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#NaNoWriMo Prep: Take Your Characters on a Road Trip | #amwriting #NaNo2018

Monday, October 29, 2018

Instead of filling out charts and questionnaires and mindmaps and GMC lists, there are many other ways to figure out things about our characters (and, by extension, our stories) that may actually be more creatively fulfilling. One of the things I’m a big proponent of is putting characters in a mundane situation and seeing what happens. And this can happen before the writing begins or when that “stuck” feeling happens in the middle of writing the story.

When I’m writing a contemporary setting, I send the characters to the grocery store to see what they buy, how they go about it (up and down each aisle? with or without a list? impulse buyer?), and whom they might run into. But there’s an even better exercise that I did this weekend that would work for pretty much every genre—and that’s taking the characters on a road trip. There are actually two different ways to do this, and I recommend both of them!

Taking a Literal Road Trip

If you’re like me, sometimes it gets really hard to be creative when you’re staring at the same four walls in the same house for hour after hour. Autumn is my favorite season, and in my area (northern Middle Tennessee), it’s gray and/or rainy a lot. So when I heard that we were supposed to have a rare sunny day yesterday, I knew I had to get out and make the most of it. I’m about a 45-minute drive from Paris Landing State Park and the Land Between the Lakes area, so it seemed like the perfect place to go to enjoy a beautiful fall day. So I loaded the dog up in the car (which isn’t hard—she only weighs 13.5 lbs) and took a drive.

But I didn’t want to lose any time preparing for NaNo, either. So while listening to my characters’ music, I purposely set out to brainstorm about my characters. I knew I’d be stopping frequently enough (to take photos) that if I had any great ideas, I’d have the opportunity to jot them down (mostly using voice notes) on the phone.

Because my characters are coming into this romance story as two people who grew up together and have dated each other off and on their entire teen/adult lives, there’s a lot of history between them that I don’t know yet. Exactly how many times have they dated, what did that entail, how long did it last, how did they get together, how did they break up, etc.? What lingering artifacts/mementos do each of them still have? What are the differences in how each of them remember things that happened in their relationship? Did they go to prom together? Homecoming? And so on. I didn’t come up with a whole lot of definitive answers, but now that I’m thinking along those lines, I’m sure the characters will reveal answers to me once I start writing.

They did, however, reveal one very important thing to me—about which I won’t go into detail, but do have a teaser image:

Taking a Figurative Road Trip

If you don’t have the time or opportunity (or desire) to drive out into the country for a couple of hours, then send your characters out on the road. There’s a reason why there are so many scenes in books and TV/movies that involve the characters being stuck together in a car, carriage, escape pod, scary forest, etc.—because it creates a setup for conflict to happen. The rebooted Hawaii Five-0 TV show even coined a term for the many (many) scenes featuring Danny and Steve in this exact situation: carguments.

Sending your character(s) on a road trip immediately creates a bunch of questions to write the answers to:

  • What’s the mode of transportation? (car, carriage, by foot, etc.)
  • Who’s traveling with the character? (friend, foe, romantic interest, enemy, strangers?)
  • Do they have a specific destination in mind?
  • Do they have a deadline to get where they’re going?
  • Do they know how to get where they’re going?
  • How long will it take to get there?
  • Does this trip put the character in a good mood, bad mood, or are they neutral about it?
  • What could go wrong to send this road trip off track?
  • What sounds do they hear (are they listening to music? wagon wheels rattling? beeping of electronic sensors?)
  • Go into all five senses—sight, smell, sound, touch, taste—yes, even taste!
  • And so on…

This is a really good exercise for a writing marathon such as NaNoWriMo, because it’s something you can do if you sit down for your designated writing time but can’t think of anything to write. Sending your characters on a road trip gives you a kickstart to a scene that, even if you don’t end up using it in your final product, should teach you something about your character.

Assignment: If you don’t take an actual road trip, sit down and imagine your characters on a road trip. What can you learn about them that way?

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