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October 10, 2011

Exploring character through valued possessions

Photo by Timitrius

Imagine you have to pack up your home and can only take with you those things that fit in the trunk of your car.  Bringing family members along?  Then you have to share the trunk space with them.  What do you take?  What do you do with those things you leave behind?  Who decides?

For a while now I've been considering those questions, and I have about a year to come up with the answers.  The flowers transplanted from my grandparents' house, the china hutch Grandpa built, the desk I bought during grad school, shelves and shelves of books--those things simply won't fit.  The spices in the kitchen cupboard?  Those, I ought to bring.  Everything I have must prove its worth.  Necessity is winning out over sentiment.  And, I'm surprised.  I've always had trouble letting go of items to which memories are attached--even gifts I don't especially like, I cherish because I love the giver.

This has me thinking about the impact of objects in my fiction.  Most often my characters' prize possessions are valued, not for their usefulness, but for their emotional weight.  Nothing wrong with that.  But utilitarian objects--a hammer, for instance, or a bow--could be even more important to a character.

With that in mind, consider a character from your work and make a list of the five objects most important to him or her.  Now, delve into each object.  Describe it in depth.  How would the character describe it?  How would the character explain the object's worth?  Is there a story attached to the object?  Does it have a history?  Where and how is it kept and cared for?  What sort of condition is it in?  And so on.

At the exercise's end, you will likely have greater insight about the character.  You might also have some fresh ideas for the plot or even for an additional story.  Let me know how the exercise works out for you!

October 7, 2011

Historic newspapers online--Chronicling America

Photo from Library of Congress
 As an archivist, I understand that the majority of archival materials are not digitized or readily available on the web.  But, as a writer without the money and time to travel to various archives, I've searched the web for useful, valid sources for historical research.  More and more are becoming available, often as a result of institutional collaboration.

A website I've been using the past few weeks,  Chronicling America, is produced by a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress.  The partnership, known as the National Digital Newspaper Program, is an ongoing project to develop a searchable database of U.S. newspapers and to digitize selected historic pages. Currently more than a million digitized newspaper pages are found in Chronicling America. Digitized newspapers date from 1836-1922 and represent newspapers from all U.S. states and territories.  A directory of newspapers from 1690-present is also part of the website, and a list of topics widely-covered topics is included to help guide researchers.  (Although most of the listed topics don't relate to my current research, glancing through the topics sparks my imagination.  A short story involving the roller-skating craze, maybe? A character who practices yoga in 1905?  So many possibilities to explore.)

In a related project, the Rural West Initiative, Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University has produced a database visualization based on Chronicling America.  A timeline and US map are combined, enabling users to see the geographic distribution of American newspapers over time.  Added filters limit results to newspapers in a particular language.  For me, the visualization is interesting, but less useful than the newspaper project itself.

Weekly Newspapers, 1690-2011 from Geoff McGhee on Vimeo.

If you know of some good sources you'd like to share, please feel free to comment or share a link.  I'm always looking for more.

October 5, 2011

Found poetry

Play is an important part of creativity.  Play frees up the mind, leading to innovation and keeping state of mind from growing stale.  Word-play is a fun way to improve, or at least flex, your writing skills.

I've recently been playing with poetry--in particular, found poems.  Found poems are created by taking words or phrases from other sources (usually written, but things overheard can also be used) and recombining them as poems.  I came across the idea in Getting the Knack, 20 Poetry Writing Exercises.  It's the first exercise.  I have yet to try the remaining 19.  Cutting, re-arranging words, adding or changing punctuation are all allowed by the exercise, but you're not allowed to add your own words to the mix.

Most of what I come up with is utterly abysmal.  All of it makes me laugh.  Here's one I just wrote, pulling from Henry Taylor's autobiography, From Lead Mines to Gold Fields, Memories of An Incredibly Long Life.


Dig a hole
three feet deep
three, in diameter

All women 
and children
circle around the hole
wave willows,
advance slow.
Drive hoppers to the hole

Go to hole
with basket
of coarse grass, woven close
Fill basket
with hoppers

Boil water,
heating rocks
Pour over grasshoppers

Cook to taste.

Remove rocks
Dry hoppers
on grass mat

When dried,
Add water,
stir to mush

Eat as though most luscious food in the world

Photo by amphioxus
Give the exercise a try--come play with me, and share your creation in the comments.

October 3, 2011

Plowing ahead

Photo by h. koppdelaney

Activities I've long enjoyed have taken on the luster of chores.  Writing, working out, gardening, cooking--the small moments I found joy in have become an endless list of things to be done.  The past year has wrung me dry.  But, I'm not giving up.

The novel I'm working on now is set primarily in Nebraska, around the time of the civil war.  It's the first thing I've written that my dad showed any interest in, and when I began working on it this spring, he would talk to me about native prairie plants, the hedgerows settlers planted, the grasses they brought with them.  We had long discussions on local history and the plains.  The last day I saw Dad, I told him about the scene I'd just written--the novel's end, which had come to me though my draft was nowhere near the end.  I felt he should know how things turned out, since the details he gave me built so much of the framework.  Did he like the ending?  He didn't say, and I didn't ask.  We went on to talk about other things--the drought in Texas, Dad's cows, the birdfeeder outside his window.

It's tougher now, working on this novel, when the places and experiences and tone of the story are so closely woven with my memories of Dad.  I've had to change my approach to keep myself going.  I'm handwriting pages--writing and writing without reviewing or critiquing or shaping what comes.  I'm trusting there will be a worthwhile harvest when all the words are on the page.

I'm working like my homesteading ancestors did--head down, trudging forward.  You can't stop breaking sod because you don't feel like plowing.