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

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Build a Story World

History/Travel Summary

Then when the basics are done, move into other realms. How does your character move from past to future, and back again, or from dimension to dimension? Does she require specials words, or totem, a machine, or assistance from another? Does she disintegrate and re-form? Make the transport as simple as possible. Then brainstorm all the possible things that could go wrong. Decide whether there is a risk every time, or only in improbable circumstances.

Whether you use man-made or magic-made they need to be believable, and again they must follow the rules you set up for them. No last minute, “oh look what else this can do too.” Decide early on what are the levels of safety and what are the levels of danger, whether in transportation or other uses.

If it’s difficult to decide where to start, use a real life category such as medical or a sport   to copy as part of a journey. For example choose a vegetable or fruit that if eaten in great quantities or not eaten at all can produce serious side effects, such as the scurvy sailors experienced out on the high seas.  Or choose a sport that needs to build up to its peak such as swimming or running. What damage can be done if an athlete doesn’t follow the rules and tries to push himself beyond physical preparedness?

Share: What is the most memorable travel scene to you in either movies or novels? Why?

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Compose Through Metaphor

Metaphors have the ability to explode our thinking. However, the most effective are not delivered by loud gestures and shouting voices clamoring for our attention. They simply are. And at some point we begin to notice that they are different from what we expected, or what we thought we knew, and decide to take a better look. And a better look is required because competent metaphors can be used for both good and evil intent.

“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” warns the prophet Isaiah.

Sometimes we just don’t notice. For example, growing up I often heard the reference to little green men from Mars and always given in a negative context. I realized the idea came through a story or movie, but I wasn’t all that interested. In later years I’d still notice the reference given in books or shows and again wonder where and why the origin.

This week I’ve finally seen the movie John Carter and the first thought I had when I saw the first inhabitants that he saw was, “Oh, green men from Mars, but they aren’t little.” In this movie they are eight to ten feet tall, with four arms. They ride creatures as if on horseback. They argue; they care; they are funny and loyal. They insist that they don’t fly in spaceships and they won’t interfere in a war between two opposing cities. However, because of John Cater, their perspective changes as well.

Metaphors can go far beyond word choices and stereotypes to bring fresh nuances to timeless stories, especially when we tap into heart motives.

Journal Prompt:

Take a support character in your novel. How can you change the readers’ expectations of him or her?

Try one or two characteristics towards positive and then again as negative. How does that influence your own perception?

Share: Which one impacts your purpose effectively?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Build a Story World

 More Ways to Travel

Vehicle travel, water travel, animal travel. Begin to keep a resource journal, both for now and future novels. First write down each category of transportation. Then make a list under each with two columns: one fantastical and one reality.

Pick out a few from each category that fit your location. If your story is in a building such as the opera house like Phantom of the Opera, then you don’t need a large ship, but you do need a boat to navigate the underground canal.

Choose a movie in your genre category and mark down how each form of travel is navigated. How does that contribute or impede their abilities. For example in the movie John Carter of Mars, two races use air travel but one race refuses to fly. Make notes of the hindrances and look for ways they can become plot conflict in your version.

Share: What is the most fantastical on your list? What is the most practical for your world?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Create With Mystery

The lure of a mystery is present in all genres due to the main story question. If we are hooked at the beginning we will read, even through dull sections, determined to find the end’s answer. Chapter endings, scene endings need to leave us with that pause of ‘will she or won’t she succeed or fail’. The books and movies that keep us wondering breathe that mystery thread with both multiple possibilities and/or multiple questions.

The movie Shag keeps several story lines as bait.

For the trip itself, we are introduced to each girl leaving in the car, two by choice, one by stealth and one reluctantly so our first questions are why the hesitation and will they get away. Then will they caught when they head for a different place? If they get caught what will the consequences be? To everyone or just those whose property has been ruined? Each step of the trip requires a choice and each choice has unforeseen consequences that keep the reader wondering.

Another thread of questions lies in character discovery. With each girl acting a little out of character we begin to wonder if everyone is not what he or she seem to be. What are the hidden agendas? Which parts are masks and which parts are real? Sometimes the characters themselves aren’t sure which adds even more suspense. Or are others misunderstanding what they see?

Journal Prompt: On a recent TV series one of the main characters is caught by some incriminating photographs that become publicized as an affair and yet in reality are not. Put your character is a compromising situation, and then list three to five alternative reasons that she is there. Choose the one that will require the most confusion as to why or the one with the most costly consequences.

Share: What movie or novel kept you on the edge of your seat until the final page?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Build a Story World

Transportation Cont’d

Air travel. What exists? The usual planes, helicopter, and hot-air balloons, or magic carpets, flying horses, jetpacks, giant birds and floating ships? Can the skateboard act like a flying carpet?

Is your space ship made of metal or is it a living creature? In the series Firefly the crew is always dealing with their spaceship home, Serenity, which needs constant attention to function. In fact the ship’s mechanic, Kaylee, came on board in the first episode solely due to her intuitive knowledge of how to repair Serenity. The crew need Serenity for transportation and without a crew Serenity cannot fly.

However in the series Farscape, Moya is a living ship, a fifth generation Leviathian once free, then captured by the Peacekeepers, a militant regime, and now home to renegades fleeing the corrupt empire. Moya has allowed her passengers to stay, but has the ability to defend herself against unwarranted actions by the crew. They need her, but she doesn’t need them for transportation.

Compare these long-term relationships with other sci-fi movies or shows where transportation is simply a vehicle and has no emotional value at all.

If you have a central mode of air-travel, brainstorm a spectrum from no emotional connection whatsoever to a living, being, co-character, and then choose which location on that spectrum works best for your character and your story. What plot points can impact your story because of potential difficulties?

Share: What basic transportation does your character use and how invested is he its survival?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Construct With Memory

Emotional memories have the interesting capacity to focus a high beam on who we think we are, or want to be, and who we really are down deep.

As the four friends, in the movie Shag, try on different personas and test run different actions on their escapade weekend, they are more than a little surprised to find out what really matters. Melaina, the preacher’s daughter, can’t wait to toss scruples, rules and clothes out the window to adopt a sultry presence ready for action. But when one heated Romeo takes her seriously she realizes just where her actions are taking her and instinctively fights back. “It against my religion,” she says desperately and recognizes that she actually means it.

However, young engaged socialite, Carson begins acting with ultra moral and rigid convictions, and then slides steadily into a physical relationship with a boy she just met. “I guess I was always bad inside,” she tells her friends, “but I didn’t know it.” In reality, she decided to act on her own feelings instead of what others expected and had dictated she act. And was more that a little startled at the degree of her rebellion.

When Chip is challenged as to his behavior towards Caroline, he immediately asserts his honor by declaring that he is a southern gentleman. And he is such a gentleman that Caroline thinks he only sees her as overweight and just friend material, because from her emotional memory that is the only way boys see her.

Luanne, though, attempts to stay on track and keep everyone else on track. She upholds the social status she believes in as a senator’s daughter and doesn’t veer away. At the same time she acts as a true friend, by saving Melaina, protecting Carson and encouraging Caroline.

In just a few days these four young women discover, through memory, themselves at the very core of their being, before they head into the next stage of their lives. Their last fling of freedom had deeper roots than they could have imagined.

Journal Prompt: Put your character in a situation where he thinks he is getting exactly the treatment he wants and deserves, but finds his heart is rebelling against it. Why? What memories are reminding him of who he really is?

Share:  What surprised your hero?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Build a Story World

History and Transportation

What forms of transportation exist in your world? Start with the basics. Make a general list: foot travel, air travel, vehicle, water or animal travel or other. Are some divided by economics or class hierarchies? Are they natural to your world or have some been superimposed? For example, in the movie Avatar the earth has brought heavy machinery to the planet Pandora.

Which ones will your heroine be using? Does she have access to all? Make her a list of methods common to her. How does dislocation affect her? Will there be any distinctions or oddities? Has a person so used to an entourage around them not even know how to push a button in an elevator? Go through each category and look for details that can forward your plot or characterization.

Foot travel. What kind of gait does she have? Will she walk, skip, hop, or run? Can she run fast—will she need to? How will she accelerate? Barefoot, spiky heels, leather boots, sneakers or ?? and in what circumstances. What is the next step up: roller blades, skateboard, or scooter?

In a writing workshop at Mount Hermon one year, author Lauraine Snelling demonstrated just how insightful watching a person walk indicates their emotional situation. She would call four or five people up at a time and whisper their attitude to them alone, and then have them walk around the room. The audience had to guess what was happening.

Share: Give one mini sketch for foot travel mode in a lighthearted or humorous circumstance, and one for a dramatic encounter. Which was easier to communicate?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Connect With Maps

Have you ever had a life map goal so entrenched in your expectations that you can’t or won’t veer from it? But then the unexpected happens and suddenly your choices are turned upside down.

In the movie Shag, four friends have their lives mapped out for them—literally and figuratively. With one exception they are about to settle into or accept the social, cultural expectations of their world and what others expect from them. But not without one last burst of freedom, one weekend to be who they think they are, and in those few days discover a new life map.

One young socialite is so fixated on her upcoming wedding that her best friends lie to her about their destination. Only when they turn onto a different highway does she realize they are heading for a beach to party. She had only agreed to the weekend if the activities had fit an acceptable decorum. She resists as much as possible but is pulled into the lure of a different road. Away from the rules she finds the shell she has molded for herself breaking into pieces.

Journal Prompt:

Choose some categories of lifestyle that are, or were, in your heroine’s high school world. Is it a private school atmosphere or a rural school, high school with 4,000 students or one with 400?

What are the expectations of their family and community towards them, that they will follow into trade jobs, marry, stay status quo or go off the grid? Choose four from different economic, or other status levels, and write up a sketch of their expected day responsibilities ahead of them.

Share: Did your heroine follow the status quo or choose a different journey? What happened?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Build a Story World

Cities Cont’d

Another way to build history into your world, and to find great ideas, is to track a city over a long time period alongside its changes. For example, study a city that made a major transition from rugged camp conditions into a cosmopolitan world center. Or you can go into the opposite direction: a once major city is now a shadow of its former appeal. What caused the downfall—corruption or public indifference or a little of both?

If an entire city seems overwhelming, choose one neighborhood.

The fame need not be in location only, but perhaps as a center for the arts, or sports or medicine or industry. What brought it to fame and why did it lose its ‘authority’?

Give your cities a connection historically too either through education, or commerce or religion. Jerusalem is a holy city for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, but not all their holy sites are in the same location. However some are. Has the city been ‘owned’ by so many different cultures that each can claim a heritage to it. What kind of conflict can become attached to your protagonist?

Copy one facet of a famous world city across our own timeline and use it to tie your own city together. For example, Alexandria Egypt and its famous library, the architecture in Prague Czechoslovakia, or Paris France for art.

Share: Which city did you choose to study?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Build a Story World

History Cont'd  


In week one you did a freewrite and list exercise with cities. In week two you looked at building habitat with its legends and history and landmarks. Here you pull them together to decide which cities in your world are to have prominence, based on history then and history now.

Choose three cities: one modern, one middle-aged, and one ancient within your world’s timeline. What is the key historical focus of each city/town? If it lost its prominence—why? Was it once a major seaport and is now a land-locked desert?

Another approach is to look at the ‘ghost towns’ of your country. Were they bustling towns based on gold or another mineral and when they dried up everyone left? Or perhaps a new form of transportation made a once major city obsolete, like the railroads did in many countries as they bypassed some well known towns for others. In what areas did a population leave due to changes, such as many stage-coach routes lost their livelihood when the railroads took over.

Share: Which historical focus gave the strongest emotional connection?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Compose Through Metaphor

“Dance is the hidden language of the soul” Martha Graham

Over the past few months I’ve been watching old movies for some workshops I’ve been teaching and considering what enables them to pass the test of time and be relevant in today’s generation, which is so more high tech than twenty years ago.

Shag, one movie, is named after and highlights Carolina Shag dancing in the 1960’s, focuses on a week-end of four young women transitioning from high-school, and tracks personal discovery as they begin to see themselves from a new perspective. As this movie was made in 1989, it was already then an historical movie. Yet reached that audience with enthusiasm.

Some of its timeless appeal definitely included the music, which captured the era, was fun, and wove its own magic. However that isn’t enough, as the next movie’s music I’ll discuss actually became a detriment to new viewers.

What captured Shag’s timelessness was the metaphor of dance behind the actual dance steps and music. And the movie blended the dance concept/metaphor seamlessly throughout the storyline.

For example, the character Pudge loves to dance, is so excited she can’t wait to be at the dance hall, and faces immediate disappointment as no one wants to dance with her.  She sees herself through her nickname as undesirable. The surface dilemma is a minor inconvenience to the deeper desire for Pudge to have someone value her for herself, for someone to wants to ‘dance’ with her, to match her heart. The young man she meets insists he can’t shag so Pudge offers to teach him. He actually is an excellent dancer but he too is looking beyond the surface and doesn’t want to be liked just because he can dance in the contest. The dance metaphor guides them into a real understanding of friendship and relationship and possibilities.

And underlines the transition for all the main characters, as they learn their new steps as individuals hearing their own heartbeats, their real desires and their soul hungers.

Journal Prompt:

Choose a dance theme that matches your character, whether current or historical to her real timeline. Chart out the actual dance moves and the pattern to them.

How can you apply that pattern to an emotional conflict she is trying to comprehend?

Share: What timeless quality does it unveil for her situation?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Build a Story World

History in Place Writing assignment:
            1. Choose a place in your novel and describe it with its history. Integrate what was there by first describing both the present, and the absent, and then the present and the past.

            2. Or take a setting out of a folktale, fairy tale or actual history in another town/era/culture that bears the same thematic ‘map’ and use it doing the above exercise.

            For example: many stories have travelers lost in a forest. Maybe the forest in your town is still young so borrow an ancient one as its back history.

            3. After you have chosen and written one from an “historical” viewpoint, rewrite it from a family history perspective within the same framework.

Share: What worked well? What was difficult?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Build a Story World

History as Perspective

Another key factor in presenting history is to identify perspective. A fun practice is to study world scenes from different artists in different centuries and note what they highlighted in their subjects and what they kept muted. How did they interpret the moment they wanted to share? What kind of statements might they  have been making?

Click to the following links of two paintings in Wikipedia and resist reading all the background until after you’ve read the visual for yourself, and answered the following questions for each scene.

Describing a scene. (Interpretation)

1.     What are some possibilities for organizing and discussing this visual text in Hogarth’s Street Scene?
kinds of facial expressions, noise-sound-music, theme of poverty, people at once crowed and isolated, social-class divisions, religious and other symbols, modes of amusement.

2.  What assumptions can we make about this ‘world’ based on     this moment in time?       

            Share: What is your emotional impression of  one scene?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Construct With Memory

As we enter into our vocations we need the community of artisans and colleagues to teach and sharpen and encourage growth and skills. We learn from the collective memory, some living and some dead, classroom by personal experience or classrooms through reading or other forms of art. In some ways it’s a modern day version of guilds where skills can be passed down from generation to generation. And everyone benefits.

However when we are fortunate enough to find a mentor, that experience deepens into our hearts and becomes a spiritual inheritance as well. They give us the tools that help us identify our particular bent or purpose or skill within the body. And when we stumble or lose our direction they give us their gift of memory by asking questions that remind us why we started, and where our vision is, and how to find our starting point again. They are a rare gift. They share from generous hearts.

But how exactly? How do they construct beyond craft to spirit? I have been blessed by two special mentors, authors Lauraine Snelling and Ethel Herr, who have practiced what they teach for well over the twenty years I’ve known them. And so I began to list some of their qualities as mentors where they have shared and challenged and grounded me over the years to find the concrete within the abstract. (See the list below)

Their gifts to myself, and many many others, came to a highlight this week as Ethel passed into heaven and our community of writers began the process of saying goodbye by remembering all our stories with her. Mentor. Friend. Poet. Historian. Author. Pray-er. And so much more.

Stories that will help us construct with memory every time we think of her. Words passed along with commitment and humor, with love and challenge, with hope and integrity. Words to be valued. Poured out words.

Received with gratitude.

Journal Prompt:

Go down the list below and write next to each category the name of a mentor who has contributed to your inheritance for faith/vocation/purpose. What are the words or ideas they have given you to sustain you when the road gets blurry, to help you remember your goals for:



Moral Foundation

Compass Point

Quality of Craft




Share: What is a lifelong insight that you received from a mentor?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Build a Story World

History Cont'd  Part Three

The following is a detailed essay that shares a very organic way of passing on family history.

Describing a place with history: Language and Literature From a Pueblo Indian Perspective

1. What style does Leslie Marmon Silko use? (reflective or emphatic, didactic or philosophical) How does that affect the process she is explaining?

2. How many of you have experienced moving from one place to     another or re-visited a former family home?

3. What are the ideas or images that you find familiar and can relate to in this essay?

  When I try to access this essay by the url, I get computerese instead, so I suggest that you just go to google and type the title above. The essay is a little long but well worth your time.

Share: What new idea or application struck you after reading Leslie Marmon Silko?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Build a Story World


Even if it is a “new world’ it brings with it the influence that marked the journey. For example the new beginnings for the first immigrants to America and to Australia suffered extreme deprivation. Yet the societal mix of each group was entirely different. Many first settlers to America were fleeing religious persecution, but still maintained loyalties to England. Generally they still had some choice to go or not. However many of the first settlers to Australia were forced to go as laborers, convicts and bound servants.

Another important factor for historical background is to consider what is being left out. For example, we read or see a violent fight between two groups of people, with or without distinction by class or race or apparent vocation or aliens, and there is no evidence of law enforcement whatsoever. What are possible questions?

Over the next few blogs we’ll examine three critical reading exercises that help us access a sense of history. First look at the example and then repeat the ‘reading’ with material from your own world research either using a photo or painting or narrative description.

The first you’ve already done with the photo by Hopper several weeks ago.  But now repeat the exercise, and choose a photo you’ve selected for your world. Consider one city, or one landmark within a particular city. For example, is there a national monument that draws a pilgrimage?

 Describing a place.
a.     How has the author organized the space?
b.     What is the attitude or feeling portrayed?
c.      What features are employed?
d.     What is unique?
 For each give a specific example.

Share: Which detail did you emotionally connect to?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Build a Story World

History Introduction

“Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact, and exacting and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress. Location pertains to feeling; feeling profoundly pertains to place; place in history partakes of feeling, as feeling about history partakes of place.” Eudora Welty

According to this quote history and setting are not meant to be dull, dusty tomes but living and breathing credible locations.

What is the civilization? Is it in decline or in ascent? What is the regime? What difference does it make if we don’t know? For example, in episode one, Serenity, why did Joss Whedon pick the first scene in Firefly to show a battle from several years earlier? What difference does it make to see it all in actions as opposed to a brief narrative story opening with lines of a diary?

We have all had years of reading history and sometimes still not really understood, and then we see a photo or painting from that era and everything suddenly makes sense. We see the multi-faceted layers.

So another decision that needs to be incorporated is what is the level of historical importance to your world and what are the key factors that you want to maintain as influence?


1.     Make a list of the first three questions above and answer them with as many specific details as you have at the moment. If you’re undecided then list both possibilities.

2.     Next, thinking in terms of atmosphere that we’ve already discussed, answer the fourth question for each of the three categories and write out a brief reason why.

For example, a couple on a road trip take a detour to see an historic site—an old western town, so gives us all the mythic sensory details that resonate with that setting. Answer also=in decline. Regime= non-existent—or the hideout for modern day smugglers or underground aliens or avenging ghosts. For the non-existent regime then we don’t need to know. The setting can simply be a potential symbol of their dried up relationship. However for either of the other regimes you must know what and why because that choice will affect your entire novel.

Share: Did any of your answers surprise you? What detail did it bring into clarity?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Construct With Memory

What is the difference between a hero, a celebrity, and a role model?

When I would first ask my college students this question, as an introduction to a research essay, at least half the students responded with a puzzled expression. Usually one would have the courage to reply, “Aren’t they all the same?”

So we would break out into small groups to write definitions and give examples and talk out experiences. This was one set of essays I always looked forward to reading to see how they discovered personal concrete definitions of their own that related to their lives.

Two quotes from our readings that drew the most discussion included the “hero evolves as the culture evolves” according to Joseph Campbell discussing the hero’s adventure, and one article re Rosa Parks that said, “Perhaps the most interesting thing about her was how ordinary she was.”

In some ways Rosa Parks did fit all three definitions but as the class continued to research and discuss it became more obvious that it was outside perceptions that created all the labels—and were not necessarily warranted in all situations. Because of her personal integrity and genuine character, Rosa Parks was already a role model who then became a news celebrity by her actions and has since become a hero.

But then is a hero someone who does one amazing rescue or a faithful parent who shows up each day?  How can we determine quality substance under media glitz?
And then, how have our lives been influenced by those whom we desire to emulate? What happens when we discover our ‘heroes’ have clay feet?

Have you heard the saying that you are what you eat? The application applies to be careful whom we have emulated, or do so now, and what we value as purpose in life.  

Journal Prompt:

1.     Ask your character how she defines a hero, a celebrity and a role model?

2.     Based on her answers choose which one has had the most personal influence on her?

3.     Is the influence positive or negative? Why?

Share:  What characteristic of your personal role model do you still try to emulate?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Build a Story World

Core Cosmos Summary

Just by knowing and choosing one aspect of our world’s creation beliefs opens up the core of setting as it can develop and clarify conflict. It strikes right at the heart of culture and coinage, history and heresy.

 Extended Writing Exercise

Using a style such as originally told in the traditional form of an anonymous storyteller; write up a paragraph that reflects a time that portrays the quality of your cosmos. 

Then narrow that essence as an opening sentence hook.

For example, Dickens famous opening line for A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Or: Many circles passed since our people lost their way.

Share: Your first line.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Construct With Memory

“How did I come to believe that what I knew was also what mattered? And, more to the point for the future, is it what matters?” Patricia Hampl

In her book, I Could tell You Stories, Hampl explores the realm of memory in auto-biographical writing connected by the impulse to remember. She pointed out that both Kafka and Rilke saw memory, “not experience”, as holding the sovereign position in imagination.

For herself Hampl discovered: “The recognition of one’s genuine material seems to involve a fall from the phony grace of good intentions and elevated expectations.” Although she shares via the route of memoir, this door of recognition applies to all forms of writing. If we are unable to infuse our memories, or perhaps our search for our memories into our work then we rob it of honest quest and discovery and an imagination that connects. Each person’s voice is unique and bears witness to life. But in order to share, we first need to identify what really matters to us.

“We store in memory only images of value.”

Journal Prompt:

1.     Choose a first memory of an experience you’ve had twice and write each up as an autobiographical event. For example, the very first day you went to school and then the very first day you went to school in high school, or college.

2.     Or perhaps choose an area in which you became accomplished. The first day you swam in a pool and the first time you swam in a race.

Share: What emotions rose to the surface? Were there similar ones in both vignettes?
"The Seeker" Rachel Marks | Content Copyright Marcy Weydemuller | Site by Eagle Designs
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