7 Reasons Why “There’s not a moment to be lost”

Patrick O’Brian’s sea adventure novel, MASTER AND COMMANDER, is an action-packed story about the friendship between two very different men.

Jack Aubrey is an ambitious Captain in the Royal Navy and Stephen Maturin is the ship’s physician and a devoted naturalist.

Stephen’s nirvana is anteaters, platypuses, or a rare liana. He’s always longing for a few days to explore an exotic shore.

But, the tide turns, the wind comes up, and Jack tells him: “There is not a moment to be lost.” Stephen looks longingly at shore, but he’s swept away to the opposite side of the ocean. Another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity disappears over the horizon.

Sometimes the wind fails. The two friends retreat to Jack’s cabin and play duets on their violin and cello until the doldrums are over.

A few years ago, I crossed the ocean—by plane—to visit the British Library. The many floors of the open stacks are filled with books, white like Oreo filling, and just as delicious.

The Sir John Ritbalt Gallery houses the Treasures of the British Library.

I saw Jane Austen’s lap desk and her steady, even handwriting; Shakespeare’s scripts, written without any flourishes; Thomas Hardy’s revisions, and Handel’s closely-written music scores. You can scroll through some of them here.

What did all of these writers and composers have in common? Their handwriting was small, even, and consistent, as if they were sawing wood, driving across Nebraska, or crossing the ocean in a 19th century frigate.

  1. The creative journey is long. You can’t dawdle or rush. You have to pace yourself.

But all this industry, this dedicated effort, makes you wonder why anyone would work this hard to make something no one wanted, yet. Sheer stubbornness?

Back to the library for answers.

Jane Austen folded her manuscripts in quarters so she could tuck away her work if disturbed while working. I don’t think it was shyness or insecurity, because the Gallery’s folded manuscript is PERSUASION: Austen’s last novel, not her first. Outside help is dangerous until the story finds its shape.

2. Before an imagined story is fixed on the page, it is indescribably fragile.

But that still doesn’t answer why people do these things. What makes the pursuit worth it?

Jason Fried’s REWORK says inspiration is perishable. If we don’t capture what we see, embark on the adventure, plant the garden, or record the music, it will disappear behind the horizon.

Snowflake Bentley explains why he kept making photographs of snowflakes: “I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others.”

3. The payoff is when beauty takes us out of ourselves.

This is why using your imagination is so addictive. It’s restful and exhausting. It uses everything we have and immerses us completely in the other.

The common question: “Where do you get your ideas from?” is really asking

“How do you get beauty to visit you?”

There are two answers:

4. Inspiration is everywhere. Those things you recognize, that give you shocks or thrills or chills, that’s your beauty.

In CROSSING UNMARKED SNOW, William Stafford writes:
And things you know before you hear them those are you, those are
why you are in the world.

5. I have no idea–but be ready. Always carry a pen and paper.

Inspiration isn’t under our control. Ringo Starr must have been struck unexpectedly, because he wrote the lyrics to “It’s been a hard day’s night” on the back of his son’s 1st birthday card.

6. We bear witness by our continued efforts that there is something worth seeing.

Handel’s manuscript book is full from edge to edge. He worked steadily until he created THE MESSIAH. Snowflake Bentley went out in every snowstorm. Jane Austen’s quartos must have been convenient for whipping out work when she had unexpected moments to write.

If we want treasures collected in the Sir John Ritbalt Gallery, we have to DO THE WORK.

Persistence and steady labor work well. Until the day comes when the muse gives you something much better than you are capable of. Just because the muse visits you once, doesn’t mean she’s coming back.

As Elizabeth Gilbert points out, the muse isn’t under your control and you’re not to blame if it goes away again.

7. Sometimes the wind fails. Once you do your best work, you have a choice: stop working or start as a beginner all over again.

We make art and seek discoveries in the world around us out of a desire to be moved out of ourselves and a desire to share what we are with others. A story about a friendship between very different people, like Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey, can be the seed of many friendships. A story is a created experience, but it’s also a question: “Can you see it?”

Beauty is as ephemeral as life. We need our whole lives to find our way through or around the obstacles that separate us.

What we make is imperfect, but we have a chance at butterflies and lightning bolts. Keep your nets open. Keep your pen moving. Capture the snowflakes.

As Captain Aubrey says: “There is not a moment to be lost.”


If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

What Do You Do for Fifteen Minutes a Day?

Diagonal beams of sunlight pierce a shady deciduous forest. Germany 2016.
A few moments of light change the whole forest. Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

When we’re overcome by life and can’t get to the things and the people that matter to us, we get frustrated. How often do we think it’s all or nothing?

Do you ever think. . .

. . .If we don’t have a 3-hour block, it’s not worth getting started.

. . .If I can’t get away for a weekend-long retreat, I might give up on this hobby.

. . .If we can’t go for a real hike, there’s no point.

Or my favorite nostalgic worries when my brother and I watched the Olympics as 10-/11-year-old kids:

. . .We’re too old. All the champions started much younger.

Of course, there’s value in 3-hour blocks, weekend-long retreats, hiking the Long Trail, and pursuing interests you’ve had since you were a kid.

But sometimes our dream is so overwhelming, we don’t feel like it anymore. That’s when the “give-it-fifteen-minutes” way can bring joy into our lives.

Other things we do have natural limits and use rules of thumb. (RULE OF THUMBS would be such a lovely spoof on GAME OF THRONES, but I digress.)

. . .My eldest visited us recently from Italy and taught me how much pasta to cook. “100 g per person, but I like 200g.”

. . .My husband gave a slide show last night. “200 slides is the right number.”

. . .The Centers for Disease Control recommends 5- 30 minute episodes of exercise a week. But I took a brisk walk at lunch with a Health Department colleague who was participating in a study on physical activity. She said, “10 minutes counts.” In other words, ten minutes is enough to get the metabolism going, to get the engine started.

. . .Recovering from a hospital stay a few years ago, I complained that I wouldn’t get to my vegetable garden at all that year. My husband helped me outside, put a basil plant next to me, handed me a trowel, and let me transplant it. When your hands do something, your mind believes it.

. . .It’s not hard to write 1,000 words in a week. 1,000 words a week is 52,000 words. A middle grade novel. 1,000 words a week-day is 260,000 words. Two adult novels.

Fifteen minutes a day feels amateurish, meaningless, and unimportant, but it’s how you get your life back. When you do something for fifteen minutes, your subconscious believes you mean it. The internal editor stops talking about imposters. It’s a chance to be playful, because everyone knows you can’t do anything real in that time.

What do you want more of in your life?

Do you do ever use short blocks of time for it?

How does it work for you?

_________________

Thanks for your interest in my work! If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

Half a Library: 6 Libraries That Changed My Life

Librarian with hand on bookcase full of books in a new library room with table.
A new library is born. Hard-working librarian who made a half a library into a whole.

In 1775, James Boswell wrote, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” I’ve turned over half a dozen libraries in the service of my current work-in-progress, but library fever started much earlier. After all, where does anyone get the idea to write a book in the first place?

It all starts when you get a library card. I got mine as soon as I could write my first and last name in shaky capital letters. My family name had 9 letters, so it required some study.

The first library I remember vividly was in my elementary school. If I close my eyes, I see the tables and chairs, the built-in bookcases, the expanse of carpet and the steel knob you had to touch, after crossing the carpet, to get out of the library. I learned that the price of reading was shocking, but I paid it willingly, again and again.

The second library was in my Junior High School. Alphabetical fiction covered three walls and branched out into freestanding bookcases. I started with Joan Aiken’s MIDNIGHT IS A PLACE, Lloyd Alexander’s THE BLACK CAULDRON, Susan Cooper’s THE DARK IS RISING. . . and worked my way around. The school was overcrowded, troubled with drugs, and plagued by mashed potato shortages. Some days, we ate gravy for lunch. I didn’t mind the gravy, but the other things made me search for, and find, refuge in the library.

The third important library in my life was at the University of Utah. A friend had gotten a job, that paid money, to shelve books.

This was for me.

I filled the job application with volunteer orchestra ‘experience,’ hoping to suggest reliability. The gentle interviewer hired me because I’d rescued cassettes from our family tape recorder on long car trips. In the Audio-Visual Department, I played records and videotapes for people ten hours a week. A side effect came in the form of a dozen roses from a mysterious admirer at carrel #6. The only thing I knew about him—judging from the orange hair on his records—he had a cat. Libraries are full of people to meet.

In my fourth library, the Charles Babbage Institute, I met the inventor of the first hand-held calculator. The Institute needed a graduate student to transcribe an oral history (basically a recorded interview with the questions taken out) for Curt Herzstark. His name describes him perfectly: Herz and stark mean heart + strong.

Imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, he somehow got permission to invent things “after hours.” In his Austrian accent, he described the invention of his calculator. He talked about a calculator in the shape of a glorified pepper mill, ten hours a week, for a trimester or more. His voice stopped when I took the headphones off, but I felt the Buchenwald atmosphere for hours afterwards.

The fifth library to capture my imagination is the one belonging to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. They have 900 illuminated manuscripts from 300 B.C. to the 19th century. That’s a library. I washed my hands, checked my book bag at the door and promised to use nothing but pencil while I was in the room.

In return, I touched five books that were 1000 years old or more. The corners were soft and wrinkled—like a piece of leather that has been bent back and forth too many times—where the thumbs of the monks must have fit. They probably dripped tallow on them.

In exchange for writing my whole name and enduring the shock of a library door, I found a refuge, got a dozen roses, visited a concentration camp and the 11th century. That library card really paid off.

The sixth library is where it gets interesting. My husband researches bats and other small mammals in West Africa. A few years ago, his work took him to an isolated village in Sierra Leone with no school or library.

Friends have been generous with books of all kinds. In my husband’s office, there was—literally–half a library. The other half has grown over the years. The local field-biologist-turned-librarian built shelves to hold the books and put up a roof to shelter the readers.

Now the village has a little library. How long before some reader turns half of it over and writes a brand-new book?

I can’t wait to check it out.

Young people reading books at a library table in a one-room library in Sierra Leone.
What will come out of this library?

 

References
Boswell, James. LIFE OF JOHNSON. New York:Oxford University Press, Inc. (Oxford World’s Classic Paperback). 1998, pg. 613.

This essay originally appeared in the January 2, 2009 issue of catapult magazine under the title “Half a Library.” The archives don’t seem to work.

Why we need broken things: lowering the risk of creation

Teapot with new wire handle on a round beige teapot with a cracked lid.
Broken things can be an invitation. Image © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Accepting imperfection is part of what makes us human. I’ve watched this video about the beauty of mistakes about five times already. I first saw it in a great Coursera course about creativity. Neil Gaiman’s commencement address says something similar: make mistakes and make good art.

Moving from one country to another with my family, I’ve thought a lot about the broken things. There’s this desire to take the “best” things with you. New markers, clean erasers, favorite books, jeans with whole pockets and shirts with all their buttons need apply.

In a nutshell, this doesn’t work. Junk is an inescapable part of civilization. First of all, there’s that odd phenomenon that happens with every move. The things you know you left behind came with you and a few things you knew you wanted can’t be traced. But even if you don’t move, your existing, fully-functional belongings will be happy to wear out, develop holes, break, or shrink.

Presto! Fresh junk.

For example, we have a chronic teapot problem. The tile floor and the tea lite stove conspire. Yes, empty tea pots crack under the heat of a single candle. We’ve proved it repeatedly.

At the Second Hand Kaufhaus (Kaufhaus=Department Store), I bought a replacement teapot for 20 cents. It was the “right” kind for us because it was designed to have the handle on top rather than on one side of the teapot. Only it didn’t have the handle.

Small triumphs give us courage and self-esteem. We bought molding and copper wire and paper covered wire and my youngest and I made this handle. I sawed my finger a very little bit with the dull saw, but my youngest and I were very pleased with ourselves. I wrapped it and put it on the shelf as a Christmas present for my husband.

Unfortunately, the present fell to the floor before making it under the tree. When my husband opened it, the lid had broken neatly in half.

But then came a surprising reversal: He spent Christmas afternoon with Patex glue, bonding with his “new” teapot.

(Epidemiology caveat: Not sure it’s healthy to drink tea made in a glued pot. I didn’t search PubMed to find out.)

Do we need a certain number of broken things? After this experience, I wondered if a small amount of brokenness and disorganization in our lives is an invitation to participate.

It’s a kind of redemption. When we imperfectly repair a teapot, we invest ourselves in it. There’s a little glow every time we use it that says, “I saved that.”

“Craftmanship of risk” is a concept from David Pye and mentioned in the beauty of mistakes video above. When we make something new, we don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s an element of risk: maybe it won’t work. Maybe it’s all for nothing.

A broken thing is an invitation to create. It invites us to take a risk. If you have a brand new house with newly painted, perfect walls, you might have to overcome inner resistance to mar the perfection with a hole to hang up a picture. A broken thing or an imperfect thing is closer to our level.

“People are beginning to believe you cannot make even toothpicks without ten thousand pounds of capital. We forget the prodigies one man and a kit of tools can do if he likes the work enough.”

–From Barb Siddiqui’s review of David Pye’s THE NATURE AND ART OF WORKMANSHIP published in 1968.

If we like the work enough, if we find joy in it, even with its imperfections, we can make marvelous things. Broken things are a way to practice.

There’s another bonus to broken things: If we’re willing to fix them, that usually means someone wants them. That’s a built-in audience.

 

Do you know a young reader who might enjoy an adventure story? Get a sample chapter and free e-book about the story world by clicking on the image below.

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.

 

Think, Act, Speak: What order makes character reactions feel real?

Infographic for Motivation Reaction Units. The best order for character reactions is feeling/thought, action (involuntary or voluntary), speech. Don't need all the reactions, but they should be in this order.

Do you know the terrible feeling when THAT topic resurfaces? “Oh no. I AM going to have to learn this.” Prehistoric time periods must have come around 3 or 4 times in my studies, but I still haven’t learned them.

Years and years ago, I read about Dwight W. Swain’s Motivation Reaction Units (MRU’s). *Cough.* It’s filed right behind the prehistoric time periods. It popped up again recently and I wondered if it could help me weave a more seamless story and create more life-like character reactions.

In case you’re in the same fix, here’s a quick summary: MRU’s are a way to show cause and effect in the story, moment to moment. It’s all about the order.

The catch to MRUs is that they must be presented in
the correct order. When you tell readers about the effect before they’ve seen the cause, you’re introducing an element of unreality, however miniscule. Even if their confusion lasts only a microsecond, you’re endangering their ability to process your story in a logical and linear fashion. –K. M. Weiland in STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL: ESSENTIAL KEYS FOR WRITING AN OUTSTANDING STORY (Chapter 24 Scene Structure)

People who write well about writing inspire me, but I need the “real-life” application. I want to know how middle grade authors get it on the page.

I decided to test MRU’s with an author I admire. Here’s a passage from Chapter 2 of Sara Prineas’ LOST, the wonderful second book in THE MAGIC THIEF series.

What patterns do you see? Feel free to share what you find in the comments. My color-coded version follows.

I blinked the brights out of my eyes. The floor of my workroom was covered with shattered glass and torn book pages. The table lay with its four legs in the air like a dead bug. Smoke and dust swirled around in the corners. A scrap of charred paper floated to the floor next to me. I squinted at it. A page from Prattshaw’s book, the part about contrafusive effects.

The pyrotechnics had worked. The magic had spoken to me again—without a locus stone. But what had it said?

Step step tap. I heard the sound of Nevery hurrying up the stairs. He threw open the door. “Curse it, boy!” he shouted. “What are you up to?”

I coughed, brushed slivers of glass out of my hair, and got to my feet. “Just some pyrotechnics,” I said. I looked down at my apprentice’s robe. It had a few more scorch marks on it than before.

Nevery scowled. “A pyrotechnic experiment. I thought you had more sense.” He lowered his bushy eyebrows. “And where did you come up with the slowsilver, hmmm?”

I shrugged.

More footsteps, and Benet, Nevery’s bodyguard-housekeeper, loomed up behind Nevery in the doorway. His knitted red waistcoat and shirt were dusted with flour, and he had a smudge of flour on his fist-flattened nose; he’d been kneading dough. “He all right?” he asked.

“Yes, I am,” I said. “Nevery, the magic spoke to me.”

Nevery opened his mouth to shout at me some more, and then closed it.

“Spoke to you? A pyrotechnic effect, then. You were right. Interesting. What did it say?”

“It sounded—” I shook my head. Had the magic sounded frightened? But of what? “D’you know this spell?” I recited the spellwords the magic had said to me: “Damrodellodesseldeshellarhionvarliardenliesh.”

Here’s my color-coded version of the same passage:

  • Red = stimulus.
  • Gray-blue = reaction.
  • The MRU theory says the gray-blues should go from light to dark.

I blinked the brights out of my eyes. The floor of my workroom was covered with shattered glass and torn book pages. The table lay with its four legs in the air like a dead bug. Smoke and dust swirled around in the corners. A scrap of charred paper floated to the floor next to me. I squinted at it. A page from Prattshaw’s book, the part about contrafusive effects.

The pyrotechnics had worked. The magic had spoken to me again—without a locus stone. But what had it said?

Sara Prineas still has me on board, but this is the opposite of the MRU theory. I got STIMULUS–REACTION(2. action)–REACTION(1. thought). What did you get?

Step step tap. I heard the sound of Nevery hurrying up the stairs. He threw open the door. “Curse it, boy!” he shouted. “What are you up to?”

I coughed, brushed slivers of glass out of my hair, and got to my feet. “Just some pyrotechnics,” I said. I looked down at my apprentice’s robe. It had a few more scorch marks on it than before.

The reactions alternate between action and speech and action and thought. This feels totally natural to me.

STIMULUS–REACTION(2. action)–REACTION(3. speech)–REACTION(2. action)–REACTION(1. thought)

Nevery scowled. “A pyrotechnic experiment. I thought you had more sense.” He lowered his bushy eyebrows. “And where did you come up with the slowsilver, hmmm?”

I shrugged.

This simpler example fits the MRU theory even though some types of reactions are missing.

STIMULUS–REACTION(2. action)

More footsteps, and Benet, Nevery’s bodyguard-housekeeper, loomed up behind Nevery in the doorway. His knitted red waistcoat and shirt were dusted with flour, and he had a smudge of flour on his fist-flattened nose; he’d been kneading dough. “He all right?” he asked.

“Yes, I am,” I said. “Nevery, the magic spoke to me.”

Nevery opened his mouth to shout at me some more, and then closed it.

These all follow the MRU theory with one type of reaction in each set.

STIMULUS–REACTION(1. thought)

STIMULUS–REACTION(3. speech)

STIMULUS–REACTION(1. thought)

“Spoke to you? A pyrotechnic effect, then. You were right. Interesting. What did it say?”

“It sounded—” I shook my head. Had the magic sounded frightened? But of what? “D’you know this spell?” I recited the spellwords the magic had said to me: “Damrodellodesseldeshellarhionvarliardenliesh.”

This set reverses the MRU theory (3,2,1) and then circles back around to speech. The internal question “But of what?” could also be a STIMULUS followed by a REACTION(3. speech).

STIMULUS–REACTION(3. speech)–REACTION(2. action)–REACTION(1. thought)–REACTION(3. speech)

Sara Prineas’s well-crafted prose makes me see how much variety is possible. After studying this passage, I’m eager to look at my own work for stimulus–reaction patterns. The sheer number of stimulus-reactions gives the story a feeling of connectedness.

What have you noticed about character reactions in your reading or writing?

Do you have favorite authors who follow or don’t follow the MRU patterns? I’d love to read more examples.

 

Do you know a young reader who enjoys adventure? Try a sample of THE WOUNDED BOOK free by clicking on the graphic below.

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.

The Power of the Silver Pen: Journals, Photos, and Collections Help Order Our Lives

Stacks of journals with dates on bound edge
Chronological order can give a sense of structure. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

Marie Kondo’s THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP explores the benefits of de-cluttering at a level I can’t attain but it reminds me that things help us find out who we are. The things I like and don’t like, need and don’t need, are like mirrors that reflect information back to me and help me plot a course for the future.

Yesterday, I was inspired into action by three different work surface danger zones (and maybe by a bit of NaNoWriMo-related procrastination).

A pile of St. Nicholas’ Day surprises and Frankfurt Book Fair papers cluttered one. The others were the usual tangle of electronics, a confused mix of health insurance papers, coupons, “good” Bible verses, book and restaurant recommendations, and notes for current writing projects.

I didn’t expect to descend into the 10-year-old child, re-organize-the-desk-drawers level. When my children were that age, they each got to sort binder clips, markers, and other desk-y things scientist Grandmas keep, to create great organizational beauty.

In the course of swapping epidemiology books from the near bookcase for writing books from the far bookcase, I came across my collection of filled journals. I usually have a pocket-sized one with me and a book-sized one for writing that needs more elbow room, which means I always have more than one journal going at a time.

When I moved to Germany three years ago, life was so disrupted I wrote in whatever was handy. To normal people, this wouldn’t be a problem, but it made me feel lost. After a pocket journal is filled, it looks just like any other pocket journal, so if I needed to know something later about this time of upheaval, I wouldn’t be able to find it.

Since my inner child was in charge, a silver pen was just the sort of bullet I wanted to re-store the chaos of my pocket journals. I printed the date range on each one. The dates overlapped in all kinds of messy ways, just as I knew they would, but the shiny months and years captured them for me.

My journals had sections for my children’s funny quotes. I showed them to my youngest who chortled over the wisdom of 4-year-olds. That inspired the resident photographer to sort slides and we ended the evening with a home slide show.

We are grateful for our life here and we also still grieve for the life we left behind. According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

Photos and journals help us process our grief, make time for gratitude, and give us courage to move forward. They help us re-visit the beloved people and places we left behind.

For us, the change was voluntary, but violence and hardship have forced refugees fleeing to Germany to a much greater upheaval. I don’t know how they will process their traumatic losses or if silver markers will offer any comfort, but I wish them healing for mind, body and soul. For us, I hope we will be able to offer help when called upon.

Have you tried organizing your own personal space recently? What unexpected dividends came to light?

Are you more of a journal person or a photo person? What medium helps you to re-group?

 

Feeling adventurous? Sample an adventure story for readers 8-12 years old:

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.

Exploring the Imagination: Fictional Characters From Art Museums

Brochure for Zurbaran exhibit showing painting of woman in red, brocade, dress, long black hair, ivory face and a scratch that symbolizes a halo.
Art museums are treasure troves for fleshing out characters. This beautiful painting inspired a queen antagonist character in my latest work-in-progress.

See the trailer for the exhibit here:

The stunning poster drew me in for the latest exhibit in Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunstpalast. It’s called “Zurbarán: Meister der Details” [Master of Details] and features 16th-century full-size portraits by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664).

My first reaction to the poster was: “There she is!” She is the queen antagonist for my new middle grade work-in-progress.

The extreme contrast of ivory skin and long, black hair, the 397 pearls on the hem of her gown, and the intensity of her eyes, almost scornful–certainly assessing–give the sense that you’ve caught her attention and it may not be to your advantage.

She’s caught up her brocade gown with one, white, elegant, hand and is ready to move. She’s only paused to run her eye over you.

Only after I went into the exhibit did I realize that the tiny flaw in the canvas above her head is actually a halo. The painting’s subject is St. Casilda, not an evil queen at all.

If I borrow his St. Casilda and embroider a character for my latest middle grade adventure, I’m only following his example. The rich gown is an invention of the painter, the son of a cloth merchant, who invented the elegant fashions of his subjects based on his father’s cloth samples.

There are advantages to drawing characters from a master. The artist works in a visual medium and the character traits that are words to me, are the artist’s details of dress, expression, and gesture. The artist paints a mood with colors and light and, through his painting, I can borrow his eyes to sketch a vivid character.

If you’d like to try it yourself, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Cast an eye over the museum guards and visitors. Anyone who thinks there’s no romance to a museum guard hasn’t read FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER (or seen Audrey Hepburn in HOW TO STEAL A MILLION). What visitors say and do in museums tells another set of stories. Sometimes I catch a moment of conscious or unconscious mimicry or hear a wonderful snippet of dialogue that helps my story along.

2. If your museum doesn’t have portraits, try a more literal use of a painting. In C.S. Lewis’s THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, a painting of a Narnian ship turns into a portal to the imaginary world of Narnia.

3. Prep a character or two before your museum visit. The Reverse Backstory Tool is an efficient tool for working out the connection between your character’s want, need, flaw, and wound. The “Reverse Backstory Tool” appears in Appendix B of THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS by Angela Acker and Becca Puglisi. The tool is handy to prep before your museum visit or to develop characters who’ve caught your eye in the museum.

Art museums are a treasure trove for characters. The artists have done all the work of people-watching and the paintings already express personalities and stories. It’s all ready-to-pick, so go ahead and fill the well.

Do you find art museums inspiring? What do you enjoy about them?

 

If you’d like to sample an adventure set in the Middle Ages for readers 8-12, click on the banner below.

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.

I’ll never sell or give away your e-mail and you may unsubscribe at any time.