Do You Talk to Yourself or the Dog or Maybe the Furniture?

board outside kiosk Mordialloc.jpg

Day Fifteen – Add Dialogue to the Scene

How we talk and what we say is part of our personality and our character. Others will often judge us by our speech (the content as well as manner), may even identify us by the way we talk.

For instance, because I still have a recognisable accent people will refer to me as ‘that Scotswoman’,’the Scots lass’, ‘the lady with an accent’, ‘the woman who speaks funny’,  ‘Jock’, ‘the Pommy’, ‘the Brit’, ‘the Irish one’ – I’ve also had variations not so complimentary ‘the foreigner’, ‘the red-ragger’ ‘that wog’  …

What you say and how you say it is important. It is important in real life and therefore is important in writing – with a few tricks and rules of what not to do thrown in.

download.jpg

People pick up your mood by your tone of voice – those who know you will not only pick up the obvious mood but also the nuances.

You know, how a domestic scene can play out:

Do you like my new dress?

A few seconds pause.

Of course, I do, dear.

You didn’t even look.

Yes, I did dear.

No, you didn’t.

Remote Control for TV is grabbed, stabbed and television silenced.

You can have a really good look now.

Hmmm. Very… nice… dear.

talking statue Isaac Newton - British Library.jpg
You can ask questions of many of the statues around London and learn about the life of famous people such as Isaac Newton at the British Library…

Dialogue Is Important

But it can be difficult to write so that it sounds natural. you don’t want your characters to sound like a talking statue – wooden, without warmth, boring, unrealistic…

Dialogue is difficult to master as a writer. You have to constantly work at it to sound natural but you can’t be over the top with accents or else characters can become caricatures.

Most people don’t speak in grammatical or even complete sentences but you can’t write in all the ums and ahs either. There has to be a balance.

It is as author Stephen King advises,

Writing good dialogue is art as well as craft.”

Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino adds,

“If I’m doing my job right, then I’m not writing dialogue; the characters are saying the dialogue, and I’m just jotting it down.”

This is what I tried to do in a class exercise years ago – the students could choose a picture as a prompt and had to write more than one voice into the scene without using he said, she said etc. A Fishy Story by Mairi Neil

download-3.jpg

Try these simple exercises—

Go to a busy place and listen to people. Dialogue moves a story along quite quickly but it must sound authentic.

At the moment with COVID-19 if you are in lockdown, you will have to rely on memory or eavesdrop on neighbours or whoever is sharing your house, or put on a DVD of a film or watch a documentary, game show, (even adverts) to make notes of conversations. (Scroll down for exercises)

If people are with friends or family, they will speak more naturally.  Find someone who is sitting with a friend and listen (don’t be too intrusive or you might be accused of stalking or receive threats with violence for being rude and nosy!).

If you’re in a coffee shop, you might overhear people talking to friends about what’s been going on in their life. This is the best way to hear a conversation you can write as natural dialogue. For me, the best inspiration for stories and dialogue tips found when travelling on public transport

The old man eased into the seat opposite and raised his trilby. His courteous nod revealed a bald patch atop thinning grey hair. A Lancashire brogue boomed, ‘Morning ma’am, Fred’s the name, pension bludger’s me game.’

Doris smiled. In her cultured Australian accent, she said, ‘I’m Doris and I’m retired too.’

‘I’m eighty-five,’ Fred said waving a gnarled hand, ‘and feeling it today.’ His rheumy blue eyes darted from Doris to other passengers engrossed in conversation or plugged into mp3 players. ‘ I don’t know why I’m still alive,’ he added with a fit of coughing.

Brown eyes widened as Doris squirmed in the vinyl seat; picked at an imaginary spot on her linen skirt. In a barely audible voice, she said, ‘I’m eighty-five too and thank God for still being here.’ She blinked. ‘Many of my friends aren’t.’

Fred adjusted silver-rimmed spectacles slipping close to the edge of his hooked nose. He rubbed at his short beard; licked creased lips. A garden gnome coming to life flashed into Doris’s mind, but her smile disappeared when he said, ‘I don’t believe in God or Eternal Life. Don’t worry about shuffling off. Don’t give a toss what happens when I die.’

Doris kneaded her wedding ring and clasped her hands to still restless fingers. Fair eyelashes flickered behind tortoiseshell glass frames as she noted Fred’s blue-grey cotton bomber-jacket and matching trousers, his fashionable fine-checked shirt. Tieless, but neat; plus his black leather loafers gleamed and screamed ex-army. Arthur always said, ‘you can tell an ex-serviceman by their polished shoes.’ He was inevitably right.

Not wanting to give offence, she chose her words, adopting the placating tone she used when her husband got in one of his moods. ‘Our generation, who served throughout the war, question what we were taught to believe.’ She tensed thin shoulders. ‘A wiser power than us will reveal the truth when ready.’

Fred ignored the last sentence. ‘That’s right love, eight years in the Royal Navy – joined up for the duration and stayed on a bit.’ His voice flattened, ‘survived being bombed, being sunk twice and,’ he ended with a flourish, ‘bad grub and too much grog.’

Doris laughed. Students sitting nearby smirked, the plump matron lowered her magazine. Doris thought of Arthur and the legacy of his experience. The tram stuttered past towering office blocks, darkened inside as a large cloud swallowed the sun. She shivered. Did Fred suffer night sweats and awful dreams? She remembered Arthur’s flashbacks of the trauma of his war; his years of heavy drinking. Did Fred’s wife contend with erratic and sometimes violent outbursts amid his jolliness?

She forced her attention to the present as her companion said, ‘I had eight brothers you know –– and they’re all dead. I’m the lucky last!’ He paused. ‘Well, I don’t know about luck, but I’m the bloody last.’

from Just for The Moment, Mairi Neil

Watch a good movie. Quentin Tarantino movies are known for their excellent dialogue, but there’s an endless list of what you can watch to improve your writing. Dialogue is usually well planned in films for maximum value. There’s only a limited amount of time to say something on the screen. The film is a great reference for studying good AND bad dialogue.

Write a scene where each character can only say one sentence. How will you convey what they’re trying to say and move the story along with a limited amount of dialogue? This will also help you improve your descriptive writing. Remember, sometimes less is more when it comes to dialogue. You want to show your readers what’s going on, not tell them.

Watch a clip from either a TV show or a movie, and rewrite the dialogue in that scene. How can you improve it? What can be cut out? What can be added? This will help you understand dialogue and how you can improve your own.

Talking Heads Stromness Orkney.jpg
Shop in Orkney

Be a good observer and listener

Identify some key variables and play with them. if you write good dialogue, the reader feels they are in the story with the character. They are right there and can hear the voice. You have to avoid just having talking heads with no real action or using the dialogue to dump a lot of information rather than move the story forward.

Think back and analyse a recent conversation and ask these questions:

  • What was said?
  • How was it said?
  • Who said it?
  • Why was it said?
  • How did you perceive it?

If you can remember the last argument, debate or disagreement you had or witnessed even better to capture it in words.

If you can “hear” the character’s voice in your head, that’s better than any worksheet. Think of the key variables influencing dialogue:

Perhaps goals and agendas, characters’ knowledge of each other, characters’ attitudes toward each other, relative status of the characters …

  • What type of vocabulary does a character use (formal, slang, profane, simple sophisticated… )
  • How does the character structure their sentences (hesitations, complex or simple, fragmented, long-winded… )
  • What attitude or tone of voice does the character have (abrupt, sarcastic, imperious, humble, polite, rude, boastful, flirtatious, angry, pedantic… )
  • What subject matter or commentary does the character prefer ( egotistic, talking about self, sensitive, gossipy, apologetic, religious, anxious, worried about money, bombastic…)

Here is a story I wrote from a prompt that said you had to have three characters with very different voices Without Grace a short story Mairi Neil

FB_Carl Jung on solitude and silence

It is also important to remember that silence or a pause in a scene can be realistic dialogue and reveal more about the character and plot development than pages of dialogue or telling.

Action is the best way to show external conflict and dialogue and internalisation by the character (thoughts) the best ways to present the internal struggles.

Your Turn To Write

I’ve chosen some pictures of scenes that scream story – you can manipulate the setting and people to any country or era you choose.

I love Edward Hopper‘s paintings – they are evocative of an America from an era I remember in movies, television shows and many novels.

These pictures are from a beautiful book of his most famous works I picked up in a wonderful bookshop in Melbourne’s centre.  They sold Remainder hardback stock at a fraction of the original cost. I’ve never been in a job with a high salary but when I was young and single and working in the city in the 70s and 80s, I haunted Mary Martin’s bookshop.

Hopper 3
Nighthawks 1942 by Edward Hopper a painting that portrays people in a downtown diner late at night. It is Hopper’s most famous work and is one of the most recognisable paintings in American art.
Hopper 2
Chop Suey, 1929, two women in conversation at a restaurant
Hopper 1
Office At Night, 1940, open to endless interpretation.

Throughout his career, Edward Hopper was concerned with the relationship between “the facts” of observation and the improvisation that happened when making a work of art. Use your imagination and write about the characters.

Reveal their personalities and character through dialogue as well as behaviour.

Things to think about:

You can write from the point of view of one character – what is their goal or agenda?

  • Does the non-point of view character have a hidden agenda? What is their backstory?
  • Change one character’s attitude toward the other 
  • Change one character’s knowledge about the other.
  • Change the relative status between the characters (increase or decrease the difference in status, or swap their statuses)

If these pictures don’t spark your imagination then practise writing dialogue by:

Write a scene with two characters having an extremely tense conversation in a peaceful setting such as

  • the botanical gardens,
  • an avenue of cherry blossom trees,
  • an empty beach
  • an empty church
  • a cemetery

OR

Imagine a courtroom scene or a police interview room,  a telephone conversation between a teenager and parent, or a scene at a reception desk where there has been a mistake with a booking.

Finally – You Can Do a Dr Doolittle…

Hippo Talk Werribbee Zoo.jpg
Write a story from the point of view of animals at the zoo or domestic pets – give them a voice!

Happy Writing

Armchair Travel Can be Fun If You Share Your Stories

ticket to Darwin 1979.jpg

Day Thirteen – Writing About Where you’ve Been – What Have You Seen?

In a world where COVID19 has locked down, cities, countries, and communities and people are practising social isolation, now is the time to reflect and relive your travels.

Time to sort out memories, photographs and mementoes and write about them from the safety of your home.

Bear at mailbox.jpg
my little bear at the mailbox

You may have had time before but needed the inclination or incentive…  hopefully, you’ll gather some ideas as you read this post.

Reality says it may be many months before we will be able to do anything but armchair travel if the destination we seek is in another country or even another state.

Today, think about writing your recollections as a contribution to collective knowledge and adding to history/herstory – especially if you have photographs.

The spread and damage of COVID19, has produced new border controls, changes to travel, work and leisure… the world is not going to be the same after this global catastrophe.

Your memories and stories have always been important to you, they may now be important to others.

I’ve been privileged to travel widely since a child. Since blogging, I’ve shared some recent travels – to Samoa, to Mongolia, to Russia, to England and to Scotland – and many places in Victoria as a volunteer for Open House Melbourne, Ballarat and Bendigo.

I’ve been inspired to write poetry as well as short stories or personal essays to explain  memorable experiences:

Visiting Singapore 1973 – a haibun
Mairi Neil

We crowd on deck as the cruise ship glides into Singapore harbour, a week after leaving Fremantle. The silver sun aglow in a cloudless azure sky. Skin fiery scarlet from too many hours in the ship’s pool as Singapore City wobbles and wilts in the heat.

I ache for relief
from this tantalising veil
and covet the sea

Engines thrum and screeches of gulls mask the first hint a change is on the way. Rain falls in sheets and shafts. Solid blocks of water pound the decks.

Clouds scud across sky
the veil now a fog blanket
hiding the city.

Beneath our feet racing rivers fill deck gutters and our shoes. On automatic pilot, we slosh for cover, although there is no icy wind in this downpour.

No unsettling chill
just instant relief
from relentless heat

Rain hammers metal, swamps furniture and people, drenching everything not covered. Metal rails hiss. Steam sizzles on the shrinking, not sinking ship. No crevice escapes. A continuous stream of trickles and dribbles demonstrates the power of this deluge.

A turmoil of grey
idyllic tropics in grip
of monsoonal rain

Yet, within minutes, the ship docks and the downpour stops as quickly as it began. Singapore city a perfect watercolour painting showcases sunlight and serenity. The tropical shower and haze but a dream as perspiration leaks from every pore.

Share Your Travel Memories

Once you have organised a story – or many – enjoy the pleasure of armchair travel and swap with those in isolation with you.  Or share online via Skype, Face Time or Zoom. The digital tools available ensure your photos or slides will be more entertaining than the slide shows of old.

I remember more than a few family and friends falling asleep when I showed my China slides in 1979!

However, when I taught at Sandybeach Centre 20 years ago, they ran a regular program for people with limited mobility called Armchair Travel, and I volunteered one afternoon to share my China travels. I had learnt to choose the most interesting slides for that audience. I targeted correctly and they retained interest and were appreciative. Make sure your pitch matches your readers, listeners or viewers:)

Anyone who travelled in the 50s – 70s will remember those family slide nights before Super 8 movies superseded the modern version of ‘magic lantern’ shows in village halls.

People have always been fascinated by travel tales, especially of the exotic and unusual. The popularity of Sir David Attenborough or the Leyland brothers is testimony to that!

The shelves of the  Travel Section in bookstores are always overflowing and Lonely Planet publications have been successfully guiding adventurous travellers for years. 

Updates when friends travel flood social media with Facebook and Instagram designed for travel photos more than any other.

But these pics are soon forgotten unless you put them into context with words. Write a few sentences about each pic or retell your experiences over a beer or cuppa.

What Travel Experience Can You Write About?

Think and share what made your travel experience different from those of thousands of others. Even if you haven’t travelled overseas or interstate you have a travel story because you can write about your neighbourhood and everyday journeys.

In 2012, Mordialloc Writers’ Group published our 8th collection of poems and stories, Off The Rails, around the theme of the Frankston Railway Line – a journey thousands of people do daily and a topic the 21 featured writers embraced with relish and creativity.

You might have journeyed on the Orient Express, the Trans Siberian, the Flying Scotsman or Puffing Billy – write about:

  • why you made the journey
  • who was with you
  • the people you met
  • the best memory
  • the worst memory
  • if you would do it again

Remember too, those walks around the neighbourhood you are allowed during COVID19 can turn up ideas for stories – fictionalised if you want. Set a story in one of the houses that intrigues you or garden you admire…

Ask questions that you don’t know the answers to:

  • Who, what, why, when, where… and make up the answers!

I took these pictures this morning when walking the dog.

Who did the drawing? What was their motivation?  How long will the drawings stay there?

Write up the reactions of people – good and bad – was seeing them transformational for someone? Did it trigger memories?

The drawing of Frida Kahlo stunning for a child or teenager to draw – could be the start of an intriguing mystery or a memory of a visit to Mexico?

There are houses with bears or pictures of bears in the window – I’ve put my bear outside yet there are no children living here now.

Your characters in the story don’t have to be obvious or stereotypical.

A house advertised a birthday boy – 8 years old today. His party probably cancelled yet his parents found a way to make him feel special and stay connected to the outside world.

Write a story where you or your character has to find a creative solution to a problem.

How do you make someone feel special in this catastrophic time if you normally treat them to an outing?

 What’s your funniest travel story?

Humour is a great way to make a story memorable and different from everyone else’s experience. The stuff-ups or unexpected laughs are usually the tales we recount first (and often) when we return from our trip.

Humorous framing or retelling can also ease the embarrassment or shame when you make a cultural faux pas or do something stupid like miss a flight, board the wrong train, get lost in a foreign city or say something strange in a foreign language you just learned.

Here is my tale of travelling with a young child in the 90s:

What is the strangest thing that has happened to you travelling?

What is the nicest (or most horrible) food you have eaten when travelling?

(A class exercise Monday 15th October 2012 )

Have You a Taste For Travel?
Mairi Neil 

When I went to Alice Springs in 2011, to walk the Larapinta Trail, I braced myself for the time when I would be offered a witchetty grub. I remembered a student, Amelia reading a story of her encounter with the delicacy when she worked as an infant welfare nurse in the Northern Territory in the 1950s. I didn’t want to shame myself by refusing and offending indigenous hosts if they offered me a meal.

Five giggling Aboriginal girls had arrived at Amelia’s house with outstretched hands, displaying half-a-dozen thick white grubs whose sluggish twists indicated they were still alive.

The girls’ gift a gesture to show Amelia she had been accepted by the community. Amelia assured me that once cooked, the grubs tasted meaty. She shared a picture of herself, sitting on the ground in a circle around a campfire, head tilted back and mouth open, ready to accept the long white grub poised above her. Her eyes sparkled as a friend snapped the photograph for posterity.

Could I be as gracious and adventurous as Amelia?

The thought of putting what looked like a fat white caterpillar into my mouth, never mind swallowing it, made me nauseous. I’ve always had what my mother referred to as a ‘weak’ stomach – perhaps if I closed my eyes I’d be able to eat enough not to offend. If I concentrated I’d be able to keep it down rather than gagging or vomiting – my usual reaction to nasty tastes.

The more I thought of eating witchetty grubs the more obsessed I became of what they would taste like. They looked shiny and soft. What meat could they be like with that texture? Perhaps they firmed when cooked. A vision of people crunching on cooked insects surfaced as I remembered the fascinating produce of street vendors when I visited China in 1979.

I remembered too, the constant dissection and examination of every meal on that tour by one of the other travellers in our group. She made me long for a Vegemite sandwich as she poked and dismembered every meal with chopsticks looking for evidence we were being served rat, cat or dog. Cultural assumptions and prejudices rife when it comes to food and her behaviour shameful.

Why I couldn’t I embrace a meal of witchetty grubs, when research provides evidence of their nutritional value? Was I riddled with prejudice too?

Near the end of the five-day trek in Central Australia, I had to face the witchetty grub dilemma. Throat constricted and mouth dry, I could barely form the words to ask our Aboriginal guide, Nicholas to describe the taste of the large fat witchetty grub wriggling in the palm of his hand.

Sweat bubbled on his lip from exertion. A streak of dirt above one eye where he’d wiped his brow, gave a warrior glint to his expression as he showed the delicacy with pride. Nicholas and his auntie had spent almost an hour digging at the roots of an acacia bush to retrieve the prize. ‘It tastes like the yolk of an egg,’ he said, ‘and has a similar texture.’

He watched me closely and must have seen the mix of emotions cross my face, perhaps heard the gulp as I tried to swallow. Egg is not one of my favourite tastes.

‘One witchetty grub,’ he said, almost to himself.

I realised how much he craved the wriggling grub in his hand but innate generosity obliged him to give it to me.

‘It’s not really big enough to share,’ I said. ‘You and auntie did all the hard work. Maybe I’ll taste them another day.’

Our smiles of relief a mirror match as Nicholas hurried away before I changed my mind.

What Armchair Travels Will You Create?

Can you match a photograph with a short poem like haiku or terse verse? I write this after a trip to Italy but it could apply to many famous places crowded with tourists. The joke about ‘exiting through the gift shop’ is very much a reality in our consumer-driven world. What do you think those communities are like now?

Write about what a place was like when you were there and research what it is like now and write a comparison.

Verona Italy

Memories of Lago Di Garda, Italy
Mairi Neil, 2013

Lake Garda absorbs the rainbow on her shores,
sways to the call of African and Indian hawkers,
moans softly as the Peler, a northern breeze,
blows from pine-clad slopes, and is
ready for the challenging midday switch
when Ora, a cooler wind, whistles from the south.
Reminiscent of a Norwegian Fjord
She is the lake who thinks she is the sea

Each afternoon she lifts the rocky hem
of her blue dress and sashays to pick at
sun-bleached pebbles or reedy soil.
Fat ducks and swans float and gossip. Gulls dive,
searching the lake’s belly for lunch or supper
Rumbling planes overhead ripple her dress
and she runs icy fingers through sandy frills
sparkling with a thousand scattered gems.

She ignores the constant drone of tourist motorbikes,
bicycles, cars and coaches speeding through galleries
built by Mussolini and prefers the memories of
Hannibal, Hardy, Goethe, Rilke and Wharton.
Torbole fishermen, tend boats and mend nets
as they have done since the fifteenth century,
amused and puzzled by modern foolishness,
their dark eyes follow colourful flapping sails.

Lake Garda’s duty is to be Madame Bountiful,
nurturing sardines, eels, carpione and trout.
Tourists and locals, promenade to and fro Riva
or ride the ferries that trust her arms.
Summer and winter sun attracts holidaymakers,
but Lake Garda indulges lovers of sports trophies,
scantily clad onlookers, and awestruck children
who worship at the shrine of physical prowess.

Lake Garda – the lake who thinks she is the sea.

More Writing Prompts

  • Write a prose poem about a place or a short story recreating the setting.
    What memories are evoked?
  • Choose a place that makes you happy or sad; or two different places where you have had contrasting experiences. (Perhaps a childhood compared with adult experience, going somewhere alone compared with a trip with family or friends, seasonal visits – winter compared to summer, idyllic memories compared to the place after a natural disaster.)
  • Contrast the two places or the mixed feelings about the same place.

Write a HAIBUN ( a combination of prose and haiku) – about your journey/journeys.

HAIBUN (hie’-bun, the “u” pronounced as in “put”) A Japanese form in which a prose text is interspersed with verse, specifically haiku. A haiku typically appears at the end of a haibun, but other haiku may appear earlier, even at the beginning. Haibun often takes the form of a diary or travel journal.

Write a poem or story using the technique of an extended metaphor:

  • Life is a journey
  • Life is a mere dream
  • Life or love  is a camera full of memories
  • Home was a prison

Have you ever had the holiday from hell?

Have You A Favourite Holiday destination?

Currumbin a Sanctuary of Serenity
Mairi Neil, 2001

Looking from the balcony of our Currumbin holiday flat, the Pacific Ocean roared and vomited white foam onto the golden sand. This was not a beach for non-swimmers or the faint-hearted. Waves crashed against jagged rocks in the distance, massaging them smooth by the next millennium but the continuous licks and slaps hadn’t altered their shape in any noticeable way since my last visit.

I stared at the black shapes rising and disappearing in the waves. Dolphins or sharks? Then laughed as the black shape rose on a wave, stretched and balanced and fell. The group of dedicated surfers braving morning chill certainly needed wet suits, and their crouching and clinging in the force of the gigantic waves an amazing workout.

A group of rosellas arrive on the balcony. They line up on the railings waiting for the plate with seed, confident I will provide their breakfast. Chittering and hopping from ledge to chair back to patio tiles, they nag me to perform my act of goodwill.

Music drifts from above. A radio disc jockey drones, children’s sing-song chatter wafts from the swimming pool below, a van backfires in the distance and the pump that tirelessly cleans the swimming pool chugs into life at regular intervals. There are ten floors of holiday flats but if inside and the balcony door is closed, each flat is soundproof.

Peak hour traffic builds, Currumbin is coming alive and I know if I don’t go for a morning walk I’ll be dodging retirees and their pet dogs, fitness fanatics in lycra shorts and Reeboks, and crew for magazine and film photoshoots because this apron of sand is immensely popular. Thank goodness the flotilla of boats on the horizon don’t try to sail closer to shore.

The rosellas are a mass of squawking as I place the seed plate on the balcony table. A hot rising sun dispels the remaining coolness and shadows of the night. The ocean sparkles turquoise. I shake yesterday’s sand from my sandals, grab a hat and make for the lift. The half-hour walks along the beach towards the surfers just what the doctor ordered.

Even More Writing Prompts

Write a poem or story where you are describing the joys of summer to an extraterrestrial life form.

  • Write a story that begins, “She tripped and fell into the burning sand…”
  • Write a story that ends, “Roll on winter.”
  • Write a poem or story where everything that provides relief during the summer randomly breaks down. The air conditioning suddenly stops working. The power goes out in your home. You can’t seem to start your car.
  • Write a story that begins “This was no ordinary day…”
  • Write a story that ends – “She found her paradise after all.”

Enjoy A Cultural Experience Without Leaving Home

A friend I met when I was working on celebrating the 125th Anniversary of Mordialloc Primary School, told me her husband was scared of flying. They were teachers and all they wanted to do when they retired was travel overseas but she refused to travel by ship.

No flying, no sailing – what could they do to satisfy their desire to visit other countries?

They compromised and innovated. They borrowed books and documentaries from the local library and researched the customs, costumes, music and food of a country. After a few weeks, they visited the place via armchair travel.

They dressed appropriately for the season, cooked a custom meal, played the music you’d expect to hear and totally immersed themselves as if they were in the chosen country. They even spoke learned phrases from a new language to each other.

Armchair travel on steroids! Happy travelling –

Happy Writing!

Are You an Owl or a Lark or Just Want to Hibernate like a Bear?

group of heroes

Day Twelve – Let’s Dig and Delve

Most people connected to the Internet and using some sort of social media platform will have seen the quizzes going around like chain letters of old and the finger games with folded paper.

You have to answer personal questions, are given a score or a personality description and then you must pass it on. Frequently, one of the questions wants to know are you an owl or a lark.

We can get right into writing prompts because I’ll assume most people have already put themselves into a category!

It is an important question to answer – know yourself well if you want to create realistic characters with flaws, foibles and interesting features.

Although, as I suggest in the post’s title, during this catastrophic COVID19 pandemic, many of us would love to hibernate like bears and wake up in a few months with the crisis over and some semblance of normality we used to know!

Are you a lark?

  • Describe your perfect morning.
  • To what would you compare morning and why?
  • Have you a morning ritual?
  • How has the ritual changed over the years?
  • Did you become a lark when you started working because you had to?
  • Do you prefer mornings or dark?
  • Have you an opinion or a story about a rooster?
  • How do you know it is morning? What morning and evening sounds can you identify?

Think back to your childhood –

  • Can you remember what mornings were like before you went to school?
  • Did your mum work outside the home – was there a strict timetable to stick to?
  • Were you looked after by someone other than family?
  • Where were you living – city or country?
  • Is there one particular morning you have never forgotten?

quote about walking to school.jpg

  • What were mornings like when you attended school?
  • Were you always early, or late – how did you get there?
  • Was breakfast cooked or not?
  • Did you have chores to do?
  • Did you have pets to feed? Dogs to walk? Horses to groom? Cows to milk?
  • What were mornings like when you went to high school – more independent?
  • Did you look after your own uniform? Did you polish your shoes?
  • Did you walk to school? With siblings, friends, boys and girls?
  • Did you have a paid job like newspaper or junk mail delivery before school?
  • Did you have to escort a younger sibling to their school, to kinder?
  • How old were you when you took responsibility to make your own breakfast?
  • How old were you if you had to help others in the morning – siblings, ill parent, grandparent?

Have you made a conscious effort to change a morning routine? Why?

  • Write about what was/is/or could be your perfect alarm clock – this could be birdsong, a piece of music or a particular song, children’s laughter, a purring cat, a romantic kiss… or as my youngest daughter wrote in a writing workshop once, ‘my perfect alarm clock is one that is broken.’
  • Did you have a routine for working days and another for weekends?
  • What morning is/was your favourite and why? (Sunday is often a special morning even for those not religious but also special events like Easter or Christmas morning, or a birthday ritual!)

godfrey street life stories

How has your morning changed during this COVID19 crisis?

Are You An Owl?

  • What time do you normally go to bed – before or after midnight?
  • Are you an insomniac? Have you a cure for insomnia or tried any that failed?
  • Are you a shift worker? Has this disturbed your sleep patterns? How did it affect your metabolism?
  • Did you have a bedtime routine as a child?
  • Do you have an evening or bedtime routine now?
  • Did your sleeping habits change when children came along?

  • Was it a lifelong change?

  • Did anyone else in the house alter their sleeping patterns?

  • What daily rituals do you adhere to?
  • Do you get a second wind in the evenings?
  • Do you have an afternoon nap? A siesta?
  • Do you catnap? Do you have forty winks or longer?
  • Have you any stories about sleeping in, uncomfortable mattresses, disturbed sleep

  • Do you take earplugs and an eye mask when you travel?

  • How do you compensate for lack of sleep? 

  • Is there a place you like to go when you can’t sleep?
  • What is your most poignant and memorable experience of being a night owl?

Write an opinion piece based on your life experience:

Different people have different behaviour patterns and preferences. However,  most of us still need the obligatory minimum of 8 hours of sleep per night to look our best, function well and achieve our goals.

Humans are naturally polyphasic (multiple sleep times per day), just like our natural eating habits. Research is often conducted into the impact of cortisol, melatonin, and even caffeine on our sleep-wake cycles,  how the use of these can be modified with lifestyle changes. Sleep can be changed based on lifestyle but sleep needs cannot.

The impact of artificial light from computer screens alone has a substantial effect on melatonin production and largely explains why people have trouble syncing their sleep-wake cycle with sunlight. Manipulation of artificial light is used by the military to help soldiers stay awake abnormally long hours and to adjust to different time zones or work shifts.

If I had free choice, I’d be a siesta person. Early to rise and late to bed, with a long nap after lunch.

From A Lark to An Owl
Mairi Neil

“….The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn,
God’s in his heaven;
All’s right with the world.”
Robert Browning (1812-1889)

I wouldn’t say I’m a lark, I don’t wake up singing, but I do love the mornings – especially those sunny mornings in spring and autumn with the grass still gleaming with dew. When I step out to a clear sky and the air warm, but not hot, I can smell the promise in those mornings that all is right with the world.

Backyard blackbirds flit from cherry plum tree to Photinia, rest awhile on the fence before singing their joy. Magpies peck the lawn before flying atop the gum trees and carolling, wattlebirds sup nectar from the grevillea and lorikeets munch from the seed block I’ve placed in the bottlebrush.

Most of my life I have been motivated to rise early and get on with whatever task is on the agenda – whether it be study, school, work, or play. One of six children, I was the one who woke the household much to the disgust of siblings – especially during the teenage years. No matter how late I went to bed, my body clock had me rising early to breakfast or I’d suffer a headache. I couldn’t lie in bed until noon like my older sister, Catriona or brother Iain – the two definite night owls in our family.

Mum loved telling the story of me falling asleep over my dinner from when I sat in a high chair up until I went to school. Often I was carried into bed from the dinner table.

The change from a lark to an owl arrived with motherhood. My first baby Anne, turned night into day and destroyed whatever energy was needed to face the morning. The tiredness of caring for a newborn babe ranges from fatigue to exhaustion.  Sleepless nights breastfeeding on demand, soothing a colicky baby, changing nappies, walking the floor crooning nursery rhymes or any other song that came to mind. (The People’s Flag & Internationale my favourites – no wonder both girls fight for social justice!)

New to parenting I employed all sorts of distracting tricks to calm fractious cries when the girls were ill or just out of sorts. From being a sound sleeper, I became a light sleeper, awake at the least disturbance from cot or bed.

Each morning, I fought to stay awake, sometimes falling asleep with a slice of toast in my mouth from the breakfast tray my loving, but well-rested husband prepared before heading off to work. John’s years in the Royal Navy meant he could sleep through WW3.
My body seemed to relax into a deep sleep two minutes before the 6.00am alarm for John to get up for work. Jolted awake, I faced the morning, not with a joyous song but fear. Would tiredness make me an incompetent mother?

Some say biorhythms determine our health, fitness, and response to nature, and crises occur when these rhythms are off their beat. Motherhood was the first serious change in the tempo of my life but it was not the last. The long period of caring for John when he was ill with COAD, asbestosis and later lung cancer meant I spent many nights lying listening to his struggling breaths. Uninterrupted sleep became a precious commodity.

Older, but not necessarily wiser, my sleep patterns so disturbed I am now officially (a) cuckoo!

Bendigo

Are you an owl? Describe your perfect night. Now throw a spanner in the works and write about when the morning or evening wasn’t so perfect!

… we should not only welcome day-dreams but train ourselves to be aware of them. In fact, the cores of most of my novels have come from daydreams. Daydreams are our primal storyteller at work, sending us scenes and topics that our imagination or subconscious wants us to investigate. Each day, we should devote time (I usually do this before sleeping) to reviewing our day-dreams and determining which of them insists on being turned into a story. Don’t push away those daydreams that make you uncomfortable: The more shocking the day-dream, the more truthful about us it is. Embrace that truth.”

Morrell

Do you daydream? Do you dream in your sleep? Write a story based on your dreaming experiences – maybe you have a recurring dream?

“I write in the first person because I have always wanted to make my life more interesting than it was.”

Diane Wakoski

Happy Writing

 

Tell Me Five Things That Make You Happy

dancing 2008

Day Eleven – Is Alone Time Heaven?

Or would you rather be in Devon? (It rhymes!) Or anywhere but isolation, quarantined and unable to do what you usually do.

There are many memes doing the rounds of Facebook along with thousands of others, plus videos of people joking/coping at their changed circumstances because of COVID19.

Two are relevant to this post because I’m promoting writing as a means to fill in time, relieve boredom, improve your creative output, write that novel, memoir, poem, letter, journal you’ve always wanted to write – or just have fun playing around with words.

Today I want people to think about happiness – specifically –

What makes you happy?

Have you figured out the things in life that truly make you happy? Have those things changed as you’ve gotten older? Or changed since the onset of the global catastrophe of COVID19?

Here is another quote by Anne Frank you can use as a prompt  – write down your answer after you have looked around – whether it be out your window, in your home or garden or workplace.

2 overnight roses

In a 2010 article in the New York Times, (I did say at the beginning of these daily postings, I am recycling old lessons!) “The Keys to Happiness,” Victoria Shannon reports on what we know about how to achieve happiness, according to recent research and expert advice:

Make Friends and Family a Priority

One of the longest-running studies on living well and happily emphasises the importance of your relationships with family, friends and spouses.

At this time of upheaval, this is obvious.  However, it will also have its negatives and be a testing time for many families. Sadly, in times of crisis incidences of domestic violence increase, the likelihood of divorce too sometimes sooner rather than later.

On the positive side, some relationships strengthen and I think in some countries, if not all, there may be a baby boom!

Mj and Anne's tattoo.jpg
My daughters got complementary tattoos to cement their love for each other (inspired by Neil Diamond, their Dad’s favourite singer)

… Especially on Weekends

Busy lives can get in the way of happiness. Our feeling of wellbeing peaks on weekends, largely because of more time spent with friends and family, if you are lucky to have that regular time off. This is when people go to the zoo, visit museums, have picnics, trips to the beach, attend festivals, go for that regular bike ride…

You can’t do any of the above at the moment but you can visit many of those public facilities online – most museum and art institutions have virtual tours, zoos are posting what the animals are getting up to, and unless you are in lockdown, you can walk around the neighbourhood. Obey social distancing rules and wave to others, walk the dog, absorb the beauty in gardens – and you can still go for a bike ride.

Write about what activities you can still do – have you made new friends? reconnected with old friends? Learnt a new skill?

Or you can write about any of the activities you used to do at the weekends – perhaps the most memorable visit. Maybe a character in your story has to adjust to being housebound or restricted in some way – there are many people where being restricted is the norm!

Perhaps Anne Frank’s experience teaches us to count our blessings… write about how blessed you are now.

Income Equality Helps (So Move to Scandinavia)

National unhappiness is strongly associated with a country’s social inequality, research shows. One index finds that Scandinavia, a place with a wide and broad social net, is the location of the world’s happiest countries.

However, perhaps after this global crisis things will change… can you write down some ideas, dreams of what will improve where you live?

There was a lovely video of happy Italians playing music and singing from the balconies of their apartments during their lockdown. Another report from the UK showed a special hour where millions of people stood in their gardens or doorways clapping and cheering the workers in the National Health System to thank them for working during this health crisis.

When we value our community and the workers that keep important facilities and services there is more cohesion and happiness, less war and conflict and we all feel better.

What do you value in your community or friendship circle?

Gratitude Does, Too


Pharrell Williams, the star behind the 2014 hit music video “Happy,” on the happiness phenomenon: ”If you’re grateful, you can find happiness in everything.”

  • Are you grateful for being accepted in a new country, or new suburb, new club?
  • Are you grateful for your parents, children, siblings?
  • Are you grateful for your pets?
  • Are you grateful for your home, workplace, community house?

Now you have the time, reflect on what makes you happy and grateful – and express that thanks in writing.

I am blessed, I know and have often written about being grateful for the constant expression of love from my daughters and friends.

I try and reciprocate and pay it forward too.

The Health Factor

A correlation between happiness and good health has been evident for centuries. But which comes first? Does robust health lead to a good mood or the reverse?

Now is the time to find out, discuss, reflect and write!!

FB_page from a book about being happy
from Facebook – some food for thought.

It’s Really Good for Kids

Happy kids learn faster, think more creatively, tend to be more resilient in the face of failures, have stronger relationships and make friends more easily.

Well, most of them. There have been plenty of reports and investigations into cyberbullying, the negative effects of social media etc. There are unhappy children and adolescents and so adults must all work harder to ensure we create an environment for happy children.

FB_importance of friends

Don’t Overdo It
 or Obsess About It

Happiness engineers, chief fun officers, ministers of happiness … there’s evidence that “fungineering” at work might have precisely the opposite effect: making people miserable.

Write your thoughts on the belief that the pursuit of happiness may be an unhealthy preoccupation. Do some people have too high expectations?

FB_quote about happiness.jpg

If All Else Fails, Fake It


Can you fake your way to confidence and happiness? if you read some of the self-help and advice books circulating, the answer will be ‘YES’.

Some people swear by the power of positive thinking to banish negativity. They say focus on achieving your dreams or surviving bad times and things will work out.

 

  1. What recent moments of happiness have you experienced, whether large or small?
  2. What do you think made them so satisfying?
  3. Have you figured out a “magic formula” for happiness that works for you?
  4. A few days ago I wrote about a recipe for a good mood.   Can you share your recipe for happiness?
  5. What will change as you get older – or what has changed recently as you cope with COVID19 news?
  6. What is your reaction to the keys of happiness listed above?
  7. Did any of the keys surprise you – is there something missing? A spiritual aspect to life perhaps that is important?
  8. In an earlier post, I talked about keys – did you write about the key to happiness then?

How Full Is Your Glass?

  • People have a significantly lower death rate over 30 years if they maintain an optimistic attitude.
  • Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
  • What do you think is healthy about whichever attitude you possess?
  • What might be some benefits to viewing life from the opposite perspective?
  • Write a story of an optimist and pessimist being trapped somewhere together – unlikely holiday companions, work buddies during a crisis, living in a share house, trapped in a lift – or in a cabin on a cruise ship!

Five Things That Make Me Happy

Mairi Neil

  1. Birdsong in the morning and watching the birds cavort in the garden – especially the wattlebirds feeding on the grevillea and the magpies searching the ground for worms or carolling to each other from the electric wires. I also love when the lorikeets visit each day and feed on the bottlebrush outside my window.
  2. Clean sheets – I love getting into bed between clean sheets, the smooth feel and fresh smell.
  3. I’m happy when my daughters are – Mary Jane’s witticisms and her infectious laugh; Anne’s smile lighting up her deep blue eyes especially when she shares stories of her travels.
  4. I’m happy when the words come and I can finish a writing project.
  5. I’m happy when I get a phone call from friends, to chat or catch up over coffee, or when they drop in for a visit whether planned or unplanned.

Please share what makes you happy – and remember

… once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

                                                      Haruki Murakami

The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them and lessens the threat of their difference.              

                                                      Audre Lord

Here is a short story with a theme of love and happiness – the prompt was a picture of four elderly people sitting on a bench… waiting… Unspoken, a short story by mairi neil

Happy Writing

Write Your Own Fairytale

cover of Grimm's book

Day Ten – Have you picked up a pen?

Once upon a time, the first stories we learned were fairytales read or told to us, by our parents or grandparents.

  • How many fairytales can you remember?
  • Why do you think fairytales are popular?

Many people will only know the Disney version of the tales but now you have some time to read, try researching some of the original fairytales and gathering ideas to write your own!

The most famous collection is the folklore gathered by the Brothers Grimm (and yes the jokes made about their German name are true because some of the tales are grim!).

Read the original Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Rumpelstiltskin, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and The Elves and the Shoemaker.

I waited until my daughters were teenagers and interested in knowing the origins of many Disneyfied tales before buying them The Complete Fairy Tales.

blurb of Grimm's book.jpg

However, Charles Perrault also wrote fairytales based on old French folk tales (thank him for Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots) and Hans Christian Andersen did something similar before writing original stories. (You may know The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling, and The Princess and the Pea amongst others.)

Much of the writings of these literary figures is still read today or adapted for short stories, novels, poetry and film.

Fairy tales continue to inspire writers, with new versions appearing each year,  in print, film and television. Some adaptations are aimed at children, but many are made for adults and focus on the genre’s dark roots.

sculpture with icicles toronto

Some of my popular lessons are based around rewriting fairytales and examining why they are so popular – even among today’s technologically savvy kids – and working out what we can learn about the tools involved in the craft of writing such as structure, theme, plot, characterisation and setting.

What can we learn from fairytales regarding story structure and character development?

book of fairytales

Let’s deconstruct the well-known tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. This tale, like Jack and the Beanstalk, is a British fairy tale.

  • List of main characters:
    Goldilocks (protagonist)
    Papa Bear
    Mama Bear
    Baby Bear

What are the aims and obstacles the main character has to overcome?

  1. She is hungry – finds steamy porridge – one is too hot, the other too salty – small bowl just right and she eats it up.
  2. Her feet are sore and she needs rest – one chair too hard, other too soft, a small one just right, but chair breaks.
  3. She is tired – goes upstairs to find a bed – one too high, other too low, the cot just right.
  4. She falls asleep and dreams.
  5. The Bear family comes home after being for a walk to let their porridge cool down and discover: the porridge is eaten, a chair broke, and Goldilocks in bed asleep.
  6. Goldilocks wakes up, gets frightened and runs away. She escapes into wood and heads home.
  7. When she hears mother’s voice, she knows she is safe.

toronto childcare

Most folk tales and fairy tales started off as oral stories told around campfires, kitchen tables or at bedtime in the years when the general population couldn’t read or write.

Many were cautionary tales with a strong moral tone influenced by society’s power structures to instil cultural norms dictated by the aristocracy and religious rulers.

They are populated with people who are evil (sometimes not even human), bad or just stupid.  Inevitably,  good triumphs over evil, the bad learn to behave or are punished and often the stupid learn to be wise.

The religious overtones are obvious and reflect the power of the church. A lot of  the fairy tales teach a version of the lesson ‘be careful who you make deals or bargains with,’ probably a reference to the Faustian ‘making deals with the devil.’

There are the all-important conflict and obstacles to overcome and the character transformation required to satisfy creative writing norms, plus the invariable ‘happy ending’, or promise of hope most readers expect.

Goldilocks and The Three Bears message, apart from warning of the dangers of ‘the woods’ (a common trope and setting for fairytales) is teaching respect for the property of others and the importance of manners. I did say it had British origins:)

gardenworld girl with book

The Importance of Storytelling

  1. Stories unite people. When we share stories we take a step towards understanding and tolerance. Check out folk tales, myths and legends from other countries. Google or visit your local library. You’ll be surprised how many of the stories will be familiar with similar messages – Cinderella-type stories (we know the Perrault version) appears in several cultures.

hindu temple  2. Stories help us make sense of the world around us by explaining natural phenomena. Aboriginal Dreamtime stories are an amazing must-read.

  1. Stories help to keep our culture, history and traditions alive because narratives fascinate us whether in a dramatic performance, a book, or on-screen or over the radio.

fairytale park russia 1

  1. Stories entertain. All cultures create worlds of dreams and pretence.

fairytale cake

  1. Stories can help us understand the adult world before facing it and help us work through trauma in the real world.
  2. Passing stories down through generations is one way of maintaining cultural roots and sharing experience, and ensuring history isn’t lost.

3 wise monkeys russia

The setting is an important part of any fairy tale. The tone of the story is set in the way the setting is described.

As mentioned, many fairytales are set in forests or the woods – they often appear dark, unfriendly places. Places that hide goblins, trolls, wolves, witches, wicked queens or hags and huntsmen.

Then it may move to a castle or palace. There is always a contrast between grandeur and simple cottages and/or impoverished villages.

Anything can happen in the land of make-believe, it is a magical place.

Usually, a hero emerges to save the day, there is often a damsel in distress to be rescued and loved, and creatures can be friendly or unfriendly.

  • Several elements identify stories as part of the genre of fairy tales but for most of us it is the special beginning and/or ending words – Once upon a time…and they lived happily ever after.
  • Things often happen in threes and sevens (check it out here! and here)

(Is this why our PM, Scotty from Marketing devised three-word slogans?)

  • magic happens with good and bad characters
  • the problems are always solved by the end of the story

Fear, violence, anger and treachery are always overcome by courage, love and cleverness.

elephant in garden toronto
What could be the story here – an elephant roaming suburbia?

Story idea: – Lost in the Woods

You can try writing a fractured fairytale – taking the bones of a well-known tale/myth and using your imagination put your own interpretation on it.

Or take the structure and elements of fairytales and apply them to one of these stories:

Your character goes for a walk in the woods and loses his/her way. After many hours of wandering through the trees, s/he comes upon (choose a scenario) …

  • an old cabin that an escaped criminal has made his home.
  • an attractive stranger, who appears injured and disoriented.
  • a magnificent house, with the door unlocked and all of the lamps lit, but apparently empty.
  • a crying baby, lying alone in a pile of leaves.
  • what appears to be some kind of spacecraft
  • a pack of wolves, or perhaps werewolves
  • a military project so secret that the government can’t risk your character leaving alive.
  • a summer camp full of children who are terrified because the adults supervising them have all mysteriously disappeared.

What else might your character find in the woods …

Stories based on fairytales are popular in pop culture and among those interested in cosplay – I found that out when I went to Comi-con with my daughter – check out the photos here – you may get inspiration for character descriptions.

more fairytales.jpg

Rewrite a Fairytale For a News Article

Reporters still use the pyramid structure ie.

  • write the most important point first and gradually add details to the story so if readers don’t read to the end they know the main facts.

Here’s my take on Goldilocks –

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL by Mairi Neil

Goldie Locks of Primrose Cottage had a narrow escape in the woods today. She was chased by three bears, who have taken up residence for winter. However, if Goldie had obeyed her mother and played in the garden, the escapade could have been avoided. Instead, she explored the woods alone.

‘When I heard my mother’s voice, I cried with relief,’ said Miss Locks.

‘Yes,’ confirmed her mother, ‘she was pale and breathless and threw herself into my arms. It was some time before I got the story out of her.’

And what a story it is, readers.

The police interviewed the three bears and have decided not to lay charges. It seems Miss Locks entered Bear Cottage without permission. She not only stole food but caused criminal damage.

A distraught Baby Bear sacrificed his breakfast to Goldie Locks’ greed. She broke his favourite chair and left grass stains on his quilt when she fell asleep on his bed with dirty shoes.

Taking Miss Locks’ tender years into account, the Bear family will not press charges.

The police appreciate not being tied up with the paperwork a case like this generates. They have also agreed to mediate a conference between the Locks and the Bears to facilitate friendly neighbourhood relations.

‘After all,’ said Papa Bear, ‘we all must share the woods.

backpacker statue.jpg

Traveller’s tales can be adapted into fairytales – imagine what this backpacker is thinking as he stands in the centre of a strange city – who will he meet? What customs will he have to learn? Will he have to do something before being allowed to leave? Will he meet someone special and decide to stay?

Brainstorm New Fairytale Titles and Ideas

Make character profiles and think of their story arc (maybe change the protagonist or change the point of view…)

Fractured fairytales use the tales you know and change one, some or all of the characters, setting, points of view or plots. Eg The Wolf who Cried

CINDERELLA – If The Shoe Fits Wear It

Thousands of single ladies flock to a ball dressed to impress. One wore a glass slipper…

  • Think royalty – often queens and princesses are betrayed, divorced, murdered because they can’t produce an heir
  • Who wins from arranged marriages?
  • What if one of the step-sisters is nice and one horrible and Cinderella has manipulated their relationship to her own advantage
  • Is the prince gay and that’s why he has difficulty choosing a wife

JACK & THE BEANSTALK – Young Boy and His Mother Strike it Lucky

  • Genetically modified beanstalk
  • What are the motives of the Giant’s wife? She hid Jack so is she dishonest? a domestic violence victim?
  • Were Jack and she stupid or brave? Giant threatened them but did he deserve to die?
  • Where are the ethics if Jack triumphs – Jack was a thief?
  • Is this about bullying – Jack’s mum a shrew, the Giant into domestic violence

RUMPELSTILTSKIN – Clever People Come in Small Packages – Or Do They?

  • Girl locked in a room by the king.
  • Dwarf worked on her behalf and she offered her child.
  • Dwarf’s name had to be discovered.
  • Was it a case of Stockholm Syndrome when she married the king?
  • How do you break down the stereotype of people with a disability?
  • Do people ever accept outsiders?

THREE LITTLE PIGS – Property Developer Outwitted by Pig Family

  • Is there always one member of a family who is the smartest?
  • Do they write a manual on how to stand up to the local bully?
  • Think of the scandal over using cladding in the building industry
  • Is the story saying courage comes in many forms?
  • What about the balance of the natural world?

What about a modern twist to:

  • The Princess and The Pea – in the age of celebrity how do we rate women?
  • Beauty and the Beast – do you find love in strange places, diversity is the future, intolerance leads to violence
  • Rapunzel – kidnapping, obsession, cruelty – think of the stories of women being held prisoner, what about Stockholm Syndrome, can we change the high rate of domestic violence?

Here are three fractured fairytales I wrote in class years ago – try writing some yourself – it can be a lot of fun.  fractured fairytales by Mairi Neil

Happy Writing!

Is it Time for Some Light Relief?

candle in window

Day Nine – All Writers Can Shine

As I mentioned in a previous post, English is an amazing language and at times a difficult and confusing one! Especially, when a single word can be used in a variety of ways and change the context and meaning of a sentence.

Some English words can be a noun, verb and adjective.

The previous post’s example was ‘key’, today I will examine the way the word ‘light’  and various variations can be used to inspire a poem or a story and used in a piece of writing. 

The dictionary provides an extensive list of meanings –

light (noun)

  • something that makes vision possible by stimulating the sense of light.
  • electromagnetic radiation in the wavelength that is visible to the human eye
  • a source of light – a lamp or candle
  • daylight
  • a flame or spark for lighting something eg. a cigarette
  • a traffic light
  • spiritual illumination
  • understanding or knowledge
  • enlightening information or explanation
  • a particular aspect or appearance in which something is viewed
  • a medium eg a window through which light is admitted
  • a specified expression perceived as being in somebody’s eyes
  • a set of principles, standards, or opinions
  • *bring to light – to disclose or reveal
  •  *come to light – to be revealed or disclosed
  •  *in the light of with the insight provided by
  • * see the light – to understand suddenly, to gain insight and to undergo conversion
  • *see the light of day – to be born or come into existence – to be published or come to public attention

light (adjective):

  • having plenty of light; bright
  • pale in colour or colouring
  • having little weight; not heavy
  • designed to carry a comparatively small load
  • having relatively little weight in proportion to bulk
  • carrying little or no cargo
  • not abundant or intense
  • of sleep or a sleeper; easily disturbed
  • exerting a minimum of force or pressure; gentle or soft; a light touch
  • resulting from very slight pressure; faint; light print
  • requiring little effort; light work
  • graceful, deft, or nimble
  • lacking seriousness; frivolous
  • of little importance; trivial
  • free from care, cheerful
  • intended chiefly to entertain; light reading
  • of industry; requiring relatively small investment and usually producing small consumer goods
  • lightly with the minimum of usage

light (verb):

  • to become illuminated
  • to catch fire; to set fire to
  • to provide light in a place
  • to settle or alight
  • to arrive by chance; to happen

light (adverb):

  • lightly
  • with the minimum of luggage

quote about light

Has your creative light been turned on yet by any of the definitions – a memory triggered, an idea generated?

Examine the way the word ‘light’ and various variations are used in the following sentences, choose one and develop a story after considering:

  1. Will it be an opening line or the ending?
  2. Can it be dialogue?
  3. What type of character or setting?
  4. What about the all-important conflict?
  5. Will it be a ‘slice of life’ piece or a completely fictional story?
  6. What about a poem?

christmas korean town toronto

  • Turn the light on please.
  • Bad light stopped play.
  • He/She/We saw a distant light…
  • She struck a light.
  • He was a leading light in the community.
  • It was the traditional Festival of Light.

Diwali is the five-day festival of lights, celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world. Diwali, which for some also coincides with harvest and new year celebrations, is a festival of new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness. But Christmas and Ramadan are also festivals of light – in fact, most cultures and religions have a ritual or celebration involving light.

  • The parcel felt light.
  • Their financial problems appeared in a new light.
  • I felt lighthearted when dancing at the party.
  • We’ll have some light refreshments later.
  • You are standing in my light.
  • She didn’t believe her mother’s insistence that there ‘is always light at the end of a tunnel.’
  • There is something about twilight I love.
  • Ted laughed when he saw Mark – what a lightweight!
  • Jack’s strength will lighten the burden.
  • She was the new lighting technician.
  • It was a lightbulb moment.
  • Sheets of lightning stampeded the herd and terrified the drovers.
  • Tread lightly on my dreams.
  • When you alight from the train the police will be waiting.
  • The children are such a delight.
  • Oh, please, enlighten me!
  • That planet is thousands of light-years away.

moon and venus

Lively Limerick by Mairi Neil

A young woman was named Lily Light
A glance in the mirror caused fright
she’d stacked on the weight
any diet too late
Lily’d ballooned like a building site.

Inspiration is all around when it comes to light because we see the sunrise and the sunset – daylight in between those two beautiful times and then the moon and moonlight takes over…

Melbourne for Southbank.jpg

In case you are struggling to connect with any of the ideas so far think on these:

Other words for light (illumination) –

beacon, beam, brighten, bulb, candle, dawn, daybreak, fire, flame, flare, flash, fluorescent, glimmer, glow, ignite, illuminate, kindle, lamp, lantern, luminary, luminous, radiance, moon, neon, shine, spark, sunny, sunrise, torch.

Other words for light (of mood ) –

carefree, casual, cheerful, dainty, deft, delicate, easy, ethereal, faded, fragile frivolous, gentle, graceful, happy, lively, merry, mild, nimble, pastel, petty, portable, simple, slender, small, soft, trifling, trivial, undemanding, untaxing, weightless.

Other words for lighthearted –

blithe, buoyant, carefree, cheerful, gay, glad, happy, insouciant, jovial, lively, merry, rollicking, spirited, unconcerned, untroubled, upbeat, vivacious, volatile.

Other words for lighten –

allay, alleviate, bleach, brighten, decrease, dilute, ease, fade, gladden, gleam, illuminate, jettison, lessen, reduce, relieve, shine, trim, unburden, unload.

Other words for lightly –

daintily, easily, effortlessly, faintly, gently, gingerly, mildly, softly, subtly, tenderly

lightness and gaiety –

levity

Advice from the Moon
Live life to the fullest
Be someone to look up to
Don’t be phased by difficulties
Take time to reflect
Enjoy a little space
Honour the cycles of nature
Light up the night!
–In Llan Shamir’s Advice from Nature series published by Leanin’ Tree

We are used to the sun being used as a symbol in song and poetry, not so many about the moon unless it is in a romantic or true love kind of way.

We tend to think and talk much more about light than darkness. But what about light in the darkness? This is a good definition of the moon —  it is light in the darkness.

colchester castle dungeon

  • Has there been anyone or thing that has been your light in the darkness?
  • A belief system, a philosophy, a mantra, a person, a book, a song…
  • There is a song – You Are My Sunshine – who or what is your sunshine, bringing happiness into your life?
  • How do you create light when darkness surrounds you or those you love? This is especially relevant as we cope with the effects of COVID19 – share your antidote or secrets to keep those around you sane!
  • Write a paragraph and give yourself the pleasure of seeing how you bring light to the darkness.
  • Have you or do you ‘cheer’ someone up (perhaps yourself). Comforted someone grieving? Sponsor a child or a charity? Volunteer for a community organisation? Visit someone regularly? Listen to other people’s woes?

Make a list and write about one of the items

  • Explain how the activity makes you feel like you are living life to the fullest — that you are at the phase of a full moon.
  • When you are writing about this reflect on what you did when younger, what you do now – is it different? Why?
  • Can you pinpoint the change/s?
  • pets bring happiness and light into our lives as this Facebook meme confirms

FB_dogs brighten our day

Nuanced Words Of Light

  • ethereal = light and airy
  • ecru/sorrel = light brown
  • aureole/corona/nimbus = light around a celestial object
  • chiaroscuro = light and shade in art
  • crepuscule/twilight/gloaming = fading light at end of day
  • incandescent lamp = light bulb with filament
  • laser = light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation
  • photosynthesis = use of light energy by plant as an energy source
  • aurora = light phenomenon of the night sky
  • gossamer = light as gauze
  • photic = concerning light
  • douse/extinguish/quench/snuff= to put out a light
  • optics = study of light
  • radiate = giving off light

john knox house scotland

  • soufflé = light fluffy baked egg dish
  • opaque = not allowing passage of light
  • balsa = light buoyant wood
  • refraction = turning or bending lightwave
  • sprinkle = light rain
  • arsonist = person who lights fires
  • light = lamp with light impulse
  • klieg light = carbon-arc lamp making intense light

And finally…

aphasic = having no light flashes – linked to language – aphasia – the loss of power to understand words

Can you write a story about someone with aphasia – what would it be like to have no ‘light come on’ or flashes of light to understand what people were saying or what you were reading?

Have You Stories About Firelight? Sitting around a Campfire?

Firelight Fantasies Freed
Mairi Neil, 2017

Campfire flames give permission to dream,
to imagine dancing nymphs – places unseen
firelight glow spreads warmth and peace
our everyday worries and stress to cease
bodies relax – almost back to the womb
when childhood stories banished gloom.

Fascination fired as fairytales surface –
princesses and princes acting with purpose
vanquished dragons and giant slayers
underdogs winning despite naysayers…
the blue smoke curls, orange flames sway,
mind given permission to stretch and play.

Memories triggered – some good, some bad
a treasury of tales, more dreams to be had
for a life, well-lived gathers light and dark
appreciating its richness just needs a spark –
a moment to sit, pause, stare, and detect
before pens record words sweet to select

Myriads of tales and thoughts a-swirling
like the flickering flames ideas distilling
sentences shaped ‘neath moon glowing bright,
inventiveness excited by shadow-filled light –
campfire closeness dispels city affectation
unleashing the desire for literary creation

Here are four short pieces of fiction using different interpretations of light and nuanced words. 4 flash fiction pieces by Mairi Neil

Enjoy flexing your feel-good writing muscles and feel free to share. I hope you can be inspired by some of these words, ideas or images to write!

Happy Writing

Do You Know Who’s Telling The Story?

download.png

Day Eight – Storytelling Is Great

What story will you tell? How are you going to tell it?

  • What style? Short sharp sentences? Long flowery paragraphs?
  • Who will tell the story?

These are two important questions to answer and the impact on each other of your choice matters.

Point of View (POV) is very important because it is linked closely to ‘voice’ which determines style, and is usually individual and recognisable. (This is why we often get attached to particular writers, not just because of the subject matter of their novels but how they write.)

Point of View

Is the perspective from which a story is told and generally these are the most common ones used in creative writing:

  • Third Person Omniscient – the narrator knows all the thoughts, motives and feelings of each character
  • Third Person Limited – the narrator stands outside the action and focuses on one character’s thoughts, feelings and observations.
  • First Person – the main character tells his/her own story and refers to himself as I, or another character tells the story from their point of view – a voyeur watching/interpreting the protagonist’s life
  • Second Person – the story is told by a narrator talking to the reader, using the key words You or your. (This is a difficult one to sustain in a long piece of writing and can become irritating for the reader too.
  • Third Person – the story is told by the narrator using the key words He/She/They
  • Objective – the Narrator does not tell the thoughts or feelings of anyone, so only action and words are reported

Some writers favour one particular point of view, others change their style depending on the story and genre.  Some writers will experiment, perhaps flitting between more than one narrator.

If you choose the first-person often it is a personal narrative. (Memoir/Life Story/Autobiographical) but it can also be used in a short story fictional story.

  • Will you make it moody with lots of description? Chatty and informal? Dark and/or Gothic?
  • One hazard of writing in the first person is that your readers tend to think that I-the-narrator is actually I-the-author – so be clear if you are writing fiction.

Whatever your point of view, when choosing the tone, pick whatever POV you feel you can sustain and remain easy and consistent.

  • Don’t take on a  tone that is unnatural for you.
  • Watch you don’t change tone or direction – perhaps taking too long to write the story, and in the long gaps between sessions, your mood and motivation have changed.
  • also, be wary of editing to perfection, or for brevity and destroying the flow of your story:)

A consistent tone is preferred for each short story and usually, it works better if told in one voice.

POV is a writer’s closest connection to the readers.

  • It creates meaning beyond that offered by the simple combination of character and plot; it adds subtext and secrets and suspense.
  • It is a writing element every bit as important as pacing or setting and, for that matter, is an essential part of developing plot and character.
  • It filters the experience of the plot events through the personalities and perceptions of the characters. Who is narrating the event (that is, the POV character) determines in great part how the reader experiences it.

Therefore, it is considered best practice to stick with just one point of view telling your story. (But there are always exceptions… once you are a confident writer.)

In a short story, that means the hero or heroine, the main character, the protagonist – whatever you want to call them is telling the story.

  • Too many points of view and the reader may be confused. Let them see the world of the story through the eyes and feelings of one character.

If you are writing in First Person, be careful not to read the thoughts of others in your story! 

The modern way is to tell the story from a single point of view. Head-hopping is discouraged.

Always remember, if writing from ‘I’, the first person, you cannot witness events you are not directly involved in, just like you cannot know what another character is thinking. If you want to be all-knowing then choose third-person omniscient!

Experiment and see what is right for your story and what POV you will use.

As always, once you know what you are doing you can experiment and break the accepted rules but expert writers usually advise not to experiment with POV – think about the confusion you can visit upon the reader!

However, an example of originality is a novel I loved, but I know many didn’t: The Time Traveller’s Wife, (2003) the first novel by  Audrey Niffenegger. (Please note, I loved the book, not the movie!)

Written in the first person, the novel is divided between the viewpoint of the two main characters Henry and Clare. The reader has an insight into the detailed emotions, feelings, thoughts and experiences of each main character.

Here is an example of a short story I wrote in 2004, influenced I admit by reading The Time Traveller’s Wife, (I got the courage to move away from the straight first person and my usual third person).  I tell a story from the viewpoint of three characters.

Impasse a short story, by Mairi Neil

Directions anthology.jpg

My story was published in Directions, an anthology by Bayside NightWriters  and written in one of my classes from a prompt:

  • Tell a story from different viewpoints of at least two characters, include a mobile phone, a truck driver and a traffic accident.

Writing Exercises For You:

  1. Take the prompt I had and write a story with two or three characters involved in an accident (could be traffic/air/boat)
  2. Kay frowned as she opened her locker. A few feet away Alexis and Christine grinned. I stood unsure of what to do.
  3. He grabbed the waitress by the arm and said, ‘ I’m senior detective Frank Jones and…
  4. Twinkling eyes can mean many things but the one twinkling at me right now is…
  5. I woke up to a strange noise and looked around the room. Where was I and how did I get here?

Ask questions to get a start on a story:

  • Who are all these people,
  • where are they,
  • what was in, or had been removed from the locker.
  • Why is the police officer grabbing the waitresses arm?
  • Are the twinkling eyes human? Is this set indoors or outdoors?
  • Are you the cold observer, or are you involved in some way? How?

Write from the first-person or third-person point of view and perhaps experiment with the others – whatever you feel the most comfortable with to make the ideas and words flow.

Stories Are Influenced By Current Events & Inventions

I can imagine we are going to be hearing about COVID19 for a long, long time! Writers are important to historians – we chronicle the time we live in, we exercise our reflective powers, our insight, our perspective, we discern the mood and we add our imagination and flair.

In 2004, mobile phones were just starting to proliferate although some business people had been using them for years. They were expensive, many thought them intrusive and unnecessary, and rumours they caused cancer abounded.

They were the latest invention/technology to be included in a lot of writing prompts with many pieces produced – usually not seeing them as a plus for society!

How things change!

Today, in this crisis of social isolation, we are grateful for having mobile phones – especially Smartphones!

Last night and tonight,  it was wonderful to hear laughter resonating throughout the house as my daughters caught up with friends using Facebook Messenger and Skype!

Each day of the Coronavirus Crisis I have been able to ring or message friends, family and ex-students to check they are okay.

pasted-image.jpeg

Not so long ago this was a common sentiment:

My parents did not even have a telephone or a TV set until the early 60s and thank God no mobile phones or computers, which take up an extraordinary amount of time these days.

When I wrote this poem in 1998 I was an observer and by the tone, you can see I held a different viewpoint from today because of my lived experience. In writing, context is everything.

Social Mobility a la 1998
Mairi Neil

They’re at the beach on a hot day,
in the queue at the Post Office,
interrupting a teller at the bank,
in the supermarket aisles and the checkouts,
sitting outside at a sidewalk cafe
at Southbank,
sitting inside in the Food Court
at Southland,
on trains, buses, trams,
on bicycles,
in cars, trucks, taxis,
walking the streets,
waiting at bus stops,
on train platforms,
at school gates,
in department stores,
in shopping malls,
in museums and art galleries,
at the zoo,
at meetings,
on picket lines,
at demonstrations,
outside courtrooms,
in lifts, on stairwells,
in public toilets,
in the school ground,
at school concerts,
at school assembly,
in church, at the theatre,
at the cinema, in hairdressers,
in classrooms at community houses,
and even at a funeral…
anywhere… anytime…
mobile phone
… anyone?

Today I might add Ubers and perhaps I would use a different tone, content, and context. perhaps I’d emphasise different experiences. That’s what is so wonderful about being a creative writer and continually being observant. Detail matters too.

Visual Prompts For POV

  1. What could these two lorikeets be talking about? Who took the picture? Why and from where? Is there danger lurking?

lorikeets feeding

  1. Who lives in this broken-down house? Why? What are the neighbours like? What conflicts could arise? What would happen if a developer bought it?

old house ormond street

It is a time of rapid change and anxiety – don’t be too hard on yourself – perhaps just aim for one great sentence or even a great idea for a story or poem you will get to ‘one day’.

alice hoffman quote.jpg

Happy Writing

 

Create Characters and Give Them a Problem to Solve

 

download

Day Seven – Characters Must Be Driven

I’m not talking about chauffeuring here – although there are plenty of stories involving characters who are drivers or people being driven around:

  • Truckies
    Chauffeurs
    Bus drivers
    Taxi drivers
    Uber Drivers
    Limo drivers
    Anyone really with a driving licence…
  • Passengers can be
    Government or non-government officials/employees
    Hitchhikers
    General public
    Co-drivers
    Wedding/funeral parties
    Students
    Tourists

The list is long… and once you start adding other types of drivers – train, tram, ferries, – even horse and cart… it gets longer.

download.png

I’m talking about the advice nearly every writing website gives you concerning characters and using these definitions of driven:

  1. To have or feel pressure applied to act in a certain way – a need, a desire,
  2. To be in a certain emotional state eg. he/she/it drives me crazy – drives me to distraction

This is advice based on Joseph Campbell’s book (obligatory reading for many creative writers) The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

There are many permutations and combinations of this idea – certain genres like sci-fi, fantasy and adventure movies, with stories drawing on mythology,’s legends and fables, fit into the formula well. Hence the popularity of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings, the Indiana Jones movies, JK Rowland’s, Harry Potter, and the Star Wars, Marvel and DC movies…

The advice works for other writing too if you remember the aim is to hook the reader into empathising and caring about the characters.

unnamed.jpg

  • Most stories grow from character – the character needs something or wants something –
  • What stops them being successful – what obstacles must they encounter and triumph over for success (or maybe failure!).

Your main character must want something, sets out on a journey to get it, and by the end of the story, after overcoming obstacles, the character is changed but has achieved the aim or an altered or scaled-down success.

Novels often have an antagonist (adversary/enemy) as well as a protagonist (hero/good guy/woman) and a small or large cast of others relevant to the story/ back story/ sub-stories.

Short stories can’t have a huge range of characters, they often only have one the reader can get ‘to know’ and sometimes the journey to change is internal, inside the protagonist or main character’s head, and the obstacles to overcome, imaginary, prosaic or ephemeral.

However, memoir and creative non-fiction must have the main character to focus on and the most popular ones in recent years have been on a journey similar to Campbell’s heroes.

They write a slice of life where they have overcome grief, addiction, ill health or some other personal tragedy by soldiering on or challenging themselves to work their way through and survive the catastrophe – older and wiser/healthier/happier/perhaps they have found a new love – whatever has happened, they have changed!

All of the above is the usual or expected structures but creative writing is whatever the creator decides and the old saying know the rule before you break them applies. If you are confident, break the rules, surprise the reader.

Certain tropes and structures work, as can the surprises and deviation from the usual format. Sometimes the underlying character expectations remain, the change is subtle or the protagonist dies to achieve the aim, or before achieving it.

download-1.jpg

Where Can You Get Character Ideas?

Some of the following suggestions ARE NOT ADVISABLE while the world is dealing with COVID19, but once this dystopian nightmare ends – as it surely will – in the words of the BBC I remember as a child “normal service will be resumed”.

(When TV transmission was in its infancy there were many times apologies came over the airwaves. Nowadays it is Telstra or Optus apologising for Internet drop out.)

1. People-watch.

Who do you pass on the street? See on public transport, waiting at bus stops, or passing by your window. (This you can do now!)

Go to a shopping centre or a café and watch the people around you. Maybe even strike up a conversation and learn their stories a la Arnold Zable’s Café Scheherazade.

  • Make notes about who you see and build a description.
  • How do they dress and present themselves?
  • Look at their facial expressions, their gestures, how they move, how they interact with each other.
  • Try to imagine their lives.
  • Watch people in line at the supermarket – listen to their conversations, pay attention to what they’re buying.
  • Speculate – do they live by themselves or with children?  Do they have pets?  Do they cook a lot, or do they keep pre-cooked food in their freezers?  Are they planning a party?  Or, are they possibly drinking too much alone?

As I’ve mentioned before – ask questions, observe details, let the writer’s curiosity gene work overtime.

Every one of these people can become a fictional character in your stories.

It is amazing how story ideas or memories triggered will emerge once you start writing down the answers to questions.

2: Get ideas from the newspaper.

You may have to search the local papers or magazines for alternative stories while the COVID19 crisis is filling every facet of news media.

Newspapers are a rich source of character ideas. When you read about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, try to imagine the people behind the headlines. There are also lots of images of people, subjects to be used in stories, in advertisements, brochures, leaflets, online sites…

There are even plots to explore, expand or adapt.

  • What might have caused a particular woman to poison her husband?
  • What kind of person might she be?
  • What about her husband?
  • Why did the house invasion happen
  • Why was a particular item stolen
  • Where could the person reported missing be?
  • Why did the teenager run away?

The people you imagine are likely to be very different from the real people involved in the news item.

We all perceive people and life differently because we bring our own experience and prejudices. The fictional characters you have invented can be used however you like – take the bones of a court case, or an event and expand it, perhaps give it a different outcome.

Wedding announcements and obituaries are great places to look for character ideas and names.

Obituary columns often give a potted history of someone’s life, highlighting challenges overcome and their achievements. All of this detail can be tweaked but you may find a ready-made historical novel or plot.

People never seem to tire of stories about kings and queens, war heroes, even famous villains and each story whether a novel, play or film is different.

images

3. Get ideas from names

Have you ever heard a name and been intrigued by its origins, or laughed aloud, or pitied the poor girl/boy stuck with that monicker?

Maybe you are one of those stuck with a nickname you hate or have memories of convoluted pronunciations of your family name.

A name triggers a heap of thoughts, associations, memories based on its sound and on the people we have known or heard of with that name or similar names.

You might even have a relative or ancestor with a name begging to be immortalised in a story so that readers will be intrigued or remember your character.

If you have a description of a character remember to choose a name that fits.

For example:

What name might suggest a seventy-year-old woman with greying hair pushed back behind her ears. She wears no makeup and has worry lines along the sides of her mouth. She is slim and fit from taking long walks every day in comfortable walking shoes. She strides as if on her way to solve an urgent problem.

Miss Jane Marple anyone?

The middle-aged sleuth’s creator was writer Agatha Christie. Along with Jane, Agatha may be considered an old-fashioned name conjuring an older woman, as does Mavis, Mildred, Amelia, even Elizabeth and Margaret. Some names have travelled time well, along with their other connotations (Liz, Betty, Meg, Millie…)

Part of a writer’s job is almost ordained by the name chosen for the character because of cultural knowledge and expectations. Soapie stereotypes work for a reason in some genres.

However, originality is always a goal and we are in an age where people eschew handing down family names and may call their children after celebrities, sportspeople or even made-up names.

Remember Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence Geldof? Also Peaches, Fifi Trixibelle and Pixie Geldof…

You can choose names at random from a phone book or another directory (Baby Naming books are still popular). Or write down a list of names that occur to you and think of how you can place one of those people in your story, or what kind of story does their name suggest.

4: Mix and Match

You can base characters on real people you know (wreak revenge by killing off the rude neighbour or that relative you don’t like…) and this can work by changing their name and some aspects of their appearance.

However, it may be difficult to stop thinking of the real person and imagine the character separately and this can limit your imagination. It is better to mix aspects of various characters you have made notes about and create a new person from random observations plus aspects of people you know/knew/read about/saw on documentaries etc.

You can invent a character partly based on your father, one of your high school teachers, and your boss or ex-boss.  You might base a character on a male you know, but make the character female who looks like a waitress you saw at a restaurant or a commuter.

By combining characteristics in unexpected ways, you make your characters seem more three-dimensional, memorable, and unique.

This mix and match will even work for life stories or memoir.

Truth or honesty is a given when writing about close family members or someone important in your life story but no one’s memory is infallible. There may be scenes you want to create to make the story interesting but you can’t remember the exact details of some distant relatives, or doctors, dentists, teachers… yet these people figure in your memoir so description and dialogue must be created to make the story come alive.

Experiment and have fun choosing strong and striking qualities to create unique characters for your stories.

5: Turn your characters into more characters

Finally, remember that each character you create will give you even more character ideas. A protagonist needs an antagonist, a character may need a family, a partner, a business associate…

  • Who is in your character’s family?
  • What are your character’s parents like?
  • Who is your character’s best friend?
  • Who is your character’s enemy?
  • What kind of person gets on your character’s nerves?
  • What kind of romantic attachments will your character have?
  • Has your character a secret -( secrets are great material for fiction, as are fears and phobias)
  • What has your character done that s/he doesn’t want others to find out about
  • Is there something shameful in the past?
  • Is there some aspect of their personality they don’t like?
  • Are they pretending to be someone they’re not?

Brainstorm and develop new characters from the answers.  

Making Character Profiles

There are many character profile questionnaires available online – a simple Google search will spoil you for choice. There is one that Proust used produced by Gotham Writers, USA.

All of the available questionnaires have one aim –  to ensure your know your character as well as you know yourself!

Building a profile will make it easier for you to write the character and know how they will react in whatever situation you put them in. No second-guessing or unbelievable shocks for the reader.

The last thing you want is disappointed readers saying, ‘he/she wouldn’t do that’ or ‘he/she wouldn’t go there’

You have invited readers into your character’s world and they will care deeply about your character and what happens to them.

Writing a mystery novel is a challenge to your talent and your fortitude. To decide on a crime, to work out the solution, to delineate your characters and create their backgrounds take equal amounts of inspiration and concentration. Putting all these elements together to produce a page-turner takes time and more time… you will find that one hour at the typewriter is comparable to a week spent building a stretch of highway across the Arctic.

In the classical form, white-collar crimes, kidnappings, heists etc., are often used as subordinate crimes leading to murder, or as motives for murder. As the primary crime… not nearly as dramatic… A murderer has more to lose than… an embezzler. The stakes are higher, the criminal… more desperate… the drama more tense.

In mysteries, the cause is desperation and the effect is disaster… the writer has to direct all… attention to the facts and impressions that deal directly with the crime and its solution.

  • Cause – the reason for the story, the crime – is the idea for the book.
  • Effect – how the story develops – is the plot… forming the backbone of the book.
  • The plot becomes alive – turns into a story – when you introduce the characters who cause the events, and, in turn, are affected by them.
    … you need a structure. This means setting up your priorities – which elements are primary, and which are secondary in importance.

To begin with, then, you need six elements: three main characters, a crime, a motive and a solution. Now set the scene…

Barbara Norville

Your Turn To Write

Here are some ideas/characters for you to create a story:

Character is

  • a professional dog-walker.
  • a homeless person.
  • a deaf person
  • a contestant on a reality TV show
  • an imposter

What is something your main character wants?

  • to buy a cottage by the sea
  • to romance a neighbour.
  • to reunite with a partner
  • to break the family curse
  • to be a vet

What does your character have to do to get what he/she wants?
Why is there a sense of urgency?

What are three problems/obstacles the character must overcome?
How will they do it?

What will happen?

Conclusion:

  • Possible Ending 1 (if your character gets what he/she wants):
  • Possible Ending 2 (if your character doesn’t get what he/she wants)

Here is a short story under 900 words,  I wrote in the form of a monologue after being given the picture of a woman sitting reading as a prompt funguys a short monologue

Happy Writing

Overcoming The Fear Of Perfect First Lines

whiteboard advertising writing.jpg

Day Six – First Lines Must Transfix!

I’ve paraphrased some very good advice:

When you are staring at a blank page or screen and can’t seem to get started write 10 or 20 ‘first sentences’. Don’t think or write beyond these story openers.

Be as playful or as nonsensical or abstract as you wish. It can be a lot of fun and liberating when you only have to think of the opening line and not the whole story!

Put these lines aside, have a coffee or a short walk or do some gardening … just take a break.

Later, look at the sentences.

Seen in isolation, the simplest of sentences can set off a cascade of questions you can spend an entire story or chapter answering. Eg. ‘He thought of cutting off the other leg.”

  • What leg? Whose leg? Why?
  • Is it a piece of furniture, an animal, a person??
  • How is he going to do it?
  • What happened to the first leg and did he or someone else cut it off?
  • Why is he still thinking about it and not doing it – what is stopping him?
  • Who is this person? Where is he?
  • What historical period is this?

Judy Budhitz: You Must Be This Tall to Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside the Story© 2009

Read and Read Some More

Have a look at the following opening sentences from The Penguin Century of Australian Stories edited by Carmel Bird – what questions do they raise and where could the story go?

You can’t plagiarise – so don’t start your story with the exact words but the lines may trigger a similar idea.

‘We sat in our navy-blue serge tunics with white blouses.

A Snake Down Under, Glenda Adams

If you don’t wait under the house,’ said Rhoda to me, ‘she won’t come at all.’

Under The House, Jessica Anderson.

Down by the bar at the end of the pool, Ella Fitzgerald was telling them to take love easy easy easy and the women with skin like bark kept taking the conversation easy with two gate-crashers from a lugger.

Petals from Blown Roses, Thea Astley

I select from these letters, pressing my fingers down.

‘ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ’, Murray Bail

Louise was born on a Monday; she was married on a Monday, and her cat was eaten by an owl on a Monday.

The Powerful Owl, Candida Baker

I think you will agree, these are all intriguing opening sentence prompting questions.

IMAGERY IS IMPORTANT TO ENGAGE READERS

A successful image jolts the reader’s nervous system when explanation falls flat. Consider, “Donna felt weak,” versus, “Donna was unable to bring the spoon to her mouth.”

Which one makes you want to know what happens next? The rewrite is an example of showing and the first of telling.

writing class bentleigh

Get used to writing the first thing that comes into your head – don’t censor or edit – you’ll be surprised what it may lead to. Many great writers say they do not write per se – but are merely vessels through which writing flows.

The subconscious produces the writing, you just have to keep up. Train yourself to write specific pieces over particular timeframes. Eg. One short story or poem a week.

Set tangible goals but be flexible – life is for living not worrying about self-imposed challenges.

Now it is your turn…

Try to write fast and not plan (no mind mapping today) – just let your mind focus on creating an image the words trigger.

Once you get a story down – then you can shape it for your audience – but you have to write it first!!

An original idea is not necessarily one that hasn’t occurred to others (a concept, plot, twist in story), it can be your approach to the story idea that’s original.

Stephen King wrote about teenage vampires years ago but Stephanie Meyer’s depiction made her Twilight series best sellers.

Your originality will be the slant you choose, your style of writing and your interpretation of a good but perhaps well-worn idea.

GRAB A PEN AND WRITE

Rewrite each of the following statements in a way that shows instead of explains (tells).

By concentrating on creating an effective image your writing will get a boost. (Remember all of this advice and triggers can be used for poetry if that’s your preferred genre.)

  • Her hair was a mess.
  • The garden was ready for picking.
  • I hate broccoli.
  • You always change your mind.
  • The moon is full.
  • Fred’s car was a mess.
  • The food did not look good.
  • The terrier was mean.
  • The old woman’s shoes did not fit.
  • The party was fun.

10_04_anais_nin_quote

Have you created a great first line? Can you continue with one of the stories?

(If none of the above inspired, check Google images on a theme you want to write about and make the image come to life by telling the story of the picture.)

Practice makes perfect good advice when it comes to creative writing. The more you read writers good at their craft, the more you learn and absorb their expertise. The more you write, the easier it becomes to remember a lot of those techniques and apply it to your own writing.

To craft a compelling story, you must first launch it in the right direction. Never forget that the entire course of a story or novel, like an avalanche, is largely defined within its first seconds.

opening into a garden

I love short stories and read a lot of them – and I love travelling (I’ve done a lot of that too!).

Here are twelve first lines to consider why they ‘hook’ you in – and by the way, this is important for all writers, even those into non-fiction! These first lines are from The best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing, 2009 edited by Tony Wheeler

  1. I got off the plane in Addis Ababa and there, as in so many airports so often in the past, was my school friend, Louis, extending a shaky hand. Pico Iyer “No Food, No Rest, No…”
  2. In Borneo, there were only two destinations: upriver and down. Stanley Stewart, “Upriver”
  3. For weeks after returning from my ill-fated journey to the Indian Himalayan village of Kaza, I had difficulty explaining to people why I’d wanted to go there in the first place. Rolf Potts, “Something Approaching Enlightenment
  4. We lost the side-view mirrors somewhere outside Nakhon Ratchasima. Bill Fink, “The End Of The Road”
  5. It was a blazing tropical morning in the middle of nowhere. Simon Winchester “Ascension In The Moonlight”
  6. This story – this true story – concerns reciprocal kindnesses in a country which has come to symbolise humanity’s trials. Nicholas Crane, “Finding Shelter
  7. Through moonlit fog, I walked from the bus station towards the colonial centro of San Christóbal Chiapas. Laura Resau, “Secrets of the Maya”
  8. When I was working in China, it seemed that everyone I needed to see was not where he was supposed to be. Karl Taro Greenfield, “On The Trail
  9. Blam! The mad Tibetan slammed his head against the windscreen with such force that cracks shot across the screen from the point of impact. Tony Wheeler, “Walking the Mount Kailash Circuit”
  10. In 1974, when I was 23, it was not uncommon for a young person to gather together a few dollars, strap on a backpack and spend part of the summer hitchhiking through Europe, searching for unknown foreign adventures or merely trying to postpone the inevitable adult responsibility called ‘work’. Greg Tuleja, “A Slight Leaning Backward”
  11. Devoted as I am to the ethos of Lonely Planet, I was never a backpacker. Jan Morris, “Ignoring The Admiral
  12. The flat perched at the top of the house, little more than a lean-to riveted to Mrs Puri’s ceiling. William Dalrymple, “City of Djinns”

I wrote this story from a prompt in a writing game – you had to go fast and furious and the prompts were bizarre.

Fijian Fantasy, a short story by Mairi Neil

The first line had to be ‘my brother did this weird thing with turtles’,  I had to mention Duluth (yes, this is a place)and the phrase, ‘a smell of leftovers’!

I told you in an earlier post writing games are fun!

Titles as Inspiration

A decade ago, I read about Martha Grimes who writes a series of mystery novels in which the titles are taken from the names of British pubs.

What stories could you write (they don’t have to be mysteries) featuring typical fast food and other restaurants around Melbourne’s suburbs?

 Here are a few ideas to get you started – apologies but you should know by now I love alliteration:

  • Star Struck at Starbucks
  • Mayhem at McDonald’s
  • Wendy’s Wishes
  • Danger at Domino’s
  • Blah Blah’s Battleground
  • Gloria Jean’s Gluttony
  • Pancake Parlour Pirate
  • Taco Bill’s Tyranny
  • Curry House Caper

If you are into historical fiction or any genre imaginable here are a few names of British Pubs I pulled from The Wordsworth Dictionary of Pub Names – an intoxicating history of a famous British institution, Wordsworth edition, London 1994,

book cover - pub names

It is amazing what books you find on your shelves! I’ll list where the pubs are so you know I’m not making them up – but so what if I was – I am a creative writer:)

A Bit on the Side (Chippenham, Wiltshire)
Abbot’s Fireside (Eltham, Kent)
Air balloon (Abingdon and elsewhere)
Angel by the Bridge (Henley-on-Thames)
Atmospheric Railway (Starcross, near Exeter)
Babes in the Wood (Hanging Heaton, West Yorks)
Bag ‘o Nails (Annesley, Nottinghamshire)
Bald-face Stag (Burnt Oak, Edgware)
Bareknuckle Boys (Holmfirth, Huddersfield)
Bleak House (Horsell Common, Sry and elsewhere)
Cuckoo Bush (Gotham Nottinghamshire)
Crystal Palace (Merthyr Tydfil and elsewhere)
Crown and Cushion (Eton and elsewhere)
Cross Rifles ( Bridgwater Somerset)
Court Jester (Hampton Gloucester)

And the alphabetical lists go on for 300 pages with a potted history of each name – although many state the obvious!

Maiden’s Head (Maidenhead and elsewhere)
Magpie and Stump (London EC4)
King’s Head (London and elsewhere)
Queen’s Arms ( Watford and elsewhere)
Try Again (Bristol)

Now Go Do Fast Writing

Close your eyes, relax and breathe deeply.
Say to yourself: With every word I write I will become calmer, more confident and more creative.
Repeat 3 times with feeling.
Imagine yourself writing quickly and fluidly
Smile – this is writing for pleasure!
Let go of your logical mind.
Let your subconscious come up with the words and ideas – trust your memory to have stored interesting events, people, thoughts…

Good Luck and Happy Writing

Writing A Recipe For A Good Mood

I love Cooking poem.jpgWriting Post for Day Five – Count Your Blessings To be Alive

Keeping a sense of perspective and humour amidst all the gloom and doom can be difficult but for mental health – and physical as shown by the fights in supermarkets  – it is necessary.

Many people are doing their bit online – sharing jokes, funny memes, clips of singing, dancing, live performances of every creative art and hints, like mine, to ease the anxiety and stress of being cooped up while in quarantine or working from home.

Working at home doesn’t necessarily mean you are alone – especially if children are home from school. Perhaps the only time alone will be in your head! Put those thoughts to good use, focus on ideas (the more positive the better), grab a notebook, and write.

This post is about writing recipes, not for food or cooking. There are plenty of free recipes for that on the Internet and I’m sure with the panic buying and shortages there will be a host of new food recipes doing the rounds.

Not to mention books: How I Survived  Covid19 When The Pantry Was Almost Bare…

(I could write that one because I refused to panic buy and with a compromised immune system I’m avoiding the queues in shops!)

Humour & Love Is Needed

I started with my Dr Seuss inspired poem written in a lesson about rhyming poetry to grab your attention. I mean who doesn’t know or love Dr Seuss?

But now, here are some ‘rules’ or suggestions:

Eight Steps For Writing A Recipe To Lift Your Mood

  • What would your ideal day consist of? Jot points down – often a list is a good format – or maybe even start with the same introductory phrase: Each day I’d love to 
  • Now make a mind map. In the middle of a blank piece of paper write ‘My recipe.’ Here is an example of a mindmap from the Internet from ResearchGate:
Illustrative-example-of-a-mind-map-of-Happiness.png
These initial thoughts on happiness are certainly relatable!
  •  Now describe your ingredients. Go through them one by one
  • All recipes specify quantities for every ingredient. Add these to your ingredients on the mind map.
  • Try adding similes or metaphors to make your recipe more interesting and imaginative.
    (A simile is a comparison of one thing to another using the connecting word ‘as’ or ‘like’, a metaphor just is and doesn’t need the introduction. For example:- When my first daughter was born a popular song at the time was ‘A Little Ray of Sunshine’. If I was using a simile, she’d be like a little ray of sunshine, but with metaphor, she is my little ray of sunshine. A subtle but important difference.)
  • Method of Preparation – it’s your recipe so explore, be daring, be innovative – give readers a window into your soul…
  • Serving Suggestions are necessary, of course:
    (Add a ‘garnish’ to your recipe, these are the finishing touches that present a dish to perfection.)
  • Add a title – What word or feeling would sum up your recipe? Try and keep it relevant and short. Or call it like it is:

A Recipe For A Good Mood
Mairi Neil (2016)

Ingredients:
a chorus of Mary Jane’s chuckles
an eyeful of Anne’s excitement
a cacophony of birdsong
a dash of possum
a snuggle and lick from Aurora
a strong trace of walking on the foreshore
a breath of rosemary and lavender
large helpings of writing time
a ladle of television murder-mystery
unlimited cupfuls of English Breakfast tea
a glass of cider (or two)
a shower of sunshine
a whisper of an autumn breeze
a turntable of favourite music
a reflection on the love of family and friends

Method:
Add liberal dollops of Mary Jane’s infectious laughter
Organise Anne’s surprises to drizzle at intervals
Enjoy Aurora’s daily cuddles and friendly licks
Encourage the possums to nestle in the trees
Welcome the magpies’ morning trill, the butcher birds’ songs,
the wattlebirds’ chok-chok and the doves evening coos.
Wait for the aromatic profusion of rosemary, lavender, geraniums
and roses and rainbow colours of seasonal displays
Embrace the sea air and lapping of waves

Mix and serve daily, in no particular order. Whether sunshine or rain this recipe has my personal guarantee.

home is where the paws are.jpg
One of my Mary Jane’s delightful paper cuts

Try writing another recipe with different ingredients or write a recipe for a friend, a family member, based on what that person likes:

my_recipe_my_mind_map_example_2.jpg

Or perhaps a recipe based on current affairs (especially if you have a solution to the current catastrophe – remember we’re focusing on a good mood but absurd is okay), the perfect holiday, a travel experience…

**And if you are not into poetic -style recipes whatever is stirred up and remembered can be written in prose – another life story, or piece of fiction!

There Are Benefits To using  A Mindmap To Brainstorm Ideas Before Writing

  • A mind map is a diagram that uses words or sketches to note ideas linked to a central keyword. (This is often called theme in creative writing. A piece of writing can have many themes but often there is an overarching one.)
  • A mind map gives you the opportunity to explore many different concepts and shows the process of developing them. There is no limit to size – if you want to be expansive grab a sheet of butcher’s paper!)
  • Mind maps are useful for generating, visualising and organising ideas. They are often used to make decisions and solve problems in the corporate world, but for creative writers, we generate ideas for stories or poems, and to recall memories.

What Does Your Ideal Day Consist of?

Prepare the mindmap –

  • Favourite season
  • Favourite sounds
  • Favourite time of day
  • Favourite place
  • Favourite colours
  • Favourite hobby & activity
  • Favourite weather
  • Favourite smells
  • Favourite animals
  • Favourite books
  • Favourite films/TV shows

Use whatever interests you, add extra categories.

Write examples next to all or chosen categories – there may be more than one answer. (Go with your initial one perhaps)

When describing your ingredients go through them one by one.

What words would you use? Think of associations with your central ingredient and write them around that. Think of descriptive words that you could use along with similes and metaphors.

Let your mind roam freely, don’t think too hard or edit yet. Try not to judge one word as being better than another at this stage.

Repeat for as many ingredients as you wish and if you use the senses in the description it will help to make your recipe poetic.

This is a Recipe For a Good Mood, rather than a recipe for food, but all recipes have measurements – some are exact like half a tablespoon of sugar…

In your recipe, measurements don’t have to be standard. You can use traditional measures but be creative and add more inventive indications of quantity.

A small amount could be –

  • a pinch,
  • an echo,
  • a thought,
  • a moment.

A large amount could be –

  • a pound,
  • a mountain,
  • a shout,
  • a deluge.

Think of other ways we measure things, such as time, space, height and distance.

Here is a list of words for measurement (some traditional, others not) – you can add more in the comments:

  • pint                                   
  • quarter                                   
  • pound
  • ounce                                   
  • teaspoon                                
  • glass
  • cup                                      
  • drizzle                                    
  • pinch of
  • slice                                     
  • jar                                         
  • lick
  • echo                                    
  • mountain                                
  • tickle
  • cacophony                         
  • scattering                               
  • smattering
  • eyeful                                  
  • thought                                  
  • twinkle
  • suggestion of
  • wrinkle
  • beat
  • scrap
  • squeak
  • trace
  • ladle
  • shower of
  • blink
  • breath
  • fan
  • gaggle
  • whisker
  • chorus
  • trunk
  • particle
  • rattle
  • cube
  • scribble
  • scratch
  • dollop

This recipe is about feelings, therefore, make it as richly descriptive as possible.

Similes add depth to a description. eg. A summer’s evening as soft as velvet
Spring blossom falling like snow

If your ingredient is A tranquil summer or A Quiet Summer Day/Evening

Think about comparisons: What things are quiet?  for example tranquil as…. a soft wind in the trees, a sleeping mouse (or any pet), an owl in flight, a swan gliding…

Rather than repeat the description of ‘quiet’ twice, choose different words to mean the same thing eg.. A sprinkle of quiet summer, tranquil as an owl in flight.

Tip:
Do this for one or two ingredients, not every line because you can defeat the impact of the mood you want to create.

Copy-of-LI-Voices-Quotes

•There’s no right or wrong way to approach your method of preparation. 

  • Write out the list of your ingredients onto a piece of paper.
  • What will you mix your ingredients in?
  • In what order will you add them?
  • Is there a special way they need adding?

This is where you can grab one of those recipe books off the shelf that you have stopped using because it is easier to Google but you haven’t thrown them out because of an emotional attachment, they were a gift, or sometimes it is quicker to check a page than wait for Malcolm Turnbull’s oh, so slow, NBN to download.

cook books.jpg

Check out the instructions on a favourite recipe and substitute your ingredients:

  • vigorously beat,
  • fold in gently,
  • stir slowly,
  • sprinkle liberally
  • beat with a fork

You might put a fractious toddler in a large garden and lightly whisk a sprinkle of quiet summer….

Look at the methods of preparation from the list below or choose your own:

  • whizz
  • mix
  • beat
  • stir
  • whisk
  • simmer
  • heat
  • cook
  • boil
  • sprinkle
  • Add
  • coat
  • cut
  • tip
  • pour
  • cut
  • divide
  • split
  • heat
  • warm
  • scatter
  • skim
  • knead

Garnishing & Serving Suggestions:

Add a ‘garnish’ to your recipe, these are the finishing touches that present a dish to perfection. You may like to think of it as the cherry on top of your Recipe For a Good Mood

For example:

  1. Serve with a sprig of stories and a warm feeling.
  2. Garnish with a cuddle from a sister and enjoy with a relish of friends
  3. Best enjoyed with a glass of Cider
  4. Serve with optimism and chocolate cake.

You can say how many people it serves – perhaps the ‘recipe poem’ is for a special celebration – birthday, anniversary, wedding, christening…

Add a title. What word or feeling would sum up your recipe? Try and keep it short.

Fun, Warmth, A Giggle, Feeling Blessed, Chilling Out…

Write Your Recipe For a Good Mood –

prose or poetry!

Preserving History

And here is a bit of history in a recipe book – a selection of pages of a book put together on my kitchen table for Mordialloc Primary School as a fundraiser in the 90s.

Most parents contributed a recipe, and some helped with surveys and collection and encouraged their children to illustrate. Some of the data is worthy of a time capsule!

There were no computers, no money for offset printing and the book was divided into sections, with bits of general knowledge and current research regarding food sprinkled throughout.

The aim was to encourage harmony, tolerance and an appreciation of each other’s culture and it worked – families had fun contributing and we learnt a lot about different countries and foods.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We even got a review in the Herald Sun – not bad for a wee school and complete novices. You never know where your ‘kitchen’ creativity will lead!

herald sun review.jpg

Happy Writing!