Category Archives: Description

It’s the Time of the Season: How Weather Affects Our Stories

I can remember a lazy afternoon a few years back in my old apartment; I had just finished watching The Sex and the City movie (part I) when I did something I don’t normally do—clicked on the DVD’s bonus features. For whatever reason, I decided to watch the entire movie again while listening to the director’s, Michael Patrick King, commentary. What really struck me was his use of the changing seasons to move the plot along. I’ll paraphrase here, and you don’t have to be a regular SATC viewer to understand the point.

In the beginning, when Mr. Big leaves Carrie on the proverbial altar it is autumn. I remember the characters discussing a September wedding. Simultaneously, we discover that Steve committed adultery, and while it’s obvious that he is deeply sorry, Miranda stubbornly refuses to make amends and begins to plan her new life as a single woman.

Throughout the cold, blistery winter that follows it is clear that Carrie has fallen into a deep depression. The director even shows how she dyes her black—as if to reflect her emotional state. Miranda too, seems to be barely pulling by, and the tensions lead to a big blow out between the two women on Valentine’s Day.

Then spring comes. Carrie has pulled herself up from her own fiery depths and changes her hair back to its normal, lighter color. Miranda and Steve make plans to meet on the Brooklyn Bridge to attempt reconciliation. I can remember the scene where Carrie and Miranda are walking through Central Park—spring has exploded. The trees are full of plump blossoms, petals float through air, and the grass is green with the vitality. Carrie and Miranda have a new way about them—the fog has lifted. The hard times are over.

When I look back at my life, I see that my wildest, craziest memories were during summer. My darkest periods were during winter. My sense of hope was strongest during spring, and my most prevalent transitioning periods were during autumn.

So I got to thinking…how does the use of the four seasons enhance or reflect plot, setting, and characterization in fiction? As a literature major in college I learned that the seasons often stand as metaphors for the following concepts:

The Four Seasons. From questgarden.com

Spring: Conception

Summer: Life

Autumn: Old Age

Winter: Death

That being said, how can we utilize this in our writing?

Spring: This is classically a season of new beginnings, of hope. Perhaps, for one of your characters it is the end of a depressing period (like old Carrie Bradshaw’s). It is a good time for decision making—a good time to fall in love. The mood of spring is renewed energy. What kinds of situations might your characters go through in the springtime? Spring may also be the perfect season for a happy ending—sort of like a restored sense of faith that all is well.

Then again, it might be fun to try and contrast the growing beauty of a spring setting with a struggling character, or an overblown conflict.

Summer: The season of heated romances, vacations, and an overall sense of freedom. While we’re all adults now and often work through summers, but the notion of June through August being a carefree period will never completely fade—it’s morphed into our psyches and it will certainly come across in literature. This is a great season to use if your main characters are teenagers or college students. Summer is an archetypal time for experimenting, doing crazy things, falling in love, and finding ourselves.

On the other hand, summer can come with a good dose of dread. I always think of The Secret Life of Bees where Lily Owens fears what will come with summer’s end, as she may be forced to leave the home of the Boatwright sisters. The truth is, we all wonder how things will change when summer is over Hey, even Don Henley wonders. “Boys of Summer” anyone?

Autumn: This is a beautiful, but often melancholy season. It’s a time where we cling to the past, (again, shut up Don Henley!) or a more favorable time. Vacation is over; reality has returned. In that way, it is a very practical season. Perhaps in a work of a fiction autumn is where certain events unfold that will lead to a period of mourning. A character grows ill, and his deteriorating body juxtaposes the changing, falling leaves.

On brighter, happier note, autumn is a great time to “turn over a new leaf,” and in some cases, it takes on characteristics of spring in the sense that something new is beginning such as, school, college, etc. Plus, you could always milk that whole concept of the harvest.

Winter: For anyone suffering from SAD, this one is obvious. Winter is a phase of harder times. It’s more difficult for the weak, weary, hungry, and war torn. It is fitting to portray a character going through a depressive state in winter (after all, he can always rise up come spring). Perhaps a character who has been jilted, become unemployed, lost a family member, or finalized a divorce could suffer a tormenting winter. He could be on a post-holiday crisis, a period of uncertainly, stagnancy, and hopelessness. Having a winter season in the background for something like this will always be fitting.

Winter is also a hibernation period. Maybe  a mad-scientist type character works on his experiment like crazy during the winter, all holed up in his study only to reveal his masterpiece when the weather begins to turn. Which by the way I believe was the exact scenario in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I do remember a lot of vivid winter imagery in that novel.

This is not to say that a writer MUST make use of the seasons to accurately reflect plot, setting, and characterization. Sometimes it will happen naturally—I’ve noticed that a lot of what I described above indirectly occurs in my own novel. However, I do think seasonal consideration should be applied. As writers we can certainly mindful of this technique. What’s happening in the background at any given time is important. And hey, so is weather. Otherwise we wouldn’t talk about it so much!

Do the four seasons play a role in your writing?

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Filed under Books and Literature, Characters, Description, Plot & Structure, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Setting, The Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Autonomy

“Writing is like being in love. You never get better at it or learn more about it. The day you think you do is the day you lose it. Robert Frost called his work a lover’s quarrel with the world. It’s ongoing. It has neither a beginning nor an end. You don’t have to worry about learning things. The fire of one’s art burns all the impurities from the vessel that contains it.”
—James Lee Burke

This is essentially true. But as both intrinsic writers and student writers we do learn rules. Lots and lots of rules. Endless rules about characterization, plot, structure, dialogue, thematic undercurrents, and on and on. And yes, there is a basic format to a piece of writing. It has to be organized–this organization takes on many, many, forms, but it still must have a form.

So maybe we can ‘learn’ things about writing, but it seems like everywhere I look the rules are being broken. Maybe that’s why Burke is saying the ‘learning process,’ in a sense doesn’t really exist in writing.

I’ve heard countless critiques about my characters and their lack of dimensions, yet then I read a published piece in a literary magazine where the characters don’t have names, backgrounds, anything. They’re shadows who live in a timeless space. Do we learn the rules to ignore them? Or is there a certain recipe to follow regardless?

I think every piece of writing must work in spite of itself. It has to operate in its best capacity as it stands. Any reader can tell when a story, poem, essay has value. It’s isolated from every other story, poem, or essay. Maybe once an intrinsic learns all the learns he or she can pick and choose the ones he or she wants to incorporate into the piece.

As a child I learned how to print my letters. Then I learned cursive. Now my handwriting is a unique hybrid of the two. Maybe writing is like that. But then again, I don’t really know.

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Filed under Breaking the Rules, Breaking Through, Characters, Description, Inspiration, Plot & Structure, Revision, The Writing Life, Writing Process

The Particulars

“As writers we live life twice, like a cow that eats its food once and then regurgitates it to chew and digest it again. We have a second chance at biting into our experience and examining it. … This is our life and it’s not going to last forever. There isn’t time to talk about someday writing that short story or poem or novel. Slow down now, touch what is around you, and out of care and compassion for each moment and detail, put pen to paper and begin to write.”
—Natalie Goldberg

As an intrinsic writer, in my daily life I pay attention to the ‘particulars,’ or the details surrounding me. This began as a concentrated effort, probably some time during my undergraduate years when I first became immersed in literature. I read a ton as a kid, of course, any intrinsic will tell that he or she did. But back then I read countless R.L. Stine books, and The Babysitter’s Club series, plus other child classics like the Polk Street School tales, and Ramona, etc. Back then I read for the stories, the images that showed up in my mind, the characters that toyed with my imagination.

As I got older, I discovered that literature could have a rippling effect. Freshman year in high school I read A Separate Peace, by John Knowles (still one of my all time favorite books–I don’t care what the feminists say about it having no female characters. I used to love teaching it, too.) and for the first time discovered that fiction went beyond my favorite childhood narratives. I saw the complexity, the raw emotion, the parallels to real life.

These days, as a writer myself, I’m convinced that the complicated mesh and intricate web that makes up the anatomy of a story is all in the particulars. Any good novel, short story, screenplay, or even poem should be difficult to summarize. Even my own novel, when someone asks me what it is about, there is no way to explain it in a linear fashion. I can describe the plot, but I’ll always have to stop, backtrack, lay down the foundation of who is who, and what is what. Eventually the person gets tired of listening. You have to read it, I’ll say. Two years ago, I wrote a short story in a fiction writing class as part of my graduate program. The story was about a man who was having an affair with his mother-in-law. Of course it’s not that simple, see? There’s a background story, there’s various threads that weave together to make the whole. A classmate told me that I had “built [the story] like a house.” In any good writing, there has to be a recipe. Main ingredients, lesser ingredients, and those ingredients that make it just right.

Then there is filler. I search for filler everyday. The one stark red cardinal among a cluster of sparrows amidst a snowy backdrop. The visible veins in my cat’s ear when she sits next to a lamp. In spring, when the cherry blossoms along the main avenue shed their petals in the wind, lining up collectively along the curb lines. The leftover stench of onions hiding the pore of my forefinger after a night of chopping and mincing. A story is both big and small. Life is both big and small. The details are there for everyone. It’s up to the intrinsic types to point them out.

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Filed under Characters, Description, Inspiration, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Writing Life, Why We Write, Writer's Block, Writing Details, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Have you ‘scene’ it?

“If I’m at a dull party I’ll invent some kind of game for myself and then pick someone to play it with so that I am, in effect, writing a scene. I’m supplying my half of the dialogue and hoping the other half comes up to standards. If it doesn’t, I try to direct it that way.”
—Evan Hunter

I think as an intrinsic writer, I’m often looking for scenes. Let me explain: I often examine my surroundings looking for a story to tell. Generally though, a given situation will only supply a scene. A story is more involved; for example, stories involve finely-tuned characters with flaws and backgrounds, and well-structured plot that weaves, riffs, and undulates until all the loose ends are connected, until all the kinks are unwoven.

Scenes, on the other hand, can happen anytime, anyplace. So can ‘concepts,’ or ‘themes,’ if you will. I attended a wake tonight. The deceased was the elderly mother of a cousin. I scanned over the old black and white family photographs glued to the poster board, and reveled a little in her ‘golden era’ shots and poses. Bobbed hair, church hat, porcelain visage, simultaneously carefree and classy. From here a ‘concept’ developed: ten to fifteen years from now, these types of snapshots won’t be occupying the empty spaces of funeral homes. The youthful pictures will depict long hair, sideburns, and bell bottoms. Abracadabra. A theme is born.

This is how I think these days. This notion–however fleeting–could find itself in the pages of my novel one day. I didn’t always know it, or at least I couldn’t always put into words, but I’ve always, without a doubt, for most of my life, been creating scenes. Is that what makes me an intrinsic writer?

I became aware of it in my early twenties. Oddly, at bars. Who’d of thought? While most kids my age were focusing on getting drunk and hooking up, I’d plant myself at a bar stool and observe. I’d look around for a scene to create. For a lifelike moment to imitate in my stories. I’d give strangers identities, and I’d do gut checks…how are you feeling, Katie? Here you are alive in this moment. What do you got? What can you carry forth? I labeled myself a ‘philosophical partier.’

I guess in order to write, one must look to write. It’s a sacrifice in a way. To live on the outer most circle. But to us intrinsic types, it’s not just worth it, it’s second nature.

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Filed under Breaking Through, Description, Inspiration, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Writing Life, Top Ten Lists, Writing Details, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Visions

As an intrinsic writer, my ability to conjure images is plentiful. Since I was a kid, while reading books I’d envision places that I’ve never seen before. Sure, sometimes a character’s mentioning of “Grandma’s house,” would place me in my own grandmother’s home. More often though, I’d see a whole place. New houses, new schools, new neighborhoods, new towns, new cities, etc. Sometimes I’ll revisit these places that live in my mind’s eye; in other words, two totally separate novels by two totally separate authors will wind up in the same setting.

As I gradually transform from reader to a reader/writer, this notion grows stronger. Unless I have particular setting in mind (i.e. my most recent short story) my mental backdrops are glimpses of the unknown. Where are these places? Do they exist? Do I dare attempt to be new-agey, and suggest that they are abodes from a previous life?

One could argue that it’s based on a writer’s description, but that can’t be 100% percent correct. Now that I write like a fiend, I understand that regardless of how important sketching may be, there is still a story to tell. All good stories balance the touchstones–characterization, plot, themes, etc.–there is only so much room for description. The writers plant an idea, that’s all. The rest comes from the clandestine capacity for fantasy of the intrinsic reader.

These places…or people or things…creep into my mind throughout the day. It always gives me a warming feeling. If my current environment feels threatening in the least, I can escape. I’ve always been naturally drawn to books, but it wasn’t until I started writing that I’ve understood why. Words and books exert the mind. A novel has far fewer limitations than do film or television.

But we know this. The ability to create our own settings only helps to prove it.

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Filed under Characters, Description, Inspiration, The Setting, The Writing Life, Writing Process

On Location

I haven’t posted in a few days. I went down to Cape May, NJ–one of my most cherished places–with my husband-to-be, my sister, her boyfriend, and a friend for New Year’s Eve. I was excited to head down the GSP to be in my favorite place regardless, but what made this trip even more uncanny for me was the fact that a short story I’m currently writing actually takes place in Cape May. So, in a sense I was doing research…on location. So excited to say that.

It wasn’t real research. I wasn’t scouring libraries and town halls for archives, or arranging interviews with the historical society down there, it was more about sniffing out the environment. The story is not a commentary on CM’s history; it’s just a story that happens to be set there.

It worked, I felt the pulse of my story penetrating through my mind while I was visiting. We went to the bar where the main action occurs, and I tried to memorize as many details as I could. I mocked myself a little, thinking: a real intrinsic type would have brought a notebook to record every subtle element that presents itself.

Here’s what I recall:
-Low ceilings
-Wall-length, front windows that open up during summer, letting the sea-salty air from the ocean across Beach Avenue waft through into the dining area
-J-shaped black top bar
-Chalkboard-style surfboards displaying dinner specials written in blue, pink, and green chalk
-Gingerbread trimming on outside
-Two story building, neighboring a second bar–looks like apartments above venues.
-Pool table, stage for band, small dance floor
-Semi-dank mini hallway leading to semi-dank restrooms
-Overall dim atmosphere, mostly neon lighting
-Bungalow-y themed, makes one recall Bob Marley

Not bad for having written nothing down. Of course I’ve been to the place numerous times, but my desire to memorize both macro and micro details suggests a further emergence of my ‘intrinsic abilities.’

Understanding place or setting in a given story is particularly crucial in fiction. A good way to determine whether setting has been effectively established is to consider how different the story would be set someplace else. Would it be the same tale? Could it be the same tale?

My novel is set on the “Jersey side” of the George Washington Bridge. No particular town, just based on those that make-up that general area. A few weeks back I visited a friend in Fairview, NJ (right next to Cliffside Park, NJ) and I felt like I was in the setting of my novel. The sardine-style housing, the view of NYC, the busy traffic, and overall sense of edginess that embodies the vicinity…I felt thoroughly relieved that I had somehow, nailed it. Sure, I’m from northern Jersey myself, but not quite the setting of my book. It gave me confidence that such a place exists, and that my readers will be able to feel the place that holds all the drama, energy, conflict, and functioning of the story.

Note in point: Let your setting breathe. When one thinks of memories, childhood, etc. he/she always conjures a place first. I get random, aimless visions of places in my mind constantly. I’ve never seen them before, but I know them. Many of my stories start that way.

Setting can be a great place to start. Just saying…

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Filed under Description, The Setting