Sunday, January 10, 2010

Piecing Together Stories

Jigsaw puzzle season has begun.

Between New Year's Day and Easter each year, I clear off my dining room table and bring out my big jigsaw puzzles. Some will be new puzzles that I picked up at autumn church bazaars. Some will be old friends, like the one I'm working on now, showing a collection of interesting teapots. Most are 500 to 1000 pieces, some bigger. I work on them as I get time--an hour at night when there's nothing on TV, or on a snowy Sunday afternoon, or while I'm waiting for my own tea kettle to boil in the morning.

What's this have to do with writing? I've found that when I spend a little time working on a puzzle each day, I write more. I have more ideas. I see my way out of writer's block faster. I have less trouble seeing the "big picture." The writing is easier and more enjoyable.

Why? Because writing doesn't take place on paper or on a screen. Writing takes place in the mind.

Agatha Christie said in her autobiography that she got more writing done while washing dishes than anywhere else. While her hands did a familiar mundane task, her brain was working out story details. Margaret Maron plays solitaire--not on the computer but with real cards. She has a table near her desk and when she gets stuck on a story, she'll turn away from the screen, lay out a hand of solitaire, and play until her brain nudges all the kinks out of the problem.

In warmer weather, I work in my garden and go for walks. Quite a lot of my novel HANG MY HEAD AND CRY was worked out while taking walks. Physical activity is lovely for us writers. Gets more oxygen up to the brain. Gets us up off our butts. Human beings weren't meant to sit so long.

I've heard some writers say that they make themselves sit at their computers for a certain number of hours each day, whether or not they get much done. I have to wonder if they'd get more done if they got up and did something else for a half hour. Staring at a screen of words can only tell you where your story's been, not where it's going. I'm not saying that the words aren't important. They are. Words are the only thing that will transport the story from the writer's mind to the reader's. The communication must be clear.

But we aren't simple wordsmiths. We have to be storytellers first. Stories evolve in the mind, not on the PC.

Stop reading this and go take a walk. Or put together a puzzle.


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