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

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Build A Story World

Cross-culture—era cont’d

Even when speaking the same language there are so many areas that can create emotional stress from disrespect to humor. On my first trip to a delicatessen I asked for smoked meat and was asked what kind. I had no idea what he was talking about and tried to explain the packages that you could boil in water and put in a sandwich. He looked at me as if I was from another planet. Several months later I tried once again at another place with different wording and received the same reaction. A tourist from New York City overheard our conversation and told me to ask for pastrami. It was an East Coast-West Coast difference, not country borders.

Now grocers’ stock different food from all around the world and most situations do not even exist.  But back then it startled me to realize some of my basic familiar foods were no longer available. My cultural changes were minor and often humorous, however, for displaced refugees the emotional cost is staggering. I highly recommend the movie Green Dragon as an example of how life can be impacted.

Exercise Optional
1.     If you decide to watch Green Dragon look for the many ways that the arts bring hope and healing to both cultures involved. Note that the beginning of the movie is in sub-titles until the language barrier is overcome.

Pair your character with a stranger in a cooking class where they are both trying to learn to make a specialty dish foreign to both of them.

Share: What is the funniest incident?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Connect Maps

Summertime and the maps come out of drawers ready to plot vacation travel. We customize a route connecting the dots of destination and sightseeing. Everyone is anxious to get to our destination, however somewhere along the route we realize we don’t all have the same expectations for when we arrive. We agreed on the surface route, but not the underlying motives.

It’s not always the best scenario for travel relationships but it’s a terrific opportunity to build tension within theme in our novels. As we connect the emotional and goal dots between characters we add stress to plotting the story route.

In her excellent book, Wild Ink, Victoria Hanley differentiates between premise, message and theme. Premise is “often used to refer to the underpinnings of a particular world or milieu.” Theme is “a feature that runs through the novel.” The message “must hold true for that particular novel” and the subplot messages become mirror images that bring the reader back to the main point. Dot to dot connects the emotional route.

The movie Penelope has several excellent examples of sub-text communicating opposing message values in dialogue and in actions. In particular Penelope’s mother, Jessica, keeps telling her that she is not what she looks like, she is not her nose, rather someone waiting to come out. Jessica really thinks she believes it herself. However she also believes that the only way her daughter will be truly happy is to meet society’s expectations of good looks and a good name and only through this map configuration can Penelope’s curse be broken. 

Jessica truly lovely her daughter but she is so fixated on a one-route course that, even after the disfiguring curse is removed, she still suggests more ways for Penelope to improve opportunities by her looks.

Journal Prompt:

Write a brief conversation between your protagonist and someone he trusts completely where he realizes that this person has been undermining all his efforts because ‘it’s for his own good’.

Share: Which has the greater damage—the external situation or the emotional impact?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Build A Story World


Within the same era includes a similar world history, science, medicine, possibly economics, technology, etc. but seen through different perspectives. Culture to culture affects language communication, social status, and vocational capabilities. It impacts immigrants and emigrants whether for a brief sojourn, or a lifelong change. Did a person willing travel to a foreign country for business or education, or are they in a new country as refugees?

The series Off the Map took the medical genre and plunked it in a third world environment. Three young doctors must learn how to be doctors without hospitals, often without traditional medication, operate under adverse circumstances, and learn to navigate a foreign culture without a vocabulary to communicate.

It is often surprising to find that even simple habits need to be changed. When I first moved to the USA from Canada I discovered ‘my tea’ was not sold on the west coast but on the east coast only. I switched to coffee out of desperation for strong enough caffeine. A few years later it showed up on my grocer’s shelf and I literally did a ‘commercial style’ shriek that startled everyone around me. No one understood why that tea made such a difference. It was such a minor detail and yet provided a longtime familiar equilibrium to my mornings.

Exercise: Write up a scene where your character has made either a state-to-state move within her country, or perhaps a neighborhood move within a large city. Mark what changes she finds amusing, or frustrating, or challenging.

Share: Which one raises a level of tension for her?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Compose Metaphors

A tree is often used as a symbol or metaphor of growth and life as we saw in the last sequence. However, in reverse, it can also impact story by exposing lies and shadows. Fairy tales and folk tales are rich with living images in all forms. Scriptures too remind us that choices spread beyond immediate actions.

“For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay.” Romans 8: 20-21 NRSV

In the opening of the movie Penelope, as the curse is laid upon the family for their refusal to take responsibility for their actions, the tree is the courtyard falls into immediate decay as well. Yet it doesn’t die. Instead it remains as a visual image reminding the family and others of the curse. Even if they try to pretend it doesn’t exist, the tree stands in judgment as a silent metaphor.

And it raises the question as to why are women willing to marry into this family? Do they not believe in the curse or do they not care? What metaphor warning could your character not see or acknowledge?  Or what warning does she represent to others? Silent metaphors woven into your setting can speak in volumes.

Journal Prompt:

Brainstorm a list of possible plants or trees, or other growing vegetation that could be a metaphor for loss to your protagonist and then be restored at the end of his ordeal.

Share: Which one did you choose? Why

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Building a Story World


This environment can be by choice, by birth or by capture. For better or for worse your character is tied to this place. For example, in the movie Phantom of the Opera everyone who participates in the opera has a stake in giving good performances. Jobs and reputations matter. Yet, there are a variety of mini-cultures within the overall setting such as the behind the walls laundry room, carpenter shop and stable. Some vocations may or may not ever communicate with one another.

Although I find labeling people to be derogatory there has been a reason that so many high school based movies are divided by category names. It introduces immediate conflict. One classroom alone can create its own mini-world. The Breakfast Club is a great example of characters being forced to examine and choose what mores will define them within their cultural environment.

In The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley, Aerin, as a king’s daughter, has many privileges. At the same time she has prescribed boundaries. As a princess she is not allowed to cross royal protocol, especially when dealing with visitors or emissaries. Yet even within those boundaries Aerin chose to cross culture with the people of Damar, within and without the castle, regardless of income or status. She treated all with respect and took the time to build communication and relationships. Whereas her relative Galanna stood on her royal blood and demanded everyone treat her “with the greatest deference humanly possible.”

1.                    Choose a boundary area in which your protagonist did not have permission to cross as a teenager. Write up a brief situation in which he submitted to the rule. And another brief situation in which he deliberately broke it.

2.                    What emotions did he experience as an after-effect?

Share: Which emotional version do you think is most effective for the situation you have your character in now?

Friday, June 8, 2012


"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ... when the morning stars sang together?" God asks in Job 38:4,7.

The movie Tree of Life opens with this quote and opens into yet another theme—timelessness. How do we wrap our thoughts around this concept when the mystery eludes us and yet it is a fact in our daily lives? Even when we attempt an answer it only leads to more questions.

The movie repeats cycle themes, clouds crossing the sky in time lapse, the birth of a volcano, the birth of a child; all are measurable, all are timeless and all keep us open to mystery.

Jesus raised similar questions in His parables. He began with daily measurable activities: sowing seeds, watching the weather, harvests—cycle of life. Then He pushed beyond the surface to share hidden truths. Powerful, creative, and life-changing insights. And the most common immediate response to these metaphors was, “How is this possible?”

The questions, the search, the curiosity all lead us into the mystery of living here and into hereafter. Nature wraps around our daily lives as beacon and somehow as a guardian. It is bound up with our ability to learn to see.

“For the anxious longing of creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God.” Romans 8:22 NAS

Nature—timeless—expressions of God’s truth—mystery—open to conversation.

Journal Prompt:

Make a list of nature metaphor or themes that reflect a sense of timelessness to you. Choose one for your character and write a brief vignette when he first experienced that connection.

Share: Two of your metaphors.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Building A Story World

Culture (Atmosphere-Part Two)

Mystery writer Elizabeth George says that the details that show a person’s landscape “imprint an impression of a character in the reader’s mind.” The external and internal are achieved through specific and telling details. These are details with a message attached to them, the kind of details that no reader forgets. She keeps a long list of jobs, skills, learning opportunities and day-to-day actions at hand to keep her characters real and grounded in daily life.

I’ve picked out a few from her sample list that would be considered common across cultures and at the same time with completely diverse possibilities. Think of them in relationship to different species too. Here’s a brief sampling of categories she and her students developed: eating a meal, cooking a meal, building a campfire, drinking, doing laundry, getting a tattoo, fishing, moving, building a structure, sculpting, knitting, cleaning, catching a lizard, and going through photographs.

Exercise: Pick an activity that can be both personal and an art form, such as food dishes, or weaving, or photography, and use it to track possibilities through the following culture connections.

Here are three potential culture worlds to explore for communication and atmosphere.
1.         Cross-culture—within the same environment.
2.         Cross-culture—within the same era.
3.         Cross-culture—across time dimension.

Share: Which cross-culture did you choose and why?

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