Sunday, August 28, 2011

Character Body Language

In the midst of surfing the internet while trying to find needed focus to finish a new short story, I came across an article that may be of interest to writers:

"What Is Your Body Language Saying?" -- Real Simple Magazine

Every body movement, every expression, tells a story. This article provides excellent information on body language that can be applied to our fictitious characters. Here are a few examples:

Brushing hair off your face - may be a sign of nerves or flirtation.
Nibbling your lips - an attempt to comfort yourself.
Pursing your lips - a clear sign of anger.
Standing with legs apart - dominance and determination.
Hiding your hands - a movement of deceit.

All of these movements, as well as the others listed in the article, provide a means of "showing, not telling" about your character.

There. I'm motivated and focused. Back to writing.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Music Time Machine

This morning as I drove in to town, I listened to Gayle King interviewing Jimmy Webb. I must admit, I almost changed the station, thinking he was a new artist I probably was too old to appreciate. But I told myself, "Oh, just listen for awhile. You might learn something."

Boy, did I.

Jimmy Webb is the creator of two of my favorite songs, "Wichita Lineman" and "MacArthur Park." The very sound of their first chords can whisk me back to a time when I was ten years old and my parents were about to divorce. And though at that age, I'd never been in love, I'd certainly had crushes and therefore, thought plenty about love. (Or, what I thought was love, anyway.)

For me, these songs defined lost love in such a poignant way, that now that I think about it, they must have been a spark to my desire to put my own feelings in to words.

Wichita Lineman
And I need you more than want you.
And I want you for all time."

Does that not just rip your heart out?

MacArthur Park
Someone left the cake out in the rain.
I don't think that I can take it,
cause it took so long to bake it.
And I'll never have that recipe again.

I'll admit, when I first listened to the lyrics of "MacArthur Park," I did not yet understand about metaphors. So, I couldn't understand why someone would write about leaving a cake in the rain. And what was it doing in a park in the first place? However, many years and many life experiences later, I see the words as a powerful representation of loss.

Thank you, Jimmy Webb. Your lyrics takes me back in time, and they still inspire me today.

Friday, August 26, 2011


I don't know if it's a characteristic I despise or appreciate, but I work best under pressure. Tomorrow (August 27) is the deadline for contest entries for Ozark Creative Writers Contest, held in Eureka Springs in October. September 1 is the deadline for the Ozarks Writers League Contest, held in Branson in November. Have I done a single thing to prepare my submissions?


Will I get my submissions sent off in time?


Why? Because I work best under pressure. I need a deadline to be motivated, and though I'm not sure that's a good trait for a writer, it has always worked for me in the past. Something about a deadline and the adrenaline it kicks in gives me more energy and makes me think more clearly.

Maybe it's because I have an excuse to be in front of my computer for hours at a time rather than doing other things life throws at me. Maybe it's because I have a competitive spirit that makes me think I can compete with time itself.

I'm not sure of the reason. All I know is, it's time to get busy! So why am I blogging?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Starring . . .

Do you imagine who you would like to play your characters on the big screen? I do. In fact, in my novel, Broken Dolls, I so imagined Ken Watanabe as Papa that I re-wrote the character to give him a bigger role in my "movie." Mr. Watanabe is so perfect for Papa, I couldn't bring myself to kill him off in the first quarter of the book as was originally written.

Here is an excerpt that describes Papa. In this scene, 8-year old Sachi has just heard news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. She asks Papa about her brother, Taro, who is working in the sugar cane fields in Hawaii:

     Words blared from the radio and pounded like a drum against the tension in the room: The surprise attack has destroyed a large part of the U.S. Naval Fleet, and the casualties are expected to be in the thousands.
     “Papa? Is Taro-nisan okay?”
     The lines in Papa’s brow softened and his eyes crinkled as he smiled and reached for her. She ran to him and snuggled into his open arms, comforted by the scent of cedar incense on his shirt.
     “We have not been able to reach him yet,” he said.
     Mama stared out the window, her eyes sad and dark, her lips pressed tight.
     “What’s wrong, Mama?” Sachi asked.
     Her mother straightened in the chair and took a deep breath. “Sachiko, please go and practice your dance lessons now. Mrs. Thompson will be here soon.”
     Sachi slumped in Papa’s lap and whined. “Dance lessons? On Sunday?”
     “Do not argue,” her mother scolded. “Mrs. Thompson was kind enough to let you make up the lesson you missed last week.”
     Papa hugged Sachi, then shoved her off to the dance room.

Finding a person whose image so clearly represents my character helps me with my character development. With Mr. Watanabe, it was not only his physical description that aided me in my description of Papa, but also the honor, kindness, even mystery he has portrayed in many of his roles, such as Katsumoto in The Last Samurai and The Chairman in Memoirs of a Geisha.

Who do you imagine as your characters? Leave a comment and share an excerpt of one of your characters. Who do you imagine "starring" in the role of that character?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Wabi Sabi for Writers

Wabi Sabi is a way of looking at the world with a kind of quiet insight;
to find beauty, even in imperfection.

More than any other writing book, Wabi Sabi for Writers by Richard R. Powell has given me a unique way of looking at the world and translating it into words. Here is an excerpt:

     This paradox of building a life on change scares me. It feels reckless, dangerous, and foolish. But what it does for a writer is create a sense of expectation, a sense that each moment may contain the experience that will open up something bracing and real, or something warm and meaninful, or something bright and sober, something worth sharing, something readers will not be able to put down.
     This way of being is like carrying a hidden doorway in your pocket through which you can smuggle impressions, silent apprehensions, and private observations moment after moment because you are not expending effort to get anywhere. You can focus on the moment because each moment takes place inside your stillness, inside your own home. Being present in the motion, moment after moment, provides that secret chamber of awareness and gives a writer the chance to notice what is passing by before it is gone.

As you can see, the philosophy is "Zen-like" and may not be for everybody. But as a writer, as an artist, it has made me look at the world differently, and has changed the way I translate what I see into words.

Here is an excerpt from Broken Dolls that I wrote after reading Wabi Sabi for Writers. It takes places in the small town of Rohwer, Arkansas, where Nobu and his family have been sent to an internment camp from their home in California. This scene takes place on a day Nobu and his friends have been sent outside the camp on work detail to clear brush in a field outside the camp. They have just been "captured" by some local hunters who believe they "got themselves some Japanese spies." I tried to use wabi sabi to express the fear Nobu felt as he and his friends wait for the sheriff to arrive:

     The boys huddled in the darkening shadows as the blue-gray sky turned to black. A porch light across the street blinked on and someone peered through a tiny gap in dingy curtains. The slam of a screen door echoed down the empty street.

     Even the sun deserted them. But a cold wind arrived in its place. Its frigid fingers searched Nobu’s body for warmth, and stole what it found. The boys huddled together.
     Abunai! As Nobu recalled Mama’s warning—dangerous-he wasn’t sure what shuddered through him, the cold wind or fear.

What book on writing has impacted your writing most?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Happy 80th Anniversary, Grandma and Grandpa

My Aunt Carol reminded us via Facebook that today is my grandparents' 80th anniversary. I still remember the celebration we all had for their 50th, and I found it hard to believe thirty years had passed since then. It was a wonderful, warm gathering, complete with a renewal of their wedding vows and a decorated car to drive away.

I remember thinking to myself how special it was that they'd been married all those years, though they'd had plenty of hardships. Even back then, I admired their commitment. And I have no doubt that if they were alive today, they would still be married. So, why not celebrate this anniversary, too?


Grandma and Grandpa and their children

Grandma and Grandpa and their grandchildren
Here's a story I wrote several years ago about one of my best memories of the time I spent at their house:

     Each summer my parents piled us five kids and our dog into the station wagon for the long trek across country, from California to my grandparents’ farm in Kentucky. Arriving after our long journey, we rushed out of the car to the welcome of Grandma’s and Grandpa’s hugs and wet kisses.
     Their house was small, with three little bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room and a kitchen. But it was warm, and as filled with love as the lingering smells of Grandma’s cooking – coffee, biscuits, bacon, fried chicken, cookies.
     Every evening, Grandma made beds for us on the living room floor. She spread her handmade quilts over sun-dried sheets and goose down pillows. We’d lay our heads down and quickly fall into slumber, our bodies exhausted from days filled with hiking in the woods, chasing cows we weren’t supposed to chase, and getting muddy catching pollywogs in the pond.
     Morning arrived with the sound of a rooster and the mooing of cows. Grandma hummed softly and her slippers swished as she walked across the kitchen floor.
     I closed my eyes again and snuggled under my quilt, savoring the feel of the morning. The smell of the coffee and bacon. Grandma cooking in the kitchen. My siblings and cousins on the floor next to me, snoring quietly in their sleep.
     Grandpa came into the kitchen next, and I heard Grandma greet him with his cup of coffee on the table. The chair scooted out, and his newspaper ruffled. Slrrrp -- his first sip of the hot brew.
     Over the next several minutes, the procession of Dad and Mom, aunts and uncles entered the kitchen. They talked quietly at first, and their gentle mumbling was often hard for me to hear. But this was their time, and they didn’t want us to waken! Soft laughter mingled with slurps of coffee.
     There was something wonderful about being in this secret world of my own, while the other kids slept, and the adults sat around the table sharing conversations and coffee, while Grandma cooked her famous biscuits and gravy. I lay there quietly in my cocoon spun of comfort and love.
     The chatter from the kitchen crescendoed, as everyone shared stories from the past. Muffled laughter was broken by an occasional guffaw, quickly caught and quieted at its first escape. I knew another round of coffee was on its way when I heard the percolator gurgling and smelled the fresh roast drifting from the kitchen.
     When sunlight began to dance on the curtain sheers and the talk and laughter from the kitchen rose to full volume, I knew it was okay to get up. Although hungry to eat biscuits and gravy, I also loved my comfortable world under Grandma’s quilt. So I lay there indecisively for a moment. Then the special feeling that came with being the first grandchild to rise drew me to the kitchen.
     I walked in sleepy-eyed, to the chorus of “Oh, look who’s up,” and “Bless her little heart.” What a glorious welcome to my day.
     Daddy opened his arms to me, and I sat on his lap. My sleepy energy level was not yet a match for all of the adults who were now on their second and third cups of coffee, so I laid my head on his shoulder and watched the happy scene in the kitchen.
     “Jan, you want some orange juice?” Grandma asked, pitcher in hand. Her hair was still wound in curlers, her pink cotton house dress dotted with the flowers of summer.
     “Yes please, Grandma.”
     She handed me my juice and smiled, her dark brown eyes warm and soft. Then she walked around the table pouring more coffee for everyone. I watched the steam rise from each newly poured brew, and the smell whipped up my hunger.
     “Come over here, you little corker,” Grandpa said in his mischievous tone. Still in a half-awake state, I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the comfort of my dad’s lap, but I knew if I didn’t go to Grandpa, he’d come after me, fingers itching to find something to tickle. I walked to the other side of the table and Grandpa put his arm around me and planted a wet kiss on my cheek. I wrapped my arm around his neck and stood next to him while he sipped his coffee and read the paper.
     “Grandpa, can I have a taste?” The coffee smelled good, and I was hungry.
     I saw Mom give Grandpa a look that said, “I don’t think so.”
     But, Grandpa was never one to take a hint, especially one he saw no need for. “It’s hot. Just take a little one.”
     I was excited to make the sound of the delicious slurp, like an adult. Slrrrp.
    Yuck! It was hotter than I expected on my upper lip, and the bitter taste lingered on my tongue. What in the world did they see in that stuff?
    Many years have passed since the days of those fondest of memories, and today I’m one of those adults sitting around the table sharing stories over coffee, early in the morning while the children sleep. Grandma and Grandpa, their farm house, and the voices from the past are gone now, but they’re all part of the best I hold inside me.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Happy Hour with Nobu

In writing Broken Dreams, the sequel to Broken Dolls, most of my characters have readily begun to tell me their stories—all except Nobu. Though I’ve perched at my computer countless hours trying to claw out his first chapter, after several writes and re-writes only two lonely paragraphs dangle on that big, white screen.

Staring at the hungry page, I’ve asked, “Nobu, why won’t you talk to me? What are you hiding?”

Then, it occurred to me. Interview him. Even better, invite him to happy hour. Pour him some sake. Re-establish some trust. Maybe that will get him to open up.

So in my mind, I invite Nobu to sit beside me in a place not filled with the usual noise of a happy hour—loud music, the chatter of people trying to be heard above everyone else. In my imaginary meeting place created especially to make Nobu comfortable, the only sound I hear is water trickling over rocks in the lush, green atrium near where we sit.

He is tall for a Japanese man, his height more pronounced because he is thin. His clothes are a little too neat and pressed, almost as if he just removed them from their packaging. In his dark eyes, I interpret a variety of emotions. Wisdom, some unwanted, perhaps. A little sadness, some resentment, definitely guarded. But, they also ask for a trusted place to hide.

I pour some sake into a tiny cup. “Thank you for joining me,” I say and hand him the warm drink. “What have you been doing in the decade since Broken Dolls?”

He draws a deep breath and stares at the waterfall. “When I left Tule Lake [internment camp] in 1945, I returned to California.” His gaze darts back to me. “Papa and Sachi remained in Arkansas. My decision to return to California created a bit of a rift in my family. As you might imagine, Papa wanted me in Arkansas with him.” He blows into the cup, then sips. “But I refused to run away from what we left behind in California – racism, fear.” Another sip. “Though we had nothing left to return to, I wanted to prove I could move beyond what we had been through during World War II.”

“Prove to whom?”

“I don’t know. Maybe only myself. Fortunately, my brother, Taro, felt the same way when he returned from the war.” He smiles his first smile. “He and I started a nursery together. In the past decade, we’ve made Kimura Brothers Nursery one of the largest in northern California.”

I want to dig deeper. Casually sipping my own sake, I proceed slowly so as not to alarm him. “How is your relationship with your family now? How do you and Taro get along in the business?”

His eyebrows rise slightly and he swirls the sake in his cup. “Since my nephew, Michael, was born four years ago, I find myself wanting to re-establish a connection with my family. He is so much like Sachi was as a child – inquisitive, full of energy and well, spunky. Sachi, Michael and Papa have come to visit Taro and me several times in the last few years, and I have gone to visit them in Arkansas once. I find it amazing how a child can change one’s perspective. Michael has no worries about the future, of how he appears to others. He enjoys each little moment without consideration of the past or future. I could learn much from him.” He quiets.

“And you and Taro?”

“Oh, we get along fine. But sometimes I feel like there is an invisible wall between us. We never talk about the war years, though they had a huge impact on me. And I know fighting as a Japanese American in the war had its effect on Taro. How could it not, with his family interned in America as possible spies while he risked his life in Europe? I often see a faraway look in his eyes. In the times we are quiet, when no words pass between us, his eyes speak a thousand things. Things so terrible, so angry, I am afraid to ask.” He gulps down the last of his sake.

I hold the bottle toward him. “More?”

He nods and pushes his cup toward me.

As I pour, I ask, “What about your mother?”

His eyes widen and he jerks out of his seat, turns away and runs his hand through his hair.

I’ve hit a nerve. I blow on my cup and wait.

The silence is thick and threatens to become impenetrable if one of us doesn’t speak soon. I decide not to take the chance. “Nobu? Is it something you can talk about?”

Without turning to face me, he begins to talk, so softly I have to lean forward to hear. “A letter.” He returns to the table for his drink, then turns away again.

“A letter? What letter?” My heart is beating fast and I am afraid of losing my grasp as I reel in what feels like a very big fish.

He inhales, long and deep. “When we were sent to Arkansas, Mama gave some of our belongings to friends for safekeeping until we returned. As you know, after Mama was released from Rohwer, she returned to Hiroshima to find her parents.” He picks up a pebble from the garden and turns it in his hand before tossing it into the waterfall.

I hold my breath, afraid the slightest motion will shatter his fragile momentum.

“When I returned to California, our friends asked if I was ready for them to return our family items. It was all we had left, so of course, I said ‘yes.’”

“So,” I whisper, “you found a letter there?”

“Yes. In a Bible.”

“A Bible? But . . . you and your family are Buddhist, aren’t you?”

“Yes. That’s why I was surprised to see a Bible. I opened it, and there was an inscription inside. ‘To Sumiko. Always, Hideo.’ Who in the world is Hideo, I thought. So I flipped the pages, searching for something, anything that might tell me who he was . . .” His voice begins to tremble. “. . . and found a letter . . . from Hideo . . .folded up inside.”

My brain begs me to ask what the letter said, but my heart aches for Nobu.

At last, he faces me, his eyes glistening. “It is yet another brick in the wall that stands between Taro and me—between my whole family and me. I know a secret that would destroy us.”

What is it?

“In the letter, Hideo asked about his son. His son . . .Taro.”

Taro is Hideo’s son?

I struggle not to gasp and instead, gulp my now-lukewarm sake. “Oh, Nobu. I’m sorry. Do you think you will tell Taro one day?”


I’m speechless. But I want to end my interview on a better note. After all, I hope that Nobu and I can meet again to talk more. I decide to close with a question I’ve asked others. “Is there anything you’d like to answer that I haven’t asked?”

He flashes a broad, wise smile and for the first time, I see how handsome he is. “Yes. Of course,” he replies. “Like many of the characters you have created, I know that I am a part of you. You should have asked me, ‘What part of you was created from me?’”

An interesting question. “Okay, Nobu. What part of you was created from me?” I am a little afraid of his answer.

He straightens and I can tell he's shaken off the sadness of his last answer. “The writer. As with you, I write in my journal those thoughts and feelings I am afraid to share. Perhaps because I don’t want to cause someone pain, or perhaps I don’t want to anger them. Anyway, as you know, I often decide it best to keep such feelings to myself. Still there is a part of me many do not know. Maybe one day, after I am gone, someone will find my journals and will know who I really am inside.”

I shake the bottle of sake to see if there is anything left. When I find it empty, I open my eyes.

Nobu is gone. Though I still see the same two paragraphs on the page, I now know the story he will tell in Broken Dreams, even if it is only through his journals.