5 Reasons to Write a Character Sketch

1)      You get to have true schizophrenic moments and hear voices in your head without a need for medication or institutionalization.  Its odd how, when you begin to really develop a character, they talk to you.  I can literally see them in my mind’s eye, and we chat.  I write as fast as I can, ask them questions and see where it goes.  Sometimes, other characters will even pop in and clarify points.  Then, the schizophrenia can morph into multipersonality disorder and you can experience a smorgasbord of psychological disorders in one writing session – fun stuff.

2)      The characters sometimes know more about their world than you do.  They live there; you don’t, so they can fill you in on what its like for them.  There’s only so much research you can do before you need to just let go, listen to them, and write it out.

3)      Interesting things can pop out about your characters, which opens up all kinds of different plot possibilities.  Like teenagers, they need to find their own way and sometimes have some struggles that you hadn’t anticipated in order to get there, but you won’t know this unless you allow them to tell you.   You can create all the plot ideas you want, but if your characters disagree with your ideas, writing (at least mine) tends to come to a screeching, horrifying halt.  It’s much easier to let the characters direct the action, and it makes it more interesting as well.  For example, until I sketched another character, I had no idea she was an artist.  It just came up, and it really ties into everything about the novel.  It gives her a reason to be places I want her to be, do things I wanted her to do.  It also added quite a few different plot ideas that hadn’t even occurred to me.  I just had to listen for her to tell me that she loves to draw.  She solved a whole plethora of problems with that one statement.

4)      Some details may never, ever find their way into your book, but as you’re writing, you get to know all the juicy stuff that nobody else will ever know.  It’s like having the inside scoop, your own little People magazine on your characters.  You need to know all this stuff because your characters are much more interesting when they’re multi-dimensional, and a character sketch forces this.  As you start writing, without stopping, without editing or censoring, the character develops into a real person.  Even a villain, or antagonist, grew up somewhere, had a mother, had good things in his life.  It’s fun to figure out what those details are right along whatever motivates him to be the evil, nasty bugger that he is.  Or maybe he had a fabulous mom who adored him and he just enjoys being a condescending, entitled jerk.  I want to hear that story from him.

5)      Finally, on an organizational note, a character sketch forces you to write all about your characters in one place.  This is hugely helpful when you’re writing and you forget what color their eyes are, or what their favorite meal is, or if it is their left knee or their right knee that gives them trouble.  You have everything in one easy-to-reference place.  I spent a day last week compiling every random note I’d written about a main character into one file.  Not surprisingly, I had some inconsistencies and contradictions that I was able to work out.  Now, if I need to know something, I can easily reference my handy dandy character sketch file rather than sort through a stack of random notes, all of which are written on different sizes of paper and stuffed  . . . somewhere.  So far, I’ve got 6-8 pages per main character, and I imagine that when this book is all said and done, these sketches will be quite a bit longer.  They’ve taken a bit of time to put together, but it’s been well worth it.

A Noisy, Impatient Spider

Spider web in the Redwoods

A noiseless patient spider,

I mark’d, where  on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;

Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;

Ever unreeling them–ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,

Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, –seeking the spheres, to connect them;

Till the bridge you will need, be form’d–till the ductile anchor hold;

Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

I almost just want to say . . . “nuf said,” as this poem perfectly captures both the photo and my own journey right now, but . . . I can’t.

My daughter took this shot on our vacation to the California coast and the Redwood Forests last week.  I hadn’t seen the shot until I uploaded the pics off the camera when we got home.  Not only is it an amazing photograph (at least to me –  her completely unbiased mom), it reminded me of Walt Whitman’s poem, “A Patient, Noiseless Spider.”  I almost cried when I re-read the poem.  I hadn’t read it for years, but as soon as I saw the photo, I remembered the last line of the poem.

It’s interesting how our memories work.  Right now, this poem has far more meaning to me than it did the first time I read it as an undergrad twenty some years ago, and some little part of my brain remembered it, dredged it up for me to re-read when it actually means something to me.  I had it all figured out then.  Now?  Not so much.

Unlike the spider, I am not so patient or quiet, despite my best efforts.

Like the spider, I too am ever unreeling and speeding out threads, “musing, venturing, throwing – seeking,” praying that they catch, connecting me to my purpose here is on this earth.

I am on the right path.  I am writing, I am creating. I am exploring, spinning threads, and I will keep throwing them out there until I have created something as lovely as this web in the sunlight.  And maybe, just maybe, somebody else will think so too.

My Man Quilt

Man Quilt on the Wall Before Borders

I finally finished my latest quilt.  My husband loved it and even commented that it looked a little bit masculine, “Not at all like what you usually do.”  Since he’s been the recipient of quilts that I thought were “man quilts,” I wasn’t so sure how to take that.

This quilt is for a guy, though, so his comment made me happy.  The pattern is “Jelly Roll Junction” by Heather Mulder Peterson.  All the patterns in her little book On a Roll are kind of girlie, so woo hoo – I morphed one into a guy quilt, and I used all fabric that I already owned.  Except, of course, for the border.

It ended up being huge.  I don’t know why I keep making these big, giant quilts that I get bored with as soon as I get half the blocks put together and I can see what it’s going to look like.  Then, I have to put a border on, or three in this case, and wrestle the entire thing through my machine numerous times.

Live and learn I guess.  My next few quilts will, hopefully, be somewhat more manageable.  I’m thinking wall hangings or the ever useful, table runner.

Giant Man Quilt After Adding Borders

The Smell of Home

I grew up with pine trees outside my bedroom window.  For eleven years, I fell asleep listening to the branches and needles swoosh in the breeze coming off the mountains.  The wind is an everyday occurrence on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  It starts to blow around three in the afternoon and keeps up until after sundown.

In the front of our house, there were two trees, quite close to one another.  One was easy to climb, the other not so much.  My sister and I would climb the easy tree, grab a branch from the other tree and swing across to the taller tree.  Then, if we climbed way to the top, we could sit way up high and sway in the afternoon gusts.

We’d grip the trunk tight with our hands and lock our ankles below the branch we were sitting on as the entire tree would bend and sway.  I’d always stick my nose right up against the branches and breathe in the vanilla-y smell of the Douglas pines.  It is one of my favorite smells in the world.  Even now, the smell of pine makes me think of the home I grew up in.

Last week, my family traveled to the Redwood forests in the far northwest corner of California, just below the Oregon border.  I thought about what those giant forests might smell like.  When we first pulled in to the campground and opened the truck doors, I fully expected to smell the forest, the wood, the moss . . .  something, but I didn’t smell anything.

How can it be possible that these trees don't smell like . . . anything? Notice the itsy, bitsy person in the corner for some perspective on size. They're HUGE!

The next day, on a hike through a grove of giant old growth trees, I stuck my face right into a tree.  This tree towered over me and made the Douglas Firs I grew up with look like tall, woody weeds.  I breathed in deeply through my nose thinking that up this close I’d be able to smell some piney scent or maybe even some sort of tang like in a eucalyptus tree.  I didn’t smell a thing.

I was hoping for something, some scent that would, after I returned home, remind me of these trees and forests that exuded a sense of peace.  Standing below the trees, we could crane our necks and see neither the tops of the trees or the sky.  They were immense, majestic.  I loved them and will return someday, but I won’t be reminded of them by a passing scent, the way the smell of pine trees reminds me of my childhood home.

At the end of the week, after a long drive we pulled into our driveway following a summer thunder shower, and I breathed in the smell of my home now, the sweet scent of sage following a rain.

Smell is integral to my sense of place.  I hadn’t realized quite how much I associated smell with place until this trip, to a place that I thought should have smelled but didn’t, through Tahoe and the smell of my childhood home, and back to the desert after a rain.

It is something that I will definitely be aware of in terms of my writing as well.  What does my setting smell like?  And what does that smell mean for the characters or what emotions do they associate with it?  I think I’ll have to chat with them about that.

Vacation – “The Process of Becoming Empty”

Last week I took a vacation – a complete vacation from any type of work.  For seven whole days, I didn’t write blog posts, character sketches, or scenes; I didn’t work on getting ready for the fall semester; I didn’t read any books on improving my writing craft; I didn’t even sew a single stitch.  I did, however, feel a little bit guilty.

Well, I felt guilt for about . . . two days.  And then, I made the decision to let that go too.

I love words, so when I got home I looked up the etymology of the word “vacation.”  What I found alarmed me a bit.  The root word “vac” means empty, as in vacuous, vacuum, vacant.  The suffix -tion means the quality or state of, or the suffix -ation means the process of the kind indicated by the root.  Accordingly, a vacation would mean the “state of being empty” or “the process of becoming or being empty.”

Without our work are we somehow “empty”? Vacant? Vacuous?

Yuck – I certainly hope not!  I didn’t feel empty on my vacation. I pretty much felt the opposite.

I decided to look a little further.  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, The word comes from the Old French “vacation” and from the Latin “vacationem” and means “leisure, a being free from duty” or “empty, free, or at leisure.” This is better, but the word “empty” still appeared.  I find it fascinating that since the first recorded usages of this word in the late 14th century, the idea of not having work leaves one empty or even free.  Is work so often so awful?

I hadn’t planned on writing about this in my blog because I wasn’t sure what to say.  It is a bit of a conundrum because, sadly, more often than not, it is work that creates feelings of  emptiness, not our vacation from it.  We need our vacation to re-fill, recharge which is exactly what my vacation did for me.  It was not empty or vacuous.

This morning, just before I began writing in my journal, I opened up the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu.  It’s a book of mystical poetry written in China over 2000 years ago. The poem I opened to, completely randomly, #16, began with this:

“Attain to utmost Emptiness.

Cling single-heartedly to interior peace.”

Oh.

Wow.

According to the Tao, emptiness is not a vacuous lonely space.  It is peace, and we should strive to achieve it.  That’s what my vacation brought me.  I didn’t feel empty, or even, really at leisure at times.  I was busy, but I was . . . at peace.  Thank you Lao Tsu.  I needed that thought today.  In that sense, vacation means “the process of finding peace” or “the state of being at peace” – much better!

Now I’m back to work writing, feeling recharged, and peaceful.

Road Trip in 1847, 1982, or 2011? I’ll take 2011.

In 1982, my parents decided to take a road trip to tour our beautiful home state of . . . Nevada.  We headed east from Carson City in our 1978 Scout II. It was a spectacular vehicle – orange with simulated wood paneling on the side.  The interior was an army green color with plaid brown and green seats.  It was the kind of vehicle that, by the time I drove it in 1986, built character.

My sister and I, at the ages of 12 and 14, could think of nothing we wanted to do more than drive across the desert for six hours with our German Shepard, Fearsome, sitting on the seat between us.  All the windows were open as the dog stank, and we had no air conditioning.  We also had no music, as the eight track in the Scout worked for maybe six months after we got it.  And, obviously, we had no DVD’s, Ipods, or laptops.  My kids have no idea what a road trip used to be like, but I digress.

One of the highlights of the trip was my mom’s valiant effort to add an educational component.  The highways in Nevada were seemingly littered with metal signs shaped like the state.  These are located wherever somebody decided there might be something of historical interest.  My mom, somehow, located a book that had the text of all of these signs.  She spent the entire trip with this book in her lap, yelling historical tidbits about the great state of Nevada at us over the roar of the Scout and the open windows.

She would holler, “Here comes another sign.  Do you want to stop?”

“Nooooo,” we’d yell back.  My sister and I would roll our eyes before returning to staring out the window in misery, and my Dad would either stop at the sign to please my mom, or blow by the rest stop or viewing area or whatever it was.

“Isn’t the subtle beauty of the desert lovely?” My mom would try again.

“Nooooo, it’s boring!” we’d yell back.  Finally she gave up though she did keep the book in her lap the entire time, reading the information for herself.

The inside of a wagon - not a lot of room!

I hit the road with my kids yesterday.  I now live on the Eastern side of the state, and we were heading west, backtracking on I-80 in the opposite direction from my first trip across.  I have since made this 300 mile drive hundreds of times, and I did something I swore I’d never do.  I turned into my mother and stopped at a place of historical interest.

The supplies for the trek west.

Two years ago, just outside of Elko, Nevada, the state opened a California Trail Interpretive Center to share the history of all those “road trippers” in the 1840’s-1860’s.  Part of my novel project takes place on the Oregon Trail, so I wanted to see the exhibits; it was research.  My kids, both teenagers, humored me and went in without complaint.  Their only somewhat negative comment was that everyone there was older than us by at least 30 years, but they were right.  It was definitely an older crowd.

The center sits right where the Hasting’s Cutoff rejoined the main California Trail.  The Hasting’s Cutoff is the “shortcut” that actually added 130 miles to the Donner party’s journey and caused them to get caught in the Sierra’s, resort to cannibalism and freeze to death.

The most interesting exhibits to me were the wagons.  I had no idea they were so small.  They were narrow, only three feet wide by ten feet long.  The wagon beds were also at least three feet deep which surprised me, and full to the brim with supplies for the journey.

I’ve driven across the state hundreds of times, and it is not a journey I would want to take in a covered wagon.  They made 10-20 miles a day across the hot desert.

My "Wagon"

As I drove my “wagon” today, I decided to enjoy the four hours it took to cross the entire state.  I especially enjoyed the dry segment between the Truckee River and the Humboldt Sink, where the water just disappears and sinks into the desert.  This part of the journey took the emigrants 24+ hours of non-stop walking.  They usually did it through the night to avoid the heat of the day.  Sometimes the animals would stampede when they finally reached the Truckee River they were so thirsty.

We blew through it in about 20 minutes with the air conditioning on and the satellite radio going.  And, if something had happened, my “wagon” has enough supplies to keep us alive for weeks.

The journey has changed immensely over the past 160 years.  I’ll be interested to see what it entails in thirty more years, when my kids drag their kids out for a “road trip.”  Hopefully they do hit the road, and maybe they’ll even hit a point of historical interest or two.  It would make my mom proud.

Reading About (and not doing any) Writing

I hit the 20,000 word mark on my novel this past week.  This seems like a big milestone to me.  I’m not sure why, but it does.  To celebrate both this milestone and our country’s birthday, I took the last three days off from writing.  Actually, I didn’t have much of a choice.  We were camping on this holiday weekend with no cell service, no electricity, no computer . . . you get the picture.

I did actually bring a clipboard with some paper, but all I managed to write on it was the beginning of a character sketch and a list of stuff I needed to get to restock the camper.

Instead of focusing on writing, I played with my family.  And I read.

I finished Jeannette Walls’ lovely memoir The Glass Castle.  I also spent time in my lounge chair with some of my writing craft books.  As I began writing fiction in earnest at the beginning of this year, I read and read and read craft books, but I finally got to the point that I needed to actually practice what I was reading.  I needed to write my stories.

Now that I’ve made a bit of progress, I’m finding that as I read the craft books I’m thinking about and approaching the information in a more practical way.  I have characters and plots to think about which has given me a different perspective on the information.

The first time I read the writing books, they gave me the confidence and knowledge to start writing fiction.  Now, I feel like they’re giving me the information and confidence to keep going.  In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says “the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts” (22).  Mine is now well under way, and I’ve decided that its okay if its crap.   Writing is hard, I’ve figured out that much.  But I’ve also figured out that I love it, and I’ll stick with it.

I just need to keep going, keep plugging away, even when life is busy and crazy and I decide every single one of my ideas is lame and the whole story sucks.  The only way to get this book done and this story out is one (possibly shitty) word at a time.  The great part is, as the writer, I have the freedom to go back and change it all if I need to.  Perhaps that’s the best part of writing.

Next stop . . .  completed character sketches and 50,000 words.