Writing about Your Life: Now what did they say?

English: Trees lining the Patuxent River, whic...

English: Trees lining the Patuxent River, which runs adjacent to the Savage Mill Trail. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Grandfather, how long will it be before we get to the river?” I asked one hot summer’s day, trailing behind my brothers and sisters. “These sticker briars are scratching my legs.”

  “Jist a li’l while longer, chil,” Grandfather replied, as he held a long scythe in his veined, sun-baked hands. Gripping the splintered handle, he swung the contraption and decisively parted a tangled thicket, allowing us to inch our way behind him.

“Jist a few more steps and we be dair!” Once again, Grandfather was taking us for a swim down at the fork of the Little Patuxent River, which lay between our house and a railroad bordering unexplored territory on the other side.

  “Be careful, chil’ren,” Grandfather warned. “Dair’s a few sink holes dat might suck ya down to da bot’m.” And with those words, he watched from the river’s edge, looming over us like a guardian angel, while we splashed around, giggling every second.

One way to acquaint readers with characters in your story is to use dialogue which accurately identifies how they talk. I have to admit that trying to use the right speech patterns and dialect for my grandfather and grandmother was a challenge. In fact, my oldest sister said she did not remember my grandparents talking as I portrayed them in my book. At first I was somewhat annoyed by her comment. Then I remembered a very important point about memoirs: This was my recollection of my grandparents, not hers. I was writing from my memory and that made my story real and accurate to me.

     Another challenge for me was trying to spell the words I heard as a little girl. My experience reading other writers’ use of dialogue was helpful here. Over the course of writing my story, I read biographies, autobiographies and novels which used the kind of conversation which reminded me of my grandparents.  As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, writers need to read! You will gain a wealth of knowledge when you take time to read books from others who have mastered their craft.

    If you’re writing your first draft, give yourself a break and dont’ get too caught up with trying to write perfect dialogue the first time around. After all, the most important thing is telling the story as you remember it. Changes will take place the second or third time you revise your draft.

Another rule of thumb is to change paragraphs as speakers change. For those who are already acquainted with this rule, allow me to remind new writers.  I say “remind” because you probably learned this skill in language arts classes back in the day. As you continue reading books by other authors, you’ll start noticing more helpful writing techniques.

Writing is hard work, but telling your story is worth it! You may have to get up earlier or go to bed later or sometimes write through your lunch hour, but you’ll feel such a sense of accomplishment when you have that completed book in your hands. Remember–you’re on a journey! Learn to enjoy the process!

Writing about Your Life: What were you thinking?

See Hear

See Hear (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few days later, I experienced another case of unbridled terror, fearful of even going out of my house. I was cleaning one of the bedrooms and the walls seemed to close in on me. Everything went totally black. My chest tightened, and I fell to one knee and eventually collapsed in a heap on the blue shag carpet. I…stumbled out of that room, holding onto what little sanity I had left. I lay there for a few minutes, thinking this must surely be hell.

     How did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? I’m a good person, aren’t I? Is this really what insanity is like? Will I ever be myself again? I had a pretty good childhood, except for the usual family squabbles. Now My whole life is falling apart. I feel totally defeated. What’s going on? Why am I such a wreck?

     Imagine what the world would be like if people could hear one another’s thoughts. Ouch! We’d be treading on dangerous ground. No doubt, we’d be making a lot of enemies. I consider myself a pretty nice person, but I have to admit my thoughts can go to some dark places at times. Admitting that I harbor jealousy, hatred, anger, fear and pride is not easy. However, if I want to tell an honest story, I have to tell the whole story. In Chapter One of  The Price of Pearls, I pull the reader in by sharing my internal struggle. I let the reader hear my thoughts as I try to understand what’s going on with me. The reader wants to connect with the writer. This will not happen unless you pull him or her into the story with this simple technique.

Practice writing your thoughts in a journal. Think of a conversation you had with your spouse, friend, or that person you find very hard to like. Yes, I said it! We all have people in our lives who rub us the wrong way. And when I think about it, as nice as I think I am, my husband will gladly tell you I make it my goal to bug him daily. Yes, we’ve been married forty years, but we’ve irritated each other from time to time.

What were you thinking during your “heated” discussion? Or before? Or after? Where were you? What were you doing? You saw me in a bedroom in my house. Then I gradually built up to the moment when I shared my thoughts about what was happening to me. I pulled you into my world by letting you hear my thoughts. As you see in the second paragraph, I put those thoughts in italics. As a writer, you need to read other authors, especially authors who write about their lives. You’ll gain valuable skills.

In my next post, we’ll look at other ways to use dialogue in your story. In the meantime, pay attention to your internal dialogue and practice, practice, practice. It’s always the right time to write!

Writing about Your Life: Take Your Best Shot

Dew on a spider's web in the morning. Français...

Dew on a spider’s web in the morning. Français : Rosée sur une toile d’araignée au levé du soleil. Русский: Утренняя роса на паутине. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t believe I’ve become such a camera bug! Anytime I see anything remotely interesting, I am ready to snap a picture or do a video. I have to give total credit to my Sprint smart phone. Since I bought my phone back in September, I’ve created a library of 258 photos and 30 videos. In addition, I recently downloaded the Instagram camera app, so I’m sorry to announcement that you may see more of my family on Facebook. While I may never become an Annie Lebowitz, a photographer whose claim to fame is taking pictures of babies in unique settings, I’m on my way to “notoriety” with my family and friends.

Pictures are priceless. My one regret is that I don’t have a picture of someone who made a profound impact on my life–my grandmother, Mom Mamie.  However, I distinctly remember this phenomenal woman. In chapter two of my memoir, The Price of Pearls, I describe her in the following manner:

Mom Mamie was a force to be reckoned with–grey kinky hair, parted down the middle, straightened with a hot com and slicked back with fingertips of My Night conditioner. She had a deep dark face adorned with flared nostrils and breasts that flopped to her waistline, beneath her usual flowered house dress. Her hands were calloused from years of doing “day’s work,” as she called the chores she did in rich white folks’ houses. Bowed legs, straining to keep up stockings knotted at the knees, supported her slightly stooped frame. Fingernails bitten to the nubs were emblems of battle-scarred memories.

     As I grew older, I’d often think about what an odd couple they were. Grandfather surely had been quite a catch; Grandmother’s wisdom and fortitude, I surmised, had no doubt won his heart.

     Recently, my oldest son Duane gave me a much appreciated compliment. “Mom, he remarked, “I always heard you talk about Mom Mamie and Pop Pete (my grandfather), but they were just names before I read your book. Now I know who they are and where I come from.”

Perhaps you want to acquaint your readers with important people in your story.  If you have a photo, fine. But if you, like me, have nothing but your memory, you can retrieve those pictures at any time. Try doing a web. It’s very simple. On a sheet of paper, write the name of the person you want to describe in the middle of the paper. Then draw lines like the rays of the sun extending from the name. Jot down everything you see, hear, smell, taste, or feel when you bring that person into focus in your mind. Then add details as you draw other lines extending from the original lines you drew.  Keep going until you’ve exhausted all your thoughts.

There is no right or wrong way to do this activity, which is generally referred to as “brainstorming.” When you’re finished, decide which details are important to your picture and which can be omitted or added to your story later. Have fun while you’re doing this activity! When you’re finished, begin putting your ideas in sentences. You can go from least to most important details or vice versa. When I described my grandmother, I started with her hair and ended with her hands.

One of the most important aspects of photography is making sure you consider the right lighting. One of the benefits of using Instagram when taking pictures is having the ability to change the lighting after you’ve taken a picture.  Sounds great, right? Well, you, the writer, have total control of lighting.  Truly, what you see is what the reader will get! Creating a picture with words takes practice, but the results are priceless!


Writing about Your Life: The Power of Words

A year ago my daughter Andrea and my

A Garibaldi Damsel fish photographed by Lonnie...

A Garibaldi Damsel fish photographed by Lonnie Huffman at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

grandson Shawney accompanied me to the Atlanta Aquarium.  Shawney was two and had never been to an aquarium. I have to admit I was more excited than his mother. I could hardly wait to see him react to the exhibits.  When we walked inside, we were immediately overwhelmed by elementary students swarming everywhere.  Wow! I wondered if we had made a mistake when I realized we had come on a day set aside for field trips.   But it wasn’t long before the big payoff came.

As we turned the first corner and headed towards a tank of colorful fish, Shawney blurted out, “Mommy, look at the doggies! Hi, doggies!” I threw my head back and laughed heartily. He continued in awe of other “doggies” as Andrea and I sped behind him through a maze of hallways. What a priceless afternoon! While Shawney amused us with his limited but unique vocabulary, I am reminded that we writers need to choose words carefully. We run the risk of boring or frustrating our readers when we don’t say exactly what we mean. Using powerless, ineffective words is not funny!

Regardless of our style of writing, we must ask ourselves if our readers understand what we are saying. Chapter One of my memoir,The Price of Pearls,begins with a paragraph in which I describe the onset of depression:

My storm began brewing in 1989, a year after my oldest son graduated from high school. As dark clouds began to gather, interrupting a tranquil summer’s day, my depression started as a squall and gathering strength, grew into gale-force winds.

     I wanted the reader to understand the nature and progression of depression, so I used the analogy of a storm.  While everybody has experienced sadness, not everyone has experienced major bouts of depression. I wanted the reader to grasp the magnitude of this life-controlling disorder. 

This is called figurative language or imaginative language. Basically, figurative language is the use of words to create a picture or image which helps the reader get a better understanding of what you, the writer, is attempting to say.

On another page in chapter one, I describe a time when I was terrified:

Fear then wrapped its tentacles around my neck, and I gasped for air.

     The goal of figurative language is to draw the reader into your experience.  Ultimately, you want the reader to walk in your shoes, to experience your range of emotions. When you accomplish that goal, you convince your reader to go with you on your journey.  And isn’t that what you want? Think about how many books you’ve started and did not finish. Perhaps you could not relate to the writer.  While figurative language should not be overused, it certainly warrants consideration. A little practice will spice up a dull narrative.