A Test of Creativity

Monday, February 27, 2017

What do a picket fence, a work boot, and a petticoat have in common? They can all be used as emergency medical supplies for characters fleeing from the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

I’ve always been a big fan of The Borrowers books by Mary Norton. The borrowers are a family (and a species) of people about as tall as pencils. They live in normal people’s homes, “borrow” household items, and transform them. Sheets of blotting paper become carpets, razor blades become chopping knives, cigar boxes become beds, and stamps become wall art.

It isn’t just The Borrowers books, either. I enjoy any author who takes ordinary objects and has his or her characters adapt them to a different purpose—like castaways who use turtle shells for bowls. So I’m excited that I finally have a chance to join the club, even if I only qualify for associate membership.

My current work-in-progress has two girls fleeing from the 1871 Chicago Fire. After they get separated, Julia wants something to wrap her sore wrists and rips a row of lace from her petticoat. So a petticoat becomes a bandage.

But Fannie has bigger problems. A cart runs over her foot, so she needs both a crutch and something to protect the foot from bumps and blows. In my story—as in real life—many people tried to save too much and ended up abandoning their possessions as they ran.* There are many types of debris littering Fannie’s escape route, but finding an actual crutch would be too much of a coincidence for my readers (and for me). It also deprives me of an opportunity to be creative, which is at least half the fun of writing. So here’s my solution: when Fannie passes a fence and spots a loose picket, she wrenches it off and turns it so that the point is down. Now a picket becomes a crutch. She also finds a man’s work boot and stuffs it with cloth, so a boot becomes a splint.

Those ideas don’t put me in the same league as Mary Norton (hence only associate membership), but at least they take some imagination.

And creativity is what feeds my writer’s soul.

  • The illustration at the top of this page appeared in Harper’s Weekly on November 4, 1871 and shows people fleeing through a cemetery on their way to Lincoln Park. If you look closely, you can see an abandoned desk, a chair, and other household goods in the lower-left-hand corner. The picture is in the public domain because of its age.

Describing Characters

Monday, February 20, 2017

As a mature reader, I want a minimum of description so that I can imagine the characters and settings for myself. But when I was younger, I enjoyed the extensive descriptions in classic literature, and my middle grade beta readers have told me that they want something in between.

Finding the right balance can be hard, especially since it must be the point-of-view character’s natural thoughts. Unless we are vain or dressing for a special event, most of us don’t think about how we look. Yes, we check to make sure our hair is brushed and our makeup is on correctly, but we don’t specifically think about our brown hair and green eyes and nondescript face. So when describing the two protagonists from my current work in progress, I struggled to make the description natural. This means that, first, I had to give my POV character a plausible reason to think about it, and, second, I had to put the description in her own words.

My two protagonists are twelve-year-old cousins who alternate point-of-view chapters. Julia has a rich imagination, and Fannie has none. I want to describe them in enough detail to make my readers happy, but the only feature truly important to the story is that Julia is slightly overweight and Fannie is not.

The physical description of the two characters seems to fit most easily in the second Julia chapter, where I can use the fathers’ similarity as a lead-in. However, Julia wouldn’t necessarily think of herself as overweight, so how do I get that across? Julia would probably make the comparison using metaphors or similes, but she is unlikely to think of her body shape in a negative way. To complicate matters further, the comparison I use must be to objects that were present in 1872 but can also be understood by today’s preteens.

Here are some of the comparisons I considered:

Fannie                        Julia

lamp post                    pillow (soft and comfortable)

clarinet                        violin

cattail (or lily)             lilac bush

green bean                  cucumber

For the moment, this is what I ended up with:

Gripping her hatbox, Julia followed her father and stepmother off the train. Then she spotted her Uncle Albert in the crowd. He was younger than her father, but anyone who looked at them could tell they were brothers.

Maybe that was why strangers who saw Julia and Fannie together thought they were sisters, although Julia couldn’t see the resemblance. Both had green eyes and chestnut brown hair, but Julia’s hair was straight while Fannie’s curled naturally, making it appear thicker and puffier. And they were both average height, but Fannie was as lean as a lamp post while Julia was shaped more like a Chinese vase.  

I’m still not happy with it, so if you have any better ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Writing Like a Gardener

Monday, February 13, 2017

My online critique partner recently considered setting a manuscript aside in the middle of the first draft and not picking it up again until she had a chance to travel to her story location. Here is the advice I gave her:

The first draft is for getting something down on paper, and the second and third drafts are for cleaning up the facts as well as everything else. The first draft may be garbage, but it becomes the fertilizer that eventually grows a healthy garden. I always try to get the first draft completed before I put it aside to breathe while I work on something else.

It wasn’t until I wrote those words that I realized how much writing has in common with gardening.

My father was an avid gardener. Every year he would turn over the soil, drop seeds in some furrows, and plant seedlings in others. For fertilizer, he would use compost or animal waste. Daddy would have been horrified at the very idea of stopping when the garden was only half planted. Instead, he kept going until everything was in the ground. (His first draft.)

He may have taken a slight break then, but soon he was back at work in the garden. He weeded, watered if there wasn’t enough rain, and added more fertilizer when necessary. (His second draft.)

When the vegetables were ready to pick, he harvested them. (His final draft.) Then he brought them to our table, much as a writer sends his or her story to publishers and agents.

Daddy was a tenacious gardener. He worked hard, and he never gave up. That’s why he succeeded at growing the healthy crops you can see in the picture.

So if you are tempted to set aside that first draft before it is finished, don’t give in. The first draft may be garbage, but it becomes the compost that grows a healthy garden.


The picture at the top of this post shows Daddy with the fruit of his garden in LaPrairie, Illinois. My mother took it when I was three years old. And yes, that little girl is me.

Shut down the boiler; I want to get off the boat!

Monday, February 6, 2017

I always have a list of possible subjects for my next book, and the one after that, and the one after that . . .

That’s fine, and even good, as long as those subjects know when to stay silent. But it’s bad when they decide to speak up at the wrong time.

After writing several books, I’ve come up with the routine that works best for me. It goes something like this (WIP stands for work in progress):

  1. Write the first draft of WIP #1.
  2. Put the first draft of WIP #1 aside to breathe while I catch up on various projects and/or research WIP #2.
  3. Do additional research for WIP #1, if necessary.
  4. Write the second draft of WIP #1.
  5. Make minor edits to WIP #1 and give it to my beta readers.
  6. Research and/or write the first draft of WIP #2.
  7. Go over beta reader comments on WIP #1 and rework it (the third draft).
  8. Polish WIP #1 and send it to a freelance editor.
  9. Write the first or second draft of WIP #2 (depending on how much I got done in step 6) and do additional research, if necessary.
  10. Make the edits in WIP #1 and submit it to publishers and/or agents.
  11. Continue the process with WIPs #2 and #3.

That’s the way it’s supposed to happen, although research can occur at any stage. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to keep the WIPs in their places. I begin to get excited about WIP #2 while I am working on a step dedicated to WIP #1. Right now, I am in the middle of Step 4 for my book about the Great Chicago Fire, and that’s what I should be concentrating on. But the other day my Great Courses lecture finished before my walk did, and I started thinking about ideas for fleshing out a story about a riverboat disaster, which was one of the subjects on my list for future books. And once ideas start flowing, I have to write them down or I’ll lose them.

But now I need to shut down the riverboat’s boiler and get back to the Great Chicago Fire.


The photograph was taken around 1860 and the author is unknown. It shows the riverboat America traveling down the Mississippi River on its way to Angola Prison in Louisiana. The photo is in the public domain because of its age, and you can find more information about it at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:River_Boat_America_with_Convicts_for_Angola.jpg.