Friday, February 26, 2010

Frankenstein Castle-- Thoughts on Character and Setting

When I wander, or flaneur-- the more accurate word I learned from Julie Larios (a poet and advisor at Vermont College), I sometimes think about setting and characters; how they are interrelated in story.
A character placed in another setting often means a very different story.
A good writing exercise (as well as an interesting way to get to know your character better) is to place the character in a different setting and write a scene.

Recently I visited Frankenstein Castle ruins which are near Darmstadt, Germany. The castle was built in the 1200's. Additions were added over the centuries; the towers are more recent than the walls and main structure. The castle is now in ruins, but the very small castle chapel (says 1556 in a stone on the outside) is still in good shape. The stunning floor tiles appeared to be from an earlier time period.

Many will connect this castle with Mary Shelley and her Gothic novel, Frankenstein. The castle is not actually connected with Shelley or the story. But the story was in the back of my mind when we wandered. It was a cold, foggy day--perfect atmosphere for visiting ruins.

Here are a few photos:

I wonder what the castle looked like 500 year ago.
It is fun to imagine.

The floor in the chapel

(If you happen to be in Germany for several weeks around Halloween, you could visit Burg Frankenstein for entertainment. (Sorry, the link is in German.) There is a restaurant on the premises, outside the castle walls.)

Place or setting can help build our stories. Setting can mold our characters. In some books setting is a character, such as in my WIP (work in progress). This novel, which is set in Brazil, could not take place in a different place.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Blank Page

You know, some days it is hard to face a Blank Page.

Writing is lots of things.

Most of all I think Writing is Courage.

With some Play and Hard Work mixed in.

Five Practices which Feed my Creative Writing

Write. Write and write and write. And write some more. Write on days when writing flows. Write on days when writing is hard and words are elusive.
Remember. Both types of days are good writing days.

Read. I read books both of the type I write and the type I don’t. I keep an annotated bibliography for my MFA program, where I note a few craft techniques that I admire in each book. I plan to continue this after I graduate because it helps me read more deeply.

Learn from other writers. Classes, critique groups, discussion boards, a mentor. Right now I'm in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Help other writers. This is a win-win practice. When we help other writers that means there will be more good books in the world. Plus, I find that when I help other writers, such as when I critique their stories, I learn--and in the process I become a better writer.

Critical analysis. This is less scary than it sounds. It doesn’t need to be as formal as a paper or the essays I wrote for my MFA. It can be as simple as a question of how to best write some aspect of our story. Then we can look at how other writers tackle writing craft. I'm doing more critical analysis than normal as I write my thesis this semester.

As I look at this list I realize that all of these practices are part of what I do in my MFA program. The synergy of writing, reading, mentoring, being mentored and thinking critically help as I write my stories.

As I write this I realize there are other things I do. Walks. Hikes. Nature. Sunshine. I often go on a walk when I feel stuck. Seeing things, going new places, visiting museums, wandering around, meeting people, hanging out with friends and family and other writers. All feeds my writing.

Living life fully, in addition to the practices I mention above--is the best thing for my creative work.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Writing Influences

Recently my thoughts have wandered to the many writers who have influenced my writing. Many writers, more than I can list, have helped my writing grow and expanded my horizons of how and what I write.

As I was thinking about who has influenced my writing, I wondered who influenced these writers. After all, those who influenced them, also exert an influence on me.

I asked three writers (who influence me and my writing) about who influences their writing. Here are their responses.
I loved hearing what they had to say and hope you do too.

Uma Krishnaswami writes picture books (such as Monsoon) and middle grade novels (Naming Maya). She has a wonderful blog.
"I read Rumer Godden's novel, The River, when I was about 13. Before that, it had never once occurred to me that it was possible to write a story in English and set it in India. I'd never read anything like it. Harriet in the novel was nothing like me, but in some odd way I could recognize the spaces she inhabited. Beyond a doubt, Rumer Godden was the writer who gave me permission to write.

"I grew up reading Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dickens, Hardy, George Eliot, P.G. Wodehouse. What a motley combination! Reading and rereading every book we had in the house. I think I was learning about the shape of story. Later on I read Indian novelist and short story writer R.K. Narayan, whose marvelous fictional town of Malgudi had a specific kind of resonance that I'm still trying to work out, and Ruskin Bond whose loving depiction of India's hill country is nothing short of inspirational.

"Throw Salman Rushdie into that mix--not his adult novels, but Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which is about as perfect a fantastic fable as I can think of. I'm delighted to hear that there is now going to be a sequel. Rushdie's essays have greatly informed how I think about my refusal to choose, my sense that one shouldn't have to make cultural choices in writing, but instead let all one's influences combine, even when the combinations seem odd ones."
Margaret Bechard writes middle grade and young adult fiction. (Her books include Hanging onto Max.)
“I think I would say, first of all, and kind of obviously, I've been influenced by every book and every story I've read. Or had read to me. We had a set of "classic" children's books when I was little . . . and my mom read those out loud to me when I was like five or six. So Black Beauty. Alice in Wonderland. Heidi. And then I read a lot myself. Good stuff: the Narnia books, Winnie the Pooh, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland . . . But a lot of not so great stuff, too: Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and Enid Blyton's Adventure books--I loved those books--and all the Black Stallion books. And then of course all the stuff you read as you get older and become an English major.

"Another influence for me has been my critique group. I joined when I was just starting out. I hadn't published anything. I'd barely ever finished anything. But meeting with this group of wonderful writers--Susan Fletcher, Ellen Howard, David Gifaldi, Carmer Bernier Grand, Eric Kimmel, Eloise Jarvis McGraw, to name just a few of them--having them comment on my writing and listening to their stories, made me a better writer. They kept me honest. They gave me something to aspire to. They kept me writing.

"And I have to say that I really think another big influence has been my kids. Partly because they gave me story ideas--as Katharine Patterson says, they gave me something to write about. But also because I think in some ways I wrote for them. I wanted to capture a bit of them on the page, maybe? Before they grew up and slipped away? But also, I had their voices in the back of my head. I was trying to write something they might want to read.”
Rose Green writes young adult fantasy novels.
“I'd say that Madeleine L'Engle is a huge influence because interesting stuff happens to relatable characters, and at the same time, there's meat that means something. And, she wrote back to me when I was in 9th grade and had to write to someone who did what I wanted to do when I grew up. Just a few lines on the back of a brochure, but it meant a lot. Also, JK Rowling, even though I was an adult when her first book came out. She is the genius of all plot! And in a general sense, I'm very much influenced by the many mysteries I read as a kid. (Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Belden, and moving up to the adult Dorothy Sayers.) Not great literature (with the exception of Sayers, whose writing I love for many reasons), but they gave me a sense of structure. I find that my mind always wants to put a mystery in whatever I write, as well as dropping in magic somehow.”