What Inspires a Story?

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I often am asked what #inspired my #awardwinning #shortstory on #Writersdigest? It’s complicated, but the short answer is it was a neighbor from my childhood. Her son was mentally disabled: sometimes when he tried to play with us, he accidentally hurt us; a broken arm, a bruised rib cage, a bloodied nose. He was 16 with the mind of a 4 year old and the strength of a line-backer. We were all under 10 years old. It was the early 1960s, people used the ugly word “retard” and mocked and teased him. But he wanted so desperately to be friends, so we played with him. He reminded me of #BooRadley #tokillamockingbird…I’ve never forgotten him. You can #read my tragic #story here on #WritersDigest where it won a #fiction contest.

Sometimes inspiration comes from the littlest, most insignificant things, like an image or a smell. I saw a man sitting in a boat on a lake once, he was slumped, holding his hat in his hands. I knew instinctively he was grieving. I felt it in my bones. It inspired a scene in my novel, Return to Sender, where the protagonist, Theo, sees the father of a young girl who was found murdered, sitting in a boat in the middle of the river. I wrote him exactly as I saw that man in the boat.

Return to Sender was initially inspired by a box of letters, love letters from during the Korean War that I found in my attic sixty years after the war.

I take notes on everything that tugs at my heart, my curiosity, or my sense of justice, or injustice. I save them and use them as story world material. There’s something new everyday, either from my daily beach walk or something I saw on tv. I never know where inspiration will be found, but I do know where to go when in search of, and for me that’s an art museum—where one of my greatest joys in life is to sit on a bench in the presence of great art, and write, whether it’s the Portland Art Museum, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum or the Louvre’ in Paris, that’s as good as it gets when seeking inspiration.

Christmas Writing Prompts

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UGH! The emotions, stress and expectations surrounding Christmas, even a normal #Christmas, can be overwhelming. Add to that, Covid-19, and well, it’s a tough year for most.

We writers can use this time, those emotions and expectations as fodder for character building—our own, and our fictional characters—if we choose. So, I offer you this #writing exercise for our times.

Think about the characters in your #WIP (work in progress) and or a character you’re just dreaming up. AND remember that this exercise is only intended to deepen your characterization—get to know your character a little better—and not anything you will necessarily use in your WIP, unless you love it, of course.

There are no rules, only guidelines. So put your #writer’s thinkin’ cap on, here we go;

It’s a week before Christmas. We’re in the midst of a #pandemic. Many have lost their jobs, their spouses, or a loved one to covid. There are no office parties, no #holiday shopping extravaganzas, no church or school Christmas plays or fancy Nutcracker events. There’s no family get togethers, no hanging out at favorite restaurants, no seeing old friends, and absolutely no hugging, unless you’re wrapped in one of those clear plastic shower curtains, of course.

Guideline #1. Try to get those 5 senses (smell, taste, sound, touch, sight) in there.

Your character just woke early in the morning; to what sound or smell? Before their feet hit the floor (touch); what are they thinking, what are they feeling?   What’s the first thing they do; brush teeth or make coffee, (taste) shower, look outside or turn on the news? (sight) And are they thinking that Christmas alone, and isolated sucks? Or is it uplifting, undaunting, and they’re thinking maybe from now on this is the way to go?

Guideline #2. Describe their setting and how it has been altered by the lack of holiday fanfare. Guideline #3. Due to this change in their life, identify how that may lead to conflict in the family, marriage, job, whatever.

Guideline #4. What’s the point? What have they learned, and how has it transformed them? Did they learn they valued something that they hadn’t really thought of before?

Did they learn they were afraid of something, like being alone? Guideline #5. How will they behave differently after quarantine, and lonely (or not) holidays?

Some people promise themselves they’ll visit grandma more often, or go to the neighborhood coffeeshop and actually talk to people instead of sit alone in the corner. And many promise themselves they’ll return to church, yoga, meditation, hiking, or whatever devotional practice they had once upon a time.   How has your character transformed (in a small or big way) due to the pandemic?

At the very least, do they plan on doing more hugging? Use this time to write, to explore your emotions and those of your characters. And if you feel the need for help. please reach out.


Covidy #Christmas #Writing Prompts

How did I use Christmas in my novel, Return To Sender???

Pandemic Holiday Writing

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Hey #writers, if you’re like me this year, it’s a sucky Christmas. We’ve had two family members die during this #pandemic (not covid related) and are still not able to have funerals. Add to that, no getting together for the holidays. No hugs. No big dinners. No family nights with games and stockings. Nothing. It sucks. And for most of us it’s a tough holiday season this year for many other reasons as well.

We’re all feeling the loss of what should be, what used to be, and for some, what will never be again. But as writers we are blessed to have our craft to turn to in these times. The other day in my Zoom class, I asked my #writers to take 15 minutes and write (old school, pen and paper) the stages of their character’s hero’s journey. This little exercise helps me stay on track with #writing my #novel; see where there might be holes in my story, or steps I may have neglected all together.

Maybe during this difficult year, instead of focusing on our losses, we can concentrate our energies on our writing with a renewed effort, a plan for pandemic writing. So, how about giving yourself the gift of #writing; the 12 steps of the #herosjourney is no replacement for the 12 days of #Christmas, but it’s a start. Be kind to yourself, especially when times are tough. Here’s a little Hero’s Journey reminder. Keep writing. Cheers, Mindy Halleck

The Times They Are A Changin’

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Words are powerful.

Bob Dylan, and other folk music prophets wrote/write what the eye of a seeker sees and what a hungry soul feels. Songs, poetry and all great stories are prophetic and deeply moving when they echo the past or are in tune with the times. It just feels like a great day to share Bob Dylan’s words in the midst of these changing times….

The Times They Are A Changing

Song by Bob Dylan & The Band Lyrics (you can read, and then listen below)

Come gather ’round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

Source: LyricFindSongwriters: Bob Dylan

The FIVE Senses Bring Stories to Life

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I can feel my writing student’s collective eye roll as I write this; “Show don’t’ tell, do a run through for passive writing. Mind your ‘ing and ly’ words. Where’s the smell, there are no smells in this scene.” And so on….

No matter what kind of story you are writing, memoir, short story, or novel, it’s vital to engage a reader’s senses. Precise and concrete details are essential to effective storytelling. The best way to achieve this is by appealing to the reader’s FIVE senses—smell, sight, sound, touch and taste—to FULLY illustrate a scene.

Trust me, if your character walks into a bar, takes the garbage out, goes fishing, is out nightclubbing or stumbles upon a dead body at sunrise, there is a provocative smell. That smell will bring the scene to life (or death) whichever….

A dead body at sunrise might have a sight that would be more seductive than a smell; it’s up to you the author to decide which of the senses best suits the suggestive nature of your scene.  Use the strongest description sense for your specific scene. In one scene, smell might be the most evocative sense to go with, in another, sound, or sight, or touch.

I have a heightened sense of smell, so for me smells are powerful. I still recall my pinched face when I read author of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk’s description of someone’s breath, “smelled like a burp after you’ve ate pork sausage for breakfast.” That still grosses me out. Palahniuk’s common use of words that summon olfactory responses is a perfect example of showing and not telling.

And if you’re story takes place prior to modern sewer systems you have all the many stenches of humanity—before regular bathing and with piss buckets on every corner—from which to draw. If your story is in New York or Beverly Hills, the smell of perfume can help a character sum up the financial worth of a woman—or a man—or lack thereof.

And who can forget, Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Smells can be story gateways; the smell of coffee may take them back to a fond memory, or the taste of ice cream may take them back to a nightmare.

Revealing your story through the senses helps the reader to not just read, but to experience your story on multiple levels. Can you recall a particular story for it’s use of the senses?

Take a pen and paper and (if you’re not on quarantine) go sit in a coffee shop or café (wear a mask) and write down the smells, sights, sounds, touch and taste of that environment. No story, just details. Do any details, like the above-mentioned smell of coffee, take you back to a memory. Write that memory. Keep that list of details for when you write scenes that may need to be brought to life.  

For a complete list of words to use to describe smell, visit this site, https://www.writerswrite.co.za/75-words-that-describe-smells/

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