Setting the Scene in Your Story: The five senses

As you write your story, consider your character’s surroundings. What does your character see, hear, smell, touch and taste?

Think of a movie or television show you’ve seen and create a sensory list. “Show, don’t tell.” An example might be M*A*S*H, either the movie or television show. What do you see and hear as you watch the show? Can you imagine the smells? Setting uses all the senses, so think “See, hear, smell, touch and taste.”

Examples might include:

  • Sight
    •  the sight of helicopters crossing gray mountains, red crosses on khaki Army tents, ambulances hurrying to the landing pad, red crosses on their sides and roof. The perspective gets bigger as the helicopter starts to descend. Nurse and medics race, carrying empty canvas stretchers, camouflage netting over equipment near the pad,  Jeeps speed up the hill towards the helicopter, dust flying. All of this is “telling.” Think of ways to “show.” You will probably use some of the other senses to help “show” the scene.

“My Blue Heaven” in Korean played over the PA system as Hawkeye and BJ swung their golf clubs near the medical camp deep in the gray mountains. The sunny day was suddenly broken by the whop-whop-whop of helicopters approaching. Hawkeye looked up, then both men sprinted to camp and hopped into jeeps. Other vehicles marked with giant red crosses followed, racing to the helicopter pad.

The setting is shown using the actions of Hawkeye and BJ, the sunny day and the approach of the jeeps heading to the helicopter pad.

  • Sounds
    • music over the PA system, the whirl of the helicopter blades, rattle and rhythmic clatter of the blades, people yelling (music covers some), second helicopter sounds, Jeeps revving their engines.
  • Smells
    • fuel, dry dusty air, perspiration, blood (smells metallic), antiseptic, burning hair (smells like sulfur), body odors
  • Taste
    • dust, dry mouth, maybe someone in the scene is chewing gum or smoking a cigarette
  • Touch
    • hot metal jeep and helicopters, gritty feel of tarp, stretchers, wet sweaty skin, sticky viscous blood oozing, slimy blood clots, heat of the sun, wind blowing from helicopter, dirt pelting skin

All of the senses can help with setting.

Imagine the scene in your story and write down all the things you can think of that fit each category. Keep the list hand because there might be similar elements in other scenes. Or your list can trigger other ideas for a different story you work on later.

List items you might use in other stories like someone eating popcorn (touch, smell, taste, sound, sight) or Mom making a pot roast for dinner or exploring an old musty home or forest. As you make your senses list, refer to it when you are stuck and it will help spark your imagination.

Happy writing!

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Halloween at the Car Wash

This is a story I wrote after going through a car wash recently. This particular car wash features mannequins dressed in yellow rain slickers that greet you with frozen stares.

As I went through the wash, I thought of it as a cheap haunted house. My imagination went wild.

The story started as a 100 word Facebook post. After receiving several “likes,” I expanded it to 600+ words and read it at the Nebraska Writers Guild conference last weekend. 
Halloween cookies
Halloween at the Car Wash by Sue Bristol 2017

The crisp air invigorated me as I stepped out the door. “I love the Fall,” I said to no one. My black cat looked up at me as if I were an idiot. I nudged her out of the way and headed to my car.

I turned the key in the ignition. “Wash me” the engine seemed to growl. A shiver ran down my spine. I looked up and saw the windshield covered with dead slimy bugs and beetle juice.

I drove passed the Bates Motel and headed down Elm Street to the nearest car wash. Traffic was a nightmare! I wanted to scream.

At the intersection, I spotted the twenty-foot tall, blonde fiber-glass figure in a yellow-raincoat, beckoning me to the car wash.

I turned in and pulled up to the lane beyond the gas pumps. A guy dressed in cuffed blue jeans, a white t-shirt and black leather jacket sauntered over to the car. “What’ll it be, baby cakes?” He ran a comb through his Brylcream-saturated slicked-back pompadour.

“I just want a basic wash that will get rid of the bugs.”

He leaned into the drivers’ side window. “That’ll be seven-bucks.” He took my money, winked at me, and double-clicked his tongue.

I followed the lane to the entrance. A strange mannequin greeted me with a frozen grin and big eyes that never blinked. He was dressed in a yellow raincoat and a hat like the Gorton fisherman. It reminded me that I needed to stop and buy some frozen halibut, fava beans and a nice Chianti

I proceeded into the tunnel. As I drove onto the conveyor, the car resisted my control. Piercing green eyes flashed across the dashboard. My SUV morphed into a 1958 Plymouth Fury. Another yellow-clad mannequin waved while holding a water-less water wand as if washing the car.

The car lurched forward. Red and blue lights flashed in the tunnel as the car advanced. I was powerless. Discombobulated by the lights and the roar of the wash starting up, I shut my eyes and trembled. The name “Christine” popped into my head as the smell of a hamburger drifted from the back seat.

I startled as white ethereal foam covered my red SUV-turned Plymouth Fury. Black tentacles descended from the ceiling and swished across Christine’s windshield. Petrified, I heard a rumble. Water shot out from the tunnel walls, hitting with such force from both sides that the car shook. The eerie foam oozed from the hood of the car. The spray had won. Was I next?

The car advanced with no help from me. I sat frozen in my seat. I looked up and saw a little mannequin doing flips near the ceiling, staring like the curse of Chucky.

Strong bursts of air hit the car as it advanced toward the exit. No control over my thoughts, the light at the end of the tunnel forced me to think in clichés. Another life-size mannequin dressed in a yellow coat, white shirt and black tie, stood at the exit, waving at me and pointing to something. I wasn’t sure what, as his arm was flattened and his tie, duct-taped to the sleeve. The car slowed. At last, I had control! Christine was gone. Grateful that I’d escaped the yellow dummies, I drove the SUV onto the street, heading home.

The giant yellow beckoning statue looked down at me at the intersection. His menacing fixed gaze warned, “We’ll get you next time and your seven-bucks, too.”20161021_181420

What’s Your Story?

Do you keep journals? Write in a diary?

What is a journal? Business people will tell you that it’s a “record that keeps accounting transactions in chronological order, i.e. as they occur. ”

Writers use journals to come up with story ideas or to make memory lists for memoir. Journals help us tap into our creativity.

Mental health professionals often suggest keeping a journal as a means to discover your inner self and identify issues you may have hidden from yourself.

Journals can be very private or shared with individuals or groups.

Journals and diaries are a way to:

  • leave your legacy for your children
  • sort out your feelings about the past
  • communicate with yourself and others
  • unleash the right side of your brain (creativity)
  • figure out day-to-day issues and time management
  • understand your life story
  • keep track of a specific event as it is happening in your life

I tend to use random spiral notebooks for my journals, but there are many more formal journals you can purchase. They may have “prompts” in case you aren’t sure what to write about.

Years ago, after the birth of my first grandchild, my son and daughter-in-law gave me a journal called “Grandma, Tell Me Your Story.” Each page had a prompt for each day of the year. There were blank pages at the end where I could write whatever came to mind. The topics were something like:

  • January 1 – How did your family celebrate the New Year?
  • January 2 – What were your favorite activities in the winter?

Most months had holiday-specific prompts (if there was a holiday that month) as well as general topics like “Did you ever get in trouble at school? What did you do?” or “What was your favorite Halloween costume? Describe it.” One particularly poignant page in September asked “Where were you on 9/11?”

I wrote in the journal each day and by the end of the year, I returned it to my son for my granddaughter to read in the future.

Recently, I found another “Grandmother” journal that I plan to write WITH my granddaughter. It’s a “back and forth” journal where one of us writes and tJounral grandmahe other responds.

I am scheduled for a major surgical procedure next week and have been journaling about it. It will require major lifestyle changes so I am ambivalent and a little scared. Will I be able to do what is needed to stay healthy? I’d planned to grab a regular notebook to write in, but my friend said I should buy a special journal since this will be a major change in my life. She thought it would be wise to write down the process as well as my anxiety and feelings of anticipation. Why am I having the procedure? How will it improve my life? What will I be able to do afterwards that I can’t do now? What is the doctor telling me day-to-day?

I saw some journals at the card store while I was looking for Father’s Day and birthday cards. One caught my eye. It was beautifully bound and combined adult coloring designs and lined pages. But, it cost $25 so I put it down. A spiral notebook would only cost $2 or so. I told my friend, an adult coloring book fan, about it and she said I needed to go back and get the journal. “You deserve it.”

While out shopping, I was near another card store, same company. I decided to stop in rather than driving across town to the one where I originally saw the journal. Disappointed, no journals like it were to be seen. I asked the cashier as I was leaving the store and she pointed, saying, “Check out the clearance table.”

I walked over and laying on the table among scented candles, stuffed Easter bunnies, and small Mother’s Day plaques sat a lone coloring journal. Spiral and paper instead of leather bound, the coloring areas were on the outer margins of each page instead of the top. Price: $5. I couldn’t pass it up. I took it to the cashier and she rang it up at $2.50. Even better. “Clearance” proved true. Being a spiral, it’s easier to open up flat and write.

journals2

With a price like that, I couldn’t resist buying a second one listed for $8. It was more elaborate with pale green binding and sayings inside as well as coloring at the top.

I should be set for awhile.

I’ve discovered that writing in the coloring journal isn’t as tiring if I write awhile and then color awhile. Different hand muscles are in use for each activity.

journal inside

I have other journals that I will leave for my children as legacy. There is one about Family Traditions. Each major holiday has page where I wrote about typical ways we celebrated when our sons were small or still living at home. Each page has a pocket side where I store mementos such as cards, place-mats or small items.

There are so many journals out there that are fun and useful. I hope you can find one or two you like. To paraphrase the beginning definition of a journal by accountants –” A journal is a record that keeps personal and family history in chronological order, i.e. as they occur. ” Or not.

Journal mothers

 

“And that’s the way it is.”

I was watching the Today Show while eating breakfast this morning when I pondered why is media the way it is? Where have all the reporters gone? (Apologies to Pete Seeger.)

Whmusic-notes-855908ere have all the newsmen gone, long time passing. Where have all the newsmen gone, long time ago. Where have all the newsmen gone, gone for celebrity every one. When will we ever learn? When we ever learn?

“News” flash: Megyn Kelly is moving to NBC!

Matt Lauer makes a lot of money. NBC just signed him up for 2 more years at $20 million a year. Lots of twos. He’s been there 20 years. He has a 2 year contract and he will make $20,000,000 a year. Maybe he should buy a lottery ticket with twos across the board (as if he needs more!) What would Walter Cronkite think? (Oops! Wrong network!)

fortune.com/…/nbc-today-matt-lauer-contract

For a few years, I’ve noticed that television anchors are not reporters but celebrities. We get our “news” from celebrities. Kim Kardashian could step in for many of the so-called reporters! (Wait, is that true? Is she going to host the Morning Show?) False…for now.

Why is hearing about an anchor’s pregnancy relevant to the world? Why is watching a celebrity perform some feat more important than the orphans being whisked out of Syria, in fear of their lives? Why aren’t problems like poverty being addressed or reporting on hunger in our own country? We seem to want to watch trivial things instead of being confronted by real news stories that are harsh realities.

Walter Cronkite was at CBS for 19 years. As a reporter and then anchor, he covered WWII, the Nuremberg trials, Vietnam, the assassination of JFK, then MLK’s assassination. He reported on Watergate and the Iran Hostage Crisis. He covered the news! We didn’t know when or if his wife was pregnant or what college his kids went to. He never told us what he had for breakfast that morning. He said, Our job is only to hold up the mirror – to tell and show the public what has happened.” 

walter-c

I wonder what he’d think of today’s world. I’m sure he’d be shocked by all the false “news” that has been bandied about this past year. He strove for objectivity in reporting. He said, Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine. Nowadays we are seeing more opinion being “reported” as “news” than truly objective journalism. There are someexceptions. I think photojournalism is still relatively forthcoming. Hard to lie when you take a picture of burned out houses or people running from a gunman or storms hitting a part of the country. I don’t think photo manipulation has entered the field. A cynic might think it’s only a matter of time, but I know some very reputable photojournalists (i.e. my DIL) who would never stoop that low.

journalism-quote

Walter Cronkite had his faults. Some colleagues thought he was too proud or dictatorial, but we could trust him. The American people believed him when he reported something. I wonder what he’d say about this past year. Maybe something he said years ago:

“We are not educated well enough to perform the necessary act of intelligently selecting our leaders.”

Anymore, news is all about the ratings. How much money can a network make from advertising? The higher the rating, the more advertising income. The higher the ratings the higher the $$$ rewards to the anchors and reporters.

The news media is important for our democracy. The freedom of the press is usually the first freedom to go when a country is falling. But we need a strong, hard-hitting press that doesn’t cave to celebrity and the mundane.

“There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.”

walter-reporting

Story Ideas and Techniques

Where do you get ideas for stories? Many of mine come from observations I’ve made and experiences I’ve had. Once in awhile something will just pop into my head. When I am on a “roll” and things are moving along,  it’s so exciting to me. I lose all track of time. Does that happen to you?

I recently wrote a short story (and I think it’s a work in progress) and ideas came so quickly, I couldn’t keep up. My fingers were flying across the keyboard. I couldn’t keep up with the thoughts in my brain.

I am grateful for my education in journalism in the 1970’s at UNL. As a student, I learned to type and think. It was much different than the leisurely handwritten thoughts that I was used to. I had to sit at the typewriter and, in rapid fire, put down my thoughts. It was daunting. But now I have difficulty putting pen to paper because my hand is slower than my brain when I write.

I have discovered that I like to write mystical stories. I’m a reader of mysteries, thrillers and spy novels so this has come as a surprise to me. My latest short story is called “Dream Catcher” and it’s about a museum curator who has the uncanny ability to sense things “other worldly.” I got the idea while looking at the dream catcher that hangs in my bedroom window.

Dream catchers started with the Native American of the Great Plains, the Lakota and Sioux. They believed the air is filled with both good and bad dreams. Dream catchers were hung in the tepees and on the babies’ cradle boards for protection.

According to legend, good dreams pass through the center hole to the sleeping person. Bad dreams are caught in the web where they die in the light of dawn.

Traditionally, the frame was made of willow hoops and animal sinew or cordage made from plants. The circular shape represented the sun and moon (and time) as each day moves across the sky.

Now, soft leather cord or synthetic materials are used. The hoop is likely wooden or plastic. They are often decorated with feathers and beads. Mine has an arrowhead in the center.IMG_3865

I have several dream catchers in various forms. I’m not sure when my “collection” started. Like many of my collections, it was inadvertent. I received some from the St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota after making a donation. I continue to receive them now and then, even if I don’t send a donation. I bought the one I have in my bedroom while vacationing in Colorado Springs. I also bought a dreIMG_3868am catcher necklace on another trip to Colorado. I’ve had one of my dream catchers so long, I don’t recall when or where it came from. It is made of leather and is very simple but beautiful with pinkish webbing. It’s one of my favorites.

http://www.dream-catchers.org/category/history/

In my story, the protagonist, Frank de Salle, is a museum curator who was born with microtia. The character is loosely based on my brilliant younger brother who is deaf. My character’s name is Frank de Salle, named for the patron saint of deaf persons, St. Francis de Salle.

Frank and his sister, Christine, a reporter, travel to the Pine Ridge reservation where they attend a powwow. Things happen as they journey onward to the Black Hills and into Wyoming to see Devil’s Tower. All culminates when Frank returns home and is visited by a ghostly figure one night.

Excerpt from “The Dream Catcher”

Frank de Salle was born with a missing ear.   He could speak but he knew he didn’t articulate very well. Strangers treated him as though he was retarded. He sensed it was because of his slurred speech and very loud nasal voice. But he held advanced degrees in both anthropology and history.

 He worked at the college museum as a curator where he set up traveling exhibits,  cataloged museum pieces, and conducted research on artifacts. He worked alone and lived alone and he was fine with that.

His modest two-bedroom home sat ten blocks from campus. He had a drivers’ license but preferred to walk. Pedestrians didn’t cut in front of one another or flip each other off as they hurried down the sidewalk. A nod or smile made it a much more genial mode of getting from point A to point B. Oh, he’d drive in the winter sometimes but leave early in the morning before there was much traffic.

When he spoke, he could hear his words echo in his head and thought they sounded fine, even though strangers looked at him in an odd way. “Don’t yell so loud,” Christine would say, but then he couldn’t hear his words. His speech therapist explained that, with his hearing aid on, he could hear about as well as someone underwater in a swimming pool might hear, whatever that was.

Sometimes he’d feel a vibration before hearing a sound through his hearing aid. Doctors told him that his other senses were heightened. He overcompensated because of his deafness. An oncoming car felt like he was holding an electric razor with the sensation passing through his entire body. He liked vibrations, his connection to the world.

Want to read more? Let me know. Leave a comment below. 

IMG_3866

 

“Everything the Power does, it does in a circle.” Lakota Proverb

“A man’s life is a circle from childhood to childhood, and thus it is in everything where the power moves.” Black Elk

 

Writing Class

An opportunity presented itself to me this winter. I found out about a program at the local university called the “Senior Passport.”

I hate to admit that I celebrated my “Medicare Birthday” this year but being 65 has given me some new opportunities. I signed up to audit a class on writing short stories. It has been a wonderful experience.

Each Monday, we meet and discuss short stories and present short stories we have written since the previous class. The professor packs the classes full of information and activities. Fortunately, we are a small group so there is time to get most of it in.

Each week, one of the students presents a short story to the class. The story I chose was “Train” by Alice Munro. With the stories, we discuss the author’s background, the story plot and twists, the characters and the setting.

Then we critique short stories we have written. This is my favorite part. It is fun to read what other people have written and to offer suggestions to one another. The other students are all fairly young but they offer many good suggestions on how I can improve my stories and in turn, I offer my opinions on their stories.

Writing in a group has a way of bringing people together, of bonding with one another. Being the “old lady” of the class, when we first met, the others were more interested in looking at their i-Phones than chatting during break. But as we began to share our stories, we talked to each other more. We got to know one another through our writing.

When I presented my story about growing up in small town America in the 1950’s, many of the other students came up to me afterwards with comments. One young man asked me about Roger Maris. He lived in Fargo, SD, for awhile and told me about a museum dedicated to Roger Maris in that town. We talked about the excerpt from my story (below) and shared some laughs.

Leaving their dogs to roam the streets, they’d head to the theater four blocks away.  Once inside, they bounced on the padded flip-down seats and waited for the lights to dim. “I hope they show Bugs Bunny today.” Gloria grabbed a handful of popcorn from the bag.

“I like Woody Woodpecker best,” Bob said.  They both made the classic “Hahaha-ha-ha” laugh of the cartoon character.

            The bouncing stopped as they heard the whirl of the reels begin. A black and white circle with a grid appeared on the screen, “Please Stand By.” They clapped their hands. A countdown flashed with numbers and they chanted, “Five, four, three, two, one.” Then the newsreel announcing “News of the Day.” Black and white pictures appeared on the big screen. Large white letters announced that Queen Elizabeth christened a ship somewhere. Roger Maris hit another home run.

            “I love Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle,” she whispered to Bob.

Another student talked to me about anorexia, a topic I breach in my story.

Flipping to the next page, she found several greeting cards. “Happy 6th Birthday” in big red letters.  A chubby cheeked girl in pink drawn holding a bunny on the front of another said, “You’re Turning Six!” One caught her eyes in particular. It was from her big sister, Barbara. She recognized the exact loops, uniform and clear, marking her signature. Always perfect. Her sister was ten years older than she and the oldest, making her the boss of the family. Whatever Barbara wanted, she got. She was talented, smart and pretty. But she was also a tyrant.

Gloria thought she probably had anorexia. Back in 1957, no one knew about anorexia nervosa. Mental illness was considered a character flaw. Barbara hid her problem from adults, but the siblings knew something was amiss.  She ate a lot of celery.

Others talked to me about my story in general and commented on what they liked about it as well as some pitfalls in my writing. It was interesting to see how the story brought us together.

Writing is a powerful tool. We are reading “Fortune Smiles” a book by Adam Johnson, a Pulitzer prize winner. His short stories are very intriguing. Our professor asked if we thought writing was just for entertainment or was there a deeper purpose? Most of us agreed that writing can change minds and promote social justice. Why else would tyrannical governments burn books if the words inside didn’t offer threat?

Books like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” brought the plight of slavery to the forefront. Dozens of books including “To Kill a Mockingbird” shed light on the law and people’s prejudices. The short stories in Johnson’s book touch on topics such as cancer/death and dying, living with a disabled wife, pedophilia, and the Cold War attitude of an East German prison warden.

The class has given further proof that “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The most exhilarating feeling for me is when my writing touches a soul. I may curse the Muses and wonder why I were given this “need to write” but then, once in a while, something magical happens and people are influenced by something I’ve written.

Have you ever had that happen? Tell me about it.

 

 

I Saw It with My Own Two Eyes

In our critique group, we often run across areas in our work where we have inserted unnecessary words. “Tautology” is a new word I learned. It means “needless repetition of the same thing using different words.” Examples are “I went there personally.” “He made it with his own two hands.” “Frozen ice covered the road.” “She made predictions of the future.”

Do you see the repetition in each of those sentences? (And in my title?) Obviously, I see with my eyes and I have two of them. So a more correct title would be “I Saw It.” Boring title but at least it’s not redundant.

Crazy sign

I wonder what prompted the need for this sign? Confusion? Was one problem solved but another created?

A sign at a bank ATM reads “Enter your number one digit at a time.” Is there another way? I wonder what would happen if I pushed two buttons at once?

A library in California warns, “Beware silly signof pedestrians on foot.” I suppose pedestrians in cars could pose a different problem.

Some signs may not be tautology but are just plain funny. I saw a sign on a door in an Iowa truck stop that read, “Electrical personnel only.” Every time we stop there on our way to Chicago, I look around for the electrical people.

Once, while driving across Illinois on the toll road (I-88) and dealing with major road construction, a temporary sign sat above the “45 Minimum Speed” sign. The temp sign read “45 Maximum Speed.” My son, the driver, saw it and said, “Cruise control, don’t fail me now.”

No trespassing

Humor is often used in signs. As a teenager, I lived in a small town surrounded by ranches and large spreads. I remember one sign on a fence post read, “No hunting without permission, and DON’T ASK!” Another sign on a very narrow gravel road out in the middle of nowhere warned “No parking.”

One of my favorite signs is the one below. I can relate to it on many different levels, especially as I continue writing my novel with all its twists and turns.

What are some of the funny signs or statements you have seen?

one way