According to Don Hahn, the producer of The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast, in his book, Brain Storm, the foundation for creative thinking is formed from three key elements:
- A huge amount of information
- Untiring interest in your work.
- The ability and the ruthlessness to take out the trash.
This week, we’ll get a start on “a huge amount of information.” When it comes to writing, what does that look like? For me, when I first decided to write a novel, it meant a TON of research on the Acadians from Nova Scotia and all the history surrounding the Deportation. I soon found out that as overwhelming all of that research was, it wasn’t enough. I had to KNOW the Acadians – inside and out—not simply the timeline of events. How did they live? What did they do for fun? What was important to them?
When I took on this challenge, I had no writing experience other than some scribbling in journals I had done over the years. I had no clue how to begin and no idea as to whether or not I was up to the demands of a long project. But, I had always wanted to write a novel and realized that if I didn’t eventually get some ink on the paper, it was never going to happen.
And so I began. Armed with my journal, some yellow legal pads, some pens, and my computer, I headed to a comfy chair in Chapters and plunked myself down in the middle of the reference section, right beside the how-to-write-a-novel books. I began with a routine and little else. First, to wake up the Muse, I’d write in my journal. Then I’d read something inspirational from one of the books on writing. (I think I’m the reason why they took out all those big, comfy chairs!) That fortified me with enough confidence to face the blank page, and scribble down some thoughts. I knew it was crap. I knew better than to read what I had written. Eventually, by some miracle, and a daily routine, I wrote a novel. The historical story I was obsessed with telling, provided some direction and some structure to my scribbling. Eventually, the miracle every writer hopes for happened, and Winds of L’Acadie became a real book sitting on real shelves in real bookstores. What an amazing experience!
There are no guarantees and no magic to replace hard work, but now that I have two books published, I’ve learned some tips along the way to make the process a little more efficient. Don Hahn’s “huge amount of information” is a great place to begin.
Last week, in Time to Create, you were encouraged to make some lists. If you didn’t do that, now would be a good time to make a couple. If you did, that’s a good start. Now, look at those lists and see if anything pops out. What catches your eye? What are you passionate about? The old adage, write what you know, is not necessarily the best advice. The advice I like to give young writers, is to write what you love. What are you passionate about? What is important to you? If you pour your heart into your writing, you’ll be well on your way to a compelling story.
Get out your notebook and make a tab for collections. Spend fifteen minutes observing people, scenery, wildlife, pets, sounds, scents. Everything. Anything. It’s never too early, or too late to begin collecting. There are many kinds of collections. This one will help with those character details.
- CHARACTER – People watching
Spend fifteen minutes people watching in a variety of places. Write down everything you notice in as much detail as you can. You think you’ll remember these things, but you won’t. Write everything down. Here is what I noticed while sitting on a rather chilly beach:
-brushes strand of hair from her eyes, looking thoughtfully over the beach. Is it worth staying here or not?
-strolling, hands in pockets, carefree, relaxed
-long strides, arms swinging by sides, purposeful, getting some exercise.
-jacket scrunched in hand, swinging by his side. He came prepared for the wind
-shuffling along, head down, looking at feet, struggling against the wind.
– gesturing in an animated way. Even from a distance, I know she is talking quickly, excitedly to a friend. I wish I could hear the story she tells.
– a deep hee-hee-hee-hee-hee from the belly. A woman finds something funny and although I don’t turn to see who it is, I imagine that she is ample in size and cheerful. It sounds like a practiced laugh, as though she often finds humour in her surroundings.
-arms swinging freely by her side as though she hasn’t a care in the world.
– peering at cell phone as though he may miss something as he walks along the beach. I feel sad that his fear of missing something is causing him to miss the spectacular scenery that surrounds him.
-pulling up the sleeves of her sweater as the air begins to warm – not yet willing to risk abandoning it altogether. A cautious type.
2. SETTING – Observation Walk
Go for a fifteen to twenty minute walk and focus on taking in all the information your senses give you. Sometimes I like to focus on just one of my senses for the entire walk. Other times I’m taking in everything I can. Bring your notebook so that you can stop and record what you notice in as much detail as possible.
This may be a walk through city streets, which could include some people watching, but the focus will be more on the surroundings. The buildings, the textures, the feel of the ground under your feet, the heat coming off the bricks. The smells from the bakery you just passed. The smells from the dogs you just passed! The damp air. The smoke from the chimneys. The light as it reflects off the glass or the brass or the river. The sounds of the voices. The cars. The buses. What do the homes in the area tell you? The lawns? The driveways?
You will also want to repeat this activity in other locations. Through the forest. Along the river. In a meadow. Up a mountain. On a beach. If you have decided on the story you want to tell, choose the setting that most closely resembles the setting of your story and begin there. For my 1929 historical, I visited 100 year old homes to get an idea about what I wanted the inside of the home to be like. I also took an observation walk in the historical parks. For me that meant Heritage Park in Calgary and Fort Edmonton, in Edmonton. For Winds of L’Acadie I visited Acadian historical parks and villages in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick including Grand Pre National Historic Site and Village Historique Acadien. But even if you aren’t looking for historically accurate information, having several collections that you continue to add to will help your characters become multi-dimensional and your settings to ring true.
This is only the beginning. As you make time for these observations, you’ll find yourself noticing more detail during every day activities, so make sure to keep a notebook handy.
Time to get to work! Have fun creating while you’re at it!