Category Archives: Writing Workshop

Your Very Own ‘Christmas Carol’ Writing Workshop

Let’s Go

victorian-christmas-1

Sometimes folks are put off writing because they can’t screw down an idea in their head and then get it down. This means that it sits lurking in the back of their brain for years. They then think of another idea and the same thing happens again. This goes on for years and years and nothing ever actually ever gets written. In this writing workshop, I want to show you how to get a plan for your story, down on paper or a screen, to get you over that. Creative writing lessons are very useful for this.

We are going to do it by using Christmas Carol as a springboard for your own story plan. Don’t worry, you don’t have to read the book if you don’t wish to, you simply have to follow these steps and then you have a clear picture of where you are going with your Christmas story.

Take a genre

“His colour changed though when it came on through the heavy door and passed into the room before his eyes.”

christmas-carol-1

Christmas Carol is a ghost story.  The Victorians loved to sit and listen to ghost stories on Christmas Eve and so you might decide to follow suit and plan a ghost story and maybe even write it in time for Christmas. However, if you don’t care for supernatural tales, I would suggest that you write something that you really enjoy reading or watching on television. Writing a genre that you don’t really love is self-defeating, that is my personal belief anyway and this is something that is born from experience. Writing workshops are meant to be enjoyed.

If you don’t like ghost stories perhaps you could write a:

  • Christmas love story – it doesn’t have to be a straight forward one. Love comes in many forms. It could be about friendship, the love of an animal, the love of a hobby or even the love of an ideal.
  • Christmas murder – whatever happened to the bell ringers? it’s not just people that get murdered at Christmas so do Christmas carols (how do we get rid of that woman with the dreadful shrieking voice from our choir before Christmas Eve?) Who is going to do the dirty deed with the live turkey?
  • Christmas comedy – There is no better time for setting comedy really because it is the main time when people that don’t really get on or have anything in common are locked in a house together for hours on end. This is your Christmas gift and it doesn’t matter how many times it has been done because each family has its own weird ways and conflicts so you can always create something fresh from this.
  • Christmas adventure – this also an ideal time to set an adventure story because a lot of people are in transit because of visiting during this time so it allows for all sorts of unexpected problems to occur.

 

Decision time – Make a note of what genre you are going to put in your plan for your Christmas story.

Take a character

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Dickens cleverly chose to portray a miser as the main character for his Christmas story so that he could use the weather as a metaphor for Scrooge’s personality.

He carried his own low temperature about with him” slyly defines the meanness of this old sod without saying it outright. Let’s use this quotation as a springboard for the character that we are going to create for our own story. We don’t have to use ‘he’, it can just as easily be a ‘she’.  Let’s brainstorm some ways a person can be miserly, remember it doesn’t just have to be with their money.

You could have:

  • A husband or wife that is generous with money but never spends Christmas Day with their spouse.
  • A partner that never ever likes the gifts that are bought for them.
  • A parent that never lets the grandparents see the little ones over the holiday period.
  • A member of the family that won’t let the rest of the clan celebrate the season.

The list is endless. You can use one of these or you can come up with your own miser. If you have another idea for a Christmas character and don’t want to use a miser that is fine too. The main objective is to get you to plan your Christmas story.

  • Once you have chosen what your main character is going to be miserly about, I want you to give a reason for their behaviour. So if, for instance, you’ve chosen ‘a partner that never likes the gifts that are bought for them’, you need to re-write your sentence like this – My character never ever likes the gifts that are bought for them because they are frightened of disappointment.
  • You then need to think about what has happened in the past to make your character like this. It could be that when you character was a kid they had wished more than anything in the world for a train set or a beautiful doll but instead got a book on fly fishing. The disappointment was so overwhelming that they prime themselves that they will never like anything they are given again. This means that they will never be disappointed again.
  • Can you see how this instantly makes your character like a real person because they have got a back story and emotions? It also will make your story more truthful because in fiction all characters need to have motives for what they are doing or for how they are acting.

You can still do this exercise if you haven’t chosen to use a miser, you simply need to give the reason for your main character’s behaviour.

Decision – Make a note of your character’s personality type and why they behave like this.

Take a plot

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Dickens has used a miser in Christmas Carol because it is the opposite of the Christmas message. This means that we automatically have conflict. Conflict is at the heart of any plot.  It is conflict that causes the action and moves the story along. Quite often it is the main character that is in conflict with something else and so tries to find ways to overcome the obstacles that they are up against. However, in Christmas Carol, it is the Christmas message that is trying to change Scrooge’s behaviour and this is what moves the plot along.

Every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” Notice how visual the language is. We are in no doubt that Scrooge not only hates Christmas but he also feels violent towards anyone that actually enjoys it. This is what the Christmas Message has to overcome.

If you followed step one, you may not realise it but you have already developed the step that you need to overcome.

Dickens uses the excellent plot device of three attempts. Scrooge is taken to Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future by three supernatural characters. It is through these visits that he sees how destructive the obsession with money is and changes his miserly ways. Basically, this is a very useful structural device that means that you think of three ways to resolve the main character’s problem or change their thinking.  You have to make sure that your character fails the first two times but resolves the problem on the third attempt.

Decision – Make a note of the three steps that your character is going to take to either change their ways or overcome their problem. Remember to make them fail the first two times.

Take a setting

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“Meanwhile the fog and the darkness thickened so that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages and conduct them on their way.”

For me, setting is as important as character and plot whether I am reading or writing. Not only does it create atmosphere but it also allows the story to become whole as the setting connects to each part of the story.  In other words, the setting is freezing cold and foggy – this echoes Scrooge’s heart. It is a ghost story so we can believe in its truth because of the background. This makes it easy to imagine. I know many people talk about clichés but at the end of the day a cliché is something that is tired from being overused, if you keep your story fresh by offering the true essence of yourself into it, you can use such backgrounds for a ghost story.

By this point, you may already have a setting for your Christmas story but in case you haven’t – here are some to choose from:

  • A luxury cruise liner
  • A log cabin in the woods deep in snow
  • An allotment site
  • A theatre
  • A ruined abbey

 

Decision – Make a note of your chosen setting for your Christmas story.

 

Your springboard sentences

You will have noticed that I have taken a sentence out of Christmas Carol to flavour what I am referring to. It is a good idea now to return to your plan and start concocting your own springboard sentences. The reason for this is that having to write one sentence only for each part of your story will actually make it easier for you to start writing. It is amazing how it takes away the fear of getting stuck in. Creative writing workshops are actually fear fighters.

The other reason for having springboard sentences is that because you only have to do one sentence, you will make sure that it is a good one, one that you can appreciate and this will build your confidence as a writer.  You can either do your springboard sentences now or you can do then with your checklist at the bottom, decide which is more comfortable for you.

 

Checklist

Still using Christmas Carol as an example – this is what your plan should look like for your Christmas story.

Genre – ghost story.

My springboard sentence is “His colour changed though when it came on through the heavy door and passed into the room before his eyes.”

Character – Ebenezer Scrooge is a miser. He loves money more than anything because deep down he is frightened of being poor and alone. I believe this comes from him seeing how utterly wretched the very poor are in Victorian society and he feels that he has to avoid this at all costs.

My springboard sentence is “He carried his own low temperature about with him.”

Plot – The aim of the story is to make Scrooge see that being a miser leaves you alone which in turn makes you the poorest person on earth. In essence, his miserly behaviour means that he will end up in the position that he is terrified of.

1st attempt to change Scrooge – a visit from the ghost of Christmas Past makes him see how he lost the true love of his life because of his love of money.

2nd attempt to change Scrooge – a visit from the ghost of Christmas Present shows him the love that takes place in both the Cratchit’s household and also his nephew’s too. He then sees two starving children, Ignorance and Want.

3rd attempt to change Scrooge – a visit from the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge how people act after his death and it is this behaviour that makes him realise what a dreadfully nasty old sod he had become. Finally, he changes his ways.

Springboard sentence – “Every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

Setting

The setting for Christmas Carol is Victorian London on Christmas Eve.

My springboard sentence is “Meanwhile the fog and the darkness thickened so that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages and conduct them on their way.”

With your plan clear in your head, you will find it much easier to start writing.

I hope this has helped you – happy writing and Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Writing Workshop – Use an 18th Century Curiosity as a SpringBoard For Your Writing

Fancy a jaunt to an 18th century coffee shop with me to do the writing workshop?

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Sometimes folks really want to write but they feel blocked because the ideas are stuck – writing workshops are ideal for getting rid of creative constipation.  Today, I want to get really deep into the recesses of your mind and find what wonderful things are lurking there.  You never know, you may find yourself writing in a genre you have never thought of before.  At the very least, I hope that you will get some new ideas for a story.

Step 1

Take some deep breaths and close your eyes. Now imagine yourself walking down a street with buildings on either side.  Look smart and get under my brolly – folks like to empty their chamber pots out of the window around this time. Yes, I’m sorry the ground is covered in excrement – it will wash off and the pong that you are experiencing will get you ready for the whiff that envelopes you when you get inside.

emptying-chamber-pots

You come to a large building with a gargoyle door knocker on it. As you lift your hand to knock, the door swings open. I want you to imagine yourself taking your shoes off and leaving them outside the door. Your shoes symbolise all the mental footsteps that you have taken in the past. By leaving your shoes on the threshold, you are leaving any writing blocks that you may have behind. I want you to conjure up a picture of yourself waving away any negative thoughts that you may have about yourself as a writer.

We should pay a penny at the door but they can’t see us and we’d only freak them out if we threw our modern money at them. Just for this visit, we’ll go in for free.

Step 2

You have now entered The Coffee House for our writing workshop but as you will have gathered, it’s not the 21st century – it’s the late 17th century and we are in a very fortunate position because no-one is aware of our presence.  Let’s find out what is occurring and see how we can use it.

Curiosities were all the rage

While I offer you a little explanation about some of the things that you are going to experience, try not to breathe in the deep fug of smoke that pervades the air. Don’t worry if you have a coughing fit, they can’t hear us.  The mixture of tobacco fumes and the smoke from the open fires can be overwhelming. However, if we look on the positive side it does take away the stench of the unwashed bodies. It was considered unmanly to keep yourself scrubbed in those days so put this peg on your nose and breathe through your mouth.

In the late 17th century and 18th century, it was all the rage amongst upper class gentlemen to display curiosities. Many of them had their intriguing finds on show in their huge homes so that they would have a talking point about their travels to visitors.  This did not go unnoticed by the entrepreneurial coffee houses. They realised that is was a great way of attracting business.

cabinet-of-curiosities

For instance, James Salter opened a coffee house in 1695 in Chelsea which came to be known as Don Saltero’s. One of his customers was Sir Hans Sloane, the physician whose donation of 50,000 volumes and 3,560 manuscripts formed the nucleus of the British Museum. Sloane travelled vastly and because of this he gained a large collection of curiosities which he donated to Salter to display in his coffee house. Other patrons followed this trend and it attracted people from all over London.  So let’s investigate how these curiosities can springboard our creativity. Be warned – you have to be playful here.

Exhibit one

oliver-cromwells-sword

You come to Oliver Cromwell’s sword.  I want you to mentally pick it up and swipe it through the air. Don’t worry, our actions in the coffee shop can’t harm anyone. Now thrust with it. How does it feel? Has it made you feel empowered or do you quickly drop it because the veil of death has covered you? Make a note of your feelings.

Now we need a springboard to launch us into a writing piece. Don’t worry if you haven’t got one because you can use mine if you wish. Also, it doesn’t have to be Oliver Cromwell’s sword, it can be another historical person of your choice.

Springboard one

A children’s story – After a visit to the museum to see the sword, the ghost of Oliver Cromwell turns up in the main child character’s bedroom. He wants his sword back and won’t go away until the main character gets it for him out of the museum. We could see some real action for 8 – 12 year olds there.

A historical one – if you combined some research with creative licence here you could write a short story about someone that died by Oliver Cromwell’s sword.

A comic piece – you could run a spoof here with Old Ironside’s sword being like King Arthur’s ‘Sword in the Stone’. Let’s face it, the old warty faced puritan could definitely take some comedic stick.

Exhibit two

maids-hat

If you weren’t inspired there, we can move on.  Here we come to ‘Pontius Pilate’s Wife’s Chambermaid’s Sister’s Hat.’ Close your mouth, you will breath in too much smoke. Yes, you’ve guessed it, a lot of the curiosities on display in the 18th century coffee house were fakes. However, the fact that someone from that period took the time to make something like that up means that it is indeed inspired. For a start, I don’t believe that female servants or slaves in the Roman period had hats, if they had head gear at all it would have been a piece of cloth. In fact, hats such as this one on display had not even been invented. Therefore, I think that we have to use a fake 18th century hat as our springboard.

Springboard two

A comedy piece – an 18th century pseudo nobleman is trying to relieve a fop of his fortune by trying to convince him that the hat belonged to Pontius Pilate and has magical powers. We’ll drop the chambermaid’s sister bit, it sounds less impressive to our fop and it adds to the comedy that Pilate would wear such a hat.

 

Exhibit three

cross

As we move onto the next item, we come to realise that this also has got a bit of a dodgy provenance. It’s a piece of wood that is supposed to be from the true cross that crucified Jesus. They seem to like their biblical pieces. I can see the attraction and it was also harder to prove in those days that the piece was fake.

Try to ignore all the noise. Coffee houses in those days just got louder and louder as all the men tried to out shout each other. Think of politicians and you get the picture.

Springboard three

A crime story  – If we pretend that this is the real thing then we could have a crime story – some people would probably kill to get their hands on an item like that.

Exhibit four

pin-cushion

I don’t know if this is my 21st century mind but I would also question the next item unless I saw its provenance.  It’s Mary, Queen of Scot’s pincushion.  We think that the world is full of cons now but it was rife back in the 18th century too.

Springboard four

A historical thriller with romance thrown in – Mary, Queen of Scots is truly a larger than life character. You could write a murder, thriller or love story around her supposed pincushion. If you fancy this as a springboard, you can let Mary cut the pincushion open, hide something very important and small in it and then get her trusted lady of the chamber sew it back up. It would be a good idea to set the story through her lady of the chamber’s eyes. If she has to deliver the pin cushion to one of Mary’s trusted allies, you would have a historical thriller but could weave romance into it as a sub plot. Obviously, if it was a short story you would have to choose one or the other.

Exhibit five

old-key

We now come to our last piece and although it was a difficult choice, the prize truly has to go to the key which was once used by Adam to lock and unlock the Garden of Eden. Yes, these people had true chutzpah. However, I have to say that for creative writing purposes it does actually have mileage.

Springboard 5

A fantasy piece – There is great room here to write a fantasy piece that is a metaphor for the modern day. How about, instead of there only being Adam and Eve on earth, only Adam and Eve can get into the Garden of Eden and there are lots of people in a barren land outside that want to get into the fruitful garden.  Will Adam and Eve let others in or will they keep the biblical arcadia for themselves? If you fancy this, go for it.

Step three

It’s time to leave. Swoop up your ideas, whatever you do, don’t leave them in the coffee shop. Let’s take a final look around – they are all too busy competing to be the best and nosiest to notice that they have had ghosts of the future looking at their curiosities.

coffee-house-again

Out through the front door, find your shoes, put them on but leave your past negative thoughts about your writing in the filth strewn street. Now go and take your thoughts and don’t judge them simply write down everything that comes into your head.

Congratulations – you have made a start on a new piece. Happy writing.  

 

 

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Writing Workshop – 5 Great Ways To Place A Twist On Putting Your Character In A Coffee House

charles-dickens-for-writing-blog-post

When people ask what can I write about, it is often answered by ‘write what you know’. This is good advice but I would like to offer you a twist on that. Think about the things that you do in your own life and then let your character do them but in a different time. It means that you will have to do some research but this always helps with ideas and the flavour of the piece that you are writing.

One – Find an atmospheric setting

Let me give you an example. You probably go to a coffee house and could easily set a story there so how about doing that but setting it in the past? Wouldn’t this make your story stand out that bit more?

old-london-coffee-house

Let’s explore the situation. For a start, it is easy to imagine that coffee houses are something invented by us modern folks but that is not true. The reality is that if you pop down St Michael’s Alley which is a passage in London you will find a blue plaque on the wall of a wine house. The plaque states that the original London coffee house stood on that site and opened in 1652.  Just from that we have a place and a time that could send your mind buzzing with ideas.

Springboard 1 – A story set in 1652 in St Michael’s Passage, London when a new fangled coffee house is just opening. Imagine how the owner must feel.

Two – Find some larger than life characters

samuel-johnson

Many coffee houses sprang up in the 17th and 18th century and they were extremely important because it was where men met to do business and share ideas. We know from records that many men who were involved with the arts and scientific enquiry frequented coffee houses. Wren, Dryden, Reynolds, Johnson, Swift, Gainsborough, Garrick and Hogarth, to name but a few, were regularly seen discoursing over their passions in coffee houses. There we have a wonderful set of characters. It only takes a little bit of research and some poetic licence and you have a story about one of them.

Springboard 2 – A story about Wren, Dryden, Reynolds, Johnson, Swift, Gainsborough, Garrick or Hogarth getting into a troublesome situation in a coffee house.

Three – Create some domestic conflict

mary-w-the-rights-if-woman

In fact, it is believed that many insurance companies and other financial businesses started as a result of deep debates in coffee houses. It has been suggested that men spent so much time in coffee houses that they were often more associated with their regular haunt than where they actually lived.  If men were at the coffee house more than at home this could cause marital rifts – this is a good plot line.  If you want to use an idea following this line, I have actually written about this on the post ‘Trouble in the Coffee House – Get Writing.’

Springboard 3 – A man would rather spend more time at the coffee house than at a home with his wife.

Four – Have a coffee house trail

outside-a-coffee-house

It wasn’t just the capital that boasted coffee houses either. Oxford and Cambridge both had coffee houses and Bristol is recorded as having 4 by 1666. There was at least one in York by 1669 and others in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin. Exeter, Bath, Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Chester, Preston and Warwick also had coffee houses. This means that you don’t have to set your story in the capital, you have a wealth of settings to choose from. In fact, you could use coffee houses as a trail.

Springboard 4 – A man is on a secret mission that leads him around various coffee houses until he ends up in a coffee house in York about 1700. Who is he meeting there?

Five – Use details from your research to cannon ball your plot

coffee-house-sign

However, it was London, because of the business which was carried out in them, which had the most coffee houses and it is said that by 1714, there were at least 1,000 coffee houses there then. The houses were usually identified by a hanging sign; however, in 1762 all such signs, except at public houses, were banned.  It seems their creaking at night stopped folks from sleeping. Furthermore, if you were trotting along on a horse on a windy day, you could be knocked right off your mount by one of those blasted signs. This actually happened. Basically, the signs had become a menace to society and that is why they had to go. We can use details like this both to add authenticity to our story and to amuse our readers.

Springboard 5 – A man is knocked off his horse by a coffee house sign and a comely woman helps him – is she as kind and good as she seems to be or does she have ulterior motives?

Inspiration is everywhere – I hope that I have offered you some today. Happy writing.

 

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Filed under Creative Writing, History, Inspiration and Us, Writing Workshop