Last week I began a series of Unblocker writing exercises which combine Legacy Writing (writing with a focus on personal history, bordering on memoir) with Fiction Writing.
My theory is this: The legacy writing exercises can also be good for fiction writers who have hit a creative wall with a character. Just as the legacy writer can use these questions to unlock the important things that happened in their past, a fiction writer can use these same questions to help break a stuck character free.
With today’s exercise, I did that very thing with a character in one of my own short stories. I’ll tell you about THAT after I give you the prompts.
Legacy Writer: If you are using this exercise to help you with your own legacy writing, what you are looking for is a prompt to get you writing. Take the prompt below and just begin to write, free-writing style, with no concern for format or even content. All you want to do is get the pen(cil) moving. So, answer the questions below with as much detail as you can remember. If you suddenly focus on one aspect of your response, go with it. Let anything you stumble across that you find yourself writing more about just run on as far as it will go. Don’t worry. The rest of the prompt will still be here, later, if you want to come back to it. If you get to the end of your writing quickly, go back, close your eyes, try to “see” as many little details of your answer as you possibly can, and then write some more.
Fiction Writer: Be your character — the one you are having the hardest time understanding — and answer these questions from that character’s point of view. Pretend you are that character and they are sitting down to do this legacy writing exercise. What would they write? When you find something new and surprising, dwell on it a bit, and see if it is something you can use in your fiction writing.
We are again focusing on childhood, in an effort to dig up details and memories that don’t come immediately to mind. To do that, we begin with the details that first spring to mind, and then allow our pen (or keyboard, or voice-recognition software) to take over. We allow these early writings to wander around until we find something significant to latch on to. When something wants to take up more space, we allow it to. Try to write at least one sentence for each question, but a paragraph is better. If you find a question spurs more writing, go with it as long as it is flowing freely.
Where did you live during your childhood and who lived with you?
Picture a childhood home. Sketch a rough floor plan. Label the rooms. Envision yourself in each room and make a list of things you see in that room. Just a list to start, but later, dwell in that room. What do you hear? Smell? Taste? Of those items you listed, were any of them special? Did any of them have negative memories attached? Is there something you see in that room of your childhood home that you wish you had in your hand right now? What is it? Why do you wish you had it?
Where was your favorite place in that house? Why? What part of that house did you hate or dread or avoid?
What was the happiest moment you remember in that house? The saddest? The most frightening?
What was that house like when everyone was home? When people came to visit? When you were there all alone?
How was the house different in day than at night? In winter vs. in summer? A pretty day vs. a storm?
Describe the house from the outside. Pretend you are a real-estate agent, then a potential buyer. Or, what did the neighbors see when they looked at your house? Or, perhaps, your best friend you brought home from school?
Walk around the outside. Were there bushes? Trees? Roses? Bare patches? Yellow patches and dug-up spots from the dog? Was the paint smooth and clean or chipped? Was there a gravel drive, pavement, a parking space among dozens of others? A climbing tree? A place to hide? Enough room to play baseball or barely enough room to turn around?
Was there a shed, a garage, a barn, any other structure? Was that a place to play or off limits?
Last year I wrote a story about Bunny, a rough-edged, semi-orphaned girl who lived and worked at a towing company in Orlando. The story was well received by my readers, but they wanted a little more depth and complexity added to Bunny’s character. The readers found the scenario fascinating, but they wanted to understand a little more how Bunny got where she was.
I used questions just like these to think through Bunny’s childhood. I didn’t use every bit of knowledge I gained about Bunny in the short story, but I used several details from doing this exercise to help make the character and her experiences a little more full and complex. I incorporated specific items (her grandfather’s chair, postcards from an absent mother) from a specific place (her grandmother’s dirty apartment). I took Bunny outside, and used a specific memory (playing catch with oranges plucked from a tree beside the apartment building and her grandfather’s body sitting in his chair after he committed suicide) to highlight the circumstances of her childhood.
Using these legacy exercises as a fiction writer is a great way to help us bring depth to our characters. I hope you find them useful in your writing, as well.