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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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Writing in Time

Writing Tip — Writing in Time: Winter Solstice as Writing Inspiration

summer-solstice-1474745_1280With all the frantic activity associated with Christmas in the U.S., we Americans tend to overlook all other significant dates and holidays in December. Yet the winter solstice is the reason we celebrate Christmas in this month. Both the history and nature of the winter solstice makes for a rich vein of writing inspiration.

Many ancient cultures, according to The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump, figured out which day in the northern hemisphere had the shortest amount of daylight, all without the help of computers.

Babylonians, Syrians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and pre-Christian Celtic and Germanic tribes celebrated this time of year. Egyptians commemorated the birth of Ra, the sun god. Babylonians and Syrians saw the solstice as a symbol of returning fertility to the land. During the Celtic and Germanic holiday of Yule, noisy celebrations warded off evil spirits that roamed in the darkness.

In a brilliant move of counter-programming, the Catholic Church decided to celebrate Jesus’ birth in December and compete against pagan holidays. We still use some of the pagan traditions and have given them new meanings based on Christianity, like lighting candles and decorating with evergreens.

The juxtaposition of the most hours of darkness and the happiest holiday on the Christian calendar makes a great symbol for the journey of a character. As December grows darker, the character experiences more and more adversity, hitting bottom on the day of the solstice. Then on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, hope is restored.

For speculative fiction, a villain reaches her most powerful state during the winter solstice. The hero, whose powers are at their weakest, must come up with a way to stop the villain from taking advantage of the solstice.

How can you use the winter solstice as writing inspiration?

Writing Tip — Writing in Time: Thanksgiving Dinner as Writing Inspiration

thanksgiving-table-1w1888643_1920Since I am attempting my own version of NaNoWriMo, which means I am focusing on my latest novel but not driving myself to write 50,000 in 30 days, I will host guest bloggers this month and reuse some older posts. This post has ideas I’ve used in previous years with some new ideas sprinkled in.

Food has the ability to unite people. Or push them apart. If I need tension, drama, or farce for a story, setting it around Thanksgiving dinner allows me to take advantage of all those elements even within the same story.

I’ve learned this from experience. Like when I was a teen, my sisters, a cousin, and I were playing football in my grandparents’ backyard, waiting for the call to dinner. One of my aunts stormed out of the house, trying to cool off from an argument with another aunt. My mom said the quarrel only occurred because my grandmother was in the hospital. She was a natural peacemaker.

Or when my sisters and I added four husbands to the annual feast. All of them are good cooks with very definite ideas about what to serve at Thanksgiving. I’ve had to act as a diplomat between those who want bland dressing and those who like exotic variations.

A story about a clash over recipes holds a lot of potential. A Yankee with Irish roots marries a Southerner with African roots. The new couple invites both sides of their families to their new home for the holiday. The battle over the correct way to make cornbread should lead to all kinds of conflict.

When my mom hosted, she made name cards to sit at each place setting. My sisters and I practically developed a science about where to seat our relatives so as to preserve harmony. A key was to place strategically the biggest talkers. One year, we hit on the idea of seating the two most talkative relatives beside each other. They got along beautifully.

In a story, I could seat my main character beside a relative she has never liked, only to come to a better understanding of that person. That understanding could be that the relative is more likable or has more depth than she thought. Or he’s even worse than the main characters ever realized.

How can you use your real-world Thanksgiving dinners as writing inspiration? Or, for my international readers, what holiday meal with family can inspire your writing?

Writing Tip — Writing in Time: Lonely Places as Writing Inspiration

fogw-3461096_1920Lonely places aren’t unique to October, but I wanted to write about them for this month’s theme, mysteries. I’m drawn to lonely places, whether it’s an abandoned house, an office building after hours, or an empty beach. The lack of people suggests some kind of story behind the emptiness. Or it allows me to project all kinds of ideas for stories.

In my short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, an abandoned children’s home is a clue and a key setting for the mystery. Many, many years ago, when my dad would take me out into the country to practice driving, we would pass what looked like a large, two-story house. He told me that at one time it was a home for orphans. The building was made of stone or brick and had a simple, flat facade with the door centered on the bottom floor. As I drove by it in the evening, with the windows dark, the home sitting by itself in a field, I got an eerie feeling.

Below are four ways to use lonely places as writing inspiration.

Set the mood or foreshadow

If I want to make my readers uneasy, setting a scene in a lonely place is a great way to do it. It’s an experience all of us have had, so readers instantly relate to it. The lonely place hints at something awful to come. Or I can subvert that notion. I can have my characters worry about being in some dreadfully lonely place only to discover friends are waiting for them.

Aid character development

Having a character seek out lonely places can tell the reader something about their personality. Does she visit a local cemetery because she’s morbid? Or is it the closest place she can go to get away from violence in her home? If I create a character, who regularly visits the mountains to hike, I can signal to readers that he likes challenges, or he needs to relieve stress, or he’s chasing freedom that he can’t find in his usual routine. If my character is drawn to an old house with a spooky legend attached to it, I can show that she’s curious or a truth seeker or wants to see justice done.

Challenge the main character

At a conference I attended, author Steven James recommended isolating the main character (MC) to increase tension. Lonely places do that and also give me the opportunity to stress and test the MC. I’m a hug fan of the underdog story, and the best way to set that up is to force the MC to go it alone.

And I don’t use lonely places just for physical isolation. If I really want to get the MC to rely on her strengths, I need to isolate her from technology. That’s one of the reasons I love rural places and visit rural areas to see where I can realistically cut off the MC from the rest of the world.

I can also create tension in a lonely place by having my MC phone for help that will be a long time in arriving. But I prefer to cut him off completely. Then the readers can anticipate the MC will have to succeed on his own abilities.

Slow the pace for reflection while maintaining tension

When writing a chase or action sequences, the MC has no time to think. Surviving is all that matters. But if I need her to realize something during the pursuit, I can have her find a lonely place. She can hide, catch her breath, and be on the alert for her antagonist but also think about what’s happening. Maybe she suddenly realizes the identity of her mysterious pursuer. Or she figures out how to elude him. Or she reasons out the key to the mystery she’s been trying to solve and must escape to tell the police.

A lonely place works just as well if all I need it for is time for the MC to think, even if it’s as simple as having him taken a walk in the morning. But I must make sure when I slow the pace of my narrative not to bring it to halt by dumping information I haven’t worked into the storyline yet.

What stories have you read or movies you’ve seen that effectively use lonely places?

 

Writing Tip — Writing in Time: County Fair as Writing Inspiration

carnivalw-2456901_1280I love county fairs, so it’s no surprise that I see them as writing inspiration.

Part of that love comes from nostalgia. In the county where I grew up in eastern Ohio, the county fair arrived the week after Labor Day. The fairgrounds were right across from my elementary school, and I always looked forward to the afternoon when we left the classroom and took a walking field trip to the fair. I was also eaten up by envy at the kids from the farms who got out of school to show their animals in 4-H competitions. I competed but in baking and won five blue ribbons.

When I discovered that the county where my husband and I built our home holds its fair in September, it felt just right. And when my kids won their own ribbons at the fair, I had a satisfying feeling of coming full circle.

That feeling could inspire a story of a parent or grandparent passing on a tradition which includes going to the county fair for some reason, not just competition.

Another thing I love about county fairs is how it brings together the land, animals, and people of a community. You don’t get that at a state fair. Too many strangers. But at the county fair, you run into so many friends, neighbors, and acquaintances that it feels like an enormous family reunion. When my family and I visit the fair, we make a point of reading the names fastened to the pens and cages of the 4-H animals, so we can see the animals kids from school and church have entered. It also reminds me that, no matter how sophisticated we become, we still depend on the land to produce crops and sustain animals and on our neighbors who farm and manage it all.

Those themes of community, family reunion, or ties to the land could be explored in a story set at the fair.

A special feature of our fair is the prominence of harness racing. Our fair really has a split personality. The front half, where the barns, rides, and buildings for exhibits are located, is for the local people. The back half has the stadium and barns for the horses that come to race. I can thoroughly enjoy the fair and never venture into the back half, which has a completely different atmosphere. The harness racing is business, as well as the gambling, so I feel no sense of community, but I’m an outsider looking in. I’m sure the members of the harness racing business probably feel differently.

I recently watched the film noir from 1956, The KillingIn this heist movie, a gang of crooks plot to rob a racetrack. One of them shoots a horse in an important race to create chaos while the robbery is executed. I’ve been wondering if I could write a story about a robbery at county fair with harness racing. I don’t know enough about how the betting is done to know if there’s enough cash on hand to make it worthwhile. But it would be interesting to research.

I like to research small, local events like a county fair and see if they have unique or unusual aspects to them, like harness racing. These quirks can ignite all kinds of inspiration and set my story apart from others.

Do you have a particular community celebration where you live? How can it inspire your writing?

 

Writing Tip — Writing in Time: Vacations as Writing Inspiration

amazingw-2412612_1280As summer enters its third month, August seemed like a good time to explore vacations as writing inspiration. Vacations are a gift to writers because the point of vacation is to experience something different from our ordinary routine and that opportunity gives writers a vast area to explore.

Change Agent

A main character (MC) taking a vacation can signal that he wants to make a dramatic change in his life, but for some reason, hasn’t done so. Perhaps he’s dissatisfied in his job and has been counting the minutes until he leaves on a vacation to a place he’s never been before. During the vacation, he comes to realize the permanent change he needs to make.

Test Relationships

If you’ve ever planned a vacation for more people than just yourself, or have vacationed with family, you know how getting away can test everyone’s patience. So if you need a source of tension in your writing, throw your characters into a vacation. It works for both serious and humorous stories.

A bad vacation can either pull people together or shove them apart. Sometimes both. When in my twenties, I drove back from a family vacation in the Smokies with No.3 sister, her husband, and No.4 sister. It took hours longer then it was supposed to. No. 3 sister bought a ceramic Christmas tree at stop. It was so huge that she had to prop her feet on it in the back seat. I drove too far off the highway, looking for a restroom. Our supper on the road was awful and too expensive. The directions that the boyfriend of No.4 sister gave us so we could drop her off at his parents’ home took us the long way around Cincinnati. When we finally found the parents’ home, I handed No. 4 sister her clothes, which were packed in a brown paper bag, saw that some underwear had fallen out, and handed those to her. In front of her future in-laws.

We were sick of each other by the time we got home. But it’s one of the most memorable trips we took, and we still talk about it.

Setting for Mysteries, Thriller, and Suspense

A vacation gives writers in these genres the perfect reason for the MC to get into trouble. With the ubiquitous use of cell phones, writers constantly face the dilemma of how to get their characters into jeopardy in a believable manner that doesn’t rely on the MC being just plain stupid.

Stupid MC’s aggravate me.

So on vacation, the MC, hiking in the mountains, may not know how drastically the weather can change. Or that local people avoid this part of the mountains. The MC could rent a house from someone with a criminal past and not know it.

How can you use vacations as writing inspiration?

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