Do You Hear What I Hear? Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-ALast week at my daughter’s Christmas coir concert, I found a seat up in the balcony with a fairly good view of the stage, better, I was told by my daughter, than any seat on the ground level. Minus the small area blocked by the bouffant, out-dated hairdo of the woman seated before me, I had a fairly good view of the stage, the clock, the entrance, exit, and steady stream of parents.

Off topic, but as memory serves me, didn’t parents simply watch their children perform at school plays? Nowadays, parents watch their children through an iPhone or iPad held before their face as they record the show.

Back to the point of my blog post. Fifteen minutes before the show, I wondered if an elementary school auditorium would make a good story setting, and if so, what sounds belonged there. I took out my handy pocket notebook and compiled a list of sounds I could hear.

1. Shuffling feet

2. Squeaking seats as people adjusted their positions

3. The rustling of hats and coats

4. The white noise of a hundred, simultaneous conversations

5.The turning of program pages

6. Conversations on iPhones

7. Children warming up their voices behind the stage curtains

8. Tapping feet

9. sneezes and coughs

10. The 5 minute before show announcement

Sound is an important part of our writing. Life isn’t silent. When we write, we mention the cozy smell of cinnamon in a warm kitchen, the sight of delicate, drifting snow flakes, the sticky feel of sugar between our fingers from the sticky bun we ate in my earlier Wednesday post, and the taste of paprika in the beef stew we ordered at a Hungarian restaurant.

What can I hear as I type this blog post?

I hear my daughter shuffling through our stack of Christmas CD’s in the living room, my dog whining for something better than the canned swill in his bowl, my husband in the basement, turning wood on his lathe, the bubbling sound the fish tank filter makes, the hum of the dishwasher, the beeping of the completed dryer cycle, the heat kicking back on, the chirp of our birds, the other chirping of crickets I raise to feed my tree frogs, the click of my fingers on the keyboard, cars driving over the wet street, and rain falling when, on the day before Christmas, it should be snowing. Yikes! With all this noise, it’s a wonder I can get any work done at all. But most days, these sounds disappear. I don’t notice them. These are the sounds of my typical life and, for the most part, I have tuned them out.

For this Wednesday’s Writer’s Prompts and Inspirations, I want you to tune in to the sounds around you. Concentrate on what you can hear. As we know, a little sound here and there can add a level of richness or reality to our writing. Take out your notebook and make a list of what you hear where you are right now, what you hear at the coffee shop you pop into later today, at work, at the gym, in line at the grocery store, and wherever else your day carries you. Try closing your eyes when you tune into your surroundings, you might hear more without the distraction of sight. Can you list ten sounds in each location?

Did you hear/notice a sound that surprised you? Did you hear a sound for the first time that has been around you always, but one you never noticed until now?  Again, this is part of the showing not telling that brings our readers into the world our story takes place in.

This is a sharing place. I would love to hear from you.

Character Soup – Wednesday Writer’s Prompts and Inspiration

chalkboard-3-AAs writers, we all have a natural tendency to people watch. Each day we sit beside, pass on the street, get honked at, speak to, and get called on the phone by possible characters for our stories. Our world is a veritable character soup!

Some of my favorite places to jot details in my pocket notebook are coffee shops, train stations, and, nearly everyone’s favorite people-watching location…the airport.

Have you ever sat across from a group of people and absent mindedly stared at one person in particular? What was it about his appearance that set him apart? His advanced age? his dated clothes? Something resting on his lap or clutched to his chest? A look in his eyes filled with joy and contentment of having lived a good life?

Next time you’re wondering about someone, reach for your notebook and begin speculating.

Start by describing their appearance.

* The fashion-conscious woman–she wears the latest in Vogue, her gold necklace rests perfectly above the neckline of her designer dress, her carry-on bag matches her purse, and her polished nails match her lipstick and belt.

* The confident man– he wears a button-down, white shirt with jeans–worn at the knees. His back pocket is loosened at one corner and bulges with the outline of his wallet. He finger-styles his hair, and when he sits you notice his western boots.

* The homeless woman–she wears several layers of clothes, a torn garbage bag nests in the protection of the grocery cart she rests her hand upon. Her shoes have holes in the sides and the heels are worn. Her tangled, brown hair is pulled back under a frayed, knit cap.

What does the individual have with them? A briefcase? Purse? Stack of folders? A puppy in a pet carrier? A stroller with an infant? A letter? Absolutely nothing? What can you tell about the person from this?

What is this person doing? Checking e-mails on their mobile device? Scribbling details of you in their pocket notebook? (Yeah! A fellow writer.) Feeling in their coat pocket occasionally to check on something. (Hmmmm, possibly suspicious…)

If you’re at the train station or airport, can you speculate where the individual might be going, what awaits him/her there, and what they might need to do there? Are they returning home or beginning their journey? Who did they see? What business brought them to this point?

What about their activity can begin to paint a picture of their personality? If they are writing, do they crumple a sheet of paper with only a few marks on it, or do they use every possible writing space available on that page? Wasteful vs. Frugal.

BEFORE TODAY IS THROUGH, see how many new character sketches you can create.

And maybe one more…(?)

Observe yourself. Yes, you are a potential character for your stories, too. Do you know anyone better? How are you dressed today? What do your clothing choices say about you? What do you carry with you that others can observe? Is the tone in your voice irritated, hostile, happy, or pensive? When in public, what do you talk about that others might overhear? What do you say that a fellow writer in the crowd might document as an example of REAL dialogue?

And while you are creating fresh characters, keep in mind that the details you include are a fine exercise for show don’t tell.

Don’t tell us the man is old…show us his time-worn facial features, shaky hands, and dependency of his cane.

Don’t tell us the woman is stylish…show us her designer outfit, her long-legged, confident stride, and the shiny, silver heels of her black pumps.

Do you already keep a notebook for on-location character sketches? Have you ever been a character in one of your stories?

I’d love to hear from you.

Wednesday Writer’s Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AI have a pen pal in Europe, a country where it seems the average job pays higher and offers better vacation days than America. Every letter from her speaks of grand vacations in which she takes in the opera in France, visits the coast in Germany, and shops for her clothes in Sweden. After reading each letter, I pour myself a glass of port and remind myself of my own, less than internationally adventurous, but valuable life. What saddens me most is that her letters lack something the writer in me craves.

Details.

I love to hear the stories people tell from their world travels, and I am often let down when what I receive compares to a shopping list.

“Do let me tell you about our most splendid vacation! We traveled to Italy, spent a day in Rome, lunched in Venice, took in the theater in Florence… Blah, blah, blah…”

How am I’m supposed to listen with anything but pretend enthusiasm? What I feel like saying is this…

Stay home! Send me on your vacation. I’ll keep a journal, take pictures, talk to the locals, and enjoy their cuisine. And when I return, I’ll have stories to tell that will captivate, mesmerize, and entertain you. Sadly, roaming the imported food aisle of the grocery store is as close as I come to sampling cuisine from around the world.

When my Dad was alive, we used to talk on the phone every night for an hour or so. He’d share his day, I’d share mine, and often we would laugh at old jokes. Friends would wonder what my Dad and I found to talk about every single day. They’d wonder what sort of amazing life we lived to have so much to share. In return, I wondered in reverse about their daily lives. Frankly, unless one stays in bed all day, staring at the ceiling, I can’t account for a lack of something to say. I think even if I stared at the ceiling all day, I could share the umpteen thoughts I knocked about.

The often ordinary life we live each day is, if we tune in to our five senses, remarkable in its details.

For this Wednesday writer’s prompts and inspirations, I would like you to record in a pocket notebook the details of the typical moments in your day. These are the details, after all, that find their way into our writing.

Suggestions for things to include:

Your thoughts when the phone rings, your thoughts when you see who the caller is on caller ID, your reaction to a conversation you overhear in the post office or at your job, your thoughts about the way someone is dressed, your reaction to the sweet smell in the bakery, describe the texture of something you eat with your hands, describe the flavor of that food, the familiar scent of a perfume you smell as you pass through a crowd of people, an incident that brings back a long forgotten memory, a sudden weather change, the way the weather alters your day, a package you weren’t expecting at your door, etc…

I would love if you shared some of your discoveries.

POCKET NOTEBOOKS

Yellow notebookI have low shopping resistance to little notebooks. You know the ones…they’re about 4×6 inches big (small) or smaller, fit into a pocket or purse, can sit perfectly on a nightstand, wait patiently in the glove compartment of a car, and could be tucked inside a file folder for in-progress stories.

I learned the hard way that my memory isn’t programmed for instant recall. After I experience an event, I hold a jotted blurb of it in my head, and when time permits, I sit at my computer and try to hammer out a flawless, detail-packed recollection. While I’m typing, I believe what I’m writing is moment to moment perfect, but in actuality, the finer details and impressions the event made on me weigh in at a fraction.  I wouldn’t have believed this if it weren’t for one event in my life.

In the few days before my father’s death at 93, I wrote an extensive list of the countless ways he touched my life, helped shape my life, boosted me up, patiently listened, and cheered me on. My father was my mentor, my hero, my teacher, and my best friend. I wished I could stop time. I couldn’t stand the thought of facing a day without him. Each night, although we lived only 20 minutes apart, we hung on the phone for an hour or so, sharing our day with each other, telling jokes, laughing and remembering old times. And then he was gone.

During his last days, I couldn’t be moved from his side. My left hand held his hand while my right hand never stopped writing in a little, yellow, 4×6 notebook on my lap. I wrote a letter to my dad. I recalled memories as they rushed back to me, and I wrote of the heart-breaking experience of losing him. And then a month later I misplaced the notebook.

Time passed. I sat at my computer, trying to type the events as I remembered them happening. I tried to remember the thoughts and feeling I had…. Then I read what I had written, satisfied I captured my father’s last days perfectly.

Yesterday while straightening out my notes for a story, I found a little, yellow notebook. I almost didn’t want to open it. I found a quiet place to sit while I turned the pages and returned to three of the hardest days of my life. What I read touched my heart. My own words made me cry. I read—stunned—at the critical pieces time had taken away from my memory. What I had recreated on my computer was a fraction of the event.

Since that day, I have purchased and made many more pocket-size notebooks. Important moments can happen at any time of the day, and I never want to risk leaving the details to memory for later when they have softened.

If we are going to tap into our lives for emotional events to bring into our writing, those events must be faithfully recorded—in the moment or as close to it if possible.

What I learned from what I had written in my yellow notebook and what I captured later on my computer is this: The pages I filled while sitting beside my father were a perfect example of showing, and the pages I typed later were nearly 100% telling. Showing vs. telling. Emotional vs. distant. Three dimensional vs. flat.

Do you keep notebooks everywhere you go? Do you write your thoughts on anything handy from backs of receipts to napkins? Is there an event in your life you are glad you were able to write about in the moment?