Thanks, Mr. Hart

Lucienne DiverLucienne Diver
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So, I’m stalling, because I know I have to write a piece for Magical Words for today and I have absolutely no ideas.  Nada.  Zilch.  Not because I don’t have a lot to say.  (Just try to shut me up.)  But because I’ve done so many blogs and articles and talks at this point that I feel I’ve said it all. 

I’m playing around with ideas.  Maybe I’ll have Tori Karacis, my PI who can literally stop men in their tracks, aka the heroine of my Latter-Day Olympians series, interview me in a shameless self-promotional gambit. (Plug: the second in the series, Crazy in the Blood, comes out in print in July and the third, Rise of the Blood, releases in digital in September.) 

I can hear it now:

Tori: Hey, chicky, so you went to Greece and all I got was this lousy book? (See Rise of the Blood)

Me: Um, hello, your book is set in Greece.  Delphi, no less, one of the most amazing places on Earth.

Tori: Sure, you put me in Delphi and then have me fighting for my life.  What kind of sadistic SOB does that?  I say we switch.  Next time, I get to play tourist and you get to save the day. How would that be?

Me: You think taking a preteen with jetlag halfway across the world qualifies as a vacay, you be my guest.  I’ll take Armani…or Apollo.  I’m not picky.

Tori: I think your husband might have something to say about that.

You can see how that whole conversation might devolve into something not fit for Magical Words.

So I thought about characters and how they come to be—for me, often like Athena springing fully grown from the head of Zeus.  (Not that I’m Zeus, by any means.  For one thing, I’m a lot less hairy.  And not that my characters are Athena, though she may or may not make an appearance at some point.)   In other words, I don’t so much sit down to develop my characters as have them start talking to me, and I have to get to know them and give them others to talk to and fight with so that they don’t hijack my head.

I did a school talk a few weeks ago with a couple of other authors, and one of the best questions we were asked was, “What does it take to be a writer?”  It just so happened that I’d had a conversation with a friend of mine not long before that seemed to tie in.  He said, “You know me.”  I answered quite honestly, “No, I know who I’ve made you out to be.”  It’s true.  Writers fill in the blanks.  Not just for our characters, but for folks we don’t know when people watching, say in an airport or bus terminal.  We do it for our friends, creating motivation and backstory behind why they’ve cancelled on us or not called back right away or…  We see an abandoned bag and immediately wonder if it’s a drop or a bomb or something left behind in a kidnapping.  A lot of people do this to an extent, but for authors it’s nearly pathological.  What we actually observe is only the tip of the iceberg.  Everything below decks is imagination. 

You all might have heard me talk before about my fantastic fifth grade teacher, Mr. Hart, whose passion was writing and inspiring the spark in others.  I remember the writing prompts he used to give us—sometimes the beginning of a sentence we had to use to launch our story, sometimes an ambiguous picture.  Either way, we had to fill in the blanks.  Use what was there and create what wasn’t.  Develop the connections, the storyline, the characters.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that my process isn’t so different today, only I might use mythology and folklore as my prompts: in the Latter-Day Olympians series it’s, of course, Greek mythology.  In the Vamped series it’s traditional vampire lore, but with a character who’s completely non-traditional for the genre.  She’s not angsty; she doesn’t brood, though she is pissed at facing an eternity with no way to fix her hair and make-up.

The long and short of this is that Mr. Hart and his lessons are still very relevant today.  His version of  “get it down, then get it right” is pretty applicable as well.  We had timed writing assignments, during which our pens were not allowed to stop moving, even if it was to write “nothing at all, nothing at all” until we thought of something infinitely more interesting.  I think we can all appreciate this.  Keep it moving.  As better brains than mine have said, “You can’t revise what isn’t on the page.”

Thanks, Mr. Hart.

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29 comments to Thanks, Mr. Hart

  • sagablessed

    You feared you had nothing new to blog about, or that it might not be fresh (inferred). My dear, you were wrong. You are a true writer/author.
    WURK!

  • deborahblake

    I get a lot of my inspiration from fairy tales and myths as well (like the Baba Yaga series I’m working on now). One of my favorite things to do is to open one of my many cool reference books on mythological creatures, and see what pops up :-)

  • Fireheart1974

    What is it about Fifth Grade teachers? Mine was Mr. Nesbitt and he still inspires me to write and play with life. I wonder if I should go back to school to be a Fifth Grade teacher?
    ~Fireheart

  • Fireheart, I think good teachers are priceless. It’s too bad all the new regulations (and lower funding) is driving so many of them out. My husband is going back to school for teaching now, anywhere from 3rd through 6th grade. I know he’ll inspire someone. He’s amazing!

  • Mine wasn’t 5th grade, it was 9th. Dr. Macioci. He saw a geeky, quiet kid feverishly writing stories about his D&D character instead of the myriad journal topics he either had no interest in or had nothing to write about and kept him after class to tell him he had potential and he should think about a career in writing. I think that was the first real point where I’d considered the possibility.

  • Daniel, yes! This is exactly how it went with me in 5th grade. I think that between books and my writing, living in my own little world probably saved my life just a bit, for a myriad of reasons. Funny how it sounds unhealthy as I write it, but I’ve made a pretty awesome life out of my eccentricities, so I’m not worried about it!

  • 10th grade for me — Mr. Schirmer. All my siblings had him, and all of us have pursued writing in our careers in one way or another. No coincidence that. Nice post, Lucienne.

  • I totally get the “characters springing fully-formed from head” thing. Followed by figuring out who they are and then tempering them like a blade, or at least, making them presentable to the world.

    I can’t pinpoint one teacher (though several were encouraging), but I can say that for me, it was Alison the local children’s librarian. She was the first adult to read my work, and she kept encouraging me. Later, I found a similar spirit in my first-year college creative writing professor, Crystal. Without them, I honestly don’t know where I’d be today.

  • Like David, mine was 10th grade. Wonderful woman! Because of her I am alive today. Seriously. Because of Carol Kohler I started writing, and that gave me a reason to live past all the angst and depression of my teen years. And writing is my life now. :)

    Oh — Jane says to Tori, “Need help kicking some Olympian butt? Sounds like fun!”

  • I had two teachers who encouraged me in different ways–4th grade and 11th grade. Both of them are largely responsible for the fact that all these years later I am still trying to live up to the potential they saw in me.

  • Faith, Tori says to Jane, “Back atcha on the vamp-vanquishing front!”

  • David, that’s so amazing that a teacher would have inspired all of you. I hope you’ve let him know. I tried to find Mr. Hart or convince someone in the school district to pass on a letter, but it was as if he’d disappeared off the face of the Earth. I’m sure there’s a story in that somewhere. (BTW, his name was Gary Hart, of all things, which really made me laugh when everything hit the fan with the politician of the same name.) So, Mr. Hart, if you’re out there…

  • sagablessed

    Mine was our elementary school librarian. Shame I cannot recall her name. She introduced me to Anne McCaffery, Andre Norton, and Tamora Pierce. She even got me books from the high-school to read. She died not long after I went into 6th grade, having touched many kids lives.
    I miss her.

  • Ken

    I had sort of the opposite experience. Creative writing was a new class by the time I rolled through High School and the teacher just didn’t get it. She’d give us a line to start with and, based off feedback from her such as: “Why can’t you just stick with the facts as they are?” I made it a point to take each line in the most off-the-beaten-path direction that I could. It wasn’t until college that I ran across a creative writing teacher worth the title.

    As far as characters go, I don’t have them spring from my head fully formed or otherwise. What I get is a picture in my head. A still frame from the story (usually somewhere in the middle). It’s got a character in it, and they are always doing something (even if it’s only straddling a motorcycle) and I’ve got to start asking questions like “Who is that?” and “What the heck is going on and why?” It’s from there that the story grows.

  • Laura and Sagablessed, thanks for bringing up librarians! They’re amazing too. I can’t remember a particular one in my history, but I know that if not for our local library I’d have gone mad! My parents could not have afforded to keep me in books at the rate I read.

    Aside from Mr. Hart, the other person who made the biggest difference in my life (educationally speaking) was a wonderful woman who worked in our front office in elementary school, Mrs. Gervaise (I hope I’m spelling this correctly). As a kid who was out of school nearly as much as I was in (hospitalized for asthma and related issues), I saw a lot of her when I brought in notes or had to go to the office to be picked up for this appointment or that one. Being singled out because you’re sickly makes you feel anything but special, but she made up for all of that. When she went on vacation, she’d bring me back little things like shells that are a child’s treasure. I’m sure she did more as well, because I have tears in my eyes even as I type (she died when I was in junior high or high school), but I most remember the shells. She gave back all the special I didn’t feel. We should all be so wonderful as to make such a difference in people’s lives.

  • Ken, I’m sorry you had that experience. A bad teacher can be destructive for certain. A lot of writing programs in high school and in college seem determined to wring the spark out of writers by insisting on the “right” way to do things (generally the non-commercial, literary – said as “litry” with nose firmly in the air-way).

    And yes, not everyone starts with character. At that same school talk I referenced above, Amy Christine Parker, whose wonderful debut GATED is coming out in August, mentioned that it starts with an idea for her, and she has to figure out what character belongs there. Who would be most challenged by the situation? There’s no single way to do things. Plotter or pantser, schedule or spree writer, etc….whatever works for you is perfectly valid.

  • A. R. Gideon

    Hey guys, it’s been a long time since I’ve commented, but after ConCarolinas I thought it was time for a return. I’ve the teacher for me that really made me want to pursue a career in writing was my high school latin teacher Ms. White (she made us call her Magister Alba xD). We had been given an assignment in my psyche class to create a language, and I ended up working with her to create the basis for a new grammatically unique language based off of latin. She stayed late several times just to give me extra lessons in latin and help me create the basis of the language. During those times I started to tell her about the characters and world I had been developing since I was in fifth grade. She was the first one to say that she thought the world and story was interesting and that that I had a future in writing. She was definitely the driving force behind me committing to being a published author.

  • A Latin teacher, now that’s an interesting start! I took Latin for 5 years in junior high and high school. I wonder how many of us sf/f people had some Latin as well. Show of hands?

  • Latin? Yup. (raises hand)

  • Vyton

    Great post. No Latin here. My teacher was 10th grade. And my freshman English teacher in college, who was the first one to actually say that I could write. I had two significant librarians: the one in the high school library and Mrs. Liggins on the bookmobile. In addition to being loaded with books, the bookmobile was an air conditioned haven every two weeks during the those cool, dry Louisiana summers.

  • I had several great teachers encourage my writing, including my grandmother, who was an elementary school principal (tell me that ain’t scary when you’re 7!). The one I remember most, though, was my 9th grade English teacher. He caught me writing poetry instead of taking notes and told me I could skip his class provided I turned in a poem each week – and then he’d sometimes challenge me to write a poem to a specific style. Unfortunately, his kindness and encouragement also hurt me in a way. I didn’t really understand the basics of English (what the heck is a participle, and why shouldn’t it dangle?) until I got to college.

  • Mine was Dr Rowland, my history 101-102 teacher. He had a way of lecturing that made what could have been dry dates and names into the most fascinating, multi-faceted story I’d ever heard. One day he took us outside and had us form into a phalanx, complete with cardboard shields. We marched around the campus that way. He never read my writing (well, not my fiction – he read a ton of my essay question answers!) but he taught me how to see events as flowing from one to the next, the way a good story should.

  • quillet

    Delphi! Can’t wait to read your book just so I can go back there! Pictures cannot do it justice. Delphiiiiii!

    I had quite a few awesome teachers, actually. Three in elementary school and at least three in high school too. First one to encourage me to write, though, was in grade 5. There must be something magical about fifth grade.

    I never took Latin, but I took ancient Greek in university. Which came in handy during a vacation in Greece (Delphi!!!), where I could read (er, more like sound out) an ancient inscription or two. As far as characters go, I’ve never had the Athena-from-forehead experience. Wish I did! My experience is more like Ken’s. It starts with an image which inspires me to ask questions, and builds from there.

  • Razziecat

    OMG fifth grade…Yeah. My fifth grade teacher was, erm, unique. It would take longer than this comment box to tell you about him. All I’ll say is that he was definitely creative, and it was in his class that I wrote my first short story. For which I got an A+ (immediately downgraded to a C, if I recall correctly, for turning it in late…ahem). I think I continued to write more to spite him than because of him. Strange how things turn out, isn’t it? :P

  • Mrs. Olsen, 7th grade (geeze, 30 years ago). “Are you sure you want to be a programmer instead of a writer?”. I’ve had a wonderful career as a programmer, but regret that I chose it over writing – it’s stolen away much of my creativity to the point that I’m not sure I have it in me to go back to writing. But I’ve always remembered what she said, and I still have the hand-written story she was referring to. Here’s to hoping it’s never too late to give it a go.

  • No Latin here. I research it and ask those who did take it when I need to use it. It wasn’t offered at my high school and I didn’t get to go to college, for various reasons.

  • Quillet, yes! Loved Delphi! (And Epidaurus, Olympia, Mycenae, Meteora, Athens…but particularly Mycenae and the Cyclopean construction!) The best thing about writing Rise of the Blood was reliving that trip!

  • [...] found time to blog about them!  If you’re looking for something pithy-ish, I was over at Magical Words last week with an ode to stream-of-consciousness, my fifth grade teacher and the writing process.  [...]

  • Ha! So true. Our imagination does run wild in real life too. Oh, how I had a Mr. Hart in my life. That’s so very awesome! Kudos to him for sharing his passion of writing and for helping his students grow. Love your dialogue btw lol.