Writers Workshop – “Lions, Witches, and Wardrobes…”

The Hampton Roads Writers Group offers a monthly workshop through The Traveling Pen Series.  I was fortunate to be able to attend Saturday’s session – “Lions, Witches and Wardrobes…Oh, My! – Writing Paranormal and Fantasy” presented by YA and Paranormal Author, Vanessa Barger.  The 2 1/2 hour workshop was $20 for non-members ($10 for members) but was well worth the price.

As a writer of young adult fiction, I am always looking for fresh ideas.  Nothing against vampires and werewolves, mind you, but in my humble opinion, they are a bit overdone.  Barger presented each participant with a mythical creature, complete with the general description and instructed us to make the creature our own.  I received a Wendigo.  For those unfamiliar with this beast, he appears in Algonquian legends and seems to discourage cannibalism (apparently, those individuals who consumed human flesh were at risk for turning into the monster).  For the exercise, I decided that my wendigo would indeed eat people but only those that were evil and needed to be eaten…  He/She would prefer to live in solitude, in order to minimize chance encounters with said evil people.  Just by changing a couple of details, the possibility of a new story emerged.

Downtown, Suffolk, VA
Downtown,
Suffolk, VA

As the workshop ended at noon, my husband and I drove over to Suffolk, VA. We visited the downtown area and had some amazing she-crab soup at a little place called The Baron’s Pub and Restaurant.

With the sun shining and a nice breeze, we did a little sightseeing.

This particular church caught my eye.  I love the windows and the ornamental details.

And I couldn’t help but wonder what stories this church would tell if it could only talk…

Body Language and Writing

Updated 08/16/15

Years ago, my family owned a small business. As any small business person will tell you, customer service is important. Not only did I try to meet our customers needs, I made sure to smile and say thank you. I engaged in small talk and stayed involved with community events.

Our customers were as varied as the products we sold. Most were likable but there were those couple of people who just didn’t make me feel all warm and toasty. I thought I’d managed to hide those feelings only to come to the realization I hadn’t been successful.

After paying for his purchase, the customer lingered, wanting to talk. At some point in the conversation he asked whether he smelled bad. I assured him that he didn’t. He then went on to ask why I kept backing away from him. The truth was that while he didn’t smell bad and there was a counter between us, I felt like my space was being invaded. While my words and facial expression (smile) said one thing, my body language (unconsciously moving away) told the truth of how I felt.

she sat he stoodI have been reading  She Sat He Stood: What Do Your Characters Do While They Talk? by Ginger Hanson.  She points out the importance of studying body language and how our subconscious actions can reveal our true feelings. We can apply this to knowledge when writing dialogue.  She also covers the use of settings and props. Having purchased several writers handbooks and being unable to finish reading them, I was pleasantly surprised to find I enjoyed this one.  Hanson offers a variety of helpful suggestions without putting the reader to sleep.

If you think you could use a little help with dialogue/body language, click the cover image. At only 99 cents, you can’t beat it!

If reading another writing advice book doesn’t appeal to you:

You might try watching old movies.   I find that black and white movies work quite well because there are less visual distractions.  Black & White Movie Nightwatch and learnMake sure to grab a pen and paper to take notes, otherwise, it becomes too easy to get lost in the film. Study the interaction between the actors.  She (feeling vulnerable) might turn away and hug herself.  He (feeling agitated) might lean on a balcony railing while taking a deep drag on his cigarette. The important thing is to recognize the actions the actors use to convey their characters’ feelings. This is ultimately what we as writers are trying to do – show not tell.

Have you stumbled across a tip or technique that has improved your writing?  If so, please share.

 

 

Family Reunions, Mishaps and Writing!

(I originally shared this post about a year ago on my old blog.)

North Carolina is one of those states that have it all.   We’ve got beaches and mountains, metropolitan areas and rinky-dink little places with colorfully unique names like Bear Creek and Tick Bite.

Why just last week, we had an ice storm so severe that people were leaving their cars along the interstate – trying to get home.  It was like a scene out of movie… Yet today, I am looking a sunny blue skies and temperatures hovering around 70 degrees.  I love winter days that feel like spring.

And it is that springy feeling that made me think of family reunions…

As I said, North Carolina has some unique town names – Back Swamp being one of them.  Back Swamp Community Building, the site for the family reunion, is literally out in the middle of the sticks.  In fact, I’m not sure that sunlight isn’t piped in for the residents.  Accompanying me to the reunion was my less that happy sixteen year old son.  I’m sure you can picture his face – the surly looks, the heavy breathing…

We pulled into the parking lot and I was immediately surprised at the number of people attending the reunion.  We normally didn’t have such a large crowd.  We got our of the car, food in hand and made our way inside the building where we were greeted by the friendliest people.  They made room on the table for the food we had brought.  There was the standard reunion questions – Who’s your parents?  Your grandparents?  And then the statement that should have set bells off in my head…”Hmmm, I don’t know them but then I’m an in-law.”

I made my way, followed by my unhappy son, to the dining hall.  I looked around trying to locate some familiar faces.  Where was everyone?  I knew my parents and my sister should have already arrived.  I suddenly felt not so warm and toasty.  I looked at my son, it wasn’t good.  Going outside, I called my sister:

“Where are you?” I asked.

“Here,” my sister responds.

“Where is here?  Because I don’t see you.”

My sister answers, “At the reunion.  Did you just get here?”

“I’ve been here,”  I replied.  “How about Mom and Dad?  Because I don’t see them either.”

My sister doesn’t bother answering.  Instead, she asks, “Where are you exactly?”

At this point, I’m frustrated.  “Where do you think I am?  I’m outside of the community

building…”

My sister starts laughing.

“I’m not in the mood for this,” I growled.

My sister can hardly get the words out.  “You’re at the wrong place.  I don’t know whose reunion you’re at but it’s not ours.”

“What do you mean I’m at the wrong place?” I asked as I remembered the food I had just carried inside.  The food that’s in my Corning Ware dishes…

It became apparent that I should have gone to my aunt’s house – which is a few miles away.  I turned to my son and shared the devastating news.  We had to go back inside and get the food!  Believe me when I say that I considered forgoing the reunion.  Why even bother?  I mean, I could get in my car and drive to Wal-Mart where there was an abundance of Corning Ware.  But those dishes have a lot of sentimental value to me.  I’ve cooked in them the entirety of my married life.  They’ve seen me through cooking disasters as well as culinary masterpieces.  I couldn’t leave them!

At this point, my son is almost on his knees, begging me to make a run for it.  But this is one of those moments – those humiliating moments where we turn to our children and with all the love we can muster, tell them to suck it up!

So, I take a deep breath as I walk back into the community building.  My son followed like a lamb being led to the slaughter.  We headed over to the nearest group of ladies and I confessed my sin.  Trust me – they found the humor in the situation.  They were laughing, hanging out of the freaking door laughing – as we made a quick exit.  Family reunion 2013 is one they’ll not likely soon forget.

We hurried to the car because honestly, Back Swamp is a small place and everyone knows everyone and if we could just make a clean break then no one else would be the wiser.  Except Back Swamp is a small place, and one of those nice ladies at the community building – yep, she knew my aunt.  My car wasn’t out of the parking lot before she did the neighborly thing and made the call – you know, to let my aunt know we were on our way.

***

I’m looking forward to incorporating the above event in a story one day.  I think with a little tweaking, it would be a great opening scene.  As writers, we spend so much time in the land of make-believe, we need to remember that life and all its quirkiness is happening around us.
So what do you think?  Do you incorporate your life into your writing?

The Wretched Life of Maxine J. Mattocks – Episode 4

Add text (1)We were walking to the cafeteria when Caitlyn spoke.  “I think I’m gonna sit at another table today.”

I glanced at April, who raised her eyebrows and shrugged.  “Is something wrong?” I asked.

“Not really.”  Caitlyn waved her hands like they were tiny wings.  “It’s just that Jake has asked me out twice now and well, I don’t want to hurt his feelings—and I’m running out of excuses…”

I couldn’t help myself.  I stared at her like she had grown a second head.  I mean, she was talking about Jake.

April broke the silence.  “Did Jake do something?”  Punching her fist into her hand, she added, “Because I’ll take care of him!”

Caitlyn laughed.  “Nothing like that.  It’s just that he’s such a jock and well, that’s really not my kind of guy.”

“Of course he’s a jock,” I said in his defense.  “He plays football and is on the wrestling team.”

Caitlyn rolled her eyes.  “But that’s all he ever wants to talk about… Honestly, don’t you get tired of listening to the same stuff over and over?  It’s always the same thing—talking about big hits and great plays.”

I thought about that for a moment.  “What do you want to talk about?”

Caitlyn shrugged.  “Who cares?  We could talk about slug infestations—anything but football!”

April and I laughed.

I made my way to our table while April and Caitlyn joined the lunch line.  Nick and Jake were already seated.

As I unloaded my brown paper bag, Nick grabbed my bag of chips.  “Barbeque flavor.  My favorite.”

“Mine too,” I said as I snatched the bag from his hands.  “Seriously.  Get your own.”

“You could share…” He gave me his best puppy dog eyes.

“Begging won’t work,” I chuckled as I pulled a chip from my bag and popped it into my mouth.

Nick picked up his hamburger, an evil look in his eyes.   “I just love cafeteria food.  I mean, what if the lunch lady forgot to put on her gloves and maybe she picked her nose before fixing my burger.”

I felt my tongue jerk.

“Or maybe, bugs were accidentally ground up in the meat mixture that became this patty.”  He took a bite and slowly chewed, his lips curling in a wicked smile.

My stomach rolled.  “Take them,” I whined.

Nick laughed.  “Thanks, Max.  You’re the best!”

As April sat down, Jake leaned forward.  “Where’s Caitlyn going?”

“Said she was going to sit with some other friends,” April replied.

Jake didn’t say anything.

“By the way, Max, don’t bother asking Brandon to go bowling,” April said as she forked a French fry.  “He’s already got a date.”

As my eyes burned holes into her thick skull, I kicked April’s shin  “Yeah, I know.”

She winced.  “You already asked?”

I nodded.

“So, you know he asked Caitlyn to go bowling…”

“Brandon asked Caitlyn?”  I looked to my left, to the table where Brandon sat.  He was there like always only Caitlyn was sitting there, too.  For some reason, that really bugged me.  I mean, when did she even meet him?

April smiled.  “Yeah.  She’s all excited and Brandon is just the nicest guy…”

Jake rolled his shoulders, then turned to me.  “So, Max, want to go bowling Saturday night?”

I shrugged.  “Sure.  Why not?”

Shaking his head, Nick popped another chip into his mouth.

 

*****

 

It was Saturday and after fussing with my hair and clothes, I was finally ready to go bowling.  Choosing the perfect outfit had been nothing short of exhausting.   Who would have thought that there was so much to consider?  I stood in front of my mirror and went through the motions—arm back and then forward as though releasing the bowling ball.  I paid attention to how my shirt moved.  I mean, it was cute and all,  but was it bowling friendly…  See what I mean?  It took time to find the perfect shirt.  On the other hand, guys are lucky.  They can pull on a pair of Levi’s and a plain white t-shirt and look hot.

You’d think the anticipation of my date with Jake would have my stomach full of butterflies.  Not so much.  I felt as though I was headed to the morgue.  I certainly never thought I’d be dreading my dream date but that is exactly where I was at—the Land of Dread.  I’m not sure if it’s because I knew I was choice number two or if it was the whole Brandon/Caitlyn thing.

Do you realize how screwed up this is?  I’m going on a date with Jake and all I can think about is Brandon…  Yep, there is definitely something wrong with me.

 

You know, people can do things that remind you of other things…  Take bowling for example, Jake reminded me of a gorilla.  Not that he bowled like a gorilla—I mean, it was just the way he stood there after he released the bowling ball and watched the pins fly apart.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had turned around and beat on his chest, declaring his position as the silverback of our little troop.  I may not be an expert when it comes to guys, but I knew what this was about.  Jake wanted to impress Caitlyn but she wasn’t paying him any attention. How did I know?  Because I couldn’t stop glancing at Brandon.  Watching him had become a freaking compulsion.

Jake plopped down on the chair beside me and sighed.  I lightly punched his leg.  “Another strike…  I didn’t know you were so good.”

Smiling, Jake grabbed my hand and pulled me closer.  “Would it freak you out if I kissed you?”

Holy cow!  Jake wanted to kiss me!  And I—I don’t know, it seemed a little weird to me because I mean, I’ve dreamed about this forever and now that it was going to happen… I shrugged, “Yes.  I mean, no—it wouldn’t freak me out. ”

His lips lightly touched mine.  I’m not sure what I had expected.  Maybe fireworks or something?  Don’t get me wrong.  It was nice.  Not that I have any other kisses to compare it to, but I think Jake would qualify as a good kisser.  He pulled back.  “That wasn’t as weird as I thought it would be.”

I took a deep breath and rolled my eyes.  “Seriously, Jake?  You thought kissing me was going to be weird?”

“Not weird like you think.” Jake smiled.  “Weird in that you’re my best friend’s sister.”

“Oh.”  I bit my lip.  “So, is it too weird to do that again?”

Jake shrugged.  “Won’t know unless we try.”  He kissed me again and this time, it was better.  If nothing else, Jake was quite the teacher. Our kiss was interrupted by an annoying tapping on my shoulder.  April cleared her throat.  “It’s your turn, Max.”

I giggled.  “Sorry.”

She shook her head, laughing.   “Never saw that coming…”

As I hurried to the ball return, I realized Brandon was standing there.  He rubbed his hand along his jaw.  “So, you and Jake, huh?”

“I don’t know.” I picked up my ball.  “You and Caitlyn?”

He shrugged.

Argh!  In the space of ten seconds, he totally ruined my mood.  I mean, so what?  I kissed Jake.   He’s on a date with Caitlyn and we all know what’s going to happen when he takes her home.  Bowling has suddenly lost its appeal.  I approached my lane, let the ball go and watched as it hit the gutter.   No surprise there.

 

Was it too much to hope that my parents would have been in bed?  Because I know they don’t wait up for Nick.   In a matter of nanoseconds I run possible scenarios through my head.  If I smile too much, Mom is going to want a tell-all session, complete with ice cream and giggles.  If I don’t smile, her motherly instincts are going to kick in and again, she’s going to want a tell-all.  So, I opt for casual indifference—like dating is an everyday thing for me.  Only, my mother isn’t having it.  She all but pulls me to the couch, firing off questions like an interrogation expert. Honestly, I don’t know why she isn’t working for some secret government organization.  She could extract secrets from the most hardened criminals.

Having kept his eyes glued to the television during my mother’s version of mother-daughter bonding, my father finally cleared his throat. He stood, pulling my mother up beside him. “Think it’s time for you and me to go to bed.”  That’s the great thing about my dad, he comes through for me when it really matters.  I smile at him as I make my escape.

After changing into my favorite comfy clothes, I dropped on my bed and stared at Zac Efron—well, a poster of him, anyway.  I tried to focus my thoughts on him, his perfect lips, his beautiful smile…  It didn’t work.  Brandon’s smile intruded.  I pushed away his image only to remember how Jake’s lips felt as he kissed me.

I know what you’re thinking.  “This girl is a complete mess…”  It just so happens, I agree.

After turning off my lamp, I rolled to my side and closed my eyes, willing myself to sleep.  It did no good.  I shifted just so, readjusted my pillow and tried again.  No go.  I couldn’t stop thinking of Brandon and Jake.  I mean, I kissed Jake.  I actually kissed him.  He’d been my dream guy for three years and kissing him was proof that tossing pennies into wishing wells worked… Or maybe it was the shooting star…  I guess, it really doesn’t matter.  The important thing was that my wish came true and I was really excited about that.  I mean, honestly, I was starting to think I’d never be kissed.

And then there’s Brandon.  I keep hearing him ask, “So, you and Jake, huh?”  I don’t understand why it bothers me so much.  All I know is when I think about it, I get this weird, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I don’t know how most people spend their Sunday afternoons.  Nick is usually locked in his room, playing some kind of online war game.  April’s family always gathers at her grandparents for a weekly dinner.  Me? I curl up on the couch, watch a romantic movie, and fantasize that the leading man really wants me.  Don’t say it, okay?  I know I need to get a life…

So, I was caught up in this incredibly romantic scene when Jake plopped down on the couch beside me.

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those girls.”  Stretching his legs out, he continued.  “I always thought you were one of the smart ones.”

I turned my head and stared at him for a moment as I tried to gather my thoughts.  “What did you think I would be doing?  Watching some educational documentary?”

Jake scratched his head, a perplexed look etched his face.  “I guess I never thought much about it…”

I sighed.  “I’m just like any other girl.”

“No.  You’re different.”  He shrugged.  “But that’s a good thing.  I mean, you’re not putting on some act all of the time.”

“Uh-huh.”  I lightly punched his leg.  “Look at you, pretending like you don’t enjoy all that girl drama…”

He laughed.  “This is what I mean.  You’re Max.  All the time, you’re you.”

I knew where this was going.  “Just one of the guys.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”  Jake chuckled.  “I haven’t ever kissed one of the guys before.”

“There is that.”

He cleared his throat.  “I just wanted to make sure things were okay with us—you know, with the kiss and all.”  Sliding his hands over his jean clad thighs, he continued, “You’re good with me, right?”

I debated giving him a little “girl drama” but in the end, I couldn’t do it.  “We’re good, Jake.  Really.”

He nodded.  “Alright.”

Maybe I should have been upset or disappointed that Jake wasn’t into me.  But that was the thing, I was relieved.  I’m not going to say I regretted my kiss because that would have been a lie.  Even I know that not every girl was lucky enough to get her first kiss from her long time crush.

Brandon, on the other hand, was a different story.  I finally realized that I had feelings for him but it didn’t matter.  It was probably too late and I can’t blame anyone but myself.

*****

Having been beige the entirety of my high school years, I wasn’t prepared for a life of color but that’s exactly what I walked into on Monday morning.  People that I had passed in the hallways countless times, suddenly noticed me.  Some spoke.  Most talked about me rather than to me.  The hall echoed with:

“That’s the girl.”

“Isn’t she Nick’s sister?”

“I heard Jake was drunk!”

It didn’t take long for me to wish I could just fade away.  Homeroom may have been the worst.  Girls who’d never wanted to hang out before crowded around my desk, each wanting to know the inside scoop:  Was I dating Jake?  When I answered “no”, their smiles faded and they quickly departed.  It was kinda like offering me a cookie but only giving me a crumb.  By lunch, I was all but forgotten.  As it turned out, that wasn’t such a bad thing.