A Day in the Life of a Writer

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A Day in the Life of a Writer: Metaphors and Character Development

I don’t see much online on the subject of using metaphors in character development, so I’m sharing my process.

I’ve got this homeless character  in the opening scene of my novel and she did something that surprised me.  I thought she was just a crazy old lady, but she pulled a .357 on a Beemer guy who was going to dump oil in a dumpster she’d climbed into to retrieve a book.   When I started the scene, I didn’t know anything but the fact that she was in a dumpster. By the time I was through writing the scene, I discovered that she can take care of herself, that she’s got a soft spot for strays, and she’ll dig through trash to get to good reading material.

I know why she’s on the streets–she’s trying to find a teenaged girl who ran away, but –that’s all I know.  So I’m studying metaphors. Once I figure out what her life metaphor is, I’ll have a better handle on her character.

One way to look at it is to call it her paradigm.  It’s a deeply held, unconscious belief  which dictates how a person responds to life’s events.  We all have this internal set of beliefs which guide us in our choices every day.  Is the world a good or a bad place? Is life an uphill struggle, or a joyride? Is it a classroom, a confessional, a sacrificial altar, or a den of thieves? People growing up in the same household can emerge with different paradigms because each experiences things differently.

I know that Maggie (the homeless woman) has a positive paradigm; I also know that for her to be a compelling character she needs to grow, so there’s room for her metaphor to be altered by her experiences in the story.  The metaphor that life is a classroom fits what I know of her character so far so I’m adopting that for now, although I’m pretty sure there’s more to it.

The girl she wants to find (Emily) is a different matter. The world’s been a dangerous place for her, so many of her decisions will be driven by a need for certainty.  I’m basing this on what I’ve read by Tony Robbins, who asserts that we have six basic needs. The two core needs are certainty and significance, and according to my life coach, most people live their whole lives making sure these two needs are met, many times to the detriment of the other four needs: variety, connection, growth, and contribution.  Maggie, I’ve just realized, is driven by her need to live a life that makes a difference.  I want her character arc to move toward the other needs, so I’ll be planning my plot with that in mind since she’s my central character.

Emily has no thought for anything but survival.  Right now she views life as a cross between a battlefield and a war game, like chess, in which she is a dispensable pawn. My goal for her character is for her to grow toward connection and significance, which she will find as she develops her art.


On Characters

Pablo Picasso said that painting is just another way of keeping a diary. I know I saw that sort of diary by my mother, and I think the same extends to music, as well.  Any time we’re creating, the creation itself is sort of like an I-Ching moment, a slice of time that reflects who we are at that precise point.

I mention this because my heroine is working through her grief via street art. She cannot express herself any other way.  It’s embedded in her like plant roots.


I wonder if fashioning something out of our pain is the only way to uproot toxins….

Today I start my morning pages.


I just finished reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett—and it occurred to me that part of why I’ve been stuck on my story is that I haven’t gone inside myself and excavated.  I have been writing a story I don’t passionately care about.  I love my characters, I just don’t care about what they’re doing in their lives.  I’d bored myself.

So I noodled, and I remembered a romance I read many years ago which had a [briefly] homeless woman as its heroine, and I remembered that that story had a huge impact on my life because it gave ‘homeless’ a face.

I’ve been playing with that, and now my heroine is a book-loving woman whose grief over the suicide of her son and the bankrupting medical bills, and is living on the streets and making money as a street artist (and avoiding the cops because she’s become a prolific graffiti artist, as well.)  She’s maintained her anonymity so far, but that’s about to change….

I care about what this woman is doing, and I can’t wait to see how she finds her way out of the dark.

Straight Shooter excerpt (rough draft)

Straight Shooter
Unknown chapter

Mark Bremerton had been waiting all day to put his feet up, read a bit of John Olsson’s Word Crime, and enjoy some of that Yemeni coffee the postman had delivered.  And he was almost there:  two Aesop’s Fables, one Goodnight Moon, Three Billy Goats Gruff, one small glass of water, one last trip to the bathroom, and his five-year-old nephew, Paxton, was finally tucked in with his favorite stuffed animal, Floppy Joe.

“Uncle Mark?”

Mark paused at the door.  The earthy aroma of the coffee wafted down the hallway, making his stomach rumble.  He sniffed appreciatively, then looked back at his nephew.  “No more water tonight, Pax,” he said. “That’s the last set of sheets—“   He stopped.  The boy’s eyes were closed.   Mark walked back and sat on the edge of the bed.  “What is it, Packster?”

“Do you think Mommy can hear me when I talk to her?”

Mark placed his hand on Pax’s head and rubbed the boy’s forehead gently with his thumb.  Pax’s eyelids trembled and Mark could see wetness along the tips of his lashes. “I think so,”  he said.

“’Cause I can’t find my toe-socks.”

“Toe socks?” Mark asked.  “Must take forever to put them all on.”

Paxton opened his eyes and gave Mark a serious look.  “Not one for each toe.  They’re regular socks with—“   He thought for a moment.  “They have toe sleeves,” he said.  He pulled away from Mark’s hand. “I’m okay,” he said.

“I know you are,” Mark said.  “It was helping me think.”  He let his hand settle on top of the blanket and he pursed his lips.  “Toe sleeves.  Now I get it.  What color are they?”  A glimmer of a memory sat at the brink of his mind.  He looked around the cluttered library that was now serving as his nephew’s bedroom, mentally retracing his steps over the last week.

“You don’t look like you get it,” Paxton said.

“No, I do.  Tiny sleeves on the end of the sock. Clear as a bell.  Are they blue?”  When had he seen them?  Monday had been Lainie’s funeral.  Wednesday, the author-signing at the store. Thursday, at his sister’s house, packing up Paxton’s belongings….  His eyes lit on a copy of Shakespeare’s Othello.  Yes.  The socks had been neatly folded, green toe sleeves up, on the shelf behind the strategy game.  He’d brought the game, but left the socks.

“They’re blue with green toes,” Paxton said.  “You know where they are.”  He sat up.  “You have your remembry face on.”

Mark breathed in sharply and a flash of ache painted his insides. Pax sounded like his mother.  “I’m not sure,” he said, “but I might have an idea.”  He stood up and reached over to pat Floppy Joe on the head.  “He looks very tired.  You two need to get some sleep.”  He knew he was being a coward, but God, he was tired.

Paxton’s lower lip slowly jutted out.  “I want my toe socks,” he said.

Okay, how did Lainie deal with this?  Mark could see a storm brewing in Paxton’s face, could practically smell the rain.  A regular temper fit was doable, but the boy’s mother was freshly in the grave—maybe the socks would comfort him.  Mark checked his watch.  9:30pm. They’d been bedtiming for an hour and a half.He did not want to go out. Did not want to walk through his sister’s house tonight.  Did not want—

A sniffle brought his attention back to Pax, who was rubbing his eyes with his pajama sleeve. “Please, Uncle Mark?”

“All right, let’s go,” Mark said.  He could deal with a trip across town better than he could an upset child.

“I’m not a crybaby,” Pax said, throwing back his covers and slipping off the bed.

“No, you’re a trooper,” Mark said. He leaned against the doorway and watched Paxton struggle to put his shoes on over his footed pajamas. It struck him that he could not remember the last time he’d seen Pax laugh.

“Leave the shoes, Pax,” he said.

“But Mom said not to—“ Paxton grunted as he tried to force his foot into his shoe.  “Maybe I should just get dressed.”

“No, leave it. Let’s go.”

Pax squinted at him.  “Mom said—“

Mark cocked an eyebrow at him.  “I’m going to get some coffee, which will take approximately one minute.  If you think you can have your shoes on in that time, have at it. But if you want those socks tonight, you’d better be ready.”  Mark left the room.

He’d just put the lid on his travel cup when he heard the shuffle of his nephew’s footsteps on the hardwood floor.  He switched off the coffee pot and met Pax by the front door. Pax gripped Floppy Joe in one hand and his tennis shoes in the other.

Suppressing a smile, Mark lifted the keys off the keyholder by the door and ushered Pax through.  When he turned from locking the door, he saw Pax tiptoeing across the gravel to the Jeep.  He sighed and followed him to the car.  As he buckled Pax in the back seat, he said, “Clothes get dirty all the time, you know.  Then we wash them.”

“But what if they rip?” Pax asked.  “Can you sew?”

“Yes,” Mark lied. He shut the door and went around to the driver’s side and got in.  He made a mental note to buy more pajamas, then drove to his sister’s house across town.

As he pulled into the driveway, he noticed three things:  his aunt’s car in the driveway, the lights were on in the house and on the porch, and there was a For Sale sign on the lawn.  Mark cut the engine and shoved open the door and stalked over to the sign.  He yanked it up and tossed it to the porch steps.  “What the hell,” he muttered.

He glanced around, taking in geraniums drooped over the wide porch railing, their tired flowers barely clinging to the stems.  The fiery bougainvillea bushes that climbed up the walls of the white house looked none-the-worse for wear, and the jade plants looked healthy.  But the geraniums.  Lainie’s favorite flowers.  He went to the faucet and turned on the hose and watered everything.  The front door creaked open as he was tossing the hose to the middle of the lawn.  He turned, and saw his elderly aunt, Regina, standing at the top of the porch steps.  She was wearing strappy red sandals, a fluffy yellow dress that probably cost as much as that signed edition of Mark Twain he’d had his eye on, and a wide-brimmed purple straw hat.  Her crimson lipstick was smeared across her cheek.

“Fifi.  Is everything okay?”

“Marcus?”  She held out her hand to him.  “You must help me.”

Mark leapt up the stairs and put his arm around her, guiding her over to the porch glider.  “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’m so upset,” she said.  She let Mark steady her as she sat down.  “Clancy has been missing for two days and I just know that Japanese man ate him.”

Mark rubbed his eyes and gave her a sideways look.  “Your neighbor ate your dog?  I don’t—“

“Clancy has never run off in his whole life,” Regina said.  “Ever.  He is loyal and sweet and such a good dog and—“  Her lips trembled.

Mark said, “Okay, look.  Pax is out in the car.  Let me go get him, and then we’ll talk.”  He wheeled around and walked to the car to get Paxton, hoping he hadn’t seen the sign on the lawn.  “Hey, buddy, sorry about that.  I got busy watering the plants.”  He unbuckled him and lifted him into his arms.  “Everything’s wet so I’ll carry you, okay?”

Paxton clutched his shoes and Floppy Joe to his chest and held up his arms.  Mark bumped the door shut with his hip and carried Pax to the porch, where he set him down.

“Paxton!”  Regina held her arms out.  “How’s my favorite five-year-old?  Come give me a hug.”
Paxton looked up at Mark, who nodded, then he went and stood obediently in her arms, his own hanging limply at his side.  Regina rested her cheek on the top of his head, then brushed a light kiss on his hair. “It’s so nice to see you,” she said, and leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes.

Pax gave Mark a quick look out of the corner of his eye, and Mark waved him on.  “Go on in to your room, Pax.  I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Mark picked up the For Sale sign.  He stood there and held it up.  “Do you know about this?”

Regina laid her hand on her forehead.  “I think I have a temperature.  I’ll go in and lay on the couch.”

Mark frowned at her.  “Fifi, did you put this sign on the lawn?”

Regina shook her head.  “It was here when I arrived.”  She got up and walked to the door, smoothing her dress.  “Come inside?”

Mark followed her inside, setting the sign in the entranceway.  “Why would someone put this on the lawn?”  He turned to look at Regina, but she had already gone into the living room.

A crack of light shone down the hall from beneath Pax’s bedroom door.  Mark flipped on the hall light and gazed at the family photographs:  Lainie cradling Pax when he was a month old, her black curly hair a halo, her smile mysterious and content.  Another one showed Lainie holding a sprinkler over her head while she danced in the water drops.  He’d taken that one a couple years back.  Another:  Paxton in a tiny black suit and tie, standing stiffly at his mother’s side on the church steps.  His father’s funeral.  Mark rubbed his eyes tiredly.

Paxton burst out of his room. “I found them!”  He held up the pair of bright blue socks.

“Great,” said Mark, sorrow rippling through him.  Even now Pax was unsmiling.  His face was fierce, triumphant, even, but not a shadow of a smile.
“Is there anything else you want to get while we’re here?” Mark asked.  He looked over the pictures, seeking one that showed his nephew smiling. He found one of his own mother.  The glass was cracked but the picture was intact.  She wore a wide-brimmed straw hat and a white sundress with daisies on the hem, and she had a small kitten draped over her hand.  He lifted it off the wall.

“Who’s that?” Pax asked.  He craned his neck to see, and Mark showed him the picture.

“This is my mother—your mother’s mother,” he said.  “Your grandmother.  She died when I was about your age.”  He tipped the picture back so he could look at it more closely.  “I remember that cat,” he said.

“Mommy says you remember everything.”  Pax tilted his head.  “Do you really?”

“I remember things I see,” Mark said.

“Then how come you have to read the same stories every night?”  Pax gave him a dubious look.

Mark laughed a little.  “Because I’m lazy, and I like looking at the pictures.  Don’t you?”

Pax nodded and stuck his hand behind his back.  “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“I remember stuff. I’m not clairvoyant.”

“Clairboyant?”  Pax asked.  He repeated it softly to himself.  “Clairboyant.”

Mark smiled down at him.  “With a “v”, clairvoyant. The actual definition is to see clearly, but it means to be able to see things that you can’t see with your eyes.  Like to see the future.”  He saw Pax’s blank look and added, “To know what’s going to happen tomorrow because you see it in your head.”

Pax nodded. “I see.”

Mark laughed.  “Did you just make a joke?”

“No,” Pax said. He said the word again.  “Clairvoyant.  I like that word. It’s big.”

“It’s a big word,” Mark agreed.

“Mommy talks big to me, too.  Talked,” he corrected himself.  He turned and shuffled down the hall to his bedroom, fingering his socks.  He stopped at the doorway and turned back.  “I found this,” he said, holding up what looked like a playing card.

His words didn’t register immediately with Mark.  He pinched his nose and shook his head slightly, trying to dislodge the ache.  He set the picture down on a small hall table and walked over to Pax, taking the card from him.

“Huh,” he said, turning it over in his hand.  A tarot card?  It had a picture of a tower on it with people falling off the edge. “All by itself?”

Pax shrugged.  “Can we spend the night here?”

Mark leaned through the doorway to look at Pax’s bed.  “You don’t have any sheets,” he said, glancing down as Pax moved past him to climb onto his bare bed.

“That’s okay,” Pax said.  “I won’t be cold.”

“You can’t sleep on a bed with no sheets.  C’mon,” Mark said, stuffing the card into his pocket and holding out his hand.  “Let’s get some sheets and make your bed.  Or,” he paused.  Not sure it was a good idea, but:  “would you like to sleep in your mommy’s bed?”

Pax sprang off the bed and ran to his mother’s room.

Guess so, Mark thought, following slowly. He walked into his sister’s room and saw that Pax was already nestled deep under the covers.  He tucked the blankets around Pax’s shoulders, then settled in a nearby rocking chair.

He started rocking.  “In the great green room…”

Pax fell asleep, and Mark continued to rock, thinking about the book he’d left on the coffee table at home.  The best laid plans.  Tonight had been the first night he would have had time to read.  He glanced over at Pax, noting his slow, easy breathing.  Worth it, he decided, and dug into his pocket to bring out the card.  Didn’t know Lanie was into tarot, he thought, and yawned.  He set the card aside, then got to his feet and stretched.

He went to the living room and found Regina curled up on the couch, asleep.  He stood over her for a moment.  Why she always insisted her neighbor was out to get her was beyond him. He covered her with a nearby afghan and kissed her forehead.  Then he checked to make sure all the doors were locked and turned off all the lights, leaving the hall light on for Pax, and made up Pax’s bed for himself.

A Day in the Life of a Writer: Research

My heroine, Diana, is a painter.  She got in trouble as a teen for painting on abandoned buildings (and once she did a county building in protest against them closing the county library)–and that is the extent of my knowledge of graffiti.  I know that it’s usually illegal, that there are fines and or jail time, and I know they use spray paint.  So I’ve been doing some research, and I’m posting it here for several reasons:

  • others may be doing research along the same lines
  • the information is interesting
  • perhaps this will spark someone else’s muse
  • maybe someone in the know will share his/her knowledge

How to Choose Spray Paint Tips for Graffiti

How to Write Graffiti-Art Basics with artist Leon Rainbow

Basic Graffiti info

An article about a graffiti artist who recently died when running from the police

Street Art–Dalston Bus Depot 2005

Open Air, Street Art–Graffiti Documentary

Blog article on Hera

Using GMC: Diana

Here’s what happened when I released my stubborn hold on who I thought my characters were.

I asked my heroine why she didn’t want to run the family gun shop. (Yes, I talked to her.  I was a little cautious about it because the notion’s kinda kooky, and I really didn’t want my kids to hear me talking to myself, so I whispered. LOL )

It works!
I asked, and she told me, “Look. I’m spending every day with my mom and she’s driving me nuts. I have to find the missing paperwork pronto or the ATF’s gonna shut her down and guess where she’ll be living?  No way, sister.  I love my mom, but I need my privacy.”

So, in the interest of showing you how I used Debra Dixon’s book, I’ll share Diana’s character info.  It still needs work, but wow! After doing her GMC chart and those of three other characters, not only was I able to write my first chapter, I knew where I was going!

NAME : Diana (gun shop co-owner/teacher) Paints every spare minute she has. Mockingbird is totem

WHO SHE IS: a self-deluding paper tiger (tough on the outside, scared within)

WHAT SHE WANTS: Starter goal:   has to find missing logbook. Get thru ATF audit. Bigger: Own her own art studio. Express herself via painting.  Keep shop from being closed.

BECAUSE: 1. Logbook has info for ATF search phone call.  2. ATF doing audit. 3. She doesn’t want her mother living with her. 4. she wants to get back to her private life

BUT: Can’t find logbook. Her mother lost additional ppw.  Her mother needs her in the gun shop. (obviously!)

INTERNAL WANTS: needs to please. Then :  to know herself;  to be regarded as ‘real’ artist; autonomy

BECAUSE: It’ll make her feel important; like she’s contributing something to the world; she’ll be expressing herself

BUT: She’s afraid:  of failure, of creating garbage, of the unknown. She doesn’t believe she has the talent; won’t put her art on display. And she’s worried her mother won’t be able to run the shop effectively by herself.

My hero’s character info is still missing the internal want/need, but I was still able to write the first chapter because I had his external want pretty clear in my head.  I’ll be tweaking both as I go.

You see how nowhere in Diana’s goals is there a wish to fall in love?  Falling in love is what happens as she’s pursuing her goals.  If falling in love were her goal, I think she’d be a weak and boring character.  I want her to have an interesting life that she ultimately invites the hero –and the reader–into.

Same goes for the hero, Mark.  His immediate desire is to plop down in his easy chair and read a book he’s been itching to read for several days but hasn’t had time for.  Problem is, his 5-year-old nephew is having trouble getting to sleep because his mother’s recently been killed in an accident.  It’s a simple conflict, and it will grow into something bigger as the story progresses.

inspiration for creating a hero

This first one is probably odd, so I’ll explain.
There’s something endearing about a guy who 1) likes cats and 2) who writes a song about his cat. This guy’s no frump, either. lol

{thanks to The Struggling Writer for this idea}

{I prefer the Simple Minds version, but couldn’t find a clip I liked}

on plotting

I have three characters clamoring to get onto the page, and I don’t care how many people say “writer, you are God,” these characters are not behaving, and they aren’t happy that I’m struggling with the plot. I know, why not just let them get onto the page and let them tell their stories?

Well, I tried that, and it was like herding cats. I have to have a plot. Part of my problem is perfectionism. I don’t want to write anything crappy. But Chris Baty, author of No Plot, No Problem, writes, “The quickest, easiest way to produce something beautiful and lasting is to risk making something horribly crappy” (32).  He adds, “…you should lower the bar from “best-seller” to “would not make someone vomit” (33). LOL

An exercise Baty recommends is to answer this question:  What, to you, makes a good novel?


  • An anti-hero.  Like Vachss’ Burke.
  • sexual tension
  • a mystery
  • well-researched–nothing makes me throw a book like the hero flipping the safety off a Glock.
  • snappy dialogue
  • cranky people
  • heroine with a passion for a particular thing; don’t care what it is.
  • people who awaken from ‘deadness’
  • funny situations
  • thought-provoking. (like Einstein’s Dreams, for example)
  • people who overcome adversity
  • foreshadowing
  • symbolism and metaphors

And another exercise–what bores you in a novel?

  • dialogue that goes nowhere
  • too much narrative (although I really liked Portrait of a Lady, and I love Herman Melville. Go figure.)
  • flat characters (bad guy has to have at least one redeeming characteristic)
  • improbable action
  • characters who don’t reap what they sow, good or bad. Bad enough to see that in real life.    *The Lovely Bones hit these two no-nos for me:  when the girl possesses Ruth’s body and the boy knew who she was?  Please.  And the mother abandoned the kids and slipped seamlessly back into their lives. Double please.

So where do I go from here? Back to GMC, I think.  I’m also finding this site on plotting helpful:


  • start with the status quo
  • and then something happens
  • the character commits to their goal

Go to the site to see the pages on middles and endings. Great info.

here’s what I’m working on:

Hero’s brother & wife have been murdered over a very rare gun. Hero is on the hunt for the murderer. Wants revenge.
Heroine runs a gun shop that her father willed to her and her mother.
Mother is still grieving husband’s death (it’s been a year+) and is no help to heroine; she’s also a bit like Grandma Mazur.

Well, it’s a start.

More on character development

Heroine is giving me grief, so I’m brainstorming, and I’ve gone to my shelves.

Thought I’d share the books I’m finding helpful:

The authors give detailed descriptions of nine different personality types, with levels of health from 1-10. This is particularly helpful because you can see how a strength can decay into weakness.
It includes a section on character traits and physical characteristics. Very good for igniting ideas.

Includes child and adolescent types, psychological disorders, criminal styles, nonverbal communication and more.

You might also find this blog helpful.

A day in the life of a writer: character development

“A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.”
— Martin Luther King Jr. (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

I’ve been struggling with my heroine’s over-arching goal. I keep tangling external goals with internal ones. My critique partner pointed out that the one I had was too “do-able,” adding, “I think Diana needs something that she wants desperately – something that is urgent – life or death or loss that if she loses it, her life will never be the same (or someone she cherishes will never be the same) something that she will walk on water to obtain if that’s what she needs to do.”

So. A character who won’t die for something isn’t fit to live, either, and that rings true for me. Characters with something huge at stake engage the reader immediately.

While I was looking for inspiration I came across some quotes that resonate, and I’m pinning them up while I write so they’ll remind me of key character traits.

Diana, my heroine, is a frustrated artist (painter) who runs a gun shop with her mother. A quote for her is from Bernard Shaw:

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
And these: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”— Maya Angelou

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”— Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

“One must pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while still alive.”— Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

My bad guy, as yet un-named, has this one:

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
— Abraham Lincoln

Mark, my hero, has these:

“In the years afterward, I fled whenever somebody began to understand me. That has subsided. But one thing remained: I don’t want anybody to understand me completely. I want to go through life unknown. The blindness of others is my safety and my freedom.” — Pascal Mercier

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”— Confucius

Ultimately, this one will apply: “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” — Maya Angelou

One that will apply throughout the story:

“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong, it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”— Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

And this one reminds me of different ways to illustrate character:

“Your handwriting. The way you walk. Which china pattern you choose. It’s all giving you away. Everything you do shows your hand. Everything is a self-portrait. Everything is a diary.”— Chuck Palahniuk