How To Melt Your Block!
Writing stories about our family history is not the same as writing a novel. Our characters already have their place in history. Their life events have already been written. If we don’t want our ancestors relegated to a column of numbers we have to ignore that persistent voice in our head that whispers, “You’re not a writer, you have writers block, stick to the records!
Have You Really Got Writer’s Block?
I ask this question only because sometimes we may be too quick to jump into a box with a convenient label before we read the fine print! Writer’s block is the inability for a writer to produce new work. Writer’s block can also be used to describe a time when writers may struggle all day to produce one sentence! Sometimes an author will experience writer’s block as a transient period in their writing or it may last for many years. However, before you tie the albatross (label) around your neck it’s worth considering the alternatives.
Maybe, you have set yourself a goal that you are not ready for, yet! What to do?
Take The Heat Off
It may seem counter productive to take the heat off when I’m supposed to be offering you help to melt your writing block! But, sometimes less is more. Here’s what I do when putting words on paper is the last thing I want to be doing.
- Admit that tidying up the linen cupboard is task avoidance
- Accept that writing a novel is a big goal. Think about marathon runners. Their first marathon began with small distances, exercise and achievable goals.
- Consider your options. Your novel is still there but just like a marathon runner you need to train for it.
- Just like fitness training, training for writing should improve your skills and be enjoyable (if it’s not fun you won’t do it)
- Give yourself permission to change your goal
Now that the pressure is off you are free to take a fresh approach to your writing
Consider Writing A Pen Portrait
What is a pen portrait? Pen portraits are not new and date back to the 1800’s. As the name suggests the writer i.e. you, paints a picture of a person using words instead of paints. The “painting” uses the basic details such as birth, marriage, children and death but interprets them in a framework of a place in history and connection to others. If you are fortunate enough to have “extras” such as letters, medals etc. then your task is a little easier. Another name for pen portraits is “character portrait”. To me, “character portrait” is a little more accurate in it’s description. Just as artists strive to paint more than the physical characteristics of their subject, a writer’s character portrait should evoke an awareness in the reader of the connection between the subject and writer.
Writing a character portrait is the equivalent of a marathon runner training for the “big” day
Writing Prompts To Loosen The Muscles
Choose a relative that you already feel connected to. It may be one for whom you have the most information but your personal connection is not always quantifiable. Only you can make this decision. I really wanted to write about my Aunty Doll (who turned out to be my Grandmother!) but I ended up writing about Theophilus
Make your opening sentence one that incorporates a focus topic. For me this was, “Theophilus was a failed card sharp”. Once you have a focus topic what follows is like peeling the layers off an onion. At this stage it is too easy to start second guessing yourself. Don’t! Keep writing! Once the writer’s block starts to melt it will gather it’s own momentum
Be creative in your choice of words. If you are describing a “big” man unpeel the onion and place his “bigness” in comparison to others. If you have a photograph of your subject with his family “big” becomes “he was head and shoulders taller than all his brothers”.
Schedule time away from your writing. Think of it as an integral part of the writing process. A time that you allow yourself to give free reign to your thoughts. Perhaps your character was a sailor or a fisherman. What could prove to be more inspiring than spending time on a boat or standing at the water’s edge on a windy day. Then, when you return to your pen portrait, the salt on your skin, the tangles in your hair will become a sensual part of your words.
The more mundane part of writing can not be avoided. Research! My Great-great Grandfather, Theophilus, lived in Norfolk and I live in Australia, on a boat. Time is not the only thing that separates us. My “go to” research is Google. I look at images of the towns where my ancestors lived. The churches they worshiped in and the small hedge bounded country lanes are all there. I also like to find books that are written in that area. This has the added advantage of being research and pleasure at the same time! (The Norfolk Mystery by Ian Sansom)
Lastly, imagine the relationship your character had with others. Using Theophilus as my example (again) I found that he had 12 children named and recorded with both baptism and birth records. At the next census I found that his twin girls had become “grand-daughter” and “daughter”. A closer examination of my records showed why Constance was not the twin of Bessie. She was, in fact, three months older than her sister. From this I surmised that my Great-great grandfather was a man who valued his family. A man who for whom there was always room for one more around the table. Or, perhaps a man who wanted to protect the name of a daughter so that her opportunities for marriage were not hampered by an illegitimate child. When you begin to imagine relationships and add them to your pen portrait your readers will be drawn into your words. If I had just written down the dates and highlighted my error would your thoughts have followed my imaginings?
Following the acronym K.I.S.S I will leave my writing prompts for pen portraits here. I hope they help!
Would you like to share a pen portrait in the comments below? Please feel free to add your examples.Just Vicki