Elizabeth: Back to Basics – How hardwood floors improved my story

Going-back-to-the-basics-strengthens-your-foundation.-8x10I’ve spent part of most weekends for the last several months refurbishing my parents’ old house in preparation for putting it up for sale. It could have gone on the market “as-is”, but spending some time to make it more appealing to potential buyers seemed like a reasonable choice. Besides, I knew there was original oak flooring hidden behind that unattractive wall-to-wall carpeting and I was determined to see it revealed and restored.

Before I could get to the floors, however, there were 60+ years of possessions to get out of the way. My siblings and I grew up in the house, and my parents lived in it their whole married life, so there was a lot to go through. A whole lot. An appalling amount, actually. As anyone who has had to clear out another person’s house can tell you, it’s not the easiest of jobs and involves a fair amount of “I can’t believe they saved this” and” what on earth is this” kind of comments.

With the majority of the possessions out of the way – some to Goodwill, some straight to the garbage, and some relegated to a pile in the garage for “later” – it was time to tackle the carpets. If you’ve never pulled up carpets I have to say it’s kind of satisfying. Once you get a corner started, they come up pretty quickly and easily. Unfortunately, carpets are kept in place with a lot of tack strips and staples and sticky tape, which are a pain in the butt to remove. Not hard, just tedious. But the effort was worth it for a house-full of hardwood floors that were in remarkably good condition despite being covered up and ignored for as long as I can remember. With a buff and polish for the floors and a new paint job for the walls and trim the house had a whole new look. Cleared of all the clutter, the structure was revealed along with its strengths and weaknesses.

My story is undergoing a similar refurbishment. Instead of looking to for hardwood floors, however, I’m striping it down to the bare-bones to get a better understanding of my heroine’s goals and motivation. I’ve always had a good feel for her personality and what her long-term end goal is, but I found I needed a more nuanced understanding in order to establish a satisfying career arc for her and to strengthen the conflict in the story. I needed to peel back the layers of the story and get to the basic foundation so I could clearly articulate why she was in the story, what she wanted, and how she was going to go about it. Fortunately, I had plenty of free time while working on the house to do just that. Now I know why some of her scenes weren’t working and, better yet, how to fix them with some relatively minor adjustments.  Yay!

Next week it will be time to turn my attention to refurbishing the backyard landscaping . Who knows, maybe something about the process of trimming trees, pulling weeds, and clearing out the garden shed will spark an idea to help me with my story. If nothing else, it will give me plenty of thinking time.

So, what non-writing activities provide you with story thinking time?

12 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Back to Basics – How hardwood floors improved my story

  1. This is fabulous! Especially when you talked about the staples and sticky tape that’s a pain in the butt to remove — I immediately identified with the stapes and sticky tape in my story!

    I find that driving in the country is good thinking time for me, if I can keep my mind on the story. A lot of times, work issues crowd in. I never say, though, “this drive is for thinking about story.” Maybe if I dedicated the time, I could stay on track. (-: Or at least in story territory! I think the commute home would work extra well, because I could stop anywhere and note down any thoughts that needed to be noted.

    • Driving can definitely be a good time for thinking – as long as you don’t need to focus on where you are going. I’ve gotten (and forgootten) many great story ideas whille commuting,

  2. Motorway driving, or a long-ish bus or tube journey often hatches out story ideas for me, and clearing out my mum’s house earlier this year was especially fruitful – as you said, Elizabeth, so many long-forgotten memories and mystery photographs and surprise discoveries. I think being immersed in deeply personal family stuff from long ago stirred up my subconscious and gave my Girls a lot of material to play with.

    I think I said a while ago that during that time I started to think of a steampunk/fantasy type story. I keep getting more ideas about it – I had a real flash of inspiration opout of the blue on Monday – so I might spoil myself and try to Nano it when I’ve Finished The Damn Book, just to see what happens.

    • Nano for your steam punk idea sounds like a great plan. It should give you a nice focused time to do some real brainstorming free-writing. I have found that Nano can be very helpful for that stage of the writing process.

  3. Cleaning out a house that’s been fully occupied is a lot of work, so congratulations on getting it done in what sounds like really good time! And if it also gave you some time to think about your book, even better. Mundane or repetitive tasks of any kind seem to leave space for that kind of thinking. How wonderful that you’ve been able to see your way to a sharper story. And now if only the shed-clearing elves would come while you’re sleeping…

    • Kay -I can’t quite take credit for getting it done in record time since the house just sat there for a long time after my mom died before we finally decided what to do with it. :-). I’m definitely going to hope for those shed cleaning elves to appear since there are sure to be dead rodents involved.

      I agree with you about mundane tasks being great for thinking. Gardening is a prime thinking time for me since the work doesn’t require a great deal of concentrations.

  4. For me, cooking (the leisurely, big dinner kind, not the rushed day-to-day kind) gives me time and space to think about my story. Since that activity occupies my hands so I can’t take notes, I try to jot down really important thoughts later, but have long thought I should get a mini-recorder to capture things in the moment.

    Weirdly, other household drudgery like cleaning and yard work aren’t conducive to creative thinking for me. Maybe the fact that I think of them as drudgery is a clue as to why that is…

    • I can see where drudgery might not be conducive to story thinking . Hard to be immersed in restive thought If you’re doing something you are not enjoying. Good for you being able to cook and think. I’d hate to think what results I might wind up with if I tried that -either indelible food or a story where the characters spent all their time eating, I’m afraid.

  5. One of the reasons my new schedule has worked out so well for me is I start the day by going to the gym. An hour of vigorous workout is followed by 20 minutes of dog-walking (in the gym parking lot, where there are lots of ladies coming and going and it’s well lit). It’s while Abby and I are perambulating the perimeter that characters block out the upcoming scene for me. Sometimes they even get into elaborate conversations with each other, or explain to me why they did something. Mindless physical activity is pefect for plotting and planning.

    Maybe you’ll have to take up flipping houses as a secondary hobby!

    • Jeanne – dog walking is a great time for thinking. I used to make a lot of progress that way when I had a dog, plus some good exercise. Yet another good reason to have a dog.

      Not sure about the house flipping though – at the speed I work it would take forever 🙂

  6. Ripping up carpeting is great fun. It’s such a dirty, dusty activity, but SO satisfying. Glad you had a good time with it!

    All my best ideas come to me in the shower. The warm water is so relaxing that scenes just spring into my head. I used to forget most of them but then I discovered Aqua Notes! LOVE these things. I’m going to post the Amazon link, my apologies if it comes through crazy big like it did the last time.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003W09LTQ/ref=wms_ohs_product?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    • Those are fantastic Jennifer – I definitely need to pick some up. Maybe not for writing ideas, but for all the other ramdom ideas that come to mind in the shower.

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