Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Writers Wednesday: Emotional Memories

Historical Romance author and PHS Editor Michelle Styles examines one of the most valuable resources for any writer of ficition -- emotional memory

Romance writing is all about emotion. One of the common reasons for rejection is lack of emotional punch. And much of writing is about getting the emotion you feel down on the page, because 90% of the readers will get about 10% of the emotion you feel. Also readers will not necessarily get the same emotion as they are reading for different reasons.
So how do you get the emotion and have it ring true for a variety of characters? Particularly if you have never directly experienced what they are about to go through?
As a historical author, I write about times that I have never experienced by definition. It means my characters do a wide variety of things that I don't normally do. They have different backgrounds to me. Luckily times and experiences may change but emotional reactions and the capacity for human beings to feel stays the same. So where can I get the emotions?
I can go to primary sources and read about the emotions but sometimes that is putting window between me and the characters. Would my characters actually experienced that emotion? How does it feel? Is it just one emotion or are there shades?
I can also attempt some of the tasks.Some things like being a debutante I have actually experienced (including the pain of being a wall flower) and others I can learn -- the frustration of spinning springs to mind. But still others like experiencing a Viking raid are a little bit harder.  With Viking raids, to make matters worse, the primary sources tend to record the bare facts rather than the emotions. So how to do it?
One way is to sift through your memory and find a time that is roughly analogous to the emotion you want the character to experience.  For example,  when I wrote the Viking raid at Lindisfarne, there had just been an incident where a drunk had  tried to accost my youngest son. My absolute rage helped power me through. I also used the experience I had when a mentally disturbed man tried to extract money for a catalogue from me and started hammering on the door. My children were little. The catalogue was thrown out and I had never asked for it. You don't have to pay money for junk mail!  Luckily the police were aware of the man and did come out. But the experience of crouching in the kitchen with my children, waiting and hoping for the police to arrive has stayed with me for a long time and played a part when I wrote my Viking books.
However, the situations don't have to be dramatic. Ordinary memory can be used to get in touch with extraordinary emotions.  Brandilyn Collins in Getting Into Character mentions if you have ever killed a fly or an ant in a deliberate move, you know what it is like to plan a murder.
What about writing about widows who have loved and lost and are about to love again?  Or a widow who gets intensely irritated at people trying to set her up? Thankfully, my husband is alive and well but I do know what it is like to lose someone close to you and then take a risk on someone new. Losing a beloved pet and then falling in love with another animal means you go through some of the same emotions. Grief is grief and the intensity may vary. Some people swear that they feel more emotion at losing a beloved pet than losing an elderly relative.  And sometimes you are ready straight away to get a new pet and at others you want to wait. There is a bitter sweetness to seeing other people with their pets etc. The realisation that you don't love your old pet less but your heart can grow and accommodate.
It is about taking the real emotions you have felt can be used as a spring board for harvesting the emotions that your characters might feel in a given situation.  It can enable you to add the appropriate shading that allows the reader into the emotions your characters are feeling. This is why when writing, living is an important part of doing research.
So when you are stuck, think back into your memory and find a situation that is roughly analogous and harvest those emotions. It will make your work richer and more immediate. It can help you add emotional punch to your writing.
Any questions?

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance for Harlequin Mills and Boon. Her latest release was To Marry A Matchmaker (July 2011). You can read more about her books on her website


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  2. Great advice, I will sure use it in future.

  3. Great post Michelle - emotion is so much the key to writing romance andI don't think there's a writer amongst us who doesn't need a reminder or a bit of extra advice about how to dig deeper and find those feelings.

    PS Blogger seems to be pretending not to recognise me again - so this is Kate Walker