. And then both choose to bid on the same item. Ignoring what to the outsider might be considered art works or antiques when presented, they focus on a battered, tarnished child’s common toy, a monkey that plays cymbals.

Both want it and keep raising the bid for the seemingly worthless item. And then they pause to look at each other. Sorrow etches their faces. And the woman acquiesces, as she recognizes in him a deeper need, an emotional map that needs closure.

Journal Prompt:

1. Take a humorous circumstance that your character has experienced, and retell it from the future looking back at least forty years. What stand s out in vivid recall?

2. Repeat, but now use an emotionally difficult decision.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Visual metaphors often speak in silence. Their images impact emotionally and mentally. All our senses are engaged. Movie opening screen shots can communicate volumes of possibilities within a few minutes by taping into our universal feelings and engaging our curiosity. And yet while all audiences see the same imagery, we often process the material individually.

Sometimes it’s hard to get past all the introductory fanfare, but when we can observe up-close, as in a freeze frame, the metaphors explode. In a recent workshop students shared their observations on the opening scene in Phantom of the Opera, which is shot in black and white. While we all discussed and related to the ambiance and noticed the same details, each one found one or two images that held a primary impact.

For example, the ruins of the opera house were coated with cobwebs. Seems to be a natural connection, but as one student pointed out the cobwebs it took on a deeper meaning. Just as a cobweb is a concentrated and patient work of art, so was the Phantom’s training of Christine’s voice. Just as the cobweb is a lure for a spider’s meal, so was the lure to Christine to join the Phantom in his world. And also as the cobwebs clung to the fixtures after decades of decay, so did the Phantom’s story cling to the frail elderly visitors to the auction.

Journal Prompt:

1. Look over your beginning scenes. What common natural images do you have in your setting? Make a list of them and then next to each one write a possible emotional metaphor. Choose one that can be threaded unconsciously throughout the novel.

2. Develop its characteristics so you will have the details ready when an opportunity opens to include them.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


When should a personal mystery be left hidden and when must it come into the light? Buried it has the ability to harm entire lifetimes, and sometimes generations. There’s no recourse for accountability, and truth, for restoration, and healing. Yet digging it up also has the potential for emotional and psychological disaster.

Perhaps the better question is why is it important, and then, what is the motive behind the hunt. Is it purely for self-satisfaction and accolades, or out of a genuine concern for another? Sometimes those lines get blurry too.

In the historical romance “A Memory Between Us,” by Sarah Sundin, Major Jack Novak is determined to find out Ruth’s secret, despite her reservations and warnings from his friend Charlie.

“It’s got to be big,” Charlie said.


“With Ruth. Something about her makes me think she’s been hurt and badly.”

“Nothing I can’t handle.”

“Watch that pride.”

Jack is falling in love with Ruth, and yet he can’t see her as clearly as Charlie does. Her secret, the mystery has become a challenge, a problem to solve. Charlie later accuses Jack of treating her as a project instead of a person. But Jack keeps pushing for an answer regardless of the consequences. And shatters Ruth’s heart even more than it already was.

Journal Prompt:

1. Put your character together with a new person that you know is going to become important in his life, whether as a friend, or mentor, or lover. What about himself is he not yet ready to reveal? How does he keep avoiding the conversation when it steers that way.

2. Plot out the steps he takes towards revealing himself with this person.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Memories can be quite elusive when it comes to recognizing their truths. We tend to look at them through filtered lenses, rose-colored for positive and shaded for negative, automatically changing their initial reality and impact.

But our sensory memories don’t cloud the recall. Whether we appreciate them or not, just a brief taste, or fragrance, or sound can catapult us in an instant. Or, at the least, we have an emotional reaction to the input and don’t know quite why. And the senses sharpen the pleasure or the pain, even when we try to forget.

In the historical romance “A Memory Between Us,” by Sarah Sundin, army nurse Lieutenant Ruth Doherty remembers her past well. In fact, so well, that she has built a protective emotional barrier around herself to keep it locked up. She stays focused and stays professional. And if it should try to derail her, she turns to well-honed defense mechanisms to lock it back.

But eventually she takes a step towards love, accepts a kiss for a brief moment of yearning and then the sensory memory attacks, robbing her of present happiness, and skidding her backwards.

“His breath stank of beer and sausage. He ground the broken watch glass into her wrist, ground the truth into her head: ‘You’ll never get rid of me. You’ll always see my face.’”

And so she runs, convinced she will never be freed from the pain.

Journal Prompt:

Make a sensory list for your character. From each category choose her most favorite memory, and her most horrible memory. Which one is the most dramatic, or the most humorous? Look for a place in one of your scenes to use this memory to create friction with another character.

"The Seeker" Rachel Marks | Content Copyright Marcy Weydemuller | Site by Eagle Designs
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