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

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Building a Story World

Research Helps

When you’ve decided where or what your world will be, then choose the landscape that you want to highlight, blend, or contrast.

1. At a second-hand bookstore pickup a natural history guide that matches your choice. Choose one that details the entire habitat, as well as the weather patterns common to that area.

2. Mix and match for effect. Take San Francisco as a city and place it in the Mohave Desert, or the Swiss Mountains, or an island off the coast of Italy. What changes does that make?

Keep Records

First look for the broad strokes of your world to give authenticity in general. When you sweep read, write down those odd gleanings as they pop up. Keep a separate list for them. Maybe a particular interest won’t work for the first or second novel, but is perfect for the third.

Then for the personal up-close details, dig deeper for unique specifics. Find out what is the unique bird or animal or flower? Why? What legend does it have behind it? Can it be adapted as a theme or symbol? Choose a feature under which to track it and set up in your filing system.


1. Decide how to set up your background as you go. Will it be a separate ‘book’ matching the novel chapter by chapter? Or location by location?

2. Keep a diary of where the major incidents happen. As we’ll see later on they have the potential to become echoes within your own world.

3. Also mark the references when you use library material, especially borrowed.

4. Set goals and time management for your research as well as your writing, so the writing gets your priority.

5. Set the research schedule to work alongside the writing so you don’t have to change thought tracks. For example, you know that a few scenes ahead your villain will sabotage your protagonist on a train. A week or two before take a few hours to sweep read about trains for the era or decade or even year. Jot down the most interesting possibilities. A few days later choose a few and do some detailed research on the workings and their weaknesses. Let it all simmer.

When you get to the scene write without looking at your notes. Then a few days later, check the particular sabotage. What’s still missing? Make a list and on your next research night look it up. Mark the manuscript with the new possibility for later revision.

Share a reference tip that has helped keep you on track, or one that became a hindrance.

Friday, March 23, 2012


Why do tiny fish come out to feed in the fog? And why is everyone afraid of them and hide indoors? In the Doctor Who series version of A Christmas Carol, their beauty charms the Doctor as they swim around lamplights reminiscent of Dickens time.

Shortly after he discovers the real threat, the giant sharks that come down out from the clouds to feed and will swallow the Doctor if possible. They are guided by a radio signal so when the Doctor manages to disengage it, not only can the shark not return to the clouds, but also is dying because it swallowed the Doctor’s screwdriver. Now he must discover a way to save the shark along with the other crisis plot lines.

Unraveling one mystery keeps opening the door to another. It’s fun for this science fiction, but also points out the lure of discovery that all why and how questions can generate. And even more amazing are the mysteries and discoveries of science and nature in our own very real earth.

Reading Just A Second from the library had both myself and five-year-old grandson amazed at what humans, animals, earth, universe, plants and much more are capable of in one second, one minute, one hour, or one day. For example, “a howler monkey’s deafening scream travels 1,125 feet” in one second. What might that look like in a traditional cozy mystery where after hearing the screams odd things happen in a small town. Or that in one minute “A skydiver in freefall plunges two miles.”

What if your heroine is forced to escape a plane by jumping out and is terrified of heights?

Extraordinary mysteries happen all around us in creation and can provide unique ideas to our stories. We just need to approach the possibilities with a new perspective. Remember the old movie “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” where four “inch” size children had to navigate an entire back yard? The un-mown lawn became a hazardous jungle.

Journal Prompt:

1. Look at your last indoor scene. Is there any aspect of nature/science in the setting? Or could you add some? Look at a rose in a vase. Could its perfume be deadly in some situations? Could it cause an allergic reaction, only the medication has been tampered with?

2. What about outdoors? Does your protagonist go for a morning run on a new trail; only someone reversed the open trail sign with the closed one? What danger is lurking down there, a mudslide, snakes, poison mushrooms?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Building a Story World


The rich history found in myths and their geography can be mined for today’s stories because their emotional truths still apply despite the change in civilizations. In his book, Realms of Gold, Leland Ryken comments on myth’s enduring qualities.

“During his wanderings, Odysseus encounters approximately what anyone taking a journey away from home would encounter today: violence, sexual temptation, drugs (the island of the lotus eaters), the occult, physical danger, death, lost luggage, homesickness, getting lost, culture shock (for example, the overnight in the Cyclops cave and the spectacle of Odysseus’ seeing his fellow sailors transformed into animals as he arrive at Circe’s house), hospitality, the impulse to give up, inadequate transportation, a lost passport (Odysseus arrives stark naked and without identity at Phaiacia), and personal conflict with fellow travelers.”

Sometimes we go on a journey and experience the unexpected. It can happen through our travel plans where nothing is as it should be, or was promised, or is even there anymore. (Wasn't there a comedy where a family arrived on a resort island and found a broken down house?)

And the unexpected can happen in familiar territory like a walk around the block where suddenly we see an incident that impacts our lives and gives us an epiphany. We start off in one direction but when we come to the end we find we are different. The journey has changed us within. So regardless of genre, we almost have an internal radar to all journey stories, whether of quest or immigration or exile or discovery or mystery, and regardless of distance.

Exercise in Process

1. Take a walk down a street in your childhood. Write down what you see, hear, remember. Write quickly a free write, broadly spaced. (about ten minutes)

2. Now go back through your notes and add specifics: sound, taste, and smell. For example, not just a swing on the front porch or in a yard, but what kind of swing. Metal-wooden-plastic/size/sounds it makes.

3. Choose one aspect of your walk—a particular setting or character and highlight either by enhanced detail, or exaggeration. Draw an analogy. For example:

“And the story goes she never forgave him. She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow.” Sandra Cisneros.

Share. Did some additional thoughts, feelings insights come with each layer?

Friday, March 16, 2012


What makes a moment a memory? Some memories are built up over several years, such as a yearly trip to a favorite camping site, and then blend together into an image. Others are a one time only flash yet linger for a lifetime. And may or may not be accurate. I have a distinct memory at age five with my paternal grandfather in my aunt’s garden, sitting on his knee telling stories. In later years my parents insisted that it didn’t happen because my grandfather had a stroke and was unable to speak. Yet it is my one and only clear memory of him. All the others remain fuzzy or based on hearsay.

Something had to have connected between us for me to hold it so thoroughly. Perhaps I was the one chattering away telling the stories, but he must have somehow engaged in the process for it to remain. Every day we have hundreds or thousands of moments that pass through our experiences unheeded. Maybe a memory sticks when, as the character says in the movie Avatar, “I see you.”

In the Doctor Who series version of A Christmas Carol, three people experience Christmas Eve together over a period of several years. It is the only time they are together. One person ages by only one day. Another by a year. Eventually his age catches up to hers and they fall in love—for a brief few evenings. And then he discovers she has only one more time left, so rather than live it together he lets time pass going into his old age living off the memories and becoming more and more hard-hearted with his despair. A beautiful joy filled adventure turned into a life of misery because he could only see it through his pain.

And when finally he opens the time again to see her vibrant expectancy she is able to chide him softly and let her perspective enlighten his. They both ‘see’ each other again and live the remaining moments with a connection that lasts forever.

Journal Prompt:

1. Ask siblings or cousins or friends about a celebration or trip you took together as children or teens. Have them share their one highlight. Does everyone pick the same heartbeat or do a few not even remember going?

2. Repeat the exercise for your character. Then blend both sets of emotional memories into a new scene.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Building a Story World


Now that you’ve chosen your natural habitat and researched a sense of its strengths and weaknesses, begin to look at daily details.

Where does the sun rise and set? What parts of home are in light or darkness daily or seasonally? What does the air smell like when you open the door in the morning, in the afternoon or in the evening?

Look for colors other than the flowers and trees. When it rains is the mud black, brown, or red? What colors stay through a drought? When you wade into the lake do your toes squish into a mushy bottom, or do you gingerly tiptoe over sharp rocks? How quickly do you dry after a sudden summer storm? Is it safe to light a campfire?

Begin to build one specific location. Start small and then stretch outward as needed.

1. Landscape: climate, weather, topography, amount of daylight.

2. Landmarks: natural, man-made, historical, holy ground, open, forbidden.

3. Territory: animals, birds, insects, marine and land, wild and domestic.

4. Sensory Influence: taste, touch, smell, see, and hear.

5. Local: flavor, attitude, speech, food, ceremonies, events.

6. Dangers: natural, man-made, physical, psychological, spiritual.

7. Secrets: past and present.

Note: When you have a particular interest such as food or music or architecture, look for the extra details throughout all the categories, and list what you discover. Set it in its own notebook or category as you work through all the lessons and highlight all the possibilities for atmosphere. Decide how to keep track of these categories because you will continue to expand them, especially if you develop a series. (More as we go)

Writing exercise.

Using the same location, explore the same space from three different angles to get a sense of possibilities. What particular characteristics will you choose to emphasize? For example, here are three ways you could develop a Victorian house.

First in an historical, either literary or genre, with the house being freshly built with ‘new rich’ money—what are some character/plot issues this setting can provide?

Second, develop it as century old home in a romance novel.

Third, set the same house in a mystery novel as a dilapidated building in a run-down neighborhood.

Share. Which one does your imagination immediately visualize?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Building a Story World

Develop the Habitat

Once you choose your landscape setting, start looking for the key information in the children’s section of the library. It is one of the best places to start a search for key information because the research books take habitats down to bare bones information. When you’re not sure what you actually will need, these books give great basic visual and content material to help you decide.

Next build your location up with a field guide or photo essays, travel videos and travel magazines that specialize in your particular corner. Also look for natural history writers who dig deep into their ecosystems with facts and metaphors. For example, if you need a good sense of the far north, then read Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams.

Study weather patterns. What potential storms would fit best your character’s quest? Raging rivers, tsunamis, hurricanes. Look for natural habitats that have a long history of dealing with this force of nature and place your fictional town or city in the middle.

If your character were to transform into her habitat what animal, or bird, flower or tree, body of water, type of wind would she become?

Writing Assignment

1. Choose one key habitat setting in your novel and then choose one scene.

a. In this setting make a map that charts the trajectory of your character’s emotions whenever she has been present in this place. Try color-coding if she experiences a variety and see what color is prominent.

b. Choose one scene set in this place. If you were to adapt your character’s emotions to music here what would you use? Why?

c. If you were to paint an abstract of this person here, what colors would you use?

d. What does she smell, hear, taste, and touch, here and now.

2. What is missing?

3. Rewrite the scene threading in one of these details as implicit emotional resonance.

Share. What kind of storm would best reflect your character’s emotional stress?

Friday, March 2, 2012


Have you ever had a day that you would’ve liked to erase and have as a do-over? Somewhere it took control and seemingly forced you along its path, with no exit signs. How can we find our way back to a new road on a fresh map?

Sometimes it seems as if our life maps are set in cement and we must follow the course we set in motion, regardless of the consequences to our emotional, physical or spiritual health. Commitment is good. Perseverance is good. But what happens when we are so driven by agendas or choices that our route has become rigid to the point of harmful and has also left common sense behind? Or worse, our decisions have propelled us into a skewered perspective and twists life out of focus.

In the Doctor Who series version of A Christmas Carol, the doctor cannot budge the hard-hearted Kazran Sardick to save a space liner. Kazran’s map of bitterness has set his heart on a trajectory that he refuses to change. So The Doctor adds another set of life experiences showing new positive memories alongside the stony ones the old man harbors. Kazran remains sarcastic and apparently unmoved, openly challenging The Doctor’s abilities to change his mind or stop his decision to allow the crash.

But gradually he has been affected by mercy and love and grace, and when the final moment of truth comes he has changed so dramatically from himself that he is unable to reverse the controls, which will only respond to the bitter version of himself. The actions set in motion by his earlier self will not acknowledge the new. He now has a heart of truth. He must plot a new map for his life.

Journal Prompt:

Take a special memory from your protagonist’s past and present the original intent as opposite to her understanding. Do one from a positive reversal and one from a negative. What would change as a result in her current choices?

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