Sunday, May 18, 2008


Greetings from the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina! I'm here attending a writers' conference and loving every minute. Speaking of writing, let's get started.

DESCRIPTION. This is the secret to excellent CNF. Here is where we go into our mental attic and blow the dust off our memory chest and open it. Inside are six keys to unlocking your reader’s minds making it easy for you to connect with them. Today we are going to look at five keys - the senses.

I’ll never forget the time I walked into an acquaintance’s home and its smell immediately took me mentally back to my long deceased grandmother’s home. My throat constricted and tears filled my eyes. I struggled to stay composed.

That’s the power of the senses. Have you ever had that experience?

The beauty of using the senses is that it takes very few words to tap into your reader’s memory and from that point the reader will do all the work for you. They will expand the scene in their minds without you having to write another word. The readers do the work for you!

For example:

Sundays at Gramma Kate’s meant southern fried chicken. A crispy crust enveloped the hot, tender meat. I couldn’t wait to bite into a drumstick and taste the savory juice that always managed to escape down my chin.

Did that open up a memory for you? I wrote about taste, but did you smell aroma in the kitchen? Did you hear the sizzle of the chicken in the iron skillet? Did you see your grandmother, mother, someone, cooking in the kitchen?

Look at the scene you wrote last week. Are there places where you can put in some of the senses? Keep it succinct. Don’t use a lot of adjectives. Unlock your memory and write. Remember the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and how things felt on your skin, then make a list.

Next, incorporate the strongest words (the ones that make the most vivid images in your mind) into your piece. I think you will like the effect.

Next week: The Seventh Key

Friday, May 9, 2008


First off, please accept my apologies for not posting this on Thursday. For some reason I couldn't sign into my blogsite. Thanks!

In fiction the writer will always place his character in a scene. Scenes establish the setting, time, whose point of view we are reading about, and the mood. Think about the opening of a movie. What we see clues us in on what is happening.

After the scene, which will always involve either action, drama, or emotional reaction, there will follow a sequel. The sequel is the “rest” after the scene. The character regroups, reflects, or processes what happened in the previous scene. Then the next scene begins.

Mike Klaassen writes, “If plot were an engine, scene and sequel would be the pistons powering the drive shaft.” I think that’s a pretty good word picture.

This also applies to creative nonfiction books or extensive essays. In her book, Fly with the Mourning Dove, my friend, Velda Brotherton, wrote about the struggles of Cassie Smith and her daughter, Edna, to civilize their portions of New Mexico.

When Velda writes of Cassie’s journey to New Mexico, Velda could simply record the fact that Cassie boarded a train and went to New Mexico. Instead, Velda sets the scene that Cassie is in:

The train car swayed and clacked, wheels screeching against the narrow gauge rails that curved from Alamosa to Santa Fe. Chilled by the brisk November air, Cassie gathered her coat close and peered through her glasses at her husband.

See what a difference that makes? The reader is swaying with Cassie in that train. From the scene on the train, comes a sequel, then another scene all through the book.

In short works of creative nonfiction there should be one scene, no more than two. Think “snapshot” instead of movie. Lose all peripheral vision and write the scene as if you are watching it through a paper towel tube.

My son has a feisty Jack Russell terrier named Kricket. She has the most expressive, chocolate-drop eyes. Another funny thing about her is if she is in the front yard and I yell, “Run, Kricket, Run” she will scoot from one side of the yard to the other in a great big figure 8 over and over and over.

To illustrate the importance of holding a scene in place rather than letting it run all over the page, let’s suppose I say to a friend, “You’ve got to see Kricket’s eyes.” But when I call her I say, “Run, Kricket, run!” Will my friend be able to get a good look at her eyes? No. I need to pick Kricket up and hold her still.

That’s what you do with your scene. Focus on what you want your reader to see and write only what is important to your focal point. This anchors your story.

I wrote about an angel pin my mother wore in Chicken Soup for the Nurses’ Soul. A patient who had given up on life was fascinated by its beauty and Mom used it as a way to remind her patient of how important his life was.

The pin served as an anchor that kept me from going into a lot of history, back-story, and unnecessary detail.

One of my favorite pieces of creative nonfiction is Rick Bragg’s “This isn’t the Last Dance.”

His anchor is New Orleans and he doesn’t stray from what he sees in the Quarter. There is a paragraph of back-story, but it doesn’t distract from the scene. It enhances it because it is succinct and relevant to the entire piece.

Last week I asked you to choose a subject for a short piece of work suitable for an anthology. Did you do that? If so, decide on your scene and possible anchors to hold your scene in place. Anchors can be but not limited to:

• An object – for instance, grandma’s quilt, dad’s tools, the old dogwood tree, a garden
• A conversation
• A special occasion or experience – like your brother’s bar mitzvah, your granddaughter’s dedication day
• An epiphany
• A person

Just remember when writing the scene that you do not have the luxury of a lot of words. Focus and write tight!

Next week: The Six Keys that connect your reader to your story.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Creative nonfiction is telling the truth using fiction techniques instead of simply reporting the facts. For example:

Just the facts:

When I was young my grandmother took me to the zoo. I remember seeing segregated water fountains, one for whites and one for coloreds.


Summers spent with my grandmother always meant a trip to the zoo. The aroma of hot buttered popcorn swirled in the air with the scents of roasting peanuts and warm sugar from the cotton candy stand. In the distance spider monkeys hooted and a lion occasionally bellowed. I loved that place. There was one thing that always bothered me, however. The water fountains. On one was stenciled,“whites,” the other, “coloreds.”

I always stared at them and wondered—why?

In the above paragraph no facts were changed. However, the creative example puts the reader at the zoo by setting the scene, using the senses, and internalization.

Over the next few weeks we will take an in depth look at the elements of creative nonfiction. We will begin with setting a scene, followed by description, internalization, dialogue, emotion, and the “ah-ha,” aka the simple lesson or epiphany.

To make this series more beneficial, I recommend you participate by choosing a writing project from one of the many anthologies available with the goal of submission in mind.

I recommend Chicken Soup for the Soul (naturally) ;)

After you have chosen the anthology, think about a personal experience you want to write about. When you finish this series, your creative nonfiction story will be ready to submit.

Next Thursday we will begin with “Setting the Scene.”