Consider using imagery to convey the tone of a scene. It’s fine to select a universal image, such as fluffy white clouds or birds chirping to set a happy mood. But you can elevate the scene by picking an image that connects in a specific way to your story or reinforces one of your character’s traits. Then, examine how you can use that same image to depict a change in tone by the ending. For example, if that happy scene ends on a sad note, transform those fluffy white clouds into dark thunderclouds, or have those chirping birds fall silent. Using thoughtful imagery not only reinforces the emotional impact you want your story to have, but also broadens your reader’s experience of the world you’ve created.
What’s the best book you’ve discovered in the last few months and how did you learn about it?
I have a bar of soap on my desk. It’s not for washing my hands. It’s not there by mistake. I bought it a couple of years ago at a quirky little handmade soap shop with a half-dozen other bars, intending to give them out as little gifts whenever a little-gift occasion came up. I did give the rest of them away, but not this one. I loved the scent, fresh and clean, but also like the ocean and crushed mint. And then I realized that the quirky soap shop owners had decided to call this particular scent ‘hangover,’ and I’d just never found anyone I felt good about giving it to. So I kept it, and it gravitated to my desk because its scent made me happy. Soon it didn’t just make me happy, it helped me kickstart my brain. Whenever I’m pondering a scene, I just reach over, grab the soap bar and inhale its ocean-mint scent, and changing one sensory input gives my brain a little jolt and helps me approach my writing with a fresh perspective.
I also have a blackberry sage tea canister that serves a similar purpose. The scent of the tea—leafy, fruity and bitter—lingers in the tin long after I’ve steeped the last bag, and its aroma has the ability to shift my mental focus and give me the nudge I need to think about my writing in a different way.
I like to keep something tactile nearby to work with my fingers while I think. It used to be one of those desk magnet things—until my children carried the little pieces away. Now it’s a slap bracelet with reversible sequins which one of those same children abandoned on my desk. Sequins aren’t really my style aesthetically; I’m more of a natural fibers kind of girl, but if I see reversible sequins, I must touch them, run my hands up and then down. Every. Single. Time. Addiction, y’all. But also a physical prompt to shift my perspective and renew my mind.
There are plenty of ways to shake up your environment in order to shake up your mind and your story. You just have to find the one that works for you. Change the lighting in you room. If you usually stick with a bright overhead light, try softer lamplight or natural light. Open a window. Light a candle. The oppressive heat of summer here has just been replaced by the invigorating chill of fall mornings, so I’ve moved my writing outside today. All the birdsong and fresh air has kept me going for a solid hour already.
What props or techniques do you use to renew your mind while you write?
Amid the extreme tides of the Bay of Fundy is a tiny island known as Isle Haute. I learned about its existence while doing research this summer for my current work-in-progress, a middle grade historical fiction novel set in 18th century Nova Scotia – then known as Acadie. I turned to the Internet to learn more about the rise and fall of the world-famous Fundy tides since they would have been a significant part of everyday life for my characters. And before I knew it, I had not only learned about the 50-foot tidal exchange and watched way-cool videos of people walking on the ocean floor during low tide, but I had stumbled upon Isle Haute.
What caught my eye about the island – notable for its 320-foot-cliffed sides – was that it appeared to float above the water, especially on misty mornings, thanks to those dramatically fluctuating tides. I should have shut down my Wi-fi right then and there and gone back to writing. But a floating island? I had to read more.
So, over the better part of the rest of my day, I read more about Isle Haute and how it not only appears to float, but has been known to disappear and reappear in a new location within the bay, or so people claim. Local legend says pirate Ned Low buried stolen treasure there in 1722 and then beheaded a member of his crew so its ghost could safeguard it until Low returned to collect the loot. But Low was captured and hanged, never to return to reclaim the treasure, and the flaming headless ghost emerges every seven years, prompting the island to change its location.
Buried treasure, of course, means there have been attempts to unearth Low’s rumored stash. And in reading about those efforts, I came across one nugget of information that actually related back to my WIP. My story is about a brother and sister who are separated from one another in 1755 when the British deported thousands of Acadians from their homeland. Thanks to my tangential research into Isle Haute, I learned there are some who believe the Acadians hid their valuables on the island during the expulsion to keep them from falling into British hands. It was also suggested that some Acadians hid out on the island to avoid the deportation.
Was there a way for me to work all of these fun tidbits of information into my story? It seemed like a stretch, so I set aside the “research” and lamented the fact that I had just spent an entire day working on my manuscript with nothing tangible to show for it.
Fast forward to last week. I tuned in to this year’s virtual YA-hoo! Fest’s historical fiction genre talk hosted by authors Vicky Alvear Shecter, Kathleen Burkinshaw, J. Kasper Kramer and Amy Trueblood. These well-spoken and engaging panelists shared their thoughts about falling down the research rabbit hole. Their agreement that it’s not only an inevitable part of the process for historical fiction writers, but that it shouldn’t be a shameful thing – or regarded as a waste of time – was exactly what I needed to hear as I’m starting to revise my story. I’ve been neck-deep in a lot of rabbit holes while researching this novel.
Shecter embraces the process, saying it’s where she discovers interesting gems to use in her stories. She advised editing the finds, however, by incorporating only the ones that are relevant to your character’s specific journey.
While elaborating on that same idea, Kramer said the rabbit hole is worth exploring, especially when it leads to an emotional, pivotal moment for your character.
Burkinshaw even followed up the discussion with words of encouragement on Twitter: “Keep going and don’t be afraid of the research rabbit hole.”
I digested their comments over the past few days and had them in mind as I worked on my story this weekend. As much as I think a middle grade audience would love to read about flaming headless ghosts, my story isn’t about hunting for pirate treasure. And, if I’m being true to history, my tween protagonists would never have paddled a canoe across the Bay of Fundy by themselves to hide their family treasures. I did, however, find a feasible way to work in a small bit of what I discovered in the rabbit hole, and I’m energized to flesh out the scene to add it.
When I’m finished writing it, I’ll move on to the next item on my “To Research” list. Surely, it won’t take long to find out what kinds of crops the Acadians were harvesting right before the deportation. Let me just check the Internet real quick….