Friday Speak Out!: This Is How It Begins

Friday, January 27, 2023
By Donnaldson Brown

People sometimes ask if my past experience in screenwriting has influenced how I write fiction. I mumble something vague about dialogue conveying character, or something slightly less vague about finding the beat a scene needs to move the story forward. That’s all true. Recently, though, I realized that everything I’ve written – the essays and fiction that have seen the light of day, and the stories, screenplays, and abandoned play stacked on my shelves or digitized on thumb drives huddling in my desk drawer – all started with an image, that rolled into another, of characters demanding my attention. Sometimes they drop me in the middle of whatever is captivating or troubling them. Occasionally, they’ll let me in in the beginning. At some point, it becomes clear they’ve tapped me to tell their story and they’re not going away.

My husband was a painter and sculptor, and among my siblings are an architect, a designer, a photographer and a builder. In contrast, I suppose, I never considered myself visually inclined. My medium was words. Realizing that all my stories begin and evolve through very detailed visualizations of characters and the settings they inhabit, took me by surprise.

For instance, one day a teenager galloping hard across the Texas chaparral on her grey mare streamed into my consciousness. I tried to ignore her, as they kept running, sweat lathering the mare’s neck. What was she running from? Where was she headed? I couldn’t abandon them – not with that bank of clouds, dark as a bruise, moving in from the west. Suddenly, a boy, about her age, lands inside a sprawling brick ranch house. The screen door slaps shut behind him. He is drenched. And angry. Who’s this? Floundering at first, I wonder are they connected? Yes. Yes, they are. How?

And there you have it. We’re off to the races. Their story unfurled into Because I Loved You.

Stray characters don’t often approach me like this, practically waving their arms. So, when they do, I pay attention. I’ll start a journal for them, to find their words, their private thoughts, be they petty or lofty. Journaling brings out their worries and desires, which inevitably leads to other characters in their story, and to their inner monologue, which then leads to dialogue. When Leni and Cal came to me, I didn’t think I had enough words in me to write a novel. But they led the way.

I’m thankful for the characters who plant themselves before me and take root. Invariably, I fall in love with them. Giving them voice is a privilege and a duty, sometimes my reason to wake up in the morning. I listen as closely as I can, to find the best way to tell their story: what point of view to use, what tense, will there be flashbacks. Sometimes they leave breadcrumbs. Sometimes it’s just trial and error, draft after draft. I keep at it, though. Because I don’t want to let them down.

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Donnaldson Brown
DONNALDSON BROWN grew up riding horses on her uncles’ ranch in East Texas and in her hometown in Connecticut. Her debut novel, BECAUSE I LOVED YOU, is due out in April 2023 with She Writes Press. She is a former screenwriter and worked for several years with Robert Redford's film development company. Her spoken word pieces have been featured in The Deep Listening Institute’s Writers in Performance and Women & Identity Festivals in New York City, and in the Made in the Berkshires Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She’s a past fellow of the Community of Writers (formerly Squaw Valley Community of Writers), Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Craigardan. Ms. Brown is a longtime resident of both Brooklyn, New York and western Massachusetts. A mother and former attorney, she is currently a facilitator and trainer with The Equus Effect, which offers somatic based experiential learning with horses for veterans, first responders and others struggling with PTSD. Find her online at


Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Angela Mackintosh said...

Wonderful post, Donnaldson! I write creative nonfiction, but most of my pieces start with an image or a character as well. It's interesting how words create visuals in the mind, and how looking at visual art can inspire words! It's a blessing when characters practically give you their stories. I haven't had this happen to me very often when writing nonfiction, but I hear this happens often with fiction writers. Congratulations on your forthcoming novel! It sounds amazing. :)

Andrea said...

This, for me, is how my best poems catch hold of me. I've written about ideas, emotions, situations, but my favorite ones come from images. They are much more concrete and relatable. Thanks for this post!

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