Writing and Community

Flannery O’Connor wrote in The Regional Writer in 1963, “Unless the writer has gone utterly out of his mind, his aim is still communication and communication suggests talking within a community.” When I read this quote, it made me think about my own writing. My first novel takes place in the 1970s. The second takes place pre-World War II. I had never really defined my stories as “community,” but this quote made me reconsider what I am writing because I am definitely writing about two entirely different communities. The 1970’s story is about young people who are bonded not only by their age but by the events happening around them. The second one is about a family, living in an isolated region of Colorado where they could not survive without their ranching neighbors. It is essential for me to figure out how to distill the language and habits within each of the communities in my novels.

Communication in Writing

Of course, writing is about communication. But communication does not just rely on words. In fact, when I was working on my dissertation years ago, I read research on the topic. Albert Mehrabian’s work in the 1970s showed that 93% of what is communicated when we are talking to someone is in our nonverbal cues. Nonverbal cues refer to facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, the closeness or distance we allow between ourselves and another person, as well as to various aspects of voice—tone, rhythm, fluency, pitch, volume, or rate of speaking.  Mehrabian noted the words alone accounted for only seven percent of the meaning in an oral exchange. Naturally, much linguistic research has been carried out since then. Various projects have delineated different kinds of gestures, for example, speech illustrators, symbolic gestures, or culturally specific gestures. Now, as I pursue my aspirations of being a novelist, I wonder what these data mean for writing.

Words versus Nonverbals

A writer only has words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages of print to recount a story.  The reader cannot see the writer, nor does he or she usually even think of the writer. Rather the reader gets hooked on a character. An engaged reader follows the development of that character along to the end. So, what is it exactly that hooks a reader?

If the only content that is being communicated is through words, is a writer stuck with only being able to communicate seven percent or can the writer portray nonverbal behavior effectively using words? This question has led me to read a bit differently. I have always paid attention to how authors use dialog, now I read to see how different writers describe nonverbal behaviors. I just read a short story, “Night Riding” by Candace Simar, that used effective nonverbal communication beautifully: “She fingered the asaphidity bag around her neck and held it to her nose for a deep inhalation of camphor and garlic. Perhaps it would be enough to prevent pneumonia.” The nonverbals she is describing lead the reader to infer the character’s age and knowledge of herbal medicine—both essential elements of the plot. However, if you are not part of the character’s community, you might not know what an asaphidity bag is. Thus, this writer has to integrate more details into the text.

Drawing the Reader into an Unfamiliar Community

Readers carry stereotypes in their minds. They have certain expectations for what a New Yorker might say as opposed to a Coloradan. So perhaps part of the meaning is literally carried in the community the author chooses to bring into life. I recently read a British cozy. I was fascinated with how quickly the author drew me into the Welsh community she was describing. It may be that it resonated with my memories of the small community in which I grew up because I felt a familiarity with how the characters communicated or didn’t communicate with each other. For example, I recognized the “big guy” as opposed to “little guy” descriptions. But within several pages, I was enjoying a Welsh community that I had never heard of before.

What is it that forms a community? In this case, it was isolation. It took place in a village at the foot of a large mountain (which also mirrors where I grew up). It was familiarity, the families lived there, thus they were aware of the neighborhood gossip. The author also quickly established that there were outsiders involved. Some had recently joined the community, others were victims, others who were there only to solve the mystery. The story also included community activities, known hiking trails, and shared knowledge about the mountain and its weather conditions. Thus, much of her meaning was carried through her play on the familiar contrasted with the unfamiliar.

Communicating about Community

What is it the writer wants to communicate? How does she do it? These are questions I am delving into. In my first story, I want to communicate to the reader that it is possible to find one’s way in the world despite setbacks, death, and feeling that one was born into the wrong community. My heroine has to leave home, go somewhere she had never been before, and along her path, she finds a community that is foreign to her but that becomes her home. In my second story, I want my readers to understand how difficult life was during the depression and how poverty affected one’s ability to protect one’s family. I want readers to experience the helplessness the community feels in the face of illness, lack of money, or horrible accidents.

Conversation in Community

I belong to three book clubs. One is a longstanding feminist book club. We read only books written by women, mostly fiction, but once in a while an interesting biography or social treatise. Reading these books has been mind-expanding but also comforting. We have literally read books by women from around the world. We have found that we can identify with women from all the continents. Over the years, I have observed that talking about the books in our monthly community has literally changed the women in the group. We do have a rule that each woman must explain why she chose her book. Each member, no matter how shy and unwilling to share opinions she is when she joins, has eventually found her voice and her ability to explain what she took from the book.

My second book club is also made up entirely of women, but it is more eclectic. We read a variety of novels, biographies, or nonfiction by a variety of writers. The group has no rules for interaction, so the discussions vary considerably in format. Nevertheless, as the membership has stabilized over the last four or five years, we have developed into a mutually supportive network. Conversation builds community and communities create support.

My third reading community, which I have attended for this past year, is limited to writers of fiction, memoirs, or screenplays. We dissect a novel each month. We are expected to read, take notes, and pay attention to writerly concerns as we read. The group leader does a thorough analysis of the book on several levels to share with us. It fascinates me that members choose to discuss very different aspects of what the author is trying to communicate. Reading about community, talking in community, about reading, and now writing about community is my passion.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of June, I have continued to work on editing my first novel. At the moment, I am feeling more self-conscious about my own writing. Sometimes it feels like trying to fit my left foot into my right shoe. When I get impatient with myself, I focus on doing mechanical editing for a while then I go back to the hard content work.

  1. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

I have been doing more research on the time period in which my second novel takes place. Fortunately for me, several websites have popped up that focus on the corner of Colorado that interests me. As folks post old photos, it helps me get a better feel for machinery, clothing, and activities that fit the time period.

  1. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is July 7, 2019. This is my seventh blog of 2019. This month I have been thinking about how to monetize my blog, or at least considering if it is worthwhile to attempt to do so. I have read several articles and looked at various statistics. But I think for now it will remain a work in progress. I will continue to write and publish it as is for the remainder of 2019.

  1. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

This month I joined another writing group, the Denver Woman’s Press Club. The President, Anne Randolph, the author of Stories Gathered at the Kitchen Table, whom I met through the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, invited me to apply for membership. My application was accepted. Joining an organization that dates from 1898 and which has supported women’s writers for 120 years is a thrilling opportunity. Minnie Reynolds, the Society Editor for the Rocky Mountain News at the time, founded the group. She also shepherded the suffrage movement in Colorado. The movement’s colors were purple, gold and white, representing the royal glory of womanhood, the crown of victory, and the purity of home and politics. Minnie Reynolds predicted that we would have a woman president in 2017! We would have had one if our current political system had chosen the purity of politics!





Scents in Fiction

Portraying the Senses in Fiction

To write captivating fiction requires the author to integrate human beings’ five developed senses—hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, and smelling—into their prose. A vivid sensory vocabulary enlivens the text while stimulating the reader. Each sense has a positive and negative valence. Sounds may be pleasant or irritating. The ability to see may be above normal or nonexistent. To experience touch may be desired or obnoxious. Food may taste delicious or horrible. Bodies may smell alluring or rank. As I have been exploring how best to write evocatively, I have looked into terminology for the sense of smell. Odors have a powerful role to play in engaging the reader.

Environmental Scents

Wherever one grows up, the air is filled with scents that mark changes in the weather.  I spent my childhood in a valley that had a Sulphur Spring on the west end of town. If the wind was coming from the West, the unpleasant smell of rotten eggs filled the air. Natives knew it meant that a storm was blowing in. Where I live now the air that sweeps down from the mountains on the West is fresh with the scent of pine forests. But in the winter when a cold front comes down from the north, the foul stench of the feed yards 70 miles to the North East floods over the city, announcing the arrival of a polar blizzard.

If I were writing about a big city, I would have to incorporate the odors of the alleys, the smell of the diesel buses, the perfumes or aftershaves of the crowds passing by. If I were writing about the sea, the smell of the salt water, the reek of rotten fish on the beach would fill my pages. Currently, I am writing about a period when there were no buses on the streets, and very little traffic (because most people walked and families only had one car, while university students had none). A few kids bicycled. The scents I remember from this era are the perfume of lilacs in the spring, the almost aftertaste of the wet grasses after an afternoon rainstorm, the smell of dry dust swirling from the dirt roads around town on a hot summer day.

Ceremonial Scents

Certain scents are associated with the observance of rituals. Most of these rituals have something to do with religion. I remember the pleasant cinnamon candles from the Christmas Eve services of my childhood. When I was in college, I studied abroad. The fragrance of burning wax in the cathedrals in France where visitors lit votive candles to send prayers to heaven for their loved ones inspired me—a Protestant—to plunk a couple of francs in the box. My spirit felt lighter after I had placed my burning votives snuggly in the metal holders.

In my 30’s, when I felt the need for guidance, I went to a Native American shaman who smudged me with smoking sage to clear my aura. I’ve never forgotten the pungent cloud swirling around me lifting the darkness away. The decisions she helped me make that day guided me along a path that allowed me to establish a successful career. I keep a bundle of sage sitting on the mantle in my living room, just in case I need another smudging!

Later in life, I attended a New Year’s Eve ceremony at a Buddhist temple perfumed with sandalwood incense. As we sat in a circle around a fire, we chanted while tossing grains of rice into the flames. With each grain we tossed, we voiced a blessing for a person we knew. First, I blessed my family, friends, and acquaintances. When I couldn’t think of any more individuals, I sent blessings to all sentient beings. The repetition gave rise to an experience that I can only express as bliss. Much later I read that sandalwood incense opens the heart and throat chakras.

Revolting Odors for Unpleasant Scenes

Fiction, of course, requires virtuosity in scents beyond the comforting or the ceremonial. A writer must master the vocabulary for odors that fall on the unpleasant side of the continuum—death, rot, mustiness, mold, oil fields, barnyards, mucky ponds, body odor. This vocabulary ranges from amusing to disgusting. I like the words the British use for strong unpleasant odors, such as pong as in the “pong of unwashed laundry.” Or frowsty, as in a “frowsty, moldy basement.” When I checked for malodorous words, I found about 60, so writers have many words to choose from to create a particularly malodorous scene.

Scents and Memory

As A la recherche du temps perdu taught us, scents stimulate memory. Anyone who is an aficionado of literature knows about Proust’s madeleines. I suspect that is why madeleines are available—much to my delight—at all the Starbucks I visit. They certainly were common nowhere but in France in my youth. For me, it is the scent of cinnamon rolls that sends my memory on a happy ride. My mother was a superb baker. As I crested the hill on the road to my house when I was a child on the way home from school, the elixir of her cinnamon rolls caused my pace to quicken. To this day, my mouth waters when someone mentions cinnamon rolls. My experience, along with Proust’s, suggests that writers can delve into their own pasts to create memorable experiences for their readers.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of May, I have attempted to assure that the scenes I have drafted are animated with emotion, not just events. During my first draft, I definitely focused more on events in which my characters could be interacting with each other. This is an arduous process.

  1. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

During RMFW’s NovelRama, I worked on the first draft of my second novel. I used Marc LeBlanc’s “Eight Kinds of Fun” to stimulate my imagination. It worked. In four days, I generated drafts of 16 different chapters. In May, I used this personal experience as the basis of a workshop for the Boulder Writers Alliance. I shared my understanding of Marc LeBlanc’s model with the group. Then, I gave them a handout to help them sketch out ideas for their own novels. The participants were delighted with the insights they had into their own creative work. I intend to keep using this technique to reinvigorate myself when I am stuck.

  1. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is June 7, 2019. This is my sixth blog of 2019. Almost half of 2019 has slipped away. Writing my blog has impacted my own reading. As I work on “emotion” as a driver for reader interest, I am paying close attention to how other authors put their scenes together. Since I am not writing an action novel, the emotional content in my own has to be more subtle. Finding a balance is tricky.

  1. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

As a current member of the Steering Committee for the Boulder Writers Alliance, I attended the Program Subcommittee meeting in May to consolidate plans for our programming for next year. The group is diverse. We all learn from each other. One mechanism of group development that fascinates me is how the content of the various BWA workshops has become the lingua franca of the group.


Sartorial Concerns in Fiction

Sartorial Vocabulary

Dress, clothes, costumes, tailoring, patching, mending, sewing, weaving, stitching, knitting, embroidering, crocheting are all terms within the sartorial category required to write fiction. Even though the words themselves don’t vary, their manifestation changes from year to year, from period to period, from country to country. Thus, thinking about the description of how characters are dressed in a novel requires thought, research, and attention to detail. Tiny Tim could not possibly be dressed like Harry Potter although they are both English. Leia could not be dressed like Rapunzel even though they are both princesses. In Outlander, how Claire and Jamie are dressed changes dramatically as they flit between countries, cultures, and centuries.

Sartorial Points to Keep in Mind

Every novel is set in a time period, whether it be the past, present, future, or even a parallel time frame in science fiction. If the writer is dealing with the past or present, being accurate about the clothing individuals wear is essential. If the novel is set in a future period, authors can be more playful and creative about their character’s attire. In fantasy and science fiction, they have the liberty to create new sartorial trends—which may appear at the next Met Gala!

Accuracy and descriptiveness depend on gender, age, class, culture, jobs, education, and of course, the personality of the characters. A good example of a quick and dirty class distinction is beautifully done by Tommy Orange in There There, when he describes Bill Davis as wearing “light blue latex gloves … and [holding] a clearish-gray garbage bag.” The reader understands that Bill is a janitor.

Integrating Sartorial Elements into Your Descriptions

Accuracy requires research. Because our memories are feeble, it is important to make use of local library or museum collections, the web, photo albums your parents had, or photo albums you have kept for yourself. We forget how much fashions change or what folks were wearing during a certain period. For example, when I look back at old photos, I am even surprised by what I was wearing at the time.

Sartorial Faux Pas

It is important not to make blunders in describing apparel. Mistakes could cover any egregious mismatches of the categories named above. For example, in the 1970s, the time of the “flower children,” embroidered flowers were common decorations on bell-bottom blue jeans. The other day, I saw a twenty-first-century version, but the flowers were made from iron-on patches.  This would have been a terrible faux pas for a true hippy.

Costuming must match the time and place or it is jarring. I recall a famous movie about a gay cowboy. The clothes he wore were completely wrong from the viewpoint of someone who grew up in a ranching community in the West at the time the film was supposed to be situated. The character dressed more like a farmer from the Midwest. As you write, you want your readers to be able to imagine your characters in a believable way. You don’t want them to be critiquing your sartorial mistakes as they read, so do your homework and write accurately.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of April, I attended the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ full-day Education Event. Panels included “Finding Your Unique Writing Approach,” “Self-Publishing,” and “Marketing for Writers.” A one-on-one with Corinne O’Flynn, who helped me lay out the equivalent of an elevator speech on the novel I am currently editing, was elucidating. I also took a two-week online course with RMFW on writing a synopsis. The instructor, Sharon Mignerey, provided excellent materials and thoughtful feedback. Before I started the class, I couldn’t fathom that drafting a synopsis would help me tighten up my plotline, but it certainly did. Now I feel more energized about approaching my editing.

2. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

While I was doing my homework for my synopsis class, I added on—just for myself—some practice at writing a synopsis for my second novel. Working on the draft synopsis showed me where my plot holes are, so back to the drawing board I go.

3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is May 7, 2019. This is my fifth blog of 2019. At the RMFW Education event, I had to chuckle when one of the panelists, Angie Hodapp, exclaimed, “We don’t need any more blogs on writing!” Perhaps writing this blog is indeed an exercise in staring at my own navel. Nevertheless, it is helping me to formulate my own thoughts and explore the issues I am grappling with as I attempt to create a story. Setting myself a posting deadline for the blog has also helped me keep on task with my goals.

4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

At the RMFW Education Event, I met some fascinating writers. Listening to them discuss the pros and cons of pen names, self or traditional publishing, or critique groups expanded my own mental forays into creating a career as a writer for myself. Additionally, our Boulder Writers Alliance spring workshop this month featured Professor Polly E. Bugros McLean who discussed her “on-the-ground” research for Remembering Lucile: A Virginia Family’s Rise from Slavery and a Legacy Forged a Mile High.  Listening to Professor McLean made me realize how much research I still need to carry out for my second novel. I’m going to have to hit the road!



Moods and Modes for Writers

Mood in the Arts

Writers, musicians, and artists all concern themselves with mood, as do, of course, philosophers and psychologists. But what does “mood” mean? It is usually given three definitions: a temporary state of mind; a general impression produced by a predominant quality or characteristic; or a prevailing quality, as of thought, behavior, or attitude. Thus, a character may speak angrily then calm down; a crowd may seem joyous or threatening to a character, or the threat of a storm may make your protagonist cower under cover.

Historically, philosophers, physicians, and psychologists have shown their fascination with mood, connecting it to temperament and behavior. The Greeks discussed the “humors” or “temperaments” which they thought were based on bodily fluids, which in turn they believed caused certain behaviors, creating the categories of sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic. These categories could be used to build different character types. Think about the caring characters, the practical characters, the testy characters, and the sad characters in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”

For musicians, mood depends on the key the piece is written in, the tempo, and the dynamics, that is, differences in sound. For example, Carl Nielson’s symphony, “The Four Temperaments” was deliberately constructed to evoke four kinds of emotional responses. Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” similarly associates the four temperaments with spring, summer, fall, and winter.  Cinema goes even farther, amplifying mood in the story and on the screen with the mood in the soundtrack to create different emotional reactions in viewers as the scenes progress. The theme from “Star Wars” was written in G major, a happy key, and appears at the beginning and the end, sounding both hopeful and triumphant.

Theories Related to Mood

The Meyers-Briggs Inventory has been used in various settings, including work, school, and other organizations. Keirsey’s reworking of the MBTI in his book, “Please Understand Me,” is an interesting model for writers as it creates four major categories: artisan (promoter, crafter, performer, composer), guardian (supervisor, inspector, provider, protector), rational (field marshal, mastermind, inventor, architect) and idealist (teacher, counselor, champion, healer). It is evident that these categories could easily become characters in a novel. Keirsey’s more recent book, “Personology” (2010), includes intentions, abilities, and interests in his theory of personality, which would give writers even more food for thought.

Writers Must Understand Mode as well as Mood

Grammatically, writers have to be able to use mood knowledgeably to create the world their characters inhabit psychologically. The grammatical term for mood is “mode” which references the state of mind of the speaker as the speaker is constructing what he or she says. For writers, mode naturally determines the form of the verb used. Is the character stating a fact? Asking a question? Giving an order? Making a wish? Or thinking hypothetically or conditionally? Thus, the state of mind is always portrayed by the author’s choice of verb form and can be used to portray the underlying mood or attitude of the character in question. A strong character will use the indicative mode more than any other. A bossy character might use the imperative mode in an excessive amount of interactions. A character who is afraid of reality or is rather shifty could overuse the conditional.

Mood and Fiction

Mood impacts various aspects of fiction. We all know the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.” The writer sets the mood of the story with a reference to the absence of light and the threat of a storm. Humans often feel unsafe in the dark. They are often afraid of storms. The reader knows that something bad is about to happen. Despite the fact that this phrase has become cliché and has been lampooned, writers need to think about how to cast the mood of their stories, avoiding the melodramatic or the mundane.

Several questions arise for writers about the use of mood and mode. How do I personally handle them? How do I describe scenes, actions, and conversations? How do I hit just the right note and avoid cacophony? How do I create a memorable sentence? A haunting scene? An unforgettable beginning and ending—not subject to parody by professors and critiques. And, finally, how do I stay in a writing mood and mode?

Writing Goals for 2019

This year, my goals are to:

1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of March, I have been reading for structure. As I read “There There” by Tommy Orange, I focused on how he used quotations to set the theme and sub-themes of the novel. As I edit my first novel, I have been incorporating some quotations. Now I have a better idea about how to use them more effectively.

2. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

For four days in March, I participated in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ NovelRama. This collaborative, or perhaps I should say concurrent, writing event takes place online via Facebook. Experienced writers provide guidance and encouragement in four-hour blocks throughout the day. They set up timed writing sprints, post videos of themselves, and post amusing llama memes.  The goal was for each participating writer to write 6,250 words each day and finish with a grand total of 25,000. I had never before tried such a task. I didn’t think I could do it. But I did. My grand total was 25,436. I amazed myself. Best of all, I drafted 16 chapters of my second novel, finishing 86 pages. At this point, I have accomplished almost one-third of my December 7th goal. Additionally, when I looked back to compare my NovelRama total to my last year’s total for the same period, I discovered that I had written 20 pages more in four days than I had written from January to March 7, 2018!

3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is April 7, 2019. This is my fourth blog of 2019. Having to write and publish a blog each month is forcing me to think more deeply and read more widely about fiction writing and how to wield the tools I need to build a good story.

4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

I continue to meet more writers through the Boulder Writers Alliance. One of the most helpful experiences I am engaged in is our BWA Book Club for Writers, led by Gary Alan McBride. Our discussions illuminate how each reader experiences the novel in a different way. Each one’s unique perspectives contribute to a better general understanding of the novel in question.



Flora and Fauna in Fiction

Goddesses and Nature

Flora and fauna are two of my best friends. The two categories have always amused me because they sound like women’s names, and, in fact, are. Flora was originally the name of the Greek goddess of plants, flowers, and fertility. The internet lists about 75 famous (or notorious) women named Flora. The biological meaning refers to the types of plants found in a particular geographic region. Thus, the flora of Madagascar is so rare that more than 80 percent of the plants are found only on the island, including species of orchids, palms, and baobabs. The flora of Colorado includes native species as well, some of my favorite are kinnikinnick, blue columbines, and wood roses.

“Fauna” is much less popular as a name even though it too was the name of a goddess of fertility. When I checked naming sites for feminine names, Fauna was very unpopular. In fact, in 2017 it ranked a low 20,000 (with number one being most popular). It has moved up a bit, perhaps due to Fauna Hodel, the mystery writer. In Madagascar, the fauna is also unique—lemurs with their long tails, sometimes ringed in black and white, and their cousins the soft white sifakas—definitely evoke one’s curiosity. In Colorado, while most of our wild animals are common to the west, we do have a unique squirrel, a species of Abert, which looks like a little pointed ear black devil when it peers down from a pine tree.

Plants and Animals in Colorado

Despite my digression into the names of goddesses and the flora and fauna of Madagascar, my concern with plants and animals is how to depict them in my novels which take place in Colorado. Naturally, they can make a story resonate with an authentic sense of place, creating familiarity or exoticism, or even, in the case of fauns creating an imaginary world. Needless to say, to create verisimilitude, authors must be careful to represent flora and fauna accurately when necessary to describe a region. Even with the spread of species to new habitats, one must be careful because some plants and animals simply don’t occur in some regions. Moreover, the number and variety of plants and animals differ depending on the era one is describing.

I am currently writing about two very different areas of Colorado which keeps me on my toes. Fortunately, I have spent time in both. Having grown up in the mountains, I always feel slightly uneasy when I am in a geographically flat area such as Oklahoma. I feel as though I might fall off the earth. Both landscapes I am writing about are dramatic but in different ways. One is in the Foothills of the Front Range where the Rockies tumble down to crash in waves on the Great Plains. The other is more than 300 miles away in Northwestern Colorado near Dinosaur National Monument.

Flora of the Front Range

The Front Range flora tempers the harshness of the mountains. The winds that drop over the mountains ruffle the trees and grasses as they descend. I could simply describe Front Range Flora with color terms because they vary so much depending on the season of the year. But I could also focus on sound. Most importantly, for accuracy, I need to learn the names, at least the common names, of the plants that paint the canvas my characters inhabit.

Fauna of the Front Range

As for the fauna, I know most of the common names of the animals on the Front Range, although specific species elude me. The most visible wild animals on the Front Range have always been the hawks, vultures, and bats as they circle high in the sky at different times of the day. While walking or riding horses in the Foothills, I have often seen coyotes, bears, or deer, and on occasion a bobcat. At times I have seen foxes, raccoons, and rabbits play in my yard. And, most amusingly, a very large bear left a huge pile of “fertilizer” in my flower garden last summer which resulted in my flowers developing extraordinarily large blossoms. Moose and cougars are common nowadays in this area, they even occasionally walk right down our street, while during the time period I am writing about they simply were not around. In the past, I used to hike and jog on the trails alone and was never surprised by anything but a chipmunk.

North Western Colorado

The other landscape I am writing about is in the northwestern part of the state. During the early part of the twentieth century, it had meadows with tall grasses in the bottoms below the low dry mesas. But since the Great Depression, it has been an arid and rocky desert. The light there is so bright it hurts your eyes. Most of the mesas are light-colored—shifting only from white to grey to a pale yellow—and very dry. Even the bushes are dry and light grey with a hint of lavender most of the year. Dry creeks beds, surprisingly, are scattered with very colorful stones that have been washed down from the mountains in the distance. The parched surface is dotted with bits of skeletons—mostly sheep and other small critters. If I take a walk, I have to watch out for rattlers. Only after the springtime rains do the flowers appear.

These different landscapes with their different flora and fauna definitely call for different kinds of stories. As D.H. Lawrence wrote: “All creative art must rise out of a specific soil and flicker with a spirit of place.” Writing—like the flora and fauna it describes—grows and flourishes in a distinctive environment.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019. During the month of February, I have been reading about point of view and paying closer attention to the POV used in novels I have been reading.  I am finding that “editing” involves rewriting and experimenting. Thus, I have tried rewriting from a different point of view, just to see if the story flows better.
  2. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019. I worked on the outline and characters for my second novel and discussed it with a kindred spirit. I reread my notes and began to sketch in some scenes.
  3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019. Today is March 7, 2019. This is my third blog of 2019. Blogging about my writing process approximates having someone to talk to as I proceed. It helps me to think about different approaches and what I need to focus on to write solidly.
  4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing. This month I read a blog that is written by editors who edit for writers and others who serve as ghostwriters, as well as several blogs by members of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers group. Fortunately for me, the Boulder Writers Alliance offered a workshop, led by Caitlin Berve of Ignited Ink Writing, on point of view this month. During the workshop, Caitlin asked us to write. I took the opportunity to rethink a scene from a completely different point of view. It was a good exercise. It helped me see the scene better. My BWA writers’ groups have also developed into social groups during happy hours which is a very nice way to relax after a hard day of writing.

The Pleasure of Writing

Emotions on and off the Page

Emotions manifest in a dual sense in fiction. The characters emote, while readers empathize with or reject the passions expressed on the page as they read. Thus, emotion is a tool that writers must wield sagely at all times regardless of their genre. Roland Barthes, who wrote Le Plaisir du Texte (translated as The Pleasure of the Text), delineated the difference between what he called readerly and writerly texts. He explains that the former elicits pleasure for the reader because it is simply pleasant to read. The latter stimulates “juouissance” (intense pleasure) which in French means intense pleasure at the intellectual, moral, physical, or material levels. For example, reading gives the reader the pleasure of knowing and learning. Figuring out the meanings or understories of the text is satisfying to the reader. Reading the text may give the reader sensual pleasure. Or the book itself may give the reader the pleasure of possession. Thus, from Barthes’ analysis, the writerly text is more stimulating than is the readerly text because it operates at different levels. Something unexpected in a writerly text forces the reader to engage more deeply. Writers then are challenged to create an emotional tenor in their stories that grabs the reader’s attention while stimulating them to think or react sensually. The intensity may be experienced by the protagonists themselves or the emotional tenor of the story could be inherent in the plot or the genre of the novel itself.

Emotions in Different Genres

As I have thought about different genres, I realized they can be divided by the emotions they elicit. The major genres are mythology (awe), tragedy (grief), fantasy (wonder), mystery (intrigue), adventure (excitement), and science fiction (astonishment).


Because mythology is a sacred form that features gods and goddesses who engage in exemplary or sometimes terrifying deeds, the characters exhibit awe, fear, guilt, regret, power, anger, or human frailty. The reader’s experience tends to reflect the characters’ experience with the addition of a sense of injustice at humans’ defenselessness—imagine being raped by a swan!


Tragedies tell the tale of human suffering. The characters usually have a human flaw that begins their demise. They express strong emotions such as hatred, jealousy, lust, anger or in the case of Antigone, love for her brothers. Their readers experience horror at what happens, sadness at the death of the innocent, and repulsion directed at the villain.


In fantasy just about anything can happen because magic exists. The fantasy world is created rather than realistic. The emotions vary depending on the storyline. The characters experience love and hate, fear and joy, the excitement of adventure or the boredom of home. The fantasy novelist must be able to stimulate readers’ suspension of disbelief. For it to work, the readers must happily tumble, like Alice, into a setting with characters that are not real and a world that is not possible. The emotions the readers experience tend to reflect those of the characters, even as they remind themselves, “Well this isn’t really real.” In a good fantasy, the reader’s reading pleasure results from delight with the wonder of the fantasy world itself.


Mysteries require that the author provide a hook to grab the reader’s attention. They also have to involve the reader actively in trying to solve the mystery, while throwing in misleading clues to throw the reader off track. The intrigue of mystery creates suspense. The reader must identify with the protagonist enough to be anxious or worried about what is going to happen, literally holding their breath as threats or dangers come to a climax. The reader must enjoy the same physical release as Sherlock when then the mystery is solved. Thus, the mystery seems to hold the elements of a writerly text in the ways that it engages the reader’s thought process, even though it might not engage literary critics in the same way.


In novels that fit into the genre of adventure, the characters take action. They do things that normal folks don’t engage in; there are ups and downs. They experience some type of trauma but manage to survive. The characters’ emotions rise and fall in line with their adventures, moving from calm to excitement, from excitement to worry, from worry to terror, from terror to achievement, and finally relief.

I just read an adventure novel that falls into a new genre—climate fiction. In Watermelon Snow by Bill Liggett, the heroine is a woman scientist who discovers an unlikely occurrence high on a glacier. Because of the setting and the threats of global warming, exciting adventures and traumatic deaths occur. It seems to me that most adventures would fall under Barthes readerly texts label because they are a pleasant read. However, cli-fi definitely stimulates the reader to consider how to solve current climate issues so it may move into the writerly realm.

Science Fiction

As a genre, science fiction creates an unknown world in which all aspects of society—gender, roles, technology, biology, finance—operate differently than in our daily lives. However, in science fiction emotion tends to work similarly to other genres. The characters experience emotions in reaction to the world around them or as in Star Trek, some characters, Data, for example, do not experience or understand human emotions at all because they are robots or cyborgs or some type of alien. The reader experiences many emotions including astonishment, surprise, delight, disgust, horror, or even disbelief. I do think the attraction of science fiction, if it is well written, is related to Barthes discussion of the writerly text. It does make the reader think. It forces the reader to react. I recall reading Wool by Hugh Howey. It triggered an incredible range of emotions in me—most of which were on the dark emotional side. The situation in the story was horrifying, which brings me to the question of what does emotion have to do with plot.

Emotion and Plot

In Wool, I think the plot drove my emotions. People were trapped physically because they were unaware of the reality of their situation. Emotionally some characters were resigned; others rebelliously tried to get out. Their rebellion drives the plot while drawing the reader along. The plot creates a sense of claustrophobia in the reader, so the reader experiences deeply what the characters experience. Wool adds a whole new meaning to Kurt Vonnegut’s description of the “man in hole” plotline!

Clarifying the Genre of My Novel

Curiously, I am not intrigued by writing in any of the genres discussed above. Although I think any good read has a bit of each in it. The book I am working on seems to fall under the category of literary fiction, although I don’t know if I can achieve a literary complexity of writing. It is a modern Bildungsroman about a young woman coming into her own.

Based on my experience, I would add a third level to the discussion of emotions: the emotion of the writer as she writes. I read somewhere if the story makes the author cry when she writes it, it is likely to make the reader cry. What this means to me is that the story must above all have a sense of authenticity. The emotions that fill its pages must be unavoidable. The novelist really must do something besides stare at her own navel. The story must be engaging enough to stimulate the reader’s plaisir du texte.

As I edit my draft this year, that will be my challenge—to make sure that as a writer I infuse the text with authentic scenes, while drawing the reader into my characters’ lives. I want my readers to laugh, to cry, and to rise to the challenges that occur in their own lives as my main character does.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019. For the month of January, I had the delightful company of my daughter and grandson which kept me busy. I decided to continue reworking my outline to assure that the storyline unfolds without repetition or without skipping something important. I had to split a couple of chapters. I also deleted one unnecessary part. I woke up last night dreaming I was writing a new story which is a pretty good signal from my brain that I need to get back to my writing. I’m finding the pull between creativity and paying attention to the structure to be a challenge.
  2. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019. I have the first draft of my outline done, but it has holes. I don’t have the complete flow of the story in mind so I feel a bit as though I am playing chess: moving the players around to see in which directions they can move.
  3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019.  This is my second blog of 2019—typing that date still makes my heart stop. I cannot believe we are already 19 years into the 21st century. Blogging for me continues to be a learning experience. It also helps me keep tabs on my progress.
  4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing. My networking in 2018 was fruitful. I am now sitting on the Steering Committee of the Boulder Writers Alliance. My job is to help with programming and to give input into the strategic plan. I also joined a second BWA small group of writers who analyze a novel each month. It has already helped me analyze my own writing even though I have attended only two sessions.


Writing Style and Reading Audiences

Friendship and Writing

My doctoral dissertation looked at the correspondence between George Sand (Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin Dudevant) and Gustave Flaubert. Their letters were fascinating because despite their age difference (she was 17 years older than he) they communicated as equals. The letters are often humorous. Most deal with writing.

Sand was a prolific writer. She wrote more than 20,000 letters in her lifetime, 63 works of fiction, as well as a dozen plays. Her collected works total about 160 volumes. Flaubert authored around ten.

They met soon after Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was published. Sand read it. She was impressed. She sat down and wrote a laudatory article in support of the young writer. He was so grateful that he wrote to her, begging to meet her. Their meeting was the beginning of a life-long friendship. They visited each other’s estates. When they were together, they would sit by the fire discussing literature for the entire night. When they were apart, they wrote letters, leaving us with a wonderful view into the lives of two writerly friends.

Style and Writing Habits

Studying their work, I realized that Flaubert’s genius lay in his determination to portray accurately and realistically while integrating depth of sentiment and character. Sand’s genius resided in her understanding of social issues, her vivid imagination, and her fascination with natural history. She wrote fluently and eloquently, rarely crossing out a line of her handwritten manuscripts. Because she wrote to earn money, she published in the “feuilletons” or the weekly newspaper serials of the time. The literacy rate in France during their lifetime was 90% and the weekly serials were extremely popular. Flaubert, on the other hand, struggled, scratched out words and sentences, searched for the precise word, and spent years perfecting his work.

But if we look closely at their prose, it is clear that Flaubert understood how to pack a wallop. He does this by weaving all five senses into a single paragraph of description that ends with an action. For example, in a description of a kitchen in chapter 9 of Madame Bovary, the wall is damp (touch) and oozing (sight), the door is creaking (sound), the stove is steaming (smell), Emma is nibbling nuts (taste), and drawing on the tablecloth with her knife (action). He integrates sensations, emotions, thoughts, and action creating a lucid description that the reader can envision in his or her own mind’s eye.

Sand, on the other hand, tends to narrate her stories in long sentences as a sequence of discussions or a sequence of events rather than focusing on detailed description. Interestingly, Sand was a genius of the short, pithy sentences that become maxims and her statements are often quoted as such. Their differences in style attracted different readers and created different followers although they both enjoyed reading each other’s prose.

Targeting a Reading Audience

As I write, I always have these two authors in mind. Flaubert stated, “One never tires of what is well written, Style is life! It is the very blood of thought!”  Sand wrote with a social purpose because she hoped to have a positive impact on the lives of women and the poor, stating, “Art for art’s sake is an empty phrase. Art for the sake of truth, art for the sake of the good and the beautiful, that is the faith I am searching for.”

My own style is not yet definitive. I struggle to find the right tone and the right voice. I do believe that writing with an audience in mind is important. But I also want my work to be well written stylistically. I hope to eventually hit the right note as I progress with my editing this year.

Writing Goals for 2019

How exciting it is to be at the beginning of 2019! I like this number—two thousand nineteen has a nice ring to it. I am looking forward to a year of writing, attending events on writing, and learning more about writing and publishing. Having worked on my writing goals since January 2018, I am better attuned to my own process and progress. Over the holidays, I took a break, although I spent some time pondering how to approach my goals for the year 2019. After much thought, I have decided to maintain similar goals for 2019. I will continue to focus on my creative writing and do the research to support it. This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by the 7th of December 2019;
  2. Complete a draft of my second novel by the 7th of December 2019;
  3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019; and
  4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing.

Happy New Year! May your year be filled with satisfying work!

Darkness or Light? That Is the Question!

Considering Darkness Versus Light in December

When I took a course in reading theater years ago, we read a critic whose hypothesis was that dark political times bring lighter theater pieces, while lighter, happier political times bring forth darker aesthetic work. While examples are necessary to illustrate this idea, it is a subject which has always fascinated me. December is the darkest month. Humans react by installing stars made up of many light bulbs on mountains, decorating trees in the park with colorful LEDs, and lighting their homes with scented candles. It has led me to reflect on the darkness or light that novelists choose to portray.

Utopian or Dystopian?

Theodor W. Adorno, who lived through the Nazi takeover of Germany, wrote that all art lives in a space somewhere between the utopian/aesthetic and the political/mimetic. It seems to me that most popular novels are about the latter, whether it be personally political as in individuals abusing individuals or publicly political about the abuse of power by one group against another. Many modern novels fall into this dystopian time-space continuum.  Such dystopian worldviews seem bald-faced to me in the sense that they are a compilation of everything horrible that can occur. I am not sure what they bring to the reader besides depression, despair, fear of the present, and dread of the future. Likewise, many award-winning books treat dark subjects. The characters suffer brutal torments. Sociopaths rule. Nothing ends well. I’d like to see a book award for novels that address more productive lives, although it might garner serious critique from The New York Times.

Depicting Life in Fiction

Perhaps because we are living through a dark political time, I am attempting to write a novel that is uplifting—not Utopian, but positive—rather than dystopian. I think readers need to be shown options for approaching their existential problems. We live in the real world. Most lives are normal, though they may be fraught with problems. Most people approach their lives from a workable position, even though a few give up. Some commit suicide; others attack innocent people. Some choose political activism; others decide to run for office. Some prefer to teach; others to write. Some wish to help; others become healers. As Mr. Rogers’ mother used to tell him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Expressing Gratitude

This past year, I have encountered many helpers. My daughter, who is an excellent soundboard and editor, has been my first reader for my blog. I am grateful for her insights and corrections. The Boulder Writers Alliance speakers have been helpful as their discussions about their own experiences are encouraging to me as well as entertaining. This month, I had some serious help with my novel writing, not directly, but indirectly. Gary McBride leads a “forensics of writing” group for the Boulder Writers Alliance. His ability to dissect a novel is extraordinary. I want to write something he would have fun analyzing. Time to get back to work!

Update on My Goal Setting

The year 2018 has been a fascinating year personally, professionally, and as a citizen. It could be called the Year of the Shift. So much has altered this year. Earth tremors, hurricanes followed by floods, droughts that caused fires, even under-ocean volcanoes have changed the landscapes where many of us live. These earth changes have been reflected in global and national politics, finances, and displacements of people. All this has occurred, while I in my little writing room have been attempting to accomplish the four goals I set in January 2018:

  1. Focus on my creative writing and do the research to support it: Eleven months have passed, I am currently working on my twelfth month of writing. My creative focus has literally transformed my life. I have enjoyed doing the research necessary to write. It is as though I am finally figuring out what I can and cannot actually accomplish.
  2. Complete a draft novel by the seventh of December 2018, writing 30 pages per month: Today December 7, 2018, I should have a complete draft of my novel done. In fact, I have undershot my goal. Of the 24 chapters in my outline, five are still empty.  I am also short on my page count, although I have written 285 pages. I cannot beat myself up too much about this because at the request of my children I have also written 220 pages for “my personal story” on the StoryWorth program. Thus, while I originally planned to write 365 pages this year, in fact, I have written 505 pages. This gives me hope for the coming year when I plan to concentrate on finishing my novel.
  3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2018: Today, December 7, 2018, I am posting my twelfth blog. Writing a blog was a goal I had never dreamed of taking a shot at until this year, yet it has been extremely satisfying. The blog has supported my creative writing in ways I did not expect. In the past, I have never shared my in-progress work with anyone. I always just finished what I was doing, then presented it to the appropriate person. Also, one of my weaknesses is that I do not question enough. I am more likely to reflect, reflect, reflect, but not to question. Writing the blog has made me question what I am doing, what I want to say, even what is worth saying. Definitively, it has pushed me to focus on time, to write my pages regularly. Writing the blog makes me accountable to myself and my readers.
  4. Develop a network of kindred spirits who are willing to share their own goals, progress, and observations with me: In November, the Boulder Writers Alliance workshop speaker was Debra Jason, who spoke about the topics covered in her book, “Millionaire Marketing on a Shoestring Budget ™. Debra Jason is a career guide on LinkedIn. I chuckled to myself when she recommended writing a blog. When she asked if anyone was writing one, I talked a bit about mine. Suddenly there I was in a face to face situation sharing my goals, my progress, and my observations with other writers —an extension of my fourth goal!

Handling Dreams in Life and Fiction

Should Dreams Be Used as a Device in Fiction?

In an earlier blog, I talked a bit about journaling and writing down dreams as a way to stimulate your creativity and keep a log of your creative life. In this blog, I discuss the possibility of using dreams in my novel. At a workshop on writing fiction that I attended this fall, I was perplexed when the speaker said not to use dreams in a novel. Because dreams are definitely an essential experience of our lives, I find it hard to accept her statement. Every culture discusses dreams and the interpretation of dreams. In my home, dreams are often the topic of discussion over the breakfast table. My husband and I are both vivid and creative dreamers. As an artist, his visual and symbolic acuity make him a fantastic interpreter of mine. I like to use my dream book to interpret his. Novels are based on lives; living people dream. I think fictional characters should be able to dream as well.

Dreams as a Narrative Device

In “Dreams and Narrative” in Psychology Today, Patrick McNamara discusses the similarity between dreams and narratives. He states, “Most of us experience dreams as stories…or at least dream reports are very much like stories.” According to him, research on dreams reveals reoccurring content which reappears in multiple retellings of dreams. He also notes that neuroimaging of the brain during REM sleep suggests dreams are indeed “real experiences.” He sees dreams as social “communicative devices or signals whose target is the waking self or other members of the social group.” McNamara concludes by calling for more serious research on dreams and their social nature.

Dreams as Prophecy

Dreams can be interpreted in various ways. I did a count of dream interpretation books advertised online. At least 20 are published per year. Some see dreams as prophetic. I have, in fact, had prophetic dreams myself. I know this because I have kept a dream diary. For example, once I dreamed that I had to go to South Africa to take care of my brother. My brother did live in South Africa, but I had no intention of ever visiting him there. Several months later, my mother telephoned me. My brother was extremely ill. His partner had called her to tell her that my beloved brother was dying. Mother panicked. She begged me to go to Cape Town to take care of him. She felt vulnerable because she was terrified of flying and refused to get into an airplane. At first, I resisted because the trip would be long. I would miss too many days away from work. I would have to leave my daughter and husband. But because her helplessness was palpable, I went. While there I documented everything via photos, so she could see the whole environment. Her son, although normally 180 pounds but at that moment 120 pounds, was thin and weak, but alive. Happily, the situation ended on a positive note. My brother recovered. He is currently an active composer of music in Cape Town, almost 20 years later. Several years after my trip, I was rereading my journal and rediscovered my dream entry. It made me stop and think about the potential authenticity of premonition.

Dreams as a Connection to the Collective Unconscious

Carl Jung discussed the phenomenon of the collective unconscious, which I have experienced on multiple occasions. Back in the year 2000, I dreamed I was standing on a two-wheeled vehicle. I was moving down the street, maneuvering it with controls on the handlebars. It was propelling itself with some kind of motor. It was a marvelous ride. Waking up laughing, I grabbed my dream journal to record a drawing of the strange vehicle with an explanation of how it worked. I wanted one! Over breakfast, I recounted my dream to my husband, showing him my drawing. He responded, “It would make a handy-dandy vehicle to drive to work.” A year or so later a national company came out with what we all now recognize as the Segway—the embodiment of the means of transportation in my dream. Since I am a writer instead of an engineer, I missed the opportunity the universe was sending me to become an inventor. Someone else did not just laugh when they had their dream but rather turned it into a money-making project.

From Dream Life to Fiction

My own relationship with dreams has helped me to build a character whose dreams meld with her daily life. My protagonist is in transformation. She doesn’t know exactly where she is going. She is confused by whom she thinks she is. Strange experiences keep happening in her life. I have decided to handle some elements through the intrusion of dreams in her narrative. The dreams are at times a signal of something to come or at others a result of what has happened. They may even serve as what I am going to call a “plot motor.” They move things along. They suggest to the reader that another level of consciousness is occurring for my heroine.

Update on My Goal Setting

 This month I am restating specifically the goals I set in January 2018, followed by my monthly update.

  1. Focus on my creative writing and do the research to support it: Ten months have passed. I am learning by experience what an economist friend told me once, “Always plan for a three-month lag.” She was correct. The month of October has been a challenge. My husband, the artist Bill Border, was in Open Studios for three weekends. I served as a planner, advertiser, greeter, accountant. Then to make matters worse, I hurt my shoulder. I couldn’t type for more than a week. I have a friend who suggested using the dictation function on my computer to write, but I am definitely a hands-on thinker. Consequently, I am short of reaching my November 7thgoal for pages written.
  2. Complete a draft novel by the seventh of December 2018, writing 30 pages per month:  On November 7th, my page counter should stand at 334. Right now, it stands at 273—my goal for October 7th. As I was reviewing my chapters, I realized I had renamed and copied Chapter 4, but it was the same chapter as Chapter 3. Boom, I was down 20 pages. At first, I thought it was a disaster, then I realized I needed the empty chapter because I needed to build in some missing character development. The lack of this information was causing me problems as I tried to write later chapters. So, I sat down to write an entirely new chapter. It has helped. Things are starting to flow a bit better. At least I made it back up to my end goal for October. Now I am a full 31 pages behind.
  3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2018: Today, November 7, 2018, I am posting my eleventh blog. Blogging is beginning to feel like a friend. Recording my process regularly truly helps me sort through the reams of material on my desk. It also helps me verbalize my frustrations and challenges.
  4. Develop a network of kindred spirits who are willing to share their own goals, progress, and observations with me: This month I was unable to attend the Boulder Writers Alliance meeting because the workshop was during Open Studios. Nevertheless, I did host a dinner party with a novelist friend, Bill Liggett, who discussed his work and showed slides about the site of his climate-fiction novel, Watermelon Snow. Bill has asked me to write a review of his book. As a result, I now have before me an unexpected challenge because I have never written a book review on a novel. Since I am a novice at reading “cli-fi,” writing this review will force me to expand not only my writing skills but my reading canon, as book reviews require comparisons with similar works.

Creating Realistic Characters

Developing Your Characters’ Personalities

When I was a young counseling psychology student, I took an Abnormal Psychology course. During that time, I also worked as a teaching assistant in educational counseling and completed my internship at the university counseling center. In the process of developing characters for the novel I am drafting, I realized that the various models of personality I had studied might serve me well as a writer. While there are different models available, one I have enjoyed working with is Timothy Leary’s Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality (New York: Ronald Press, 1957). There are various versions of his model online. I like the original because it has four poles. It also has eight levels of intensity that radiate out from the center point to the end of each axis.

Timothy Leary’s Interpersonal Behavior Circle

Timothy Leary, well known for his experimentation with LSD, was a respected psychologist who worked for Kaiser Permanente in California in the 1950s. His research team studied how pairs of individuals interact. It is an effective way to grasp different types of personalities, using a two-axis layout. The vertical axis runs from “dominant” at the top to “submissive” at the bottom. The horizontal axis runs from “Hate” on the left to “Love” on the right. If a person scores near the center their behavior is more normal. The higher the score from 1 to 8, the more extreme the behavior is.

Individuals who fall on the vertical poles fall on a continuum from Dominant (Managerial/Autocratic) to Submissive (Self-effacing/Masochistic). On the horizontal poles, the continuum extends from Cold (Aggressive/Sadistic) to Warm (Cooperative/Over Conventional).

Concentric circles are placed over the axes to indicate the levels of intensity of each personality starting at level 1, moving outward to level 8. Thus, a “Dominant” person who is at the level one intensity would, on the cold side, be “able to give orders” or, on the warm side, “be well thought of.” A “Cold” person on the dominant side would be “able to be strict if necessary” or on the submissive side would be able to “be frank and honest.” A “Warm” person who is at the level one intensity, would, on the dominant side, be “friendly;” on the submissive side, be “cooperative;” while a “Submissive” person on the cold side would be “able to criticize self;” or on the warm side “able to be obedient.”

At the highest level of intensity (8), a “Dominant” person on the cold side would be described as “dictatorial” or on the warm side by “everyone admires him/her.” A submissive person at level 8 would on the cold side be “Always ashamed of self” or on the warm side “Spineless”.

Thus, if you wanted to create a hyper-normal character who spoils everyone with kindness, you would be describing a level 8 Dominant/Warm character. If you wanted to put an aggressive/sadistic villain into action, you would use the level 7 of “frequently angry, self-seeking and impatient with others” combined with “hard-hearted, cruel and unkind” at the level 8 on the “Cold” axis.

Creating Complementary Characters

It is a terrific guide to understanding the varying intensities of personality. The scale also provides keywords at each level within each quadrant (Dominant-Hate) (Dominant-Warm) (Submissive-Hate) (Submissive-Warm) to help a writer describe different extremes of personalities accurately.

A person’s interaction on the extreme of any pole creates a counterpoint type of response from a person on the opposite pole. Thus, if one character communicates coldly/dominantly, Leary’s research shows that the other person involved in the interaction will predictably take a submissive stance to avoid conflict. It takes self-control to pull oneself out of this habitual behavior in real life, but it is possible. For example, if someone is coming from a cold dominant position, a knowledgeable person can choose to sit down, become submissive, then wait for a chance to become warm, dominant. When the cold dominant person fizzles out, stand up, and say warmly, “Would you like to sit down to talk about it?” In my experience, it works.

Thus, in fiction, if the writer wants the characters to end up in a fight, both characters must engage as cold dominant, escalating the argument. Or if the author wants a character to simply operate at a normal level, she can keep the characters’ interactions at a level one. This interplay can create believable characters, allowing the author to follow Leary’s roadmap from normalcy to nuttiness and back again.

Looking back on my years as a counseling student, the personalities of the counselors and their clients were fascinating. Using the lens of personality theory to figure out what was happening was helpful, even though the internship convinced me that I did not want to be a working counselor. Clients’ problems made me too sad. In retrospect, now that I am writing fiction, I find that my training in psychology is a valuable aid in character development.

Update on My Goal Setting

 This month I am going to restate specifically the goals I set in January, followed by my monthly update.

  1. Focus on my creative writing and do the research to support it: I have finished nine months of writing. Even though I am writing about an area in which I have lived for many years, it has taken detailed research to make sure I am not making errors. I have found that focusing on my goals helps me keep rowing upstream, rather than being swept down with the existential flood that often surrounds me.
  2. Complete a draft novel by the seventh of December 2018, writing 30 pages per month: On October 7th, my page counter should stand at 274. Right now, it stands at 255. I am still short by 18 pages which means I still have 110 pages to write before the end of the year.
  3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2018: Today, October 7, 2018, I am posting my 10th blog. Blogging has been an educative adventure. It has forced me to write, read, and redo. It is a conversation with myself that allows me to connect with the world. An unexpected pleasure is that old friends have contacted me because they read my blog.
  1. Develop a network of kindred spirits who are willing to share their own goals, progress, and observations with me: This year I have been a regular attendee at the Boulder Writers Alliance meetings. In September I was asked to facilitate a workshop on goal setting for writers for the group. I was able to share my writing journey. Preparing for the workshop forced me to work on my goals for next year as well. Twelve writers of various levels of experience attended. Using my handout, they worked enthusiastically on their goals during the session. Comments following the session included, “This was a very professionally done workshop.” “Your worksheets clearly reflect years of research and experience.” “Your work has had an amazing snowball effect. My kids wanted to set their goals.” Continuing to expand my writer’s network, I also attended the Zee JFL Literary Festival Boulder. Over 70 writers gathered here to talk about their past, current, and future work. I listened. I absorbed. I asked a few questions. I made a couple of comments. I connected. I was humbled but enthralled.