A Sense of Place

Recognizing Place

As an undergraduate student, I remember being bored by the descriptions of bougainvillea in French novels. I had never seen one. Then, when I was 19, I went to France to study for a year. Once there, I realized that the authors’ descriptions I had been reading were based on a different landscape than that of my childhood. The writers were depicting their own sense of place, so as a reader unfamiliar with it, it had been obscure to me. Within weeks, I fell in love with France. I loved the gardens. The architecture was beautiful. The professors were brilliant. I fell in love with the landscape. My ways of thinking became so French that I went on to earn three academic degrees in French Literature.

The Geography of Place

After a year studying French culture, history, art, and French language in the southwest of France, I developed a deep appreciation for my new home. I escaped the city every weekend for a jaunt through the green, well-tended countryside. One day we were driving south from Bordeaux through the Forêt des Landes along highway N10. I realized that the forest, which continued for miles, had been planted in straight rows so that a vehicle could drive down the tracks. Because the forests I had grown up with in the mountains of Colorado are natural, I had never seen trees manicured to such an extent. After doing some research, I discovered that this beautiful maritime pine forest had been planted in the 18th century, as a source of pine sap for industry. It was essentially a field of pines, as opposed to my idea of a forest.

The Aesthetics of Place

Human beings experience a sense of place as their bodies move through space. As their eyes view the scenery. As their ears pick up the rhythms of new kinds of music. This physicality of place became clear to me one evening when I was sitting in a 13th-century cathedral listening to an organ concert. The vibrations created as the keys of the organ moved the sound through the huge pipes literally shook my liver. I remember looking down at my stomach to place my hand on my abdomen. It was the strangest sensation I ever experienced!

As I moved through the city walking my regular 5 to 7 miles a day, I absorbed my new home’s aesthetics. Along the smaller streets, I observed different kinds of shops. In some spaces, sculptors were carving large blocks of marble. Through the windows of others, I could watch weavers creating exquisite tapestries. Pastry shops were exquisite, with delicate, colorful delicacies tempting the walkers-by. One of my favorites was a seamstress’s small shop where I could have my nylon hose perfectly repaired for the equivalent of 20 cents. It saved me a fortune.

The Economics of Place

Naturally, since I was a student in France, I was on a small budget. I lived in a woman’s boarding house with about 40 other students. The shower was open only once a week for two hours. My friends and I decided to take advantage of the public baths so we could bathe more often. Walking into a French public bath was a dramatic experience. We bathed that day, but we did not return. Instead, we registered to take a weekly swimming class, where we could shower afterward.

As study abroad students, we ate mostly in the student restaurant. The most common meal served was soggy green lentils that had turned a soupy grey color. On Friday evenings, we went out for steak-frites accompanied by a glass of house red. Once a month we made a reservation to order paella for a group at a tiny Spanish restaurant that was frequented by Spanish workers from the docks on the Dordogne. The paella was delicious. After dinner, a guy would grab his guitar. The waitress would untie her apron, jump up on a table, and perform a flamenco. As she danced, the workers would snap and clap to the rhythm she pounded out on the table top. It remains one of my favorite memories.

The French call Bordeaux a rich bourgeois city. It is a transatlantic shipping port, surrounded by some of the most famous French vineyards. Thus, it is home to incredible economic diversity. On occasion, we were invited as guests by our host families or professors who lived in chateaux surrounded by trimmed vines. Maids in black dresses with white lace aprons served our seven-course meals. It was an eye-opening experience to view such a breadth of economic conditions in one short year.

Social Aspects of Space

In France, it rains 300 days a year (unlike Colorado where we have 300 days of sunshine). I learned to peek out my window at the street below in the morning before I left the building where I lived. If all the older Frenchwomen walking on the street were carrying umbrellas, I took mine. If they were not, I left mine at home. They were much more accurate than the weather report.

French college students spent a lot of time in cafés. We drank coffee. We discussed politics, art, literature, and most of all the cinema. Because at the time, practically none of my French friends spoke English, my French became very fluent during these regular afternoon discussions. Because none of us had a phone where we lived, over coffee or after class we would plan ahead when and where to meet for our next get together. Once we set a date, everyone showed up. No one ever canceled or changed their plans. There was no way to connect other than walking for 30 minutes to the nearest friend’s place.

One’s Sense of Place Can Shift

When I returned home after a full year of study abroad, I was shocked by the width of the main street of my hometown. I kept banging my knuckles on the doors of the house I had grown up in when I reached to open the door. I was so unaware that I was the one whose reality had been altered that I asked my mother why she had changed the doorknobs. The bright sunshine almost blinded me. It seemed tediously hot. I longed for a cool rainy day. I dreamed of sipping a steaming café au lait in a French café where I could sit quietly, read a book, and watch the passersby.

When I returned to France three years later to teach at the University of Bordeaux, everything seemed normal. I fit right in. I knew what to do. I knew where to live. I knew where to shop. The best pastry shops were imprinted in my memory. I was glad to be home.

When I returned to Colorado after a year of teaching at the University of Bordeaux, I did not experience the strange disjuncture I had that year when I was 20. The light did seem bright, the mountains stark, the climate dry. But the doorknobs were now simply “American doorknobs.” My body readjusted to my environment without my thinking about it.

On the other hand, as I sat studying for my master’s comprehensives in French, everything I read made more sense. I had been there. I loved the descriptions. The characters I was reading about matched individuals I had met in France. My sense of place paralleled that of the authors I was reading.

Choosing a Sense of Place as a Writer

Now that I am writing a novel, the setting I have chosen is one familiar to me as a young adult. It is not the landscape of my childhood, but one in which I have lived for many years. The physical presence of the mountains encircling me, the clear blue skies that sometimes fill with enormous stacks of thunderheads, the soft whisper of the pine trees constantly surprise me with their beauty. I recognize the roar of a Chinook, the unexpected warm wind that sweeps down from the mountains and melts the snow in a few hours, or that of a 120 MPH cold wind that chills not only the bones but the soul. The sensation of running on the Mesa Trail is fused in my bones.

I know the music and artistic venues. The economic status of the citizens is familiar. I am accustomed to the different groups of people who live here, although because they have changed over the years, it is a challenge to keep descriptions accurate for the time I am writing about. When I was young all the houses around the University were the homes of professors. Now faculty cannot afford to live here. I know what it feels like to walk all over town because there is no public bus service and I have no car.

Now my task is to find the words to paint this landscape onto a page filled with words to create a fictional world that makes my sense of place come alive for the reader.

Update on My Goal Setting:

  1. I have finished seven months of writing. I am glad I set my goal at an achievable level because life simply happens. This month my daughter’s family (husband and four children) visited from France and stayed at our house for three weeks. Time flew by.
  2. Since July 7, 2018, I have continued to make progress on my chapters. On August 7th, my page counter should stand at 212. Right now, it stands at 190. I am 22 pages short. However, this month I have spent a lot of time reworking my outline, rearranging chapters, and rewriting to make sure the transitions are clearer. I also took a break from this novel and worked on another piece I started years ago. It keeps rattling around in my brain, so I decided to give it some time. I did write five pages for it. Sometimes, I just need a change of focus to renew my energy. But I am going to have to knuckle down to catch up on my page count!
  3. Today, August 8, 2018, I am posting my eighth blog. Blogging about writing has allowed me to reflect on my own experiences in order to make important writing decisions.
  4. My writing network was on hiatus in July, so I spent some time reading for a sense of place in My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tostaya, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I also listened to several recorded interviews with novelists on YouTube.

It’s All in the Name

Names Matter

Names have a life of their own. A person may embrace his or her name, tolerate it, embody it, or reject and change it. The sound and meaning of my first name have always pleased me. It was never shortened when I was a child because my mother hated nicknames. She stuck to the traditional names chosen for her children. Once someone tried to call me Laurie. It felt like a bucket of cold water had been poured on my head. I immediately responded, “Don’t ever call me that again!” My intense response shocked me. The diminutive simply did not fit.

Fitting Names Together

When we were expecting a child, my husband and I practiced different names for several months. I repeated them aloud to see how they sounded with our last name. I practiced writing them down to view the visual impression. We wanted something musical. Did the combination of names have a balanced number of syllables? Did the name look elegant in cursive? Did we both like the names—we agreed that we did have to agree. I also watched the “Births” section of the newspaper each week to see if a certain name had appeared. If it appeared, I dropped it. I didn’t want my child to be one of many with the same name in his or her school class. Our daughter ended up with a three syllable first name, a one-syllable middle name—spelled to match one of my favorite characters in a book which was also a relative’s middle name, and our two-syllable last name. Her name connected her to my family, my literary interests, and her dad’s family. It was easy to understand when pronounced. Her chosen name made us both happy. I also liked what I thought it meant, but on this I was mistaken. I thought her name was a derivation of Elizabeth. It is not. It is a derivation of Adelaide. So while I thought it meant truth (My God is my oath), her name means “noble type.”

Names Are Significant

Names carry meaning. The meaning can shape the person who holds it. Names can be selected to infer extreme femininity (see all the novels in which the female character is named “Lily”). Other names in novels exaggerate masculinity (Stud). First names can be chosen to hide the gender of the person carrying the name, a recent trend again based on current values.

Recently, I read a study in the American Psychological Association that studied participants’ abilities to match names from a list correctly to images of individuals. Participants could surprisingly match names to unknown faces. One interpretation is that individuals literally grow into their names. Interestingly, my adult daughter is a very noble type—tall, slim, and striking in beauty.

Historical Names

When I was small I wished my name had a connection to the past because my siblings’ names recalled those of our ancestors. Being named after a historical figure or a current statesperson can link a character to the past. The simple act of a woman keeping her own last name or taking on her husband’s last name when she marries makes a political statement that reflects a historical moment. Spouses who create a new last name for themselves when they marry indicate on the other hand a refusal to accept tradition. In a sense, they are creating a rift in history.

Naming Characters in a Novel

As a writer, I am attentive to the names I give my characters. The derivation of the name matters. The form of the name makes a difference. I have also dabbled in numerology and its relationship to names. In a sense, the name carries the destiny of the person—determining how they look and act. For my characters, I have chosen names that reflect the character’s personality and life trajectory. Their family history and genealogy are relevant. The names that I have selected, while not necessarily the most common in that age group, would not have appeared strange during the time period of the story.

Although as Shakespeare said, a rose with any other name would smell as sweet, it is all in a name.

Update on My Goal Setting:

  1. I have finished six months of writing accompanied by fascinating research. I have learned that I cannot write without research to back up practically every paragraph.
  2. Since May 7, 2018, I have continued to make progress on my novel. On July 7th, my page counter should stand at 181 and it does. Whew!
  3. Today, July 7, 2018, I am posting my seventh blog. Blogging while I am working on a novel has helped to keep me focused. It has also allowed me to reflect on my choices. This past month, I have had to rework the sequence of my chapters. As the story continues to develop, some gaps have occurred. It takes adding a chapter or a section of a chapter for the development to make sense.

Happily, my writing network continues to grow. I attended a double workshop on the importance of maintaining a physical exercise regime while writing. The topic nudged me to remember that I have a body as well as an imagination. The first speaker, Hilary Constable, discussed how running fuels her creativity. The second, Brad Wetzler, discussed how a regular yoga practice keeps him healthy. He finds that he generates more ideas after a yoga session. Since running is out of the question for me, I may have to reboot my yoga practice.


Guideposts to Verisimilitude

Setting a Timeline

Being a reader of French novels, I have always appreciated the detailed timelines at the beginning books. They tend to lay out the notable historical events, publications, births, and deaths of individuals mentioned in the novel. Such a timeline provides the context necessary for the reader to envision the author’s created world.

Setting a timeline seemed arbitrary to me at first because I may not begin or end my novel specifically according to my original timeline. Nevertheless, setting a timeline has allowed me to do the necessary research. It has allowed me to figure out how to describe appropriate settings, clothing, vehicles, or meals. It has also helped me outline my story. Most importantly, it has helped me weave historical events into my characters’ lives.

Incorporating Historical Moments

Thinking about history is difficult, especially if you were not there. I have ended up delving into things I never imagined that I might have to consider. As I have been writing, I have wondered why English teachers never asked me to write down all the information I would need to write something authentic before I even started. It certainly would have prepared me better for writing something serious!

If you are writing about a time period you have lived through, it is a bit easier, but certainly not simple. It is astounding to me how poor my memory is of specifics, simply because the passing decades seem to meld in my mind. Daily activities and places morph into very different forms of everything we think we have “always done or always known” as the years pass by. Even the word “morph” did not exist in the time period I am writing about. “To morph” came later as a result of video technology.

Memories and Lacunae

When I sat down to work on a novel about the years I lived through in my 20’s, I started writing down my memories of the town where my story takes place. At some point, I joined a Facebook group that broadly addresses part of the same time period. Each time someone posts something about restaurants, bars, or activities in which they participated during those years, I find myself surprised, sometimes pleasantly because it helps me remember something specific that I could use in my story, sometimes with a sense of shock at my own lacunae.

Imagination and Accurate Depictions of Reality

If I were writing about a period that occurred before I was born, it would be even more difficult. If I wanted to be accurate about the obvious elements, such as location, weather, fauna, flora, temperatures, location, I would have to do thorough research just to set the scene. To describe my characters or put them in motion, I would have to depict their personalities using dress, footwear, or commonly used articles representative of the correct time period. Otherwise, my descriptions would not be accurate enough to help the reader envision the fictional reality I was trying to depict. If I were writing about something biographical or something fictional based on biographical knowledge, I would have to determine how to draw the line in the sand. Where does reality end? Where does fiction begin?

Writing Is About Learning

Trying to write a novel is teaching me much about what I don’t know. It is teaching me how much there is to learn to create living characters. It is teaching me to do a different kind of research. As a dear friend of mine told me recently, “Really? You are working on a novel? You will learn all kinds of things!”

Update on My Goal Setting:

  1. I have finished five months of writing accompanied by in-depth research. I have learned that this will be a constant process as I write.
  2. Since May 7, 2018, I have continued to make progress on my novel. On June 7th, my page counter should stand at 150. It reads 155 which pleases me because I was a bit behind last month.
  3. Today, June 7, 2018, I am posting my sixth blog. Blogging while I am working on a novel has been a useful tool to help me think about my own thinking. In educational parlance, this is called metacognitive work. It helps me sort through some of the problems I am encountering. For example, working on this blog made me realize that I needed to rework the outline for my novel so that the timeline is clearer. As I redrafted my outline, I clarified the dates my story will cover. I also increased my original number of chapters. And, I added a more specific chapter by chapter plan for the development of the main character and subordinate characters.
  4. Additionally, my writing network continues to grow. I attended Jody Rein’s workshop offered through the Boulder Writers’ Alliance, “Busting the 10 Biggest Traditional and Self-Publishing Myths. Jody recently published her fifth edition of How to Write a Book Proposal. She emphasized the need for aspiring authors to have a social media platform. I also enjoyed a workshop called “Write to Publish, Publish to Sell,” that Rick Killian presented for the BWA as well. Rick discussed what he calls his “marshmallow method” of writing. I look forward to Rick publishing a book with a similar title.

Guiding Questions

Mrs. Powell,  my seventh and eighth-grade English teacher, taught her students to ask the questions “Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?” when we wanted to write something. Her guidance helped me write many pages of reports, manuals, grammar books, articles, and research plans. This superficially simple system is now helping me focus the development of my novel.

Whom Should I Write a Novel About?

I have asked myself the following types of questions:

  • Whom I have known?
  • What do I know about them?
  • Should I write about individuals I have known?

Ultimately, I rejected the idea of writing about a real person because I want to write fiction. But a writer has to decide whether to create entirely new types or build composites of personalities they have encountered.

Created characters can be loved or despised. Reading novels, I learned how to build friendships, though some of my best friends when I was a child were heroines in my favorite novels. The boys I dreamed of were much more like the knights in shining armor in my beloved fairy tales than they were like the guys in my class at school.  Reading novels, I learned how to deal with aggressive people; this helped me in real life.

I read a quote once by an author (I cannot, unfortunately, be precise about its origin or accuracy) that matched my personal experience, “I come from inside the books I have read.” So, my big question is whom do I create? Heroes, villains, winners, losers, or simply conventional men and women?

What Do I Need to Know to Write a Novel?

What we know is definitely related to when we have lived. Each decade has its style, jargon, slang, music, and problems. To echo Mikhail Bakhtin’s work, what we know is also dialogical: it crosses generations from those who came before us to those who have followed or will follow us. We learn about those who preceded us in our schooling, in our religious training, in our communities, and from our elders. Stop and think about a story you know from each of those settings. Whenever I think of my mother, I remember her reciting poems to us, poems that she had memorized as a child. Her experience of the poems became my experience of the poems. She loved “The Sugar Plum Tree” by Eugene Field so much she had it printed and framed for each of her grandchildren. My daughter’s copy hung in her room when she was a child. We also know stories about our parents’ mothers and fathers and sometimes about our grandparents’ families. Some are told over dinner and others are printed out in published books. What do I need to know about my characters to create them to fit their era?

Where Should My Novel Take Place?

“Where?” can refer to where we live, where we have traveled, where we want to go. But where also comes from the books we have read or books that have been read to us. Books have taken me places I have never been—to other continents, to the jungle, to outer space, to other planets. As I have worked on what type of fiction and in what setting I want to write, I seem to always return in my mind’s eye to Colorado. I have lived on the Western Slope and on the Eastern Slope which have very distinct geography, weather, and types of people. It is an environment I love and understand, so I think I have a firm grounding to write about my “Where?”

Why Do Individuals/Characters Do what They Do?

Of particular interest to me is the “Why?” “Why?” of course moves into premises, values, justifications, plans, excuses, disappointments, loss, emotions of every timber. Exploring what I know about the “Why?” helps me address what I have learned about human beings. I have taken courses in normal and abnormal psychology, as well as courses in sociology and literature. The “Whys?” that I want to explore do not fall on the pathological side. The deranged is too dark for me, too frightening. I am not interested in writing a “Clockwork Orange” or a “Frankenstein.” What I am interested in is more ordinary personalities. I am interested in growth and development. I wonder why individuals become who they are capable of becoming or, on the other hand, fail to do so.

How Do I Approach Writing a Novel with Meaning?

To be capable of becoming a novelist, I need to question how I think. This is new territory for me. Reading a novel allows readers to get a glimpse of how the author thinks, what the author is thinking about, and why the author is thinking it. Now I have to apply my skills to an analysis of my own writing mind. No one else knows for sure how we think, though they may wonder. A friend of mine recently told me that I always look as though I am chuckling over some hilarious secret. When my daughter was little she was sure that I could read her mind. I reassured her that her mind was her own. She could think anything she wanted to think about and I would never know what it was. She proceeded to give me a thinking test, scrunching up her brow, and looking as though she were in deep thought. Of course, I failed her test.

Reading allows us to explore questions that absorb writers. I will keep Mrs. Powell in mind as I venture into exploring my own questions through my writing. As an author, I definitely want my readers to be intrigued by the questions my characters pose.

Update on my goal setting:

  1. For four months now, I have been able to carve out time for my creative writing and the necessary research to support it.
  2. Since April 7, 2018, I have continued to make progress on my writing. I have added new chapters and gone back to original chapters and expanded them. It was a struggle this month to reach my page goal. Today my page counter should stand at 120 and it reads 107. It is amazing how many existential events occur to interfere with one’s daily plans.
  3. I have successfully posted four blogs on the seventh of the month which is my goal for 2018. This one is my fifth.
  4. Additionally, my network of kindred spirits is growing because I have attended about one workshop per month. I have also dipped my toes a little deeper into the social media pool by attending a workshop on branding yourself as an author. Luke Humbrecht, who is a marketing consultant as well as a StoryBrand Certified Guide, discussed how to describe oneself and one’s work in a short statement. I am still working on mine since my work is definitely still “in-progress.”


How to Begin a Novel?

Choosing a Novelistic Form

Different readers like different types of novels. A novel format that has always held my attention as a reader is the Bildungsroman. The German term tends to be used in literature books because the definition is complex in English. In German, Roman means novel and Bildung means education. Bildungsromans are stories about the struggles and lessons the young hero or heroine experience as they move into young adulthood. Thus, they are novels that focus on personal development.

Reading Rousseau’s Emile, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, or George Sand’s (Aurore Dupin Dudevant’s) Consuelo, I could always identify with the main character. As a reader, I yearned and learned along with the hero or heroine in my parallel shadow existence.

What intrigues me in a novel is the emotions that accompany the creative, social, interpersonal, and psychological growth of the character. It is probably the reason I became a teacher, counselor, and educational trainer in my career. If I wasn’t writing fiction, at least I was always involved in a dramatic moment. This fascination with human growth and development makes me want to try my hand at creating such a story.

Selecting a Time Period to Intensify the Form

Novels can be historical, contemporary, or set in the future. Selecting a period that I lived through would allow me to write about what I experienced, read, and learned about at the time. I would be more knowledgeable about the news, photos, and period resources necessary, and better recognize what was lasting and what has been shown to be ephemeral. It would allow me to create the verisimilitude essential to a story whose truth resonates with the reader, allowing me to concentrate on the storyline. Because one time in my life that I loved was the 1970’s, perhaps I could write a Bildungsroman focused on those years.

Examining My Personal Shtick

I have always loved words. My favorite one is a French word, “l’épanouissement” which means blossoming, developing, spreading, flourishing, ripening, or flowering. One reason I like it is that it means all of the above English meanings in one word. The word itself seems to “s’épanouir”!

Nevertheless, the translation into French of Bildungsroman is not a “roman d’épanouissement,” which one could expect, but rather a roman de formation or roman d’apprentissage. Interestingly, “formation” in French is used in the way we use training in English, as in teacher training, while “apprentissage” means learning. In the hero version of this novelistic form, the hero achieves what is necessary to move forward. Emile’s education works for him. Wilhelm Meister persists. In the feminine version, the heroine often dies. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary commits suicide. Rousseau dispatches Julie in La Nouvelle Héloïse. George Sand, on the other hand, breaks with the tradition of the dead heroine and allows her Consuelo to triumph musically and spiritually.

This fascination with the Bildungsroman and with blossoming leads me to my novel format of choice and to the general theme of the novel I want to write. I want to write a roman d’épanouissement. I want to write about a heroine who blossoms and flourishes. Yet, I also want to juxtapose my heroine with characters who fail to bloom because of some character flaw or because they get caught up in other people’s expectations.

Life is about blossoming or wilting or dying, as is the novel form.

Update on my goal setting:

  1. Since March 7th, 2018, I have continued to make progress on my writing despite having to do taxes and despite having house guests for two weeks. What I have learned this month is how the expression “Life happens” encapsulates our personal vulnerability in the face of daily existence.
  2. For the first three weeks of March, I did not manage to keep to a schedule nor did I write at least one page per day. Consequently, at the end of the month, I had to practically kill myself to catch up. I did manage to get my page count up to my goal of 90 pages. I also learned that I am capable of writing 10 pages a day!
  3. Additionally, I was able to turn in a proposal for the RMFW Gold Conference 2018 by the due date of March 31, despite having to spend an afternoon at Apple having a bug removed from my computer. March is aptly named for Mars the god of war—or in my case, the god of personal battles.

I am finding it to be challenging and rewarding to set my goals and challenge myself to reach them each month. The flow of my writing is smoother. My creativity is ripening. It is much more fun to feel satisfaction rather than regret.

Journaling to Probe Your Imagination

Personal Journaling

I have journaled for most of my life. Not in the sense of a diary, which would have created a chronological history, rather I have simply recorded my thoughts with no specific goal in mind. My journals are handwritten. Some are written on blank sheets; others on pages of “empty books.” The handwriting might be indecipherable to anyone who has not been a public-school teacher, especially on the pages written in the middle of a sleepless night. Despite the visual deficiency, the act of journaling has served me well. I have journaled to help myself figure out what I am doing, thinking about, or struggling with in my life. I have journaled to work through decisions, solve relational issues, or manage my emotions. I have detailed my thoughts to sustain myself through multiple life transitions. I journaled to calm myself the night my daughter was giving birth. While she and her husband were at the hospital, I was in bed with a terrible flu and bronchitis. I recorded my frustration with not being there, not being able to help or hold the new baby. I felt quarantined. My grandson was born at 5:55 AM. I wasn’t well enough to visit him until he was three weeks old.

Dream Journals

Since my teenage years, I have recorded significant dreams. Some are incredibly kinesthetic, for example, a recurring dream that I am flying low (like Wonder Woman) over the French countryside. Others pulse with technicolor realism, such as my dream of a brown baby elephant running toward me in the opposite lane of a boulevard bordered with plane trees. One nightmare in my 30’s, about someone committing a murder, scared me out of my wits. Other dreams, which resemble the theatre of the absurd, could morph into publishable Becket-style literary works.

On my nightstand, I keep several dream dictionaries. When I have a dream that makes my hair stand on end or one that makes me laugh, I awake asking myself the question, “What on earth was that about?” I look up the main images of the dream in my reference books to see if I can figure out their meaning. This practice has taught me much about symbols’ origin in powerful emotions. This dream-related personal research has furthered my understanding of human consciousness writ large. It has also refined my ability to analyze connections between my own reality and potential topics for fiction.

Journaling for Self-Knowledge

In an earlier blog, I stated that I want to make my known known. In my efforts to understand life, the logs have served as probes to reach into the depths of myself. They have unveiled my deepest desires. Writing to figure out what I am struggling with has made me more honest with myself. Recording the extremes of my emotions has forced me to face my own limits. Articulating my transitions on paper has helped me to see how my experiences relate to the lives of characters in stories I have read. Now as I work on my fictional works, I attempt to apply my insights to the creation of my imaginary worlds. Journaling has given me problem-solving skills for both life and writing.

 Update on my goal setting:

  1. Since February 7th, I have continued to make progress on a novel. I have persisted in my research. The most personally satisfying research article I read this month said that accomplishing one’s goals increases one’s endorphins. This explains why checking accomplishments off my list delights me.
  2. Since my last blog, I have written at least one page per day. This daily practice is helping me to develop my characters’ personality traits through their dialog. My knowledge of symbols and history is proving to be valuable as I set the stage for a particular scene. My total page count currently stands at 63, while my goal for today was 59 pages.
  3. Talking to my writing colleagues at our monthly meetings has given me the courage to list this blog with the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. It has also encouraged me to invite my group to join the RMFW and to turn in a proposal for the RMFW Gold Conference 2018.

To Write or Not to Write What You Know?

Write What You Know?

Authorities advise, “Write what you know.” I have struggled with this concept. To me, it means, “Write what you have lived” which seems to limit my possibilities. A human being’s experiences certainly build her memories, but do memories have the most direct impact on her writing?

Write What Interests You?

Writing teachers have said, “Write about what interests you.” In fact, as I wrote this statement down, I recalled my first experience with “research.” A junior high teacher asked us to write a research paper on a topic of personal interest. I chose to write on cats because I liked cats—my own was a sleek Siamese named Shan. The only other cats I knew belonged to my Aunt Blanche. Her barn cats who were essentially wild cats, quite different from my talkative, blue-eyed beauty. My first foray into research did teach me new information— geography, biology, and cat psychology. Importantly, I learned to use the Encyclopedia Britannica for “research,” instead of just reading it for fun. However, when I heard the other students’ presentations, I thought my own could have addressed a more exciting topic.

Does Writing What You Know Mean Writing About You?

Diverse genres approach “writing what you know” in different ways. Autobiographies represent “writing what you know,” at least writing what the authors remember, though they may embellish the truth. Biographies address writing what others might have known, thus, pundits tend to critique what the biographer adds. Although my book clubs’ lists contain many memoirs, I find them rather tedious with the exception of one that captured my full attention. In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald writes what she knows. Her personal story is unique. Her style is intriguing. Her scientific knowledge is thorough. She successfully melds emotion with action based on knowledge. Despite the fact that it is a memoir, it reads like fiction. Nonetheless, writing an autobiography, biography, or memoir does not appeal to me. I want to write fiction.  Fiction’s creative potential is limitless.

Writing About a Setting You Know

As I have worked on my fiction over the years, I have played with topics with which I am quite familiar, with very personal subjects, yet also with topics of which I know little. As I have inched toward my goal of attempting to write a novel, I have realized that selecting a storyline that takes place in a familiar setting would be wise. Despite my interests in the arcane, focusing on surroundings that I know well would allow me to enhance my depiction of natural phenomena. Integrating history that reflects the decades I have lived through might help me embed verisimilitude. Regarding potential characters, I love the mix of personality types that I observe in Colorado. The quirky choices about existence evident around me could fill the pages of multiple novels. Perhaps, writing about the types of experiences and individuals I encounter would allow me to build more genuine characters as well.

Writing About the Kinds of People You Know

As a lifetime reader, I have learned how to live from fictional characters as well as from individuals around me. When I was a child, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, and Josephine March taught me to persevere. As an adult reader of French literature, I ached at the choices Phaedra and Iphigeneia had to make. As a member of a 35-year old feminist book club, I have read books by more than 400 women authors from around the world. While I share similarities with some of these heroines, the realities of our life situations have noteworthy differences.

Even so, certain types stand out in my mind and in my memory. Universal types such as women who achieve despite the challenges they face fascinate me. Men who are willing to enact nonviolent maleness attract my attention. Individuals who challenge themselves to pursue difficult, if sometimes foolish, activities fascinate me. Hence, the question I am mulling over at the moment is: “Do I write fiction about universal types or about specific individuals? Or are specific types in point of fact universal? Because reality provides much to choose from, writing about my environment will allow me to select and focus. However, with every day of writing, I continue to learn that even writing about what I know requires meticulous research. It is astounding how little I “know” about the life I have inhabited. The tiniest details require research to make sure that what I think I know is accurate.

Update on my goal setting:

  1. For the last 31 days, I have focused on my writing and delved into many areas that I never dreamed I would need to research in depth.
  2. I completed 36 pages, exceeding my goal. I even gave myself a little gift—two days to work on another project that attracts me. It was reinvigorating to place my focus on another topic momentarily.
  3. I have begun to develop a network of kindred spirits. Several creative friends have asked me to share my goal setting handout with them. Others have given me excellent feedback. I also shared my goals with a local writers group. Their questions and comments were motivating.