More Than You Know

On June 23, 2018, Samantha wrote, People always say “Make your characters feel pain!” In general I agree with this. Your character has to suffer throughout your story or it will be flat out boring…but how do you make his/her suffering unique? I’ve also heard that you should write about what you know, do you agree with this? And if you think that is good advice, do you have suggestions of how to stretch my knowledge and experiences to 1) sound unique/less boring and 2) not completely copy my life?

Lots of you flowed in to help.

Song4myKing: About pain. I think readers will care more about a character whose suffering seems in some way like their own, than about a character whose trouble is so far out there that they can’t really imagine it. If a character loses her best friend, it could strike a closer chord than if she is the only one in her town to survive a bombing. Not that you can’t use the bombing. But if you want the reader to care about the character’s loss and not just about her new plot challenges, you’ll have to narrow her grief down to one lost person at a time. Then make THAT person, and THAT pain become as real as possible.

Probably the key to making the character’s suffering unique is to make sure the people and things involved are 3D and unique. I talked about loss of a loved one as an example; that may be a common theme, but it becomes unique if the one gone and the one left are both well-rounded and their relationship was unique to them. Things like fears are the same way–if the character isn’t flat, and the fears have a believable basis, the suffering it causes will be just as interesting.

But whatever you do, don’t make the suffering random. Don’t kill the dog just to make the readers cry. They won’t. They’ll just be mad at you unless you have a very good reason. Think what in your story could naturally cause pain, then milk it for all it’s worth.

About writing what you know. I try not to write about things in the real world that I know nothing about. I probably will never write a story that has a public school as a major setting, because the school I went to was a very small church school. But I might sometime write about a homeschooler even though I was never homeschooled. I can more easily imagine what it would be like, because several of my siblings homeschooled for a year or two, and so did a number of my friends.

But notice I said “real world.” In the real world, someone will call your bluff if you really didn’t know what you were talking about. But in a made-up world, you are the creator, and you have the opportunity to get to know your world better than anyone else knows it.

And don’t forget that you CAN stretch your knowledge and experiences, even turning them into something a little different. I can’t really wrap my mind around the idea of losing my parents, but I did write a story that included that. I remembered the pain of losing my grandfather, and I put that pain into the story.

Christie V Powell: Well, suffering is tied to both fear and pain, so what does your character fear? What hurts them? That’ll be different for different people. Put me on a crowded dance floor with music so loud it hurts your ears–to some, that’s fun, but to me it would be suffering. I was watching a movie recently where a baby was rushed to the hospital. Everyone else enjoyed it, but I have experiences that made watching it painful. So experience will color the suffering too.

Real people are more complex than characters. Even if you were writing a memoir, your character self would not be a carbon copy. In some ways, all of your characters are based off of you and things you’ve experienced. My character Keita Sage is an introvert like me, but I also identify with antagonist Donovan’s desire take control and simplify government. Some of my real-life experiences got twisted into fiction: I once euthanized a baby chick that was born with fatal problems. It was a shocking, traumatizing experience. I twisted it into my first book, when Keita charges into battle and accidentally kills someone. In the final chapter, she discusses her complicated feelings about a gray character who did terrible things, yet she still cares for him as a person. It came straight from my feelings about one of my good friends from high school being arrested. You’re a unique human being. You’ve had different experiences than everyone else. That will come through.

In high fantasy, the whole world might be at stake. However, I just read and loved “The Losers Club” by Andrew Clements, and the only thing at stake is the main character’s summer vacation and maybe his friendship with a girl. It’s based on a realistic 6th grade bookworm. His character wasn’t really unique–he reminded me a lot of myself.

Maggie R.: So then, do you think that I can still get the reader to feel sad if it’s like ten people who die? Is it too many people do you think? Maybe I could give instances where they are each given a personality. What do you think?

Herolass: It depends on who the people are who die and how they die. If ten unnamed soldiers die in a battle I will not be too sad, but if those soldiers are all friends who died to save someone (e.g. the MC or another important character), I will be very sad.

Raina: I once heard somebody say that when writing tragedy, you should focus on the small things. Instead of writing about the horrors of war, write about a child’s burnt socks lying by the side of the road. If you want a good example, watch Les Miserables. A dozen people dying violently in a battle isn’t nearly as sad as the scene where Fantine gets arrested. (For me, at least.)

Also, I tend to find that tragedy/death feels sadder when the reader/story has some “quiet time” for it to really sink in, instead of a big action scene where the reader’s (and characters’) adrenaline is probably rushing. If you look at Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet, the ALL IS LOST moment is usually a big dramatic (and action-packed if you’re in one of the more action-oriented genres) scene where something major happens, while the DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL moment is more internal conflict, where there’s not necessarily a lot going on outside but the MC is struggling inside.

Song4myKing; They might not all need to be named, and have personality shown, but if a few of them are in some poignant way, we’ll get it. We’ll understand that they were all people, not just pawns.

Wow! You guys are fabulous! I agree with everything!

As I’m thinking about this, I’m guessing that we can even make readers care about aggregates of lives lost–though I’ve never attempted it. I think the burnt socks at the side of the road is super effective, but we can also be cerebral about death statistics. One of the reasons, I think, that people continue to care about the Holocaust is the sheer enormity of Jewish deaths: six million. Statistics have power. We can compare the death toll to other death tolls. I haven’t done this, so I’m making up statistics: Jewish deaths in the Holocaust compared to deaths in our Civil War, compared to deaths from cholera, compared to deaths from malnutrition. (I don’t know how any of these would come out.) We might look at innovations by population and speculate how many advances all of humanity was deprived of by the losses. In real life, I have thought along these lines. Naturally, in our fiction, we would stack the deck–make comparisons that point up the magnitude of the tragedy. And then, to bring it all home, we can show the effects of realizing the seriousness of the event on our beloved MC.

Suppose our MC’s tribe loses a battle with the gnomes of Mount Pothinay, and only three out of a thousand soldiers survive. Our MC reacts with shock and deep depression. She thinks of the impact on the tribe going forward. She listens in on the survivors’ descriptions of the debacle. They supply the detail that everyone above talked about. We may not know any of these characters well–either the dead or the living–but their stories will affect our MC and through her, our readers.

Underlying all this, of course, is emotion. We have to connect the deaths of the few or the many with a feeling response. If we set it up right, we can do it. Writers have super powers!

On to writing what we know or what we didn’t (past tense) know. As I’ve said here, my WIP is a historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I knew little when I started. Many learned tomes later, I’m, if not an expert, at least a knowledgeable amateur, and, finally, I’m starting to feel comfortable moving around in this long-ago world, which may be more different from our own than any of the fantasy universes I’ve created, not withstanding dragons, fairies, and elves. For example, cities had their own fueros, charters of rights granted by the monarch. But the king (and occasionally the queen) could–and did–change his mind any old time. If a subject didn’t like something, he could appeal to the king, and the king might act in his favor. But when another objection came along, he might reverse himself. A subject could depend on nothing! For most of the medieval period, the Jews had their own courts, but if a Jew was unhappy about a judgment, he could move on to the Christian courts and hope for a better outcome. I’ve never thought about introducing such chaos–but I might in a future fantasy, because, in addition to writing what we know, we can write what we’ve learned.

My book, The Wish, is set in the eighth grade. When I wrote it, junior high (no middle schools then) was decades in the past, and, due to a special program in New York City at the time, I skipped eighth grade. So I spent a day with an eighth grade class and talked to the kids. When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I needed the help of my shy friends to get Addie right, since I’m an extrovert–but being an extrovert didn’t stop me from writing her.

We may have to step outside ourselves to write what we don’t know, but plenty of resources are available. For this historical novel, in addition to reading academic books, I’ve googled countless things. I had a long phone conversation about boats with an expert at the South Street Seaport in New York City. I’ve reached out to scholars specializing in the Middle Ages on the Iberian Peninsula. No one has been unwilling to help.

(For any of you who are using Wikipedia for research, I’ve found the references at the bottom of the article to be enormously helpful. Some link to other online resources and some to books that go into the topic, whatever it is, in geeky depth.)

One of the charms of writing what we don’t know is that we build bridges to what we do. In the case of the expulsion of the Jews, not all the discoveries have been happy. Prejudice then and prejudice now, if not exactly the same, resemble each other.

I encourage writers to write what we don’t know. We get bigger.

And I don’t want you readers of this blog to limit your ambitions. Whatever you want to do in your writing, I say, go for it!

In the case of writing about the late fifteenth century, I can’t get it entirely right, and not merely because records are spotty. For one thing, I don’t have twenty years for this one book, the time it would take to truly know the period. For another, the way events unfolded then has convinced me that people at the time were in some respects fundamentally different from twenty-first century humanity: the sense of self was less individuated; the stories folks tell themselves about their lives has changed; and the relation of self to society has shifted. I’m hoping to write characters who aren’t exactly like us, just dressed up in gowns or doublets and hose. But if I manage to represent them as they would recognize themselves, they may not be comprehensible to modern readers. I’m looking for a middle ground. We can’t entirely get away from what we know.

This extends to all kinds of writing. My shy Addie is unlikely to reflect everyone’s experiences of being shy. Whether we write what we know or what we learn, our words won’t precisely match what our readers know. This is all to the good. How dull it would be otherwise!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Take the defeat against the gnomes of Mount Pothinay when only three out of a thousand survive. 997 people have been killed. Resist the urge to make any of them individuals. Write a scene, and make the reader sad.

∙ Research a historical defeat. Make yourself care, and then, using your research, write a scene and make the reader care. For this, Wikipedia and Google are your friends, but you can also interview people you know who may be veterans or may have been in any kind of physical fight.

∙ Take a tall tale or a myth about an out-size individual. Make that person believable. Adapt the story. Write it all or a scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Pain! Agony!

First off: a reminder about my appearance on Woozworld on February 21st from 1:00 to 2:00 PM. I’ll be there in the form of an avatar (with gray hair and gray-green eyes–and the resemblance ends there), answering advance questions and questions that crop up at the time. If you participate, I’ll meet you through your avatar, but we probably won’t recognize each other in the actual universe. My hesitations about the event are that it may be too young for many of you, and (the more serious hesitation) that you have to join Woozworld to participate. Please discuss this with your parents before you plunge in. For the adults who read the blog–for me, if I were a follower–the attraction would be to see this method publishers are using to promote books to kids in the tween (middle-grade) age group. If you decide to attend, go to and look for the HarperCollins Bookz Lounge.

Second off: The blog recently achieved a milestone and crossed over the 500 follower mark after hovering at 497 for many months. I’m not sure what benefits there are for being a follower (please say if you know), but I love to see the numbers tick up.

And on another subject, my last post was written while on vacation in Hawaii. If you want to share in the beauty we enjoyed, click over to my husband’s photographic website on the right. Alas, the photos won’t waft in the delicious warm air…

Now for today’s topic. On September 18, 2014, Deborah O’Carroll wrote, In the latest book that I finished writing, there was a very tense and awful scene for the climax, and I piled on as much hurt as I could handle doing to the characters, but I held back a bit. Even that was awful and I almost couldn’t. But I found that a couple months later, when I was editing, that since I had read the scene over several times, I was used to it. So I was able to add in some more problems to draw out the peril and seriousness of the situation even more. In that case, if I had tried to do it all at once, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it (even if my characters could!).

One thing I’ve been worrying about lately is high stakes and peril and stuff. I have a hard time making it so that we’re actually WORRIED about my characters. I think mostly I let them off too easy, and that’s something I’m struggling with…

Deborah partially answered her own question at the beginning of her comment. If we let time go by before revising, we can see everything more clearly. Our characters aren’t quite as precious to us as they were during the writing, so we can torment them some more.

What can we do, though, to make the misery tolerable while we’re writing?

• If we’re not writing tragedy and our MC is going to be okay in the end, and probably even better than she was at the beginning because her trials have made her grow, we can remind ourselves of that as we devise torture for her. We can even write an ending scene in which she’s fine. This may not be what we actually write when we get there, but it may make us feel better, and we can read it whenever we need courage.

• We can write comforting lines to ourselves right in our manuscript, like, Remember, Gail, she’s going to survive. Then we can cut these editorial remarks when we revise, and be careful to remove all of them before submitting our story to a publisher.

• We can entertain ourselves by writing on the side a monologue for our villain, in which he rejoices in every terrible thing that happens to our MC. He can even help us come up with more disasters for her. He can say, The only thing that would be better would be if… And we can put in whatever he suggests. If we don’t have a human villain, we can write in the voice of someone who doesn’t like our MC. If necessary, we can imagine such a character. The comfort in this comes from the humor.

• Going the other way, we can deliberately think about how much we love our MC and how much we admire her. We can think about what a privilege it is to watch her figure things out and overcome obstacles–and then we can turn the screws on her extra hard. We remind ourselves that we don’t want her to have an easy time winning her victories, because then we won’t admire her so much. Plus, we want to tailor the obstacles so she struggles, because if success is easy, what’s to admire?

• Of course we can remember that we’ll have a good story only if we make the going rough. When we spare ourselves by sparing her, we don’t wind up with much to interest our readers.

Back to my penultimate point, reader worry will intensify if the problems we’ve made for our MC push her buttons. In my novel, Ever, one of the MCs, Olus, the god of the winds, can’t tolerate being cooped up. Naturally, I confine him, and I make it a test. If he can’t cope, he loses his love.

In The Lord of the Rings, many characters, some of them beloved, like Bilbo and Frodo and even Sam, have to face their desire for power. In my opinion, it’s the central problem of the books. Some face down the temptation, but others succumb. In Anne of Green Gables, to take another example, Anne has to contend with her impulsiveness, her temper, and her unwillingness to forgive, and L. M. Montgomery keeps challenging her. One more instance: the sad core of Peter Pan is brave Peter’s cowardice about growing up.

A fun thing to do to is to think of a challenge for our MC, one we can’t figure out how to beat. Maybe we put her in a chest at the bottom of the ocean a la Houdini or we present her with a riddle that the greatest genius in world history has been unable to solve, and the consequences of failure are severe. Or we tempt her with a desire she knows is wrong.

Having said all this, I have to confess my fundamental wimpiness. I may write children’s books because there are limits to my making trouble. I create suffering for my MCs, but I doubt I’ll ever write a complete tragedy. I can’t tolerate reading tragedies or seeing them on stage or screen. To my discredit, I’ve stopped reading two beloved novelists for adults, Larry McMurtry and Mary Gordon, because their books make me too sad. I refuse to see or read King Lear (after the first time) for the same reason.

Here are three prompts of misery and suffering:

• Your MC, kind and generous as he is, cannot resist pointing people’s mistakes out to them. Put him in a situation where the consequence of speaking out will be dire, and have him do it anyway. Write the scene and delay getting him out of trouble for at least five pages.

• Last week the journalist Bob Simon died tragically in a car crash. The next day I heard a rebroadcast of a radio interview with him. One of the topics discussed was his forty day imprisonment in Iraq. He said that a hardship he and his companions endured was the constant cold. I confess that my mind wandered at that moment, because I can barely tolerate being cold for five minutes. If I were made to be cold all the time, I don’t know what I’d do. I might confess to anything in exchange for a warm room, a blanket, and a cup of hot chocolate. Give your MC a condition that she cannot abide and then inflict it on her. Write the scene and decide what she does.

• Oh! I can barely write this prompt! If you can’t stand to do it, I’ll understand. Your MC’s parents take in their evil niece when her parents vanish mysteriously. Your MC loves animals and the niece loves to torture them and gets double pleasure out of causing her cousin misery. The family has at least one beloved pet. Write a scene or the entire story from the niece’s POV, and delay the MC’s eventual triumph for at least five pages.

Have fun, and save what you write!

When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters

On July 23, 2014, Lex from Bohemia wrote, I am having a hard time entering into a scene I know will be difficult for my characters. I’m shying away from it because it is what needs to happen, but I’m afraid to do it to my characters. Any thoughts? How do you prepare yourself to write the hard stuff?

J. Garf responded with: I don’t know of a way to prepare necessarily, but there’s a chapter about it called “Suffer!” in Mrs. Levine’s book Writing Magic. In it she talks about how if you’re cruel to your characters, your readers will care more about them and how it’s going to end. I tend to be a pretty mean writer (I’m sure that if my characters were real people they’d punch me in the face for all the stuff I put them through), but I still have the same problem sometimes. Try finding something about your characters that can make them as annoying as any real person. If you focus on that, it might not be as hard to make them suffer.

I like this, J. Garf! Relieve our own suffering by making our characters irritating! We don’t even have to actually give our MC annoying traits in the story; we can just imagine her whining whenever any little thing goes wrong. Then we can snarl happily, “If you think that was bad, take this!” and drop a boulder on her leg.

As some of you know, I’ve been working on a prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, although I’m putting the work aside now that the fall semester of poetry school has started. *SPOILER ALERT!* A few times, I’ve gone back to Two Princesses to refresh my memory of some of the details. The first time I did this, when I reread the end, much to my surprise, I wept!

*SPOILER ALERT!* continues. When I wrote the book, I could have let Meryl live. But that ending seemed flat. I believed the reader would think, Oh, okay. Ho hum, what should I read next? And I didn’t want to completely kill Meryl off, either. Yes, other citizens of Bamarre would benefit from the cure, but Addie would have failed in her personal quest, so I found a middle ground that came to feel inevitable.

*SPOILER ALERT!* still continues. However, at one time the prospects were good (not any more) for a Two Princesses movie, and a script was written. The producer opposed my ending, so it came out completely happily. The screenwriter did a good job, and it worked. But I still prefer my way.

The point here is that we don’t always have to be totally brutal to our characters. We can make them suffer somewhat. The boulder can land on a toe rather than on our MC’s entire leg.

However, sometimes we do have to be totally cruel. Then we may have to bite down hard on a cloth while we write–to keep from screaming. We may have to take frequent breaks, but it must be done.

In the new book, I recently had to make my MC go through something awful, and at the end of the awful thing I piled on something else just as bad. However, it took me a while to sit down to do it. I had to write notes in which I wondered if I could get away with something less terrible. But when I finally faced the music and started typing, I had fun, because the scene has tons of energy, and I could see it so clearly.

So there’s that comfort. Those moments when everything goes horribly wrong for our beloved MC come to vivid life on the page, and our writing is likely to be our best.

Another *SPOILER ALERT!* This one is for Ella Enchanted. I wrote Ella about six and seven years after my parents died when I was in my late thirties. As I wrote about Ella’s feelings after I killed off her mother, I included some of my emotions about my parents’ deaths. That was a relief, to re-experience a very sad time in a gentle way, cushioned by fiction. Oddly, when I gave my grief to Ella, I felt like I had a companion in it. Comforting.

And that’s another strategy: to use our own experiences in the misery that we inflict on our characters. We heighten the realness of what our characters are going through, and we validate our own history.

We can also comfort ourselves. If we’re not writing a tragedy, we can keep in mind the final victory and the lessons learned. We can think of bad things that have happened to us that turned out well in the long run, that we learned from, that strengthened and shaped us.

In addition, we can talk to our characters in our notes and prepare them for what’s to come, the way a doctor or a dentist does when she’s about to inflict a little pain. “You’ll feel a prick,” she says, and we get ready, and it’s much better than being taken by surprise. Moreover, we may learn something about our characters. These conversations won’t appear in our story, but they can help us deal out the bad stuff. Might go something like this:

Lanie, in a minute I’m going to drop a boulder on your leg. It’s going to be extremely painful.

Why would you do this to me? Do you hate me?

No. Actually, I love you. You’re my favorite character.

I’d hate to be a character you dislike. So why are you doing it?

You’ve used strength and agility in the past to accomplish great things, but you haven’t learned other skills that will bring you the success you want most. Being laid up will force you to engage with the people who are important to your goals. You’ll learn that you have to depend on others. The lesson may hurt more than the boulder. Sorry!

Will I be able to walk and run after I recover?

You’ll have a limp forever.

Silence. Then: But I’ll still be able to throw a spear, right? You won’t mess up my arm or my eyesight?

They’ll be fine.

Okay. Do it already.

Here are four prompts:

• Write the conversation with your character about what’s going to happen.

• Rewrite the conversation with your character about what’s going to happen and make your character so irritating that you don’t mind doing it!

• Your MC’s BFF tells him that she never liked him. Write the scene. Be sure to include your MC’s emotions. If you like, continue and write what comes next.

• Your MC’s beloved dog Woof gets the power of speech. He tells your MC that he dislikes her and that everything she does annoys him and always has. At the animal shelter he was hoping to be picked by anybody but her. He’s just too polite to bite. Write the scene. (This may be the worst thing you can do to a character!) Again, include your MC’s feelings, and keep going if you like.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Making Misery

On October 19, 2010, Mysterygirl123 wrote, I’ve started to love and protect my character so, so, so much, but I know something (else) bad needs to happen for the story to work. How do I get over that?

We create a lovable main character – let’s call him Sammy – so our readers will love him, and then we fall in love, too. The love we bring into being is a kind of self-love, not only for us but also for the reader, who lives inside that character. When I even think about making something bad happen to my main, I don’t want to do it, although I know I have to. When I’m reading a novel by someone else and a terrible event occurs, sometimes I have to close the book for a few minutes, or I may go forward very slowly.

Many years ago I read and adored a book for adults called Happy All the Time. As I recall, the author, Laurie Colwin, managed to write an amiable novel, catastrophe-free, that was riveting. So here’s a prompt, right at the beginning of the post: Write a short story, an interesting one, that’s upbeat from start to finish. There has to be conflict, because I don’t think you can have a story without conflict, but make it small; keep the stakes low. Picture books for very young children achieve this regularly, because their audience isn’t ready for Sturm and Drang. But your story needn’t be a picture book. If you try the prompt, I think it will be hard, but it’s just an exercise, so how the story turns out doesn’t matter.

Generally, the size of the bad events you subject Sammy to depends on the genre you’re working in. If you’re writing romantic comedy, the problem may be rejection by the love interest. His life in other respects can be fine. One might even want to tell him to Get Over It, but in this kind of story the scale is just right. In a middle-grade contemporary novel, there may be a bunch of problems – not being popular, flunking social studies, arguing with a younger sister – not serious, but serious in this world.

However, the heroine of a thriller would howl with laughter if she heard that Sammy was worried about popularity. In Jill’s story from last week she just lost her whole family in a civil war!

I hesitate to read a tragic book or a horror story. I’m a wimp. I’ve never read anything by Stephen King, for example, although millions can’t get enough of his books. But I’d have an easier time writing horror than reading it, and the reason is that when I write I have control. I may squirm but I recover. Hmm, should I make Sammy’s best friend die by poison, or should someone push her out a window? At this point I may pause in my typing to cackle gleefully. Whether I choose poison or defenestration should have nothing to do with which is an easier death or which will cause Sammy less pain. The decision should depend on what the plot consequences will be for each option and which is likely to better serve the story.

There are ways to comfort yourself, though. You can tell yourself that Sammy is going to prove himself through his suffering. He’ll learn from it and be better prepared for whatever comes next. You can point out that if nothing bad ever befalls him he’ll wind up a shallow person.

I read an article along these lines last week in The New York Times health and science section. Research was done on the happiness and satisfaction levels of people who’d survived a few terrible situations or many or none at all. The finding as I understood it was that the people who’d gone through a few serious difficulties were the happiest, the most satisfied, the most at peace. The ones who’d undergone the most misery and those who’d endured the least were the unhappiest. The theory was that people who’d been relentlessly traumatized became exhausted and lost hope. I don’t remember why the people who’d endured nothing were dissatisfied, but I do remember why those in the middle group were in such good shape. They’d been tested and discovered they could cope; they’d found out whom they could count on and strategies they could use to pull themselves through – valuable lessons for them and for Sammy, too. Your characters need the trouble you send them, but don’t overdo, because you don’t want to wear them or the reader out.

You may be writing a tragedy. If so, there will be no strengthening or happy ending for Sammy. But readers who like tragedy, who enjoy a good cry, will thank you. And secondary characters may be strengthened.

Writing Magic has a chapter on this topic called “Suffer!”, which got the entire book banned from a middle school district in Illinois. Here’s the paragraph that caused the trouble:

           “Intensify your brutality.  Make sure that we, your readers, know exactly how much your hero is suffering.  Plunge us into his mind and heart.  Tell us what Robin Hood is thinking and feeling when dire things are happening – and even when dire things aren’t happening.  When we read the hero’s thoughts and feelings we are lifted out of ourselves and plunked down inside his skin.  We breathe with him.  We sigh with him.  We see through his eyes, hear through his ears, think his thoughts, feel his emotions.  We are in the story, exactly where you want us to be.  No way we’re going to stop reading then.”

The banning came not long after the shooting at Virginia Tech University that killed thirty-two people. The Illinois school district administration worried that I was inciting children to violent behavior, not merely to – possibly – violent writing. There may be ill effects from violence in books and movies and on television – I’m not an authority – but I’m pretty sure that writing about writing powerful stories never hurt anyone and that bland writing never prevented carnage.

Mystery Girl123’s question came up on my list today, so soon after the shooting in Tucson, a sad time but an opportune one for this topic. Why is it hard to write a good story without suffering, humorous suffering or serious suffering? Why do we seek out entertainment in which people die, in cop shows or medical shows or dramas or even in comedy? I’m not sure, but maybe because we’re preparing for the worst that life can throw at us. When we make Sammy suffer we’re helping our readers, which should stiffen us to do it. We may hurt him, but we’re helping them.

In addition to feeling sad over the recent events, I’ve thought about them fictionally. What world could I put what happened in? How could I reimagine it? Who would my heroine be? Could she at least save the nine-year-old girl who was there?

We’re lucky to be writers and to come to grips with these elemental subjects. Maybe I’m being grandiose, but I believe we work with the nightmares of the world and shape them, even make them beautiful, so that we all become stronger and grow in understanding of – eek, a cliche! – the human condition.

So the prompt is to use what happened in Tucson or any other real-life tragedy in a new story. You can pick a news event or a personal one that hardly anyone knows about. The bad thing that happens to your main character is handed to you by the event you choose. You can soften it a little to make it bearable or to serve the story. Don’t feel you have to stick to the facts. Your characters can be elves or jinns or barnyard animals. You’re looking for the essence. Shape your story so that it reaches an ending that pleases you, not necessarily a happy ending but a satisfying one. If the writing makes you sad, that’s okay.

Still, have fun and save what you write!