What’s in a Name?

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Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.

 

As I get older, I seem to be experiencing an odd form of dyslexia (I think) where my brain transposes letters in words so that I read something that’s not there. Only on second glance do the letters rearrange into what they’re supposed to be.

This has been a boon for me in one way: character names. For example, I came across the surname “Murdock,” but my eyes thought they saw “Mudrock,” and after my initial annoyance at myself, I thought, what a great name for a character.

I collect names because few things are as frustrating to a writer as creating a new character and not being able to name them, right? First names are easier to come by; I pop open 1001 Names for Baby and can usually find one that works. But surnames? The tone must be just right.

In my novel Mending Dreams, the main character’s last name is Krajewski [yeah, even now I have to look it up in the book to spell it correctly], and that was intentional. I knew a fellow with that last name, and he used to joke about how people mispronounced it. I wanted the character, Susan, to have willingly kept the name even after she and her husband divorced. Her maiden name was Stafford, and it says volumes about her and her feelings about her ex-husband that she kept his name despite the difficulties it could cause.

My list of unusual surnames fills several pages in my notebook. One I’m trying to find a story for is “Evilsizer.” Meaning no disrespect to real people with this name—and I found several via Google—I think it would be perfect for a scheming couturier. Or maybe someone who is really nice. . .

Strong first and last names are essential to me so I can paint a picture in my own mind of the character before I start writing. Names help me visualize characters—sometimes even more than physical descriptions. Names bring with them associations for me personally that color a character’s nature and behavior.

Take the name “Joan,” for example. What does this name conjure up for you? Joan of Arc? Joan Crawford? Joan Baez? For me, it brings back the memory of a woman named “Joanie,” the utterly helpless wife of a fellow I worked for. This woman would call my boss with every little challenge life presented her. If she locked her keys in the car, her first call wasn’t to Auto Club; it was to her husband. I haven’t found a role for Joan or Joanie in my stories yet, but some day I will.

Names and the way they are used in a story also reveal behavior and sometimes emotion.  The main character in my novel Write My Name on the Sky goes by “Kate,” but when she exasperates her mother, she becomes “Kathryn Ann.” How many of you remember hearing the sound of your first and middle name as a cue that you were in big trouble with a parent? And if they added your last name—run for cover!

Sometimes the way a name is mis-used in a story can affect the outcome, too. For example, my flash fiction piece “What’s in a Name?” answers that question with one word at the end of the narrator’s date with the man of her dreams. If you want to check it out (it’s only 532 words), follow the link on my website: http://bit.ly/2En7TJw

Yes, names are important to writers, and to readers. And not just the human characters. The animals in our stories need particular names, too. After all, none other than the masterful poet T.S. Eliot admonishes us to give thought to the naming of cats:  http://bit.ly/2mZ47xQ

How about you writers: do you struggle as much as I do to come up with suitable character names? And, readers: any favorites among your literary heroes and heroines? Any tips for good name sources?

 

SPEAKING OUT

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Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.

 

SPEAKING OUT

 An interesting fact: most people fear public speaking more than they fear death.

Having recently gone from reclusive novelist to active book promoter, I believe it, and I think writers are especially vulnerable to the terror of getting up in front of an audience and talking about anything, especially our own work.

My first experience in public speaking left an indelible scar, and it wasn’t even about my writing. At the time, I was a supervisor in my employer’s benefits department, and I had to participate in a presentation about certain changes to our plans. I wasn’t particularly nervous until I reached the front of the room. Then my mouth went so dry that my tongue felt like paper; dandelionmy hands trembled; and my previously well-organized thoughts scattered like dandelion fluff. I could tell from the pitying looks on my colleagues’ faces that my talk was a total disaster.

After that debacle, I enrolled in a public speaking class at the local community college, and eventually I got to the point where I could talk in front of a group without showing my nervousness. But I never enjoyed the experience.

In the years that followed, my hard-won public speaking ability eroded—like any skill, you either use it or you lose it.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and my novel Mending Dreams was published: a dream come true. That dream, however, came hand in hand with a nightmare: I had to once again venture into the spotlight, this time to promote my book.  I had to resurrect skills that had never been all that strong in the first place and were now mighty rusty. I needed help.

I found that help in Toastmasters 4 Writers, a delightful group of people who immediately understood my predicament and helped me get back on the public speaking horse. More than that, they made it fun. Since I’d already committed to a launch party for Mendintoastmastersg Dreams, I was able to jump right in and pitch my novel to the group, and their enthusiasm and encouragement carried me through the launch and on into a string of other appearances. Several of the club members even came to the book launch to show their support. The group has become a treasured part of my writing life.

I didn’t realize how far I’d come on my public speaking journey until recently, when I was asked to speak to a group of former co-workers at their monthly “alumni club” meeting. This talk needed to be longer than my usual 10-15 minutes, and the audience included not only people I had worked with during my career, but also some I had worked for. I was slightly intimidated.

However, I practiced the first part of the talk at my Toastmasters 4 Writers meeting and got some incisive feedback so useful that it pulled the speech structure into shape. Armed with that support, I felt ready to take on the (so far) biggest challenge in my book-promoter role.

From my point of view, the talk went really well. I kept the group awake after a carbo-loaded lunch, and they laughed at the parts where I hoped they would. But even more important, while I was talkingnov-2016-alumni-1, I realized I’m not scared anymore, and that awareness was the same kind of high I get when the solution to a thorny story problem suddenly comes clear.

This epiphany didn’t happen by magic. I’ve learned a few things since that disastrous speech many years ago:

  • First and foremost, preparation is crucial. Know your stuff and practice it every chance you get: if not in front of a group, at least to the mirror, the cat, or the dog. If you have the means to video it, do that.
  • Just as important—remember to breathe. Take a DEEP breath and exhale as you’re walking to the lectern, the podium, the front of the room—or simply standing up in place. You don’t want to be gasping for breath, and an oxygen-deprived brain won’t help you recall your talking points.
  • Bring water with you if possible. That dry mouth thing is a killer, and nobody notices if you pause to take an occasional sip of water in between sentences.
  • If your audience is larger than ten to 20, use a microphone. If you’re not strainimicrophoneng to make your words heard, you can focus on more important issues. I used to be afraid of microphones, until I realized how much easier they made things. Take whatever’s available—and if you’re using a hand-held mike, clamp that arm to your side and keep it there; gestures are great, but you don’t want to be waving that mike all over the place.
  • Even if I know the speech cold, I always bring a few notes, usually typed in 20-point Verdana so I can see them easily. This removes the fear of a brain freeze—which happens to even the most accomplished speakers sometimes.
  • If making eye contact is a challenge for you, seek out one or two friendly faces in the audience and return to them again and again for confidence, but focus on others as well. I bet you’ll find that most of them are smiling and looking interested, too.
  • Above all, if you’re speaking to a group interested in you and your writing, remember this: they’re already on your side. They want to like you. Got it?

 

I don’t know that I will ever enjoy public speaking, but thanks to my Toastmasters 4 Writers club, and my loyal friends who show up to support me, an invitation to come out and talk about my work no longer fills me with terror.

Conquering fear is a very empowering act. Maybe next I’ll tackle the Dreaded Blank Page Syndrome. Wish me luck!

The Right Writing Space by Bonnie Schroeder

 
 
Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.
 
 

THE RIGHT WRITING SPACE

Do you believe in magic? Do you have a special space where your creativity blossoms?
When I first started writing fiction, at age ten, I had a vision in mind: me, in a cozy office lit by Tiffany lamps, tapping away on a typewriter (remember, I said I was ten) and producing page after page of flawless prose, destined for publication and awards. Nowhere in my vision did reality intrude.
A few years later, my mom gave me that typewriter: a big black Remington. I thought I was really on my way to becoming A Writer then. Since no office was available, I put the Remington on a metal stand in a corner of my bedroom, taught myself touch typewriting from a book, and churned out story after story about misunderstood adolescents searching for . . . well, I’m not sure what they were seeking except my recycled versions of popular television shows.
Fast forward a few decades. The Remington gave way to a Smith Corona electric. More paper was sacrificed in my quest for publication. Still my writing didn’t catch fire—with me or anyone else. I plodded, and it showed.
In young adulthood, I bought myself a big old oak roll-top desk. Maybe that would help, I thought.
It didn’t. I still have the desk; it’s a lovely piece of furniture, and I sit at it to pay bills, make phone calls, and write shopping lists. But I don’t write stories there. The desk gives me claustrophobia, with its high sweeping sides and cubbyholes that block the light.
Besides, my computer won’t fit on that desk.
Yep, the Smith Corona is long-gone, replaced first by a Dell desktop and eventually by a sleek little laptop. I bought a cheap metal table at Office Depot and it barely holds the laptop, a tiny printer, and all the electric cords and connectors. There’s not much room for paper or anything else.
And I find it really, really hard to sit at that computer table and write fiction. Ideas refuse to come.
It’s not like I need perfect conditions in order to “create.” I wrote the first draft of Mending Dreams on a 14-passenger commuter van (on the days I wasn’t driving it.) And for a while I wrote at a local bookstore. That actually worked pretty well; the soft white noise around me drowned out the omnipresent Critic who lurked behind me at home.
Then the bookstore remodeled. They expanded and added a “café” to replace their tiny little coffee bar. The clientele expanded, too, and with it the white noise turned harsh and distracting.
Finally, I re-thought my work space. Years ago, I shared a fairly large house with a roommate. The house had three bedrooms plus an office: a wood-paneled room with a built-in desk and tons of cupboards and shelves. My roommate generously forfeited the office to me, and she put her metal office-surplus desk in the third bedroom. Ironically, in the luxury of that genuine office space, I had trouble writing. The wood paneling seemed to swallow light. I found myself gravitating to my roommate’s metal desk when she wasn’t around, because there I felt able to breathe.
Maybe I needed the space and the light because what I was doing—making up stories and creating characters, only to plunge them into emotional pain and despair before they could emerge changed for the better—was such a dark art that it had to be practiced in as much daylight as possible.
I finally found my magic spot in my current home: my dining table, a clunky slab of pine on skinny legs, from Ikea no less. But you know what? It works for me. I can see the street in front of my house, but not enough to distract me. I have room for my stacks of folders, my drafts and notes and thesaurus, and they’re all within arm’s reach. I have a couple of little good-luck tchotchkes there too, and the chair is uncomfortable enough to force stretch breaks now and then. The laptop comes and goes, depending on which phase of writing I’m in.
The downside is that, yes, it’s the dining table, and it actually gets used for dining a few times a year. Mostly we hang out at the breakfast bar in the kitchen, but on birthdays and holidays, I have to move all my paraphernalia somewhere else. But that only takes a few minutes, and the trade-off is worth it.
Light and space and breathing room. For me that’s the answer. But what about the rest of you? Do you have a special place that makes you feel safe and creative? Was it what you expected it to be at the beginning of this crazy journey? Please don’t tell me I’m the only one re-purposing my furniture!

 

Another Kind of Journalism by Bonnie Schroeder

Bonnie Schroeder is the author of Mending Dreams as well as published short fiction. Find out more about Bonnie at her website.

 

 

 

 

ANOTHER KIND OF JOURNALISM

I came of age in the 1960’s, the era of Hippies and anti-war protests, the Summer of Love and psychedelia. Dropped out of college to marry an art student. Lived in a loft in Downtown Los Angeles before it became the fashionable Arts District.
A lot of good writing material there—if only I’d taken better notes.
I didn’t start keeping a journal, however, until 1974. Here’s the first entry, from January of that year, scribbled in a blue-vinyl-covered spiral-bound notebook: “This journal was a gift from John, who will soon be my ex-husband.”
I didn’t consciously craft that sentence as a story opening; it just came out that way, from my brain to my fingers to the pen on the page. And at least I was able to write authentically about the ups and downs of a no-fault divorce in California.
I’ve become a devoted journal-writer since then and have lost track of the number of notebooks I’ve filled. It’s become a need, a way to preserve and (maybe) make sense of what goes on in my life.
Those lost years in the 60’s? I can research in libraries and online until the cows come home, but it won’t reveal what I personally was thinking and feeling and experiencing in those days. My journal is a repository for all life’s oddball experiences, good and bad, beautiful and ugly—all waiting to spring to life again.
But journal-writing has another, even more valuable application: it’s great writing practice.
For years I worried that I wasn’t doing my journal writing the “right way,” not filling pages with long, elaborate, lyrical descriptions and all that. Then I realized, that’s not necessarily what it’s all about. Journaling is simply practice in putting words on the page and building up those writing muscles.
Whether you intend to or not, once you keep a journal, you do start to notice the world around you more carefully as you strive to record and interpret your experiences, in as much interesting detail as possible. The challenge presents itself without your even trying.
And remember this: nobody’s looking (unless you want them to) so you free yourself to experiment with phrasing and structure, to invent whatever and whoever you want, to create fiction as well as re-create fact.

There are a ton of how-to books on journaling out there. I have two favorites that are especially relevant to me. When I’m feeling stuck or just need a break from my current project, I sometimes turn to them to jump-start my writing in unexpected directions.

·       The CreativeJournal by Lucia Capacchione
·      The NewDiary by Tristine Rainer
As for all those notebooks stashed away in my garage? I finally wised up and started keeping my journals on the computer, using MS Word (and a password protected file.) This has several advantages: my handwriting is horrid (the only D I ever got in school was in penmanship), I don’t have to make room in the file cabinet for yet another notebook, and the entries are searchable in case I want to look something up quickly. I confess, however, that sometimes only the scratch of the pen on paper will quell the writing itch, so I succumb and then in my OCD fashion retype the entry into the digital file “for future reference.”
I didn’t inventjournaling, of course. A lot of writers, better and more well-known than I (hello, Anaïs Nin) have even published their journals. Some have written novels in journal format (one of my personal favorites is Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.) It seems a fairly common trait among writers, this deep-rooted urge to put words on paper, to capture and describe (or invent) their experiences, even if/when their words aren’t meant to be read by anyone else.
So let me ask: do YOU keep a journal? Does it add value to your writing life? If you haven’t been journaling, did this post make you want to consider it?