Do Your Homework

posted by Nick Hinton

How do you make a character convincing? You give them realistic dreams, hopes, fears, and failings. You need to know their history, their present, and their future. If you fail to give a character a back story that feels true or a fear with no backing readers will know. If there are holes in your characters, your readers will find them. So what can you do? Flesh out your characters. Your protagonist may only take up twenty pages in a short story, but you need to have more information. Even if it doesn’t make it to the final draft, or even the second draft, you should know the details of your character’s life.

One way I like to go about filling out characters is to interview real people. If your character is a teacher, interview a local teacher. If you are writing about a bartender, go to a pub (during off hours), tip well, and ask for their story. Not everyone wants to be interviewed, but enough will that you can find someone. Ask them about their daily routine. Why do they prepare in the ways they do? What are the problems that are obvious to someone in that profession that aren’t clear to an outsider? You can get some great background information for your characters this way.

Your goal should be to create a character who is believable in their profession to both laypeople and experts. You want the computer programmer in your crime story to feel authentic to your grandmother and to the software engineers at Google. However, one pitfall of this engorgement of character information is putting too much of it into your story. It’s useful to know how the waiter in your story serves their customers and the shorthand they use for taking orders. But does that level of detail need to be visible in every story? No. Much of the information you come up with on your characters will serve to bring them into focus in your mind, and as a result they will be clearer to the reader. Think of all those small details as being marked ‘for your eyes only’. Your reader won’t know what they are, but they’ll know if those details are absent.

Feeling Foreign

I’m currently reading the Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being the first book in the series), which is set in Sweden. I have never been there, nor to any Scandinavian country. I don’t have friends or relatives from the area, and I have only ever met a handful of people of Swedish descent. I have no helpful background for Stieg Larsson to use when trying to evoke the sense of place in Stockholm. However, Larsson is successful in giving me a feeling of place when reading his novels. He combines tactile sensations of food and drink along with a deep immersion in Swedish locations and names to create a strong sense of place.


The food and drink of a place is an easy way to describe a place to someone who has not been there. In the Millennium trilogy, everyone is drinking coffee. All the time. Drinking coffee is not an exclusively Swedish activity, but the frequency of the act of drinking it strikes me as something foreign. I take coffee in the morning and afternoon, but Larsson presents it as a cornerstone of life. Important characters are eating dinner? Have a coffee. The sneaky antagonist is plotting his revenge? Over coffee. A protagonist can’t sleep? Put on the coffee! The story of the Millennium trilogy is rooted in Sweden, and Larsson ties something I have experienced to a sense of place I haven’t yet developed. He’s bridging the gap for me.


As a side note, Larsson’s use of coffee would not be as effective if he repeated ‘they drank coffee’ hundreds of times. He describes the type of coffee (black vs espresso, instant vs cafe). He tells the reader if the coffee warms the character’s hands or if the mug at the crime scene is cold. He shows us swirls of milk and cream and foam. As a writer it is important to provide these sensory details to the reader. Without them your world can come across as flat or lifeless.


Another way Larsson makes the trilogy feel authentically Swedish is the sheer volume of characters with Swedish names. It might seem trivial, but think of it as immersing the reader in the people of the area. If there were three or five or ten characters in The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (the third book in the trilogy), the names would evident but not pervasive. I don’t have exact figures, but you would need multiple sets of hands to keep track of all the Swedish names of people and places. What that means for a writer wanting to immerse their reader in a new place is that you should consider naming locations or minor characters you might normally give no more than a pronoun. Say they drove through Sandwich on their way to Chicago, or that the mailman’s name is Kristov. The added detail will help your reader feel a sense of place.


Five Reasons Poetry Is Just Like CrossFit

  1. It makes you feel powerful.
    “and he said: you pretty full of yourself ain’t chu //
    so she replied: show me someone not full of herself
    and i’ll show you a hungry person” (Giovanni 19-21).
    Knowing you’ve captured an image or a moment in words is just like a PR — you know you’ve just done something special, difficult, and new, and you want to tell everybody about that surge of power that just ran through you. Hence all the social media posts about achieving writing mileposts and CrossFit goals. Just so you know, not only did I finish a poem I’ve been working on for a few weeks today, but I also actually jumped on all my box jumps. No step-ups. 
  2. You hope other people will notice, but you’re doing it for yourself first.
    “To gain your own voice, forget about having it heard. Become a saint of your own province and your own consciousness” (Ginsberg).
    So it’s been six months since your last acceptance. So what? You will either sit down and write more and write better, or you won’t. You’ll either grab that jumprope and try to master double-unders or you won’t. I’m betting you will. 
  3. It’s a challenge, and you’re up for it.
    “I once told somebody that writing a sestina was rather like riding downhill on a bicycle and having the pedals push your feet. I wanted my feet to be pushed into places they wouldn’t normally have taken” (Ashbery qtd. in Guthrie).
    Sestinas are a challenge. Six end words. Six stanzas. An envoi. A complicated rotating pattern. Sounds like the “Bear Complex” WOD to me.
  4. You don’t have to be good at it to be a part of the club.
    “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
    the world offers itself to your imagination,
    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
    over and over announcing your place
    in the family of things” (Oliver 14-18).
    Go to an open mic or a poetry reading or a poetry workshop. You’ll see. It’s just like being in a CrossFit box. Whether you’re Rx or scaled, let’s get it!
  5. It lays you bare. (You look better naked.)
    “We live so often in a damped-down condition, obscured from ourselves and others. The sequesters are social—convention, politeness—and personal: timidity, self-fear or self-blindness, fatigue. To step into a poem is to agree to risk. Writing takes down all protections, to see what steps forward” (Hirshfield).
    Ok, ok. Poetry might not make you look better naked (although a well-chosen, well-timed recitation probably wouldn’t hurt), but it does strip you down. Writing and reading poetry gets at the core, at the human center. CrossFit will eventually help you look and feel better, and, let me tell you, after a WOD involving wall-balls, calorie rows, sit-ups, and burpees, you’ll feel closer to every single athlete in that box. There are no societal masks when you’re writing your heart out or when you’re on your back on the chalk-spattered floor gasping for air.

Giovanni, Nikki. “Poem For A Lady Whose Voice I Like.” Poetry Foundation. 2015. Web. 12 March 2015.

Guthrie, Camille. “Why Write Sestinas?” Poetry Foundation. 16 April 2013. Web. 12 March 2015.

Hirshfield, Jane. “Why Write Poetry?” Psychology Today. 6 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 March 2015.

Oliver, Mary. “Wild Geese.” 2015. Web. 12 March 2015.


The Memoir Dilemma

post by litsense

My current dilemma about finishing my memoir, besides the serial procrastination, is that the people I write about will not like that in the process of exposing myself, I will expose them too. My mother may not like what I have shared that makes her appear self-centered, and my husband might be embarrassed to read what I was really thinking so many years ago. It’s my story, I tell myself, my truth, but that argument feels weak against the cold of the back of a shoulder turned against you. In any event, I think any writer who writes about their life and their family has to face this fear in order to write the story they feel they have to tell. Lee Gutkind offers this:

Writing true stories about family goes beyond the normal complications of writing creative nonfiction, because you are digging deep into your own roots and personal foundations. Once you begin to do this, you are relinquishing, to a certain extent, whether deliberately or not, the safety and security of your house and home and family. Your parents, spouse, siblings, cousins, and everyone else may continue to comfort and love you, but they will probably never again trust you completely. They will always wonder what you are going to write about them next.

Of course, the other side of the equation is that they might also treat you with a bit more care and respect because of the power of your pen. So, it’s not all bad.

Bottom line, if you write about your family there is a risk, and the decision is if it is a risk worth taking.

A Dead Letter in Reverse: Melville’s Bartleby

From Jeffery Schrecongost at South85:

I was assembling my ENGL 112 course syllabus the other day, and, in reviewing Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” I was reminded that an argument for Bartleby as antiestablishment hero is not indefensible. The harmless, if not initially loveable, chap is curiously comedic in his hell-bent defiance and awkward introversion and can ultimately be viewed as a martyr for individuality. Conversely, an interpretation of Bartleby as individual-to-a-fault can be successfully supported as well.

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