Tag Archives: writing

Lorena Hickok, Journalist

 

LovingEleanor1

by Story Circle Founder and President, Susan Wittig Albert

Biographical fiction, which toes a delicate line between acknowledged fact and imagined truth, creates its own special research and writing demands. And sometimes, extraordinary challenges.

For Loving Eleanor—the story of Lorena Hickok’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt —I started in the usual place: by reading everything I could find about Lorena (Hick, she was called). As it turned out, there wasn’t much readily accessible material, except for brief introductions to her Depression-era investigative reports to Harry Hopkins, a woefully inadequate biography published in 1980 by Doris Faber, and Rodger Streitmatter’s notes in Empty Without You, his collection of letters written by Hick and Eleanor. I had a lot of digging to do.

Hick was a woman who went through life with her elbows out. She began working as a journalist at the Battle Creek Journal in 1913 when she was just 19. She had a gift for telling a taut, well-honed story, and her abilities were quickly recognized. Two years later, she moved to the Milwaukee Sentinel, briefly to the New York Tribune, then (in 1918), to the Minneapolis Tribune, where she earned her stripes as a reporter, feature writer, and Sunday editor. In an unusual move, her editor, Tom Dillon, assigned her to the sports desk. Her breezy, conversational style was new to sports journalism, and as a female sportswriter, her work was groundbreaking.

In 1927, at the end of a failed love affair, Hick went back to New York, first to the tabloid Mirror and then to the Associated Press. She was the first woman to be hired in the flagship New York bureau. Fearless and energetic, she quickly earned a by-line. In her first year at the AP, she covered the sinking of the steamship Vestris, which gave her another first: she was the first woman to have a bylined front page story in the New York Times. As an investigative reporter, she covered politics (FDR’s election as New York governor in 1928); political corruption (the downfall of New York mayor Jimmy Walker and the hugely complicated trial of banker Charles E. Mitchell); and sensational crime (the Lindbergh baby kidnapping). I’ve found her bylined stories in hundreds of newspapers across the country, and almost every story is a standout.

In 1933, at the top of her game, Hick left the AP. It was an anguished decision she felt she was forced to make. Her deepening personal (and very intimate) friendship with the new First Lady made it impossible for her to write objectively about the Roosevelt administration. She believed that she was ethically compromised, and she did the honest–but very painful–thing. She went to work for Harry Hopkins, the director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. For the next two years, she traveled across the country, investigating government-sponsored relief programs and reporting on Depression-era conditions in 32 states. Her nearly 80 confidential FERA reports, written in bleak hotel rooms late at night, provide us with vivid, no-holds-barred descriptions of the appalling—and yet heroic—plight of millions of destitute Americans. She felt their anguish. Even now, reading her reports, we can feel it, too.

When Hick left FERA in 1936, it was the end of her work as an investigative journalist–but not the end of her writing career. In another post, we’ll take a look at her 15-year career as a biographer.

 

Lorena Hickok, Biographer

This is Part 2 of a two-part series of posts about Lorena Hickok, the journalist whose friendship helped to put Eleanor Roosevelt into the media spotlight–and the central character in my novel, Loving EleanorPart 1 is about Hick’s work as a journalist. But she didn’t just write newspaper stories. After she retired from political life in 1945, she wrote biographies. This post is a quick sketch of that part of her writing career.

In 1952, at the suggestion of Eleanor’s literary agent, Nannine Joseph, Hick undertook the writing of profiles of women in political life–the first book of its kind. Called Ladies of Courage, it was an inspiring account of women’s struggle for recognition in American public and political life in the thirty-five years since women had gained the vote. ER lent the luster of her name to the book and Tommy typed the manuscript, but Hick spent the better part of two years on the research—including extensive interviews with her subjects—and the writing. Before she submitted the finished manuscript, she shared it with ER, who wrote: At last tonight I’ve finished reading your material [for Ladies of Courage] and it is simply swell I think. Much more interesting than I thought it could possibly be made.

The book, which included profiles of Frances Perkins, Clare Boothe Luce, Helen Gahagan Douglas, and Oveta Culp Hobby, was published in 1954. Thanks to ER’s name recognition, it received extensive newspaper attention. Hick traveled around the country, speaking to women’s groups about the book and about the challenges women faced in political life. In recognition of her authorship, ER assigned her the royalties, which cumulatively amounted to about $4,000 (about $35,000 in 2015).

As a journalist, Hick had always been deeply interested in people who had stories, who met extraordinary challenges. In the profiles of the Ladies of Courage, Hick had found a narrative voice that enabled her to tell these stories. After that book was published, she began work on what would be three biographies for young readers in Grosset & Dunlap’s much-heralded Signature Books series: The Story of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1956), The Story of Helen Keller (1958), and The Story of Eleanor Roosevelt (1959). For Scholastic, Hick also wrote a biography of FDR, this one focusing on his early political life: The Road to the White House: FDR, The Pre-Presidential Years (1962).

Of the four books for young readers, Hick’s biography of Helen Keller was the most successful. It was adopted by several school-affiliated book clubs, and sales were boosted even further by the 1957 teleplay by William Gibson, The Miracle Worker, followed by the Broadway play and the 1962 film of the starring Patty Duke. The royalties would help to support Hick for the rest of her life.

When Hick was doing the research for the Keller biography, she became deeply interested in Keller’s teacher, and went on to write a biography for older teens called The Touch of Magic: The Story of Helen Keller’s Great Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy. The book was published by Dodd, Mead in 1961. Hick felt a special admiration for Macy, who had given Helen Keller her voice. “No author ever finished a book with greater regret,” she wrote in her foreword. “During the months I worked on this book she became as real to me as a living person . . . I miss her.” I can’t help wondering if Hick saw something of herself in Anne Sullivan Macy. Perhaps Hick thought that the empowering help she gave Eleanor—encouraging her to do the press conferences, supporting her early efforts as a writer, urging her to write her newspaper column—was something like the help that Teacher (Helen Keller’s name for Macy) provided her student. Teacher gave Helen her voice and helped to create a place for her in the world. It’s no exaggeration to say that Hick gave Eleanorher voice, as well.

While Hick was working on the Macy biography, she struck up a professional friendship with Allen Klots, her editor at Dodd, Mead. When The Touch of Magic was finished, Hick proposed to Klots the project that became Eleanor Roosevelt: Reluctant First Lady, the book for which Hick is probably best known. It sketches out their most intense friendship without, of course, giving clues to its intimacy. Finished in 1961, Reluctant First Lady was published just prior to ER’s death. it sold well and the royalties from that and her other projects provided Hick with something approaching a comfortable living.

Throughout her adult life, Hick was severely diabetic, and the disease began to curtail her professional activities in the late 1930s. When she finished Reluctant First Lady, she began a biography of labor leader Walter Reuther (also for Dodd, Mead), but her failing eyesight compelled her to stop not long before her death in 1968. That project was completed by Jean Gould and published under the title Walter Reuther: Labor’s Rugged Individualist—with Hick’s name on the cover, as well as Gould’s. That book brought to eight the number of biographies Hick produced in the last fifteen years of her life.

And speaking of biographies: a new dual biography of Hick and Eleanor, by Susan Quinn, will be out in September. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m anxious to read it. I hope Quinn will pay attention to Hick as a writer, as well as the woman who helped to give Eleanor Roosevelt her voice. Hick’s first biographer, Doris Faber, failed her. She deserves a biographer who understands and pays attention to her professional work, as well as her empowering friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Want to read more about Susan’s journey in writing Loving Eleanor? Check out The Secret Story Behind Loving Eleanor.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Susan Wittig Albert is a best-selling novelist, memoirist, and author of both adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. She lives on a 31-acre Texas Hill Country homestead with her husband and frequent coauthor, Bill Albert. She founded The Story Circle Network in 1997. Her website:www.susanalbert.com

The Journey from Aerospace Writer to Creative Writer

big sur

by Madeline Sharples

I worked as a writer/editor and proposal manager in the aerospace business for a total of twenty-eight years. I had a reputation for being a good writer so I got some of the plum jobs – working on newsletters, websites, award applications, and even ghostwriting letters for top managers, but the writing style for any of those tasks was nothing near creative.

However, I learned a lot about writing and revision while working on deadline-oriented, and super stressful proposals. We wrote a little, we edited, we reviewed, and then we revised. And we’d repeat that sequence many times throughout a typical three-month proposal effort. I also taught proposal teams how to write their text, emphasizing the importance of keeping their fingers moving until the writing is finished, then stepping away from their prose for a bit before editing it. I think that advice works for all kinds of writers. If you don’t have another person’s eyes to look at it and edit it for you, leave it be for a while, make yourself a hard copy, take out a red pen, and move to another location in your house. It will be like having a fresh pair of eyes looking at your work.

All that is practical advice. But the actual difference in writing to address technical requirements and writing a creative story or poem or essay is harder to address.

I think the main requirement – at least for me – is that I wanted to make the transition. I had wanted to be a writer since I was in grade school. I studied journalism in high school and wrote feature articles for the high school newspaper. Then I took all the course work toward a degree in journalism in college though I ended up with a degree in English because I transferred schools just before my senior year (that’s a story all its own). So, when I got out of college I wanted in the worst way to write for a magazine or newspaper. After a few attempts I turned to the aerospace industry. I got a positive response after one call and asked, “Do you ever hire people with a degree in English?” Easy, right? But hard on my dream to become a “real” writer.

And though I never gave up on that dream, for the next several decades I took creative detours. I learned to draw and paint, I learned to sew, I made needlepoint pillows, I quilted and gardened. And, I co-authored a non-fiction book, Blue Collar Women: – a little less technical than my work in aerospace. Anything to keep my hand in creativity, until finally I could stand it no longer.

I took a workshop called, “Writing about Our Lives” at Esalen in Big Sur, California in the late 1990s. It was there that I wrote about my misgivings about ever being able to make the transition. Here’s what I wrote: “My writing is so factual, so plain, so devoid of descriptors, feelings, and imagination.” Later I learned that was okay. Once I discovered a private instructor in Los Angeles who taught me to “write like you talk,” I knew I was on my way.

Madeline Sharples1During her 30-year professional career, Madeline Sharples worked as a technical writer/editor and proposal manager in the aerospace business and wrote grant proposals in the nonprofit arena. She started to fulfill her dream to work as a creative writer in the last few years. Her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, was released in a hardback edition in 2011 and released in paperback and eBook editions by Dream of Things in 2012. 

She also co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press, 1994), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1,2, and 3, and wrote the poems for two photography books, The Emerging Goddess and Intimacy (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her poems appear online and in print magazines, several appear in the Story Circle Network True Words series. The 2016 Porter Gulch Review and the Yellow Chair Review’s 2016 ITWOW (In the Words of Womyn) anthology will publish two new poems this year.

Madeline’s articles appear regularly at the Naturally Savvy and Aging Bodies websites. She also posts at her blogs, Choices and is currently writing a novel. In addition, she produced a CD of her son’s music called Paul Sharples at the Piano, as a fundraiser to help erase the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide. It was released on the fifthteenth anniversary of his death in September 2014.

Madeline studied journalism in high school, wrote for the high school newspaper, studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin, and received a B.A. degree in English from the University of California at Los Angeles.

 

Literary Citizenship Tips

By Jude Walsh Whelley

Judeandfriends

Writing can be a solitary occupation. At the heart of the matter, it is sitting down alone, putting words on the page, crafting them carefully, and revising until ready to release the words into the world. How does one prepare the world to receive these words?

Today’s writing universe has most of us doing our own platform building and marketing and for that we rely on help from fellow writers and readers. I like to think of my obligation to help another writer as more a priviledge than a duty. The best term I have heard for this kind of help is literary citizenship. In today’s post I am going to suggest fifteen ways to practice being a good literary citizen.

1. Buy books! This can be a print version, or Kindle, or book on tape, but by buying that book you are providing income for a writer.

2. If you enjoyed a book, take a few minutes and write a review. The more a book is reviewed, the better!

3. If you blog, offer to host an author when her new book is published.

4. If you read a blog post where an author is interviewed or her book discussed, write a comment. Nothing thrills a writer more than having someone want to talk about her work.

 5. If you belong to a book club, recommend your writer friend’s book for club reading and discussion. Most of the authors I know love to talk with book club groups and with skype or google chat, this can easily be arranged.

 6. Go to book signings. The author usually reads from her work and often shares information about how she got the idea, how it evolved, her publishing journey, and her life as a writer. This is also a great way to find out what her next book is about.

 7. Post on Facebook any  upcoming publications, book signings, author updates.

 8. Also on facebook, “like” all author pages.

 9. If a writer publishes links to her blog posts, share them.

 10. Twitter is our new friend! I am just learning how to manage twitter posts with tweet deck and know there are other ways of managing it but bottom line… tweet and retweet if you can.

 11. Volunteer to be a beta reader. A beta reader is someone who is not familiar with the manuscript and will read the entire document and respond in the manner the writer requests. This is a huge time committment, so it truly is a gift to the writer.

 12. Be an encourager! If someone tentatively mentions that she might like to write, encourage her to try. If a person is blocked, remind her that this too shall pass and the words will again flow. When a rejection is recieved, be the soft place for that writer to land until the disappointment passes and the urge to write and try again returns.

 13. Join writing organizations like the Story Circle Network (www.storycircle.org) or National Association of Memoir Writers (www.namw.org). It is the easiest way to find your tribe and many offer deep online connection possibilities.

 14. Attend writing workshops. I love the annual Antioch Writers’ Workshop (www.antiochwritersworkshop.com) in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I can reccomend Story Circle Network’s Stories From the Heart (www.storycircle.org/conference/) held in Austin, Texas every other year. Eric Maisel (www.ericmsisel.com) offers Deep Writing Workshops all over the world. Just google writing workshops and your city and you will be amazed by the possibilities.

 15. Take writing craft classes! This is great self care for a writer but is also a fast track to building your writing community. You will find kindred spirits and you can support one another as you learn. As many writers supplement their income by offering classes you are again helping a writer make a living.

 These are just my thoughts, please share any suggestions you have!

Jude Walsh Whelley writes fiction, memoir, and poetry. She lives in Dayton, Ohio. This post was previously published on her blog, Writing Now.

Why We Must Tell Our Stories

a-jernberg-swedish-peasant-woman-writing-with-a-quill

by Susan Wittig Albert

As women, we have always found ourselves in story. From the beginning of human existence, while we planted and harvested and prepared food, spun thread and wove cloth, tended our babies and cared for our elderly parents, we told one another the stories of our lives, and the lives of our grandmothers and mothers and daughters and granddaughters. Our shared stories became a many-voiced chorus singing the same song: the story-song of women at work and women at play, women loving and living, women birthing, women dying. Those stories were full of pain because human lives have always been like that. They were full of joy because lives are like that, too. Pain and joy were woven like golden threads through the full, rich, round stories of women’s lives, passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter through the generations, so that the experiences of women would not be forgotten.

Of course, the urge to shape our lives in story is not just a woman’s urge. As women remembered themselves in story, so did men, telling tales in which men worked and played and fought and died, honorably and dishonorably; tales in which men governed, wisely and unwisely; tales in which men loved women, fathered children, revered parents.

Then men learned to write and wrote these stories down so that they could share their experiences with other men and pass their knowledge of themselves from generation to generation. When writing became printing, these stories, oral and written, were gathered into books, so that men’s triumphs and tragedies would be remembered.

medieval-woman-writing-detail-150x150But what happened to women’s stories when men learned to write? In one sense, nothing happened. Women still remembered themselves in story as they worked, played, and rested, and those stories still echoed through the generations, from heart to heart. But through the centuries of recorded history, far fewer women than men were initiated into the mysteries of writing, and those who did learn to write did not often write about the lives of women. Because ordinary women couldn’t write, their stories of ordinary life were lost or misremembered or changed. It was the same cycle of decay we find elsewhere in the oral tradition, in primitive tribes or among the enslaved in assimilated societies, overwhelmed by the rush to technology. Because the stories weren’t valued, they weren’t written. And because they weren’t written, they weren’t valued. They were just . . . well, women’s stories. Tittle-tattle. Old wives’ tales. Idle gossip, created to pass the empty hours when men weren’t around. Not worth writing down. Not worth much in the coin of the realm.

This is not to say, of course, that women’s stories vanished. A few women could write, but the stories they preserved were mostly the stories men taught them, or wanted them to write. Women appeared (often in starring roles) as characters in men’s stories, first orally, then in writing, then in print, and much later in movies and television. But these were (and are) women’s lives seen through the eyes of the male storyteller. Men told what they knew about women, what they had been taught, what other men expected to hear. That Adam was evicted from Paradise because he listened to Eve. That women are unclean (and dangerously mad) during their menstrual periods. That women can’t participate in business or government because they have inferior intellects. And until women began to have unmediated access to the printed page, we had no way of crying out, “Wait! These are not our bodies, or our minds, or our lives! They are only men’s imaginings of us!”

So men’s stories about women were accepted, uncorrected and unchallenged, as true stories, and everybody was fooled. Including women. For writing is such a persuasive medium that most of us believed that we were (or ought to be) like the women in men’s stories. We should wait patiently at home, while men discover new continents. We should love men, while men love ideas. We should give birth to children (preferably male children) while men give birth to writing and the electric light and the airplane and the bomb. Of course, there were many women who did not want to wait for men, or love men, or give birth to men’s children, but their refusals were scarcely heard and rarely heeded. Theirs were the deviant voices, singular, sinister, frightening. For many women, it was necessary (and easier) to be agreeable, to be what they were expected to be—at least on the surface.

But underneath the facade of conformable docility, beneath the appearance of a life shaped by men’s stories of how women ought to think and act, there has always echoed a different story, a true story. My story. Your story. Our stories, our real, true, different lives.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Susan Wittig Albert, founder and current president of Story Circle Network, is the author of several books including the long running China Bayles mystery series, two nonfiction books, and two memoirs. She currently blogs at Lifescapes

Why Journal? A Look at the Positive Effects of Journaling

Guest post by Story Circle Member B. Lynn Goodwin

Blankbook1

How can a journal help a writer? Journaling allows writers to vent, process, explore, discover, and rejoice. It offers a safe place to explore, express oneself, dig deeper, analyze, and discover truths.

Over the past ten years my journals have been

A record

A place to spew

A place to delve and see where the pen takes me

A place to hone my thoughts

A place to sharpen my craft, and figure out what I really mean to say

A place to make discoveries

A place to find story ideas

A place to find resolution or the next step on my journey

A place to make lists and cross off what I accomplish

A place to look back on what was once important and gain perspective

A place to record my reflections

A place to hone my character’s voices

A place to explore my character’s secret thoughts and private lives

I write my journals in longhand. I like the smooth flow of a pen on paper. I like the progress of moving from left to right, line after line, traveling down one page and on to the next. The rhythm of longhand soothes me.

In addition to the fact that university studies have shown that writing saves lives, here are a few other reasons to journal:

I write to share

I write a pull out secrets locked place in my brain

I write to see what happens if I release my private truths

I write to move to a new level of comprehension or analysis

I write to tweak life and imagine happy endings

I write to tweak life and imagine worst-case scenarios

I write gratitude lists to feel better

Try some of my favorite sentence starts and see what happens:

Today I feel…

Today I believe…

Today I want…

Inside of me…

No one knows I worry about…

I am…

I can barely remember…

I love the smell of…

If I ever talk in my sleep…

What if…

Though it does not always seem like it, my journals have the power to get me out of my head and into action. They are a safe place to heal. Healing does not wipe out old problems or past actions. It washes over them, helping you cope, change your attitude, and move forward.

Heal your spirit and discover the spirits of your characters by writing in a journal.

BlynnPB.Lynn Goodwin is the owner of Writer Advice, http://www.writeradvice.com and the author of You Want Me to Do What? Journaling for Caregivers, which contains encouragement, instructions, and over 200 sentence starts to help you journal any time, even if writer’s block rises up like a granite wall in front of you. She’s also the author of Talent (Eternal Press), which will be out November 1, 2015. 

She teaches through Story Circle Network, welcomes all kinds of editing clients, continues to journal frequently, and is hard at work on a YA novel. Talent Cover

Daddy Care: Still Here

Pop and Janet

Photo by Diana McGraw. Text by Janet Grace Riehl

If we’re not eyeball to eyeball, my friends ask me “Where are you?” rather than “How are you?” Midst the back-and-forth whirl often I’m not really sure.  But this morning my buckwheat pillow under my head crunches the answer.  I’m in my bed in the city—in the home I made for myself. My father is in his bed in the country—in the home he’s lived in all his life with time out to almost get killed in World War II. Two generations before him and three generations after him have lived on this land. Soon, later today, I’ll travel across the Mississippi once more to resume my place on the homeplace. But not yet.

I sleep alone with pillows on either side. No matter which way I turn in the night there’ll be a comforting something there. I’ve seen mothers secure their babies this way away from home. Away from the cradle, away from the crib—before high-tech baby carriers—mothers improvised. I take my comfort where I find it.

My digital travel clock says 4:30 a. m. It’s too soon to get up; I’d be wrecked for the day. I will myself back into the softness of sleep. Later a dream comes to visit. It’s one I’ll remember upon waking. These remembered dreams are so few they jerk me to attention. In the dream my father and I stand in line inside a church. The seats fill up on the near side of a balustrade. By the time we get to the front of the line—by the time we must choose and take our seats—there are no seats together any more. My father takes his seat on the other side of the rail. I sit behind, but lean forward. I whisper to his neighbor, “Take good care of him, would you?” I know Pop won’t be alone. But I don’t want to be alone either. When I wake, the dream cradles me between the pillows.

Finally it’s a decent time to get up. I cross the round rug and lean over to set my tea on a basket from Ghana. Upside down it serves as a side table. My writing nest beckons. The gold chair wants me. I yield.

I haven’t written anything of note for a long time. But now I settle in a cozy gold chair surrounded by a circle of art and artifacts. It’s like the pillows. These objects comfort and hold me in a circle of memories. This circle hints of life before me, reminds me where I’ve been, and reassures me there’s a future.

Writing by hand frees me from a computer screen and keyboard. My hand grips a 0.7 zebra roller pen that reminds me of the fountain pens I filled as a young woman. Before ink cartridges for printers, there were plastic ink cartridges for pens.  As I refilled the cartridges with a syringe, the ink streamed in like blood or squid ink. When my frugality backfired, the ink leaked onto the knuckle of my writing finger and splattered onto the page. This morning the ink from my fat pen sinks into the soft paper of my Moleskine journal. That better writers than I used these is no mystery to me. They are the world’s most perfect friend to listen to whatever words come.

At 9 o’clock I call my father. Our ritual greeting of “How did you sleep?” echo village exchanges in Botswana that translate: “How have you risen? I have risen well.” My father’s characteristic response is delivered in a gravelly voice tempered with age. “Well, I made it through the night. I’m still breathing. Nothing to brag about. I aim to make it through the day as gracefully as possible.”

Later when I’ve made it to the other side of the river I’ll cook dinner for us and he’ll nap. Then I tiptoe beside his bed to see his chest rise a bit. His fingers twitch. He’s still breathing. Maybe it’s nothing to brag about, but he’s still here, and so am I.

Characters Are the Heart of a Memoir

BC with DadMemoir is story about people and experiences, both inner and outer. It’s about relationships, connection. And characters — the people in our life stories — are at the heart of it all.

When we know a character, we tend to care more about the story. I see some of my students and clients writing memoir that often suffers from a focus on describing incidents one after another, neglecting the important fact that the reader doesn’t know the characters in the story.

Part of the reason popular memoirs are popular is because the writers of them don’t make those assumptions. They flesh out the people in their memoir so they become as fully dimensional as characters in a novel — or as real as the real people in our lives.

As storyteller, you are the one to give your characters life on the page. If your characters are flat, your writing will be too.

And one of those characters, believe it or not, is YOU. Just because it’s you who’s writing the story doesn’t mean your reader knows you at all of the various ages you’re writing about. When you see yourself as the multidimensional, 3-D character you are, you populate your own story more fully, all of the scenes and the narrative that moves the story forward is infused with you in your many dimensions —your style, your values, your habits, your inconsistencies.

Let’s take a look at how to draw those dimensions.

1) Don’t put someone in front of a mirror and describe what they see. It’s as flat a method of showing someone as the mirror they’re looking into.

2) Don’t list character features: hair color, height, weight, eye color. The details may have a place somewhere, but forget the list. It doesn’t belong in a narrative, it belongs on a driver’s license.

3) Sprinkle in  details here and there that show you and others around you in the time and place you’re writing about.

4) Too much detail can look heavy-handed, overly conscious, make the reader aware of you as a writer instead of feeling like they’re in the story and you’re the invisible guide. You don’t need to put in everything you know and certainly don’t need to do it all at once.

How much is too much? Notice what other writers you like do with this and read over your drafts for too much or not enough. It’s like adjusting the spices when you’re cooking.

In real life we get to know people gradually. Character details reveal themselves over time, whether we know a person for two hours or twenty years. Similarly, characters are best revealed in memoir through progressive scenes, as time passes. And by the details you give about them, their layers unfold and the reader gets to know them more deeply than they would if all the character detail came in a single paragraph.

Mannerisms and habits, personal style and personality-revealing actions show character. When you intersperse these sorts of descriptive details throughout your writing the reader gets to know the characters through her encounters with them. They begin to live on the page. She probably won’t remember from three chapters back that Grandpa had hazel eyes and was balding, but she will remember that he lit a fat cigar after every meal and relit it at least ten times during an hour’s sitting.

Sensory details are helpful too, as they draw us viscerally into a scene and help us  know a character in ways we wouldn’t without them. Kim Chernin did this  beautifully in her memoir, In My Mother’s House: She was a woman who woke early, no matter how late she went to bed the night before. Every morning she would exercise, bending and lifting and touching and stretching, while I sat on the bed watching her with my legs curled up. Then, a cold shower and she would come from it shivering, smelling of rosewater, slapping her arms. She ate toast with cottage cheese, standing up, reading the morning paper. But she would always have too little time to finish her coffee. I would watch her taking quick sips as she stood at the door. “Put a napkin into your lunch,” she’d call out to me, “I forgot the napkin.” And there was always a cup with a lipstick stain standing half full of coffee on the table near the door.

Sign up for my free teleseminar for more about writing three-dimensional character, including tips on how to show yourself as one of them and for some valuable tools you can use: Thursday, March 7, 4 pm PST / 7 pm EST. Go to www.namw.org. If you can’t make the teleseminar Thursday be sure to sign up in advance so you can get the recording of it and listen to it anytime. My website also has lots of good info on writing, so be sure to stop by: www.suzannesherman.com.