An Eye-Opening 3rd Grade Field Trip – Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AI missed last week Wednesday’s Prompts and Inspirations because I added one extra item to my day. I realize one extra to-do doesn’t sound like much, but in my case, it involved volunteering at my daughter’s elementary school to join her class on a field trip. Normally I’d choose writing over hanging out with twenty, nine-year-old kids on a field trip, but I viewed this outing as research. If I’m going to write for this age group, I figured who better to spend the day with than my intended audience?

I arrived in my daughter’s classroom promptly at 8:45, in time to join a chorus of sweet voices in the Pledge Of Allegiance. I was surprised that after ___ years, I remembered all the words. The teacher informed the class if they wanted to leave their hats, scarves, and gloves at school they could as the entire field trip would take place inside a nature center where they would study water. Twenty, nine-year old students exited as if the room was ablaze to stow their hats, scarves, and gloves in their lockers. The teacher asked if I would like to ride the bus or drive my own car to the nature center. With research in mind, I joined the class, figuring I could listen in on conversations and immerse myself in the language of these children.

Wrong.

Have you ever visited a pet shop that sells birds? If not, picture the sound of a hundred crows chattering into a microphone with the volume stepped up. I couldn’t pick out a single word.

Once at the nature center, we were informed that the hands-on activities would take place mostly outside. After a one-hour hike, twenty, frozen kids raced inside to thaw during a short lecture. Then we followed a young man outside, who clearly had no patience with children, for a hands-on experiment. Each child was instructed to put their hands in a bucket of cold water to retrieve a rubber tube for an experiment in air and water pressure. That’s when the temperature took a sudden plunge from 50 to 30 something, and a freak snowstorm moved in! Everyone chattered and complained to the teacher about her instructions to leave their hats, scarves, and mittens at school. Some of the kids were clearly worried about getting frost bite and losing their hands because of the icy water the center provided for the experiments. I felt terrible for the children. Red hands, teary eyes, and shivering, little bodies. I moved around the group, warming as many children as I could by wrapping their hands in my scarf and rubbing their icy fingers. Four hours later, we were on the bus, heading back to school.

What I learned:

Despite the teacher’s daily immersion in the lives of nine-year-old children, she clearly didn’t take seriously their age-appropriate worries and fears. I see this among my friends who have children. So often adults belittle children’s concerns. As adults, we have learned along the course of our lives that many of our fears are unjustified. But knowing better doesn’t give us the right to brush a child’s fears away. For their handful of years on this earth and their limited life experiences, a child’s fears are as real to them as ours are to us.

And what did I observe when the teacher shooed her students away and told them they were being ridiculous for worrying about frostbite? Those children turned to other children for advice. I zipped forward into their teen years and pictured them facing age-appropriate issues that their parents might brush off as ridiculous. The result? Those teens turning to other teens for advice. Hard as it is, It’s important to take a child’s concerns seriously and help them realize that a parent or teacher is the best person to turn to. 

Another age appropriate issue:

On the bus ride to the center, my daughter boarded the bus well ahead of me and found herself seated between two boys. (To a nine-year old girl, this is a fate worse than broccoli for dinner.) So on the ride back, my daughter pleaded with me to sit beside her to prevent a boy from sharing her seat again. Did I laugh, snicker, or tell her she was being silly? No. I slid beside her on the seat and offered her my hand and a feeling of security.

How this relates to my writing:

Writing for children not only means developing a believable and likable child or child-like, adult character, but it also means bringing a problem into the story that is age appropriate. If I’m writing a picture book for 3-7 year old children, the problem needs to be one this age group can relate to, otherwise why would they want to listen to the story? It’s challenging to think back to when I was a child and remember my worries. So, my advice to writers is this… spend time with the age group you are writing to. And if possible, spend time with that age group in the same setting you have chosen for your book.

Happy learning and writing!

 

75 Character Development Questions: Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AYou get an idea for a story you can’t let go of. You know who the main character has to be. You remember a woman of about 30, tall, blonde, a bit of a neat freak. She is someone you met on a flight last year. You remember how everyone took notice of her. And just after the in-flight movie ended, she shared her deepest secret with you, a stranger she’ll probably never see again.

You flip open your laptop, and for the next five months, your story takes shape. Finally, your first draft is finished. You’re proud of what you’ve accomplished. You send it to your critique group, anxious for their praise. The e-mails roll in, and everyone says the same thing. Your MC is flat.

What? But I can picture her, I can still smell her perfume, I recall lots of people turning their heads as she passed. That tall, beautiful woman whose secret I’m keeping. All of this is not enough. You barely know her.

So how do you flesh out a character?

Before I write the first words of any story, I take each of my characters through a lengthy interview process. This goes beyond deciding upon their name, hair and eye color, birthday, country and town they live in.

I gained this good habit in a writing course a number of years ago. The instructor asked us to answer twenty questions about our main character as well as other prominent players in our story. I skimmed down the questions. “This could take hours, even days!” I moaned. “All I want to do is write my story.”

The instructor knew what she was doing. “Take your time,” she said. “Don’t answer the questions quickly. Think about your character. Put yourself in his/her shoes as you address each question.”

A few days later, I had mapped out my main characters. I was stunned at my intimate knowledge of these people. Yes, people. They had shifted from imaginary characters I dreamed up to flesh and blood, real people. I felt I knew them like I knew my friends…like I know myself. I e-mailed my instructor two words. Thank you.

You are going to spend a great deal of time with the characters in your novel. In order for your reader to cheer them on, to disagree with them, to understand them, and to cry with them, you need to get to know them–intimately.

Could you list ten things you know about your best friend? About your spouse or significant other? About your child? Think about your closest friend. How much do you know about the person you trust with your thoughts and feelings? What is it about them that you like? What is the glue that bonds your friendship?

As serious writers, we spend more time with the characters in our novels than we do with our friends. To write characters into reality, we have to get to know them. We must befriend them. Below is my 75 point questionnaire to ground you in the souls of your characters.

 

75 POINT CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT QUESTIONNAIRE

Name: (Are they named after someone in their family?)

Age and birthday:

Does MC share their birth date with anyone they know?

General physical description:

a. height

b. weight

c. eye color

d. hair color

e. any distinguishing features

Describe the place your MC calls home:

If MC is a child, describe their bedroom:

Type of neighborhood:

What is his/her occupation if an adult:

What are his/her chores if a child:

If child, grade in school:

Mother and/or wife’s name, background, and occupation:

Father and or husband’s name, background, and occupation:

Where does MC live (city, state, country, on a farm, in an apartment, in a research station on Mars)?

What landmarks are near them (park, shopping, friend’s house, beach, school, etc…)?

List all siblings, their names, ages, and one or more sentences to describe them and their relationship to your MC.

How does your MC view each of his family members and friends?

What is his/her position in the family? (parent, oldest, middle, youngest sibling, the pet?)

Pet(s) — What kind and how long have they had them?

How did they come to get this pet and/or what do they like best about their pet(s)?

Where do they keep their pet(s)? (horse boarded or in barn on property, fish tank in kitchen or bedroom, indoor or outdoor dog, etc…)

Favorite piece of jewelry or accessory they always or frequently wear: (earrings, watch, purse, shoes, etc…)

If female, what items does she always carry in her purse? (if child – list items in their backpack.)

If male, what photographs or information does he keep in his wallet?

Is he/she prompt or late for most things:

Organized, sloppy, etc…

Mode of transportation:

What options are available if their car broke down, if they missed their bus or train?)

Favorite sports:

Interests or hobbies:

Dress style:

Relationship to men and/or boys he/she knows:

Relationship to women and/or girls he/she knows:

Leader or follower: (he/she must be like others in dress, mannerisms, and taste? Marches to own beat?)

Their favorite expression: (Way cool!, No way! Whatever, Don’t get me started, etc…)

Habit: (bites fingernails when nervous or fingers necklace pendant, rubs hand over beard when thinking, etc…)

Their personality type: Glamour queen, no frills, down-to-earth, wishes he/she could disappear, jock, rugged, outgoing, know-it-all, etc…)

What are they good at (skills)?

What is their greatest ambition?

What is their best quality?

What is their worst quality?

Sense of humor?

Temper? What sets your MC off?

What things do they like?

What do they dislike?

Quirks:

Favorite foods and beverages:

Who is their closest friend and why?

Describe their perfect day.

How do they speak? (with an accent, stutters, lisps, in a monotone, etc…)

How do they walk? (with purpose, drags feet, limps, etc…)

What is their greatest fear?

What is their greatest regret?

What are their flaws? (lacks confidence, shy, speech impediment, fear of something.)

Based on their fears, dislikes, and, worst qualities, what problem would they least likely want to face?

Who does he/she love and care about? (parent, child, friend, pet)

To hear your character’s voice you need to take this one step further.

Instead of you filling in the blanks about your character, take what you learned from above and imagine you are having a conversation with your character or a letter exchange: Ask them to tell you in their own words…

Who are you?

What do you most want?

What freaks you out?

What is your first thought when you wake up?

What is the thought you fall asleep with?

Considering the challenges you have planned for your MC, ask – How would you feel if…?

What would you think if you heard your friend, sibling, parent, spouse say…?

What is the worst day you can imagine having? What could make it even worse?

What is the best day you can imagine having? What could top that?

If you inherited or won a sizable sum of money what would you do with it?

If you got a promotion at work, or if you aced your finals, who would you want to share this news with?

Now that you and your MC are best friends, go deeper.

What do you think is your best feature or personality trait?

If you could, what would you change about yourself?

Who do you wish you were more like?

What is the biggest secret you keep?

If a tornado or other disaster threatened to destroy your home in the next twenty minutes, what would you save?

 

You’re ready to write.

Mentor Text Study Questions – Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AI’m coming into the final week of ReFoReMo month. (Read For Research Month for picture book writers and illustrators.) Each day we receive five new mentor texts to check out at the library, study, analyze, question, etc… If only my library (anyone’s library) had the five new picture books available on our daily reading list.

So what are some of the questions I ask myself when I’m reading (researching) a mentor text?

1. What is the central question, and does everything in the story try to answer that question?

Yes. Every story must have a central question. A rule I learned the hard way. After having a trusted friend and writer look over a manuscript a while back. The comment she made was that my story, though filled with great action, humor, and well crafted characters, was a bit like tangled Christmas lights. (Gadz!) Once I posted my central story question beside my computer and kept one eye on it and the other eye on my manuscript as I edited, I was amazed at how quickly my word count shrunk and how my story gained focus. One of those Ah Ha moments I treasure like crazy.

What other questions do I ask while researching mentor texts?

2. What is the main character’s motivation for doing what they did or for reacting as they did? (no motivation = who cares)

3. Why something happens the way it does in the story. The Story arc. 

4. Are the main character’s failed attempts escalating to the point that my main character falls to his/her lowest point?

5.  Will the intended audience care? 

6. What do I think of the end? Why do I think the author chose to end the story that way? 

7. Is the ending satisfying? What were my feelings about the outcome of the problem? 

A. Was the ending predictable?

B. Was the ending inevitable?

C. Was the ending a plausible surprise/twist? 

D. Was I disappointed by the ending? 

Even if you don’t write picture books, mentor texts benefit writers.

Do you read mentor texts? Are there questions you ask while you’re studying those texts? I’d love to hear from you.

A Game For Writers — Wednesday Writer’s Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AWhen my daughter and I think of things to do when she comes home from school, one of us (okay… usually me) often suggests playing the writing game. What can I say, writing is something I always want to do. And by the way, you can play this game alone as an exercise to limber your brain. This is a great way to say goodbye to writer’s block, too.

Further down, I’ve included a printable pdf file to get you started with the Writing Game.

1. Start a word list. Include places, both real and fictitious, near and far.

Wisconsin, California, Egypt, Norway, London, Chicago, Planet Zorg, Ball Park, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Hawaii, North Pole, Coffee shop, Antique store, Thrift store, Dentist office, Bookshop, etc… 

2. List things you might find in these places.

Lakes, rivers, parks, oceans, boats, cruise ship, tamales, cappuccino, chocolate, pyramid, tombs, ancient writing, prison, secrets, red phone booth, Big Ben, aliens, laser blasters, slime, base-ball, hot dog, stadium, pine trees, fish, lizards, rock cliffs, blazing sunset, Hula dancers, poi, pineapple, surfers, tidal waves, snow, ice, cappuccino, doughnuts, vintage lamp, crumbling book, painted vase, roll-top desk, used clothes, torn handbag, musty comforter, toothpaste, drill, protective glasses, chairs, fish tank, rare first edition books, collector books, latest novel, magazines, etc…

3. List things you could find in a city, in the country, on a farm, in a house, in a haunted house, at a carnival, in a bank, in a boutique, in your purse or wallet, at your friend’s house, etc…

Skyscrapers, taxi cabs, boutiques, restaurants, diners, hot dog vendors, rats, litter, trash cans, pigs, cows, barn, silo, hay bales, chicken coop, farmer, bacon frying, grease spatters, wooden tables, milking stool, hay loft, rope swing, cobwebs, rusty plumbing, broken windows, dust, dilapidated garden, abandoned car, cotton candy, rides, roller coaster, judges, tractor pulls, parking lot, money, tellers, pens, lollipop dish, deposit slip, cashmere sweater, silk blouse, rhinestone necklace, pumps, lipstick, nail file, loose change, dollar bills, credit cards, snack bar, grandfather clock, candles, tea-cup collection, sports gear, etc…

4. Make a list of types of people.

fireman, police officer, visitor, friend, ex-husband, ex-wife, neighbor, alien, baker, thief, conductor, gardener, student, teacher, magician, King, Queen, Duke, knight, clown, messenger, mailman, grocer, etc…

5. Other lists could include: favorite words, sounds, holidays, famous artists, gift ideas, things found in a car, at a bus stop, train station, great words you came across in books, etc…

Here is the promised pdf file you can print to get you started.

Writing Game Word List

When making your list, add ten spaces between words and double space your rows. This allows room to cut the words apart. Next, fold word tags in half and place them in a dish beside your computer. For each writing warm-up, take 3-5 tags to help you create a short story or opening paragraph.

Of course everyone’s list will be different. My daughter made a list with such words as: crayons, playground, friends, ice cream, dragons, princess, and dolls.

My husband suggested these words: wood, chisel, box of nails, wrench, computer, mouse pad, and vacation.

To broaden your word choices, make these lists with others. Ask a friend, a co-worker, spouse, significant other, person sitting next to you on a bus or in a plane what their favorite places are, what strange items they keep in their house, their favorite keepsake from a vacation, the most memorable gift they ever received, the weirdest things they found at a garage sale or estate sale, their most prized possession, etc…  Of course, you’ll want to let them know you’re a writer, seeking inspiring words for a future novel, so they don’t question your motives. Most people jump at the chance to help someone with something fun like this.

Years ago, I got in a conversation with some friends about the kinds of candy bars we ate as children. Our list started to grow. What surprised us was the number of people in the restaurant we were in, listening to our conversation. As people strode by our table, some would stop and offer a few types of candy they loved when they were children. So, as it turns out, this list making project can turn into a great way to meet new people as well as getting the word out that you’re a writer.

Do you have any great words you’d like to share?

Happy writing!

Leslie