The Composition Book: A Writer's Tool to Vicarious Living

Wednesday, June 30, 2010
The scenario: I'm writing a story set in a town I have never visited. The rough draft flows through me but as I begin to rewrite I'm aware that some of the more important details needed to bring life to the scene require a more intimate knowledge of the city. I'm searching the Internet, not getting very far, when I realize I have another resource--someone who lives there.

The emails fly. What does the dirt smell like? Is there a certain plant which just seems to be everywhere? Do the people use electricity or oil for heat? What is the "mood" on a Sunday afternoon? Are there any unique local customs? Where my cousin lives, it is common for people to take a walk on their lunch break--through the cemetery. I would never have guessed that.

Although helpful, my experience of the area is still limited to the questions I pose. How much more rich could my writing be if I could actually view the city through someone else's experience?

We each have untapped connections to other places--relatives, friends and writing buddies who live and travel outside of our experience. Just shooting off a list of questions to them may come across as more item on their To Do list. Instead, we can extend an invitation to share with us what matters to them and how they experience their city, their holidays or their vacation. Send them their own writer's journal, an inexpensive composition book.

Priced under three dollars, composition books offer a convenient way for friends to share notes on people watching, highlights of local festivities, bits of unusual conversations that strike them, interesting gossip, family stories they suddenly remember, descriptions of sunset from their porch and the seasonal sights and smells. They can tuck inside pictures of local sights printed on plain paper, pressed flowers, interesting news clippings or a napkin from that trendy bar.

This could also be a great way to gather memoirs from relatives who might enjoy a book from you in exchange. I intend to send two books out to my great-great aunts, one to my cousin and perhaps one to my blogging buddy in Brazil. Who knows, the treasures that come back could spark a series.

So tell me...

What are some of your favorite resources for gathering information on a place you have not visited?

What are some tips and tricks you can share for adding color and texture to a scene set in unfamiliar surroundings?

Post and pictures by Robyn Chausse


Rev. Linda M. Rhinehart Neas, M.Ed. said...

Morning, Robyn!

When writing my latest book, Gogo's Dream: Swaziland Discovered, I studied pictures of Swaziland. I research the topology, the traditions, the flora and fauna. I read blog post from folks who had gone there. All of this informed my poetry, which was about the people and country of Swaziland.

I have to say, it was the actual photos that caused me to fall in love with this tiny country. Looking into the faces of the children and people there caused an immediate response. It was like I already knew them...already loved and cared about them.

My last bit of advice...write from the heart...don't try to duplicate the place in your writing. Writing is after all a persons perspective put down in words, like an artist is what they paint or sculpt. Even photographs are not exact...they are only momentary images caught on film. The second the lens closes, the moment has changed.

Good luck...I know it will be a wonderful story!

Elisa said...

Great idea about the composition book!

For my last book, my protagonist traveled first to Italy, then to Peru. Fortunately, I had friends who had been to both, and relied a lot on their accounts when writing the scenes. I also looked at photos and travel sites online. Then I sent the chapters to them; when they responded that they missed the place after reading the scenes, I trusted that I nailed it. :)

In my current novel setting, I've been to the town several times, so I have a feel for it already, and it's not too far that I can't take a day trip and fill in any missing details.

LuAnn Schindler said...

I like the idea about the comp book, although the person you give it to would need to make some type of commitment to writing in it. That's the tricky part. :)

For me, I wouldn't want to shape a story around a place I hadn't been. Sure, you can look at photographs, but like Linda mentioned, once the lens closes, the moment changes. I want to be able to take first-hand experience into my story. Otherwise, it seems like the story loses its authenticity. IMO. :)

Robyn Chausse said...

Linda- you make me smile :) That last paragraph is written like a true poet. I think I'll print it out and tack it over my desk if that's okay with you.

Elisa- Great job! How wonderful to have several people contributing...and to be able to get an emotional response after all of your effort must have really felt good. But yes, day trips would be easier.

Hi Annie- Yes, the comp book, in my mind anyway, would be more for close friends and family to help jot down thoughts they want to share anyway. You know, keep it in their purse through spring and jot their notes while taking walks...that type of thing.

Authenticity is a good point. This particular story started out as just fiction and I felt free to create my settings. Then I was searching markets and found a regional magazine...uh-oh, now the sights and smells need to be believable to the readers. Luckily the story is character driven so there really isn't much about the city per se...a little history maybe.

Thank you, Ladies, for sharing your thoughts. Great feedback!

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