Friday, January 16, 2009

If a Tree Falls in the Forest

Today's selection from The Spoken Word: British Writers was offered by Rudyard Kipling, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 (a fact I, in my ignorance, did not know). For all his dash and deering-do, Mr. Kipling's voice reminded me of Bill Gates'. He was speaking at a luncheon of the Canadian Author's Association, being held at Claridge's Hotel, London and most of his remarks seemed pretty insular, full of in-jokes and that sort of thing, but something he said, I just had to write down. He was relating a comment made by a man who'd built a house for Kipling in England. The man said, "Each experience a tree has had in the foreset, she takes into the house."

I was struck by how much this applies to our characters. We write about them at a very particular moment in time -- a day, a few weeks, a year. But every experience they've had in the "forest" is part of their DNA. It's inescapable, just as even though I am a dog lover, having been attacked by big dogs twice (once as a kid and once as an adult), I can't help but cringe when one is running loose toward me.

These forest experiences are back story. The thing is, when a tree is milled into lumber for a house, we don't see the branches or the bark. I know I sometimes reveal and/or explain far too much about my character's forest experiences. Is it really important for the reader to know how this character got her nickname or how that character had an aunt he didn't like? Maybe yes, maybe no -- it depends on what kind of house I'm trying to build! Especially as I am revising, I'm going to keep this image in mind.

I found a terrifically helpful prompt over at CuppaJolie on Monday. She encouraged us to do free writes about ways our characters had made marks on their bedrooms or other important spaces. Now, I will confess I didn't do the free write, but I did ponder this challenge and, about two o'clock in the morning, I found a way to use this idea in a pivotal scene. Jolie promises to post a prompt weekly -- I know I'll be checking her blog out each Monday!


  1. Ah, sheesh. This SO puts a smile on my face. I'm so honored that you visit me and will be back on Mondays. I promise I'll keep posting the prompts on Monday, as long as someone finds it useful. And I love the thoughts you've shared in this post. Thank you!

  2. This is a great post... I like thinking about characters, even from picture book, as having had a "prior life."
    I enjoy reading your posts and, while I'm still mulling thoughts of where I need to go with my writing, they're speaking to me.
    Have a great weekend.

  3. Jolie, so glad to put a smile on your face! I can't wait until Monday (it's a holiday though; hope you'll still post).

    Carrie, keep mulling but write, too, even if it's doodling in the margins.

  4. Hi Kirby-

    My first visit to your blog via Valerie Hobbs' blog via HipWriterMama's blog ...
    A blog treasure hunt!
    Anyway, I didn't know about Kipling and the Nobel Prize either. But I very much like the quote "Each experience a tree has had in the forest, she takes into the house."
    It does apply to our characters and in a larger sense, speaks to our own connection with history (evidence: Hattie Big Sky)and as writers the connection of our stories with the greater story into which they enter as published books.


  5. Mary,

    Talk about the roundabout way to find me! And I love thinking I was part of a blog treasure hunt.

    One of the things that struck me most about writing Hattie was being reminded that people are people, no matter if they're wearing long dresses and riding in wagons or if they're wearing jeans, zooming around in a Prius.