• Linda Ulleseit, author

  • NaNoWriMo!

Creative Expression

creativeI have always had the need to express myself creatively. I drew and colored and wrote stories, and later tried every art or craft I could. It was more than fun. My very soul demanded creative expression. I even remember making up stories in middle school and passing them off as truth–like how my mother wanted to buy me a horse but I refused because she wanted to deck it out in an absurdly fancy stable. I even  wore a friendship ring for awhile that purportedly came from a boyfriend living in Canada. Creative expression.

Writing stories began in third or fourth grade. The earliest story that I still have is about pigs. It’s done on that cheap lined newsprint they used to give elementary school students. Every letter is carefully written in a different color crayon. Not only the story (which is pretty bad) was creative that day! Today my drive to write is still strong, and my finished novels give me a parental thrill.

Leatherwork is another outlet for my creativity. I draw the designs, then carve and stamp them into the leather. The finished panels are sewn into purses, portfolios, or tote bags. I enjoy going to art fairs where people exclaim over the beauty of my work.

Gardening is another way to create. The color of flowers and texture of foliage decorate my yard. I week and clip and plant and feed all year. In the summer, I sit in my yard and watch butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy my garden.

Cooking, although not always successful, is another form of creativity I enjoy. I’m mostly a recipe follower, but I love trying new things. I cook dinner six nights a week even while I’m working, and I live for large family gatherings like winter holidays and summer barbecues.

Cleaning house, now, is not creative. I hate cleaning more than anything else, and I avoid it desperately. Someday I hope to earn enough money from my creative endeavors to pay a housekeeper!

As a teacher, I strive every day to motivate students. When I find students with no creative drive, it still stuns me. I understand not being artistic–I’m not musical at all, and I can’t draw well–but no desire to communicate creatively at all? It’s as foreign to me as a PhD trying to teach kindergarten. We all have energy inside us. My energy wants me to create something to express it. When I do, it makes me happy.

Most people can learn to be creative. In my classroom, I show this with writing. When they enter my classroom, students usually groan when asked to write anything. In my class we write a LOT. Students participate in NaNoWriMo, writing short novels, and they write arguments and essays. As with sports or music, practice improves performance. By the time they leave my classroom, students’ confidence and pleasure in their writing has increased dramatically. Does that mean I’ve turned them into creative people? Maybe not all. But for those that do continue writing, I know their lives will be much more creative!

 

 

 

Background in Historical Fiction

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One of the hardest things in writing historical fiction is to describe the world fully enough for the modern reader to imagine it while at the same time not having the character exclaim over, or even notice, items that are common to them.

In our everyday lives, for example, we pass by buildings in our neighborhood without noticing them, to the point that when one of them is demolished, we say, “I remember something was there, but what was it?” In my current work in progress, Aloha Spirit, I need to describe Honolulu as it was in territorial Hawaii. My protagonist never had to even notice buildings along the route from her home to the downtown shopping district. As an author telling her story, though, I need to describe it to provide historical context.

Another place authors of historical fiction have to pull back is when characters are doing normal household tasks. These tasks need to be described so the reader understands what is going on, and the process must be historically accurate. In Aloha Spirit, my character does the laundry, a task we all know well. But what did it look like in 1925? What type of machine was used? What brand of soap? These details give the story a historical accuracy and flavor, but it’s important to remember that the character isn’t going to notice the washing machine any more than you notice your coffee pot. Joan Blos wrote an article in the School Library Journal. She included the passage “Mother stood in front of the white box and carefully adjusted the black dial” to illustrate the awkwardness of this type of description. A modern writer surely wouldn’t describe cooking as Blos did in the above passage, so why should a historical fiction writer do so?

Personally, I prefer a little more detail about the setting in historical fiction because it helps me envision the era. I can honestly say I have never felt a historical fiction piece to be over-described. I appreciate the research that goes into novels of this typed, and I get tired of blow-by-blow accounts of battles and political intrigue, but the details of the furnishings, clothing and food, for example, captivate me.

 

 

Creative Nonfiction

writingOne of the writing genres we teach in sixth grade is personal narrative. A narrative is a story, or fiction, but a personal narrative is based on a real event. The struggle is getting students to write good stories about an event in their lives.

Now personal essay, or memoir, is supposedly a different genre. It is defined as an actual memory or experience that is enhanced by imagination. Sounds the same to me.

When we remember something from our past, we tend to remember the important part, the climax, the culmination. For example, we remember opening a present and getting something we wanted, or falling off our bike, or swimming in Hawaii. In order to make that a good piece of writing, you need to add details. Who else was there? What was the weather? What happened before that led up to it? What happened afterward? What did you feel before and how did this event change it? What did people say? These details, however, are what is usually forgotten. You are left with a story like this: I went swimming in Hawaii. It was cool. Bad story.

To enhance the memory of the experience, you need to add details. If you don’t remember what the weather was like, it’s safe to assume it was warm and sunny since Hawaii is usually warm and sunny (and you’d remember swimming in the rain). If you were on vacation with your family, you can safely assume they were there with you, even if you have to make up dialogue on what they most likely said.

So where is the line between fiction (personal narrative) and nonfiction (personal essay or memoir)? Nonfiction stories serve up just the facts, like a newspaper article. And many novelists  do a lot of research into facts to help make a novel believable. Remember, too, that memories are colored by our age at the time, and they fuzz a bit over time. When I compare childhood memories with my brother, we are often amazed we are talking about the same event. Our brain already adds creativity.

You may ask, why is it important to know if the story is nonfiction or fiction if it’s a good story? One of an author’s duties is to give the reader what they expect. If a book is billed as memoir, the reader expects that everything in it actually happened. If it’s sold as fiction, the reader assumes it’s all made up. Some people are using the title ‘creative nonfiction’ to bridge this gap. In creative nonfiction, a reader can assume that historical facts are checked and still accept that some of the characters or events are made up. My own book, Under the Almond Trees, I call historical fiction because most of it is fictionalized based on very little information. What about you? Do you like your nonfiction to be factual, or are you a fan of creative nonfiction?

 

Writing Exercise

anpencil4This week in a writing class, we have a fun assignment. Try it yourself!

*It needs to be one paragraph, exactly seven sentences. No dialogue.

*It should be the first paragraph or the last paragraph of a Young Adult novel, meaning the main character should be a teenager.

*It can be in first person, but you can’t use ‘I’ more than three times. It can be close third person, but you can’t use the character’s name more than three times.

*The paragraph must start with a long sentence and end with a short one, OR it can start with a short one and end with a long one.

Before you decide that I’m waiting for YOU to write MY assignment, here is a first draft of mine:

I love this computer, my dearest friend, closest companion, and hardworking colleague. Flipping open the lid, the screen lights up, notification icons blink. On Facebook, I stare in horror at a photoshopped picture of me, barely dressed, in the arms of some skinny nerd. Four of my closest friends have ‘liked’ it. Change to email before anyone sees me online. An English teacher didn’t get my final paper, some refugee in a third world country needs money, and no message from Thomas after last night’s wonderful date. I hate computers.

Put your paragraphs in the notes below! Feel free to offer me encouragement…

Writing Successfully

anpencil3I love to write. That doesn’t mean I sit down eagerly at the computer every day and write thousands of words. Even with something I love to do, I have to come up with motivation and perseverance. I’m sure it’s true for my students, too, especially those who hate to write. My hope today is that if I share some of my frustrations with the very beginning of the process, others will be able to be inspired.

MOTIVATION. You would think that enjoying writing would be a motivation. It is, I suppose, but it’s not enough. I think of my current novel as a wonderful finished product, or bask in well-written chapters that are already completed. I am just about 2/3 done with the first draft, but haven’t been able to make much progress for months. I know that when I get started the words will flow until I am drained. I know that if I force myself just to start writing that the first page or so may very well be garbage I have to cut later. Having started, however, is what’s important. The good stuff hides behind a wall. Once that wall is broken, it leaps out.

I’ve finished four novels. The fact that I know I can do it is motivation. Chapters whirl around in my head until they just about spring forth on their own. The story I’m writing, Aloha Spirit, is a good one. I’m very happy with what I’ve drafted so far. I have ideas for revision, and sometimes I go back and work on a revision as a way to get started again. The motivation is there, I just need to move it from, “Someday this book will be finished, and it will be good” to “Today I need to write 2,000 words.”

PERSEVERANCE  Students know about procrastination. It’s much easier to put something off than it is to do it. Mostly I read or play Facebook games. For hours and hours. My mind tells me that I can write for an hour and still have an hour to read, and probably an hour to play Candy Crush, too. Life gets in the way, too, of writing. Grocery shopping, house cleaning, yard work, the gym, walking the dogs, cooking, errands–some of those things I enjoy very much, some not. They all get in the way of writing. The trick is to keep coming back to the piece you’re working on whether it’s been two hours, two days, or two years since you started.

I’ve always said that authors are the ones who persevered to finish their novel. I know several people with truly awesome unfinished stories. I have one of those too (Aloha Spirit!). The only difference between novelists and writers is that authors persevere until they are done. My first book, On a Wing and a Dare, took seven years. I gave it up for months at a time. I completely started over three times. I revised the entire thing four times. Most importantly, I finished it.

So whatever you use for motivation and however strong your perseverance is, I wish you good writing. I’m off to start that next chapter.

Foreshadowing – a writing device sometimes misused

Another guest post! Today I’m reblogging a post by one of my fellow horse story writers. So exciting that she mentions my own books in her article! Thanks, Connie!

by Connie Peck

A while back I was involved with a fairly tough critique partner who wrote in a vastly different genre than I. He was writing a 200K suspense/murder/mystery/drug & mind control novel while I was writing a simple horse story for fourth graders.

His biggest beef about my writing – foreshadowing. And of course real danger for my main character, an eleven year old girl who had a telepathic connection to her pony.

It was not a good fit.

My biggest mistake was that I let it get under my skin. But I eventually got over it. Then I did some research. For one thing, after re-reading some of his chapters, I recognized that his foreshadowing technique was actually almost pre-telling what was coming. I’m really not sure what category that falls into. Okay, so if a character, say a law enforcement officer, is approaching a potential bad-guy-hideout and slips the safety strap off his pistol, I’m going to look forward to a possible gun-battle. However, if the cop loosens his revolver, saying to himself “I’m sure I’m going to need this because this guy I’m after is crazy and I know he has an arsenal of weapons in there.” Well, that’s giving it away and since I know for sure what’s coming, I may just skim to see what’s next. (No that author didn’t write those words, that’s only an example. And he did get an agent.)

I did more reading.

A well-known children’s author who has won all sorts of rewards did the same thing in the first chapter by actually telling what the stakes were and how bad it could be right there in black and white. Instead of me looking forward to what might happen – be it good and wonderful, happy and funny, scary and adventuresome, I was no longer curious. I already knew. Sadly I couldn’t find the energy to keep reading. It was already told how dangerous it would be to approach the only means necessary to solve the big problem.

The best text for learning the technique of foreshadowing from both a writer’s perspective and a reader’s is THE LOTTERY, by Shirley Jackson, way back in 1948. And it still stands as the benchmark. Only a few glimpses, solitary items, which don’t really seem to add to the story – until the end.

What is foreshadowing? It’s an element in the story that you have no idea is there until the danger rises its scary face, or until the funniest thing in the world occurs. (Not all stories need to have death, murder, and mayhem involved to be really, really good.)

Foreshadowing is a passing glance at a picture on the wall, which may turn out to hold some secret vital to the outcome. And after dancing all around that non-remarkable painting, the reader is delighted to discover the clue hidden there. But if the author overstates the presence of the art, the reader will become frustrated when the MC doesn’t see it, or become bored with the whole story, and toss it in the corner without finishing.
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In my children’s book, LEGEND OF THE SUPERSTITION GOLD, which is my third Black Pony book, I dedicate a chapter to putting shoes on the pony, while dropping information about the upcoming trail ride along with a few stories about the Lost Dutchman Gold. Why the whole chapter? Well, it’s short and full of horsey stuff. Plenty of dialog between Annie and the pony. A humorous dismissal of the legends by the farrier (in my opinion one of the strongest pieces of foreshadowing in the book). AND every single element in that first chapter is seen again – several times. Not only that, the shoes themselves become in integral part of the plot. But you don’t know that until you read further.

My second chapter is dedicated to a pair of spurs and how they come to be in the possession of the main character. The spurs once belonged to Annie’s grandfather. Her uncle has very little success in using them and passes them to her. The connection won’t be noticed until mid-point of the book, but will be totally understood at the climax. But you never will know that until you get there.

Other bits of foreshadowing include Annie looking at hieroglyphics – and feeling a strange presence. Midnight warns her a few times that ‘The Others’ are nearby as well. True, I have a rather slow chapter where the whole thing is dedicated to a few of the stories, which anyone can google, about the haunted Superstition Mountains and its hidden treasures. But, they are all seen again. Besides, to at least a few of us, those stories are juicy and wonderful.

But, if at any point in the story I would have written ‘X is about to happen’ you may not have been interested anymore. Why do I point out that riding in the soft sand of a dry wash could be dangerous? Because a flash flood is coming! That was likely the most telling foreshadowing in the whole story.

I’ll never say that I’m anywhere near as good at foreshadowing as Shirley Jackson, or in fact dozens of other authors out there, but the fact remains. You will never know what part of a scene foreshadows the coming event until after that event has occurs and it all comes together in a satisfactory ending.

A few examples of books using foreshadowing from Goodreads include, THE AGE OF MIRACLES by Karen Thompson Walker, published by Random House; Mo Willems’ THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA; Though this next one has mixed reviews because of adult content, THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger, is pegged as a great book for foreshadowing.

One of my personal favorite authors is Linda Ulleseit, who writes a series of The Winged Horses. You know something is up when an outsider falls in love with a filly, and there is dark talk of a long forgotten village, but you don’t know what it is until it happens. And you know something is about to happen when a young rider is torn between a soon-to-be barn leader with an attitude – who will do anything to win, and a timid rider who has a fear of flying, but you are blown away by what happens – and you didn’t see it coming, until you read it again, and again, and again. (Yes, I read it that many times.)

Goodreads has more if you wish to look them up. Of course mine is one of the best (in my opinion). http://tinyurl.com/p6wm6kf

How well to you foreshadow the events in your story? Do you let it all out before it happens, or drop invisible hints that show their glory at the end?

I’d love to hear your stories and examples.

Historical Fiction

rdgpastToday Sarah Johnson’s blog, Reading the Past features an article I wrote. It details the preparation and writing of Under the Almond Trees. It explores the question all historical fiction writers face–how much fact and how much fiction do I include? Click on the picture to the right to read my article. Please leave a comment!

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