It has taken me a very long time to learn what I believe is the best technique for writing. I really wasn’t looking for it, but I’ve been terribly sporadic in my “writing career”–years without doing any creative work at all at times–and complaining that the only writing I was doing was for my teaching jobs. Curriculum and lesson plans and all the administrivia of the job ate up my creative juices and my time.
That was my excuse.
The technique I’ve learned? Some. time. every. single. day. WRITE! Even if I don’t put down a word, I think about what I’m writing or want to write. I get quite a bit of my inspiration while on the treadmill or driving cross country.
I’ve learned to do research that is relevant to stories I’m telling. Preparation for fiction by looking into reality helps. Sarah Orne Jewett told Willa Cather to “write what you know.” Even when writing about places I’ve lived for years or visited often, a little research helps ground my descriptions. I’ve discovered that I don’t know as much as I’ve thought about some of my subjects–weather, geography, fashions, language–all sorts of the details that are the color of my fictional worlds. I look at topographical maps for information about the terrain; I check the time and distance from one place to another (is the character walking, driving, going by train?) and the different routes possible. I might even look for a video that shows the landscape, or visit a zoo or safari park to get a good look at an animal I’m describing, or a botanical garden literally to smell the roses…or some more exotic flora. Talking to people who do the jobs I’m trying to describe can provide all kinds of interesting tidbits for description and jargon.
Sensory details are important, too. I find myself writing the visual description easily, but remembering to include (when relevant) the smells, tastes, touch, and sounds of the environment (or characters) makes it more real. At times I do a revision, or multiple revisions, just to add one or more sensory descriptions.
One of the hardest things I try to do is tell the story through dialogue. I was constantly telling my Creative Writing students to “Show. Don’t tell!” I rely on several readers to help me keep my dialogue as real as possible. Dialogue tags are important, too. A first draft might be one “she said” or “he said” after another, but changing the “said” to some other verb and adding descriptive modifiers (e.g., “haltingly,” “desperately,” “with a sneer”) are the stage directions of narrative.
Narrative means that time is passing. How long does it take to do a certain task? What was happening during the year(s) the story is taking place? Are you sure of the dates? It’s too easy to look up calendars on the Internet to be sloppy about the details.
All of this puts me more directly into the story I am developing. In fact, the more I get into a story, the more it tends to tell itself.
The biggest problem in all of this? Sleep. My characters are keeping me awake at night. The story isn’t finished, and they want me to tell it.
This reflection helps, too, just as having someone to talk to about the writing helps. Trying to explain a character, a plot line, a dilemma to someone else is one way to grow the story and solve problems.
So thanks for “listening” to my writing.