A Writer’s ABC

Sherlock Holmes observing Baker Street Station, Central London

All writing begins as a shadow, a faint image, a specter without substance. Then something steps out of the mist and engages a living mind. What is it? Who? Where?   This process of discovery is called imagination, and it seeks a home in which to grow. I thought of a detective, a crime, and a victim. What would their relationship be? If the victim is American but the crime takes place in London, the setting as well as the violence would alienate her. How would an experienced detective bridge the gap?

Research creates a skeleton for the imagination to dwell in, a structure with ligaments, tendons, and muscles as well as bones. The same elements which hold a body together hold a story together and move it forward. Each character assumes a shape and has a history. Is he the oldest in his family? Does she have brothers or sisters? Is he the only boy? Was there conflict in her home? These and other factors influence the way a character thinks, acts, and speaks. Why does a man become a police officer? A detective? How does his training affect him? Why does another join the military and seek the challenge to qualify for the special forces? What mindset does he adopt and carry with him? How would an ex-special-forces sergeant deal with a frightened witness he is assigned to protect? His standards of behavior are high; how would he handle his frustration when she could not reach them? Thumbnail sketches of characters are not sufficient. Profiles are needed.

Each character needs an individual voice. A reader should be able to tell your characters apart, not just from their physical descriptions but ideally with dialogue alone, the cadence of their speech, their vocabulary.

Imagination and research are lifeless without experience, the heart and lungs of a story. When Red Smith said, “Writing is easy; all you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,” I believe he was referring to the power that comes from being on the inside looking out rather than the outside looking in. If you’ve felt fear, you know when a breath becomes a gasp. If you’ve suffered grief, you know that hearts can break and bleed. If trauma has changed your life, you know how it will change the lives of your characters and how difficult recovery will be for them. Specific causes of feelings vary, but feelings themselves are universal. Can you make your reader see their smiles and frowns?

Keats wrote, “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced,” and Ionesco added, “Ideologies separate us; dreams and anguish pull us together.” As an author, I walk in my characters’ shoes, and my experiences teach me how my characters feel and what they do. When a character has developed fully, I cut the umbilical cord and allow him or her to grow into a separate being.

Imagination, research, and experience: necessary but non-linear elements in a good story. Many times I have realized that I don’t know enough and must discipline myself to research further. Details gleaned from research can strengthen a story and add power to a narrative. Sometimes I require additional thought to light the way to the next chapter or a day away to gain perspective. Sometimes I need to channel rather than magnify an experience. Every story, however, calls for a combination of all three factors, and your characters deserve everything you can give them.

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