A few weeks ago, my classmates and I were asked to describe our writing space. Mine is different now because we’ve settled more in the new house, but this is what I wrote:
At present, my writing corner is surrounded by two twin mattresses–one blue, one cream, leaning up against the wall. They’re covered in plastic sheaths that rustle when the wind blows in through the screen slider at the other end of the room. At present, I sit on the bench for my 88-key keyboard. Without a back or arms, I fidget, which produces a soft creaking sound from the left side of the bench. Behind me, the refridgerator hums, but otherwise, the space is silent, unless I play music. The only music I listen to while I write is of the Baroque style, since it has been scientifically proven to unlock the creative centers of the brain.
Between the fridge and my desk, a disassembled daybed rests in pieces on the floor. The rest of the room is occupied by a sofa and loveseat that are perfect for sinking into with a good book, a recliner, and a television perched upon a set of shelves. My workspace is in the basement, but it’s a walkout so between the five windows, double door, and lights, it’s pretty bright. At present, the aroma–or odor, I should say–is of the storage facility, where the furniture spent the last few weeks. The smell is stale–not damp or mildew, but even the spritz from a Febreeze bottle doesn’t completely eradicate it.
Soon, hopefully, the daybed will be assembled. The mattresses will be on its frame, and no longer blocking the light from the windows to my right. The furniture won’t have a smell, or if it does, it won’t be a stale one. Eventually, the far right wall, where the television is, will be filled with built-in bookshelves, and books. Perhaps then the air will smell of books, that delightful scent of the inside of the spine. Outside the windows there is a covered brick patio, with a chimanea. Beyond the outdoor chimney, I can see a bird house with a brown star and a brown moon painted on the front. Past that are trees–a deciduous forest that, in the summer, is filled with the deep green of leafy vegetation, and in the winter, will look like a collection of twigs, stuck into the ground.
Perhaps tomorrow I’ll write a description of my writing space now, for comparison.
Today’s writing exercise also comes from my school work. I had to write a 100-word story this week (exactly 100 words), incorporating the following words:
At least one of these words had to be symbolic. There were some other stipulations as well, but this is the basic gist of the exercise. Here was my result:
The prior recited the benedicto ad barbum, crossed himself, adding, “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.”
“Amen.” Denis clutched the Abbey psalter to his heart. The wet blade scraped along his jaw as the sun dipped below the orange-banded horizon. “I feel the Lord’s heavenly light. Like St. Peter, I commend myself into His service, by my vows.” He gathered the remnants of his shorn beard and placed them reverently in an empty box upon the altar.
“Piety does suit you, Brother Denis.”
“Thank you, Prior Bouchard. Long have I dreamt of serving God here in this abbey.”
Exercises like this are great because not only do they force one to work with an economy of words, but because the 100-word story had to be considered a complete story (in other words it cannot be simply an excerpt that relies on more to make it conclusive), it can easily be built out into a larger story without needing to be. This was a fun exercise and one I would happily do again with different words or even the same words.
For today’s writing exercise, I decided to post part of the character sheet I wrote up for William Johnson, one of the main characters of Out of the Sea. I’ve not included every part of the sheet, because the whole thing totals over 1,300 words, but I thought you might enjoy seeing some of what makes William tick.
Incidentally, I will be getting back to working on this story, once I’m finished with school. For those of you who have expressed interest in reading it, I appreciate your devotion–I have not forgotten!
Character’s Full Name: William Johnson
(Why did your character’s parents give them this particular name? Is there a story behind it?)
William was named after his father, so technically he is William Johnson II but he doesn’t use the “II” ever since his father’s death. With friends and family, he goes by Liam.
Appearance: William is tall and lanky, and despite being beyond puberty, carries himself awkwardly. His hair is light brown, wavy and long; it falls to his shoulders though he usually keeps it tied back and typically wears a hat. He has a bump on his nose from when he broke it as a child, playing in the shipyard across the river from his home.
What experience wounded your character on an emotional level? When he was eleven years old, he learned of his father’s death at sea. His father had been a whale-man, and William only saw him sporadically as a child, but they were, nonetheless, close. He prefers not to talk of his father’s death and if asked by strangers, will answer that his father has simply been away at sea for a long time.
How does that “hurt” affect your character’s choices? Ultimately, William signs on to a whaling vessel as the ship’s cooper, mostly to learn the circumstances of his father’s death, though he tells his family that his reason is more to do with the economic recession in the area at the time (early 1890s, Connecticut).
What does your character fear? Being that he doesn’t know how to swim and finds himself on a ship for many years, his biggest fear is death by drowning.
What is your character’s guilty pleasure? William often finds himself eavesdropping. He generally keeps what he learns to himself; he isn’t a gossip. However, he is inquisitive about other people, their motives, their histories…and when he can, he listens in to derive as much as he can about a person. He’d much rather eavesdrop than have an actual conversation with people he doesn’t know very well. This could also be considered a flaw, but he has others so I put it under the guilty pleasure category.
List a few of your character’s quirks (irrational fear, weird habit, strange process, etc.): William’s fear of drowning is quite rational, given his five-year plan and inability to swim or stay afloat in moving water. He does have an irrational fear of his father’s spirit. He tells himself it is illogical that his father’s spirit would haunt the ship on which he died, but once William begins sailing on it, he has more difficulty rationalizing the sounds and sights on board. This fear is only fueled by several of the other crew members who are as superstitious as they come.
William does have a touch of OCD. When he is working, for example, when he’s about to assemble a cask to contain water or whale oil, he lays all the staves out, arranges them in the shape of the cask, lays them out again, and then assembles. This is almost a measure-twice-cut-once type of practice, but the staves have already been measured, cut, and numbered in order so that assembly should be a smooth process.
List a few of your character’s flaws: As mentioned above, William has a habit of eavesdropping. However, I would say his major flaw is that he makes rash decisions. He doesn’t pause to think things through or weigh the consequences–at least for much of his story. He does get better at tempering himself toward the end, but his hastiness causes problems for him in the beginning and middle of the story.
Character Background (Where did they grow up, who is their family, what is their education level, class, origin, etc.?) William grew up in a small fishing village on the west bank of the Mystic River, in Connecticut. He was born in 1868, in New Bedford, MA, but his family soon moved to Connecticut because the ship his father worked for changed ownership. Shortly before his father’s death, he entered an apprenticeship to become a cooper, but when the recession of the 1890s hit, his apprenticeship was over and there wasn’t enough work at the cooperage, so he decided to go to sea. He has a younger sister, Catherine, and his mother, Ella, who are both still alive. His best friend, Thomas, is engaged to his sister.
Describe a specific place that terrifies your character. Cape Horn terrifes William the most. After stories his father told him, and stories he hears from Thomas and his crew mates, he considers leaving the ship before they round the Cape. The violent, unpredictable weather intensifies his already existing fear of drowning and/or being lost at sea.
Your character owns an object that is extremely important to them. Please write about what the object is, and explain the story behind why that object is so important? William’s most important item is his cooper’s hammer. A very specific tool with one blunt end and one tapered end, this hammer is used not only to help with general carpentry (for which a cooper was sometimes responsible on a whaling ship), but also makes it possible to effectively disassemble and assemble casks. Without this tool, William cannot do his work; it would not only impede his ability to earn money but also represents an item for reflection in light of the economic setting of his life.
What’s your character’s secret? William doesn’t want Thomas to marry his sister because he doesn’t want Catherine to suffer the loneliness that Ella knew by marrying a sailor. He lures Thomas into joining him on a five to six year whaling endeavor in order for his sister to find someone else to marry during their absence.
Today’s prompt comes from 642 Things to Write About. The prompt reads:
You have just swallowed your pride and done something you didn’t want to do. Your friend wants to know why. The two of you are driving around an almost-full parking garage looking for a space for the friend’s oversize pickup. Write the scene.
Here’s the scene I wrote:
“How about right there?” Deb pointed ahead.
I pushed my foot down onto the accelerator. The engine rumbled and the truck shot forward, throwing us both against the back of the cracked, vinyl bench seat. A motorcycle rested diagonally across the space; I stopped short, wincing at the squeal of rubber on concrete.
“Whoa, easy,” she exclaimed, gripping the door handle, bracing herself.
“Sorry, I didn’t see the bike.” I took a deep breath and glanced at myself in the rearview mirror. I couldn’t tell if the sweat on my brow was from the heat or narrowly avoiding a collision. I peeled my sunglasses off, rubbing my eye with the heel of my palm. “Why do you still have this old truck anyway? It’s such a pain to park.” I pulled away from the motorcycle and eased the lumbering truck down the aisle. Power steering was a dream of the future when Deb’s truck was rolling off the line–I had to turn the wheel over and over before the tires responded so that we could try the next aisle. “This place is packed today. Why are we even here?”
“It’s supposed to be the best movie of the summer, and we already have tickets.” She took them down from the visor and scraped them together, like she was honing the perforated edges.
“Yeah…maybe we should have come earlier. Or you should have driven your own truck.”
“I like when you drive. I get to look around that way. And ask you annoying questions.”
Deb and I used to climb up the railroad trestles just outside our hometown to feel the wooden frame shake and shudder as a train approached. That way, we could hear it coming before we even heard the train. The silence in the cab of her truck now reminded me of those summer afternoons, filled only by the rattling air vents. “What?”
“Why’d you do it?”
“Do what?” Another aisle with nowhere to park, and only three more to go before we’d have to try to find a spot on the other side of the street.
“Why did you apologize to your mom before we left?”
I lifted one hand off of the wheel to point at an empty space. “Think we can fit in there?”
“No way. Keep driving and answer my question. You weren’t in the wrong. You never are with her–you do everything she asks you to do. And don’t tell me I don’t get it, that it’s a family thing, because I’ve known you since we were four.”
“Honestly? It’s just not worth it arguing with her anymore. In her eyes, I’m always in the wrong and I’m tired of fighting with her. You know, she hasn’t yelled at me once since I apologized?”
Deb leaned forward to pull her hair back into a ponytail. It was just long enough to be pulled back so it made her head look too big. I didn’t say anything; it was too hot out for that. “Well,” she assessed, “that’s good at least. But you’re enabling her. There’s one.”
We were in the last aisle. I wedged the truck into the empty space, but Deb had to slide out of the driver’s side because there wouldn’t have been room to open the doors if I centered it. The parking garage smelled of gasoline and burnt rubber. I pushed the heavy door shut with a deep clunk and dropped the keys into my canvas tote.
The prompt said nothing about this being an old truck, but I once drove an friend’s old truck because she’d broken her wrist or hand–I can’t remember–and I was the only other one in the car with a driver’s license. I hated the steering and the air conditioner was broken. I’m sure I pulled from that memory when writing this scene.
I welcome your thoughts.