Wednesday, August 5

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, August 05, 2015 6 comments
Summer is an innately frustrating season for working moms who write (people like me), because the usual routines that help us keep some balance between roles are mostly gone. The kids are at home, there's no homework to fill the evenings, and night owl sleep patterns of the rest of the family can keep one from getting one's usual rest. I often struggle with being perpetually grouchy in the summer months because my writing time gets squeezed more than usual by family needs, and when I can eke some out, it is often interrupted.

By Alex (Flickr: [1]) via Wikimedia Commons
I recently had another layer of frustration added on. Both neighbors with whom we share walls had workmen in--basement repair guys on one side, demo and rehab guys on the other. Between the squealing saws, booming hammers, grumbling cement mixer, and pounding hard rock radio station, I thought my head would split in half. Headphones and music didn't help, because some of the pounding was my own rising heart rate making blood thump in my ears.

I wanted to scream. Throw a tantrum, Or snap my fingers and mute the world.

But I'm a writer, so I didn't do any of these things.

Instead I sat very still and listened. Listened to what my body was telling me, listened to my inner monologue--both what I did  and did not want.

Why? Because frustration is one of the key emotions that drives fiction, one commonly triggered by an unmet desire.

And we all know what unmet desires are, don't we? They are the driving force of tension. And tension is what moves stories forward. (For more on this helpful definition of tension, see Steven James's Story Trumps Structure.)

So the next time you feel like punching someone because you are stuck in traffic, or the dog ate your shoes, or the kids won't give you ten minutes of peace to write, stop. Pay attention to how your body feels. Listen to the words screeching in your head. This is an emotion you need to know inside out, because it will help you write stronger scenes.

And when you're out and about and witness someone else about to explode, watch (from a safe distance) and record what you observe.

  • What facial expressions does a frustrated person have?
  • What postures, gestures, and motions does the person use?
  • How does the frustrated person talk about his/her feelings?
  • What colorful phrases and idioms come out?
More ideas on observing and journaling emotions for use in fiction can be found in my new book Emotions in the Wild: A Writer's Observation Journal.

How might you use your writerly mind to turn everyday experiences into fiction fodder? 


  1. Amen and seconded! That's when poetry or music comes streaming out of my head, and I LOVE it. But, at the same time, I'm okay without the motivation too.

    1. As the saying goes, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade." It's honestly the things that go wrong in life that make interesting stories, so we need to see opportunity in disruption.

  2. What a good way to take the annoying things and turn them into something useful. I never get much work done in the summer. I hate the heat. I dehydrate and get ill easily if I go out, and I have to take medicines, extra salt and vitamins. Doesn't help that I'm a blue-eyed Northern lady living in Egypt where the daily summer temp is 110-115 degrees. So, like you, I'm praying for fall to come quickly even though it's for a different reason. I hope your neighbors home-improvement projects finish up soon!

    1. I'd probably hibernate in your climate too. But what a fascinating story problem that could be for someone who has to, say, solve a crime without ever venturing out in the heat of the day.

  3. When I was writing my first book, my character sustained an injury to her arm. I was trying to decide whether it was broken or just sprained. In the midst of this dilemma, I broke my elbow. The experience made me realize she could not do the things I wanted her to do if she had a broken arm.

    It's not a form of research I'd recommend, but some good came out of a painful life event.

    1. Yikes. What a way to get into your character's head. I'm glad the injury provided useful insights, though.