The online home of Jessica Morrell, because stories matter

Characters We’ve Never Met Before

Written By: jessicap - Jul• 21•14

Fiction readers want to meet story people that they cannot meet in the ordinary world. They also want these people to possess complicated world views and unexpected moral codes. The cast members of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather are splendid examples of this. It’s one of the first novels that depicted mafia families in a sympathetic light and as anti-heroes,  business men who aren’t above snuffing out the competition. Remember that one of the keys to creating anti-heroes is their unorthodox morality. The Godfather

The pitch for the saga is: Don Corleone, an aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son Michael. Michael Corleone has a character arc we never saw coming when we first meet at his sister Connie’s wedding to Carlos–the event that begins the story.  In the beginning he’s the beloved youngest son, war hero, and Ivy League graduate.  His role in the family is that he remain untainted and uninvolved in their illegal enterprises. That all changes at the story’s midpoint when he kills a rival family head and a crooked police captain and then goes into hiding in Sicily. By the ending he’s the head of the family and is taking out his enemies including  Carlos, his brother-in-law, because he betrayed his brother Sonny.

Two of the main themes of the story are  respect and loyalty.   However, Michael exacts revenge for disloyalty by murdering within the family, something that his father Vito wouldn’t have sanctioned.  And the loyalty he earns as head of the family is mostly based on fear, not respect. The Corleone family members and their cronies have become iconic fictional figures over the years, as befitting the complexity of the story and its characters.

The Ocean has a Voice

Written By: jessicap - Jul• 10•14

One of my favorite aspects about the Oregon coast is the sound of it. The gulls shrieking overhead, the restless waves crashing in or thundering in during a storm, the wind, the movement of tides. But before I lived near the Pacific, the earth’s largest ocean, I lived in the upper Midwest. The ancient shores of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world, and Lake Michigan the eastern border of Wisconsin, were also wide and cold and storm-tossed. I visited these lakes often and when I was traveling to Lake Superior it was in search of old forests and stillness.

You see the Upper Midwest was mostly clear cut by Weyerhaeuser by 1900 so there were few tracts of native trees left. The forests were cleared to make way for crops, were cleared to supply timber to a growing country, and generally because of thoughtless and wanton foresting practices. A mind-boggling amount of trees were removed. During the 19th century, these vast forests yielded more money and created more millionaires than did all the gold mined during California’s Gold Rush. Most of these forest were not replanted although in the 1930s the CCC replanted thousands of acres of forests. I’ve hiked in these young forests and I’ve also I’ve hiked in tree farms owned by timber companies where the ecosystem has been destroyed. There are no native plants, birds and few animals. A spooky, weird silence often pervades.

So what does this have to do with writing? All writers need a place of solace and renewal. A place or way for words to take their form. For me it’s the Pacific and old forests. For me it’s being among the majestic and feeling the interconnectedness of nature.

On the fourth of July we hiked in a wilderness region where there was cathedral silence, except for the waterfalls 2 trickle of brooks and burble of small waterfalls. I could feel the mystery and ancientness of the place as we walked (and huffed) in hushed reverence along rugged terrain. The air smelled like loam and ferns and moss. All around were a hundred shades of emerald, wild flowers—lupine, asters, columbines, Indian paint brush, rhododendrons, and bear grass like Dr. Seuss plants. As we climbed higher there were vast, steep valleys and mountainsides of trees. The world was endless and yet I felt like I belonged.

Being in nature brings with it a heightened sense of awareness. It’s immersive like writing. Natural spaces stimulate your imagination and creativity, and spending time outdoors enhances cognitive flexibility, boosts serotonin, improves attention span and problem-solving abilities. Studies have shown that even 20 minutes spent outdoors increases energy levels. It also helps prevent the eye problems that occur from hours of sitting at a computer. It helps fill the big empty of the writing life.

Of course everyone has their own solace. I’m a jittery type and easily feel pressure and angst. I need to unplug, forget deadlines and worries. After I’ve been in a forest something in me was stilled, but at the same time I feel more alive.

And when I return to my desk the writing is my resting place, my solace.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Time is all we have

Written By: jessicap - Jul• 01•14

About twenty-five  years ago when I was in deep distress over a painful marriage, the need to leave it and a teenaged daughter who was enraged about my choices, I was desperate for answers. It was the late 80s and I went to therapy. A lot of therapy. I uncovered childhood traumas I hadn’t dealt with, confronted my low self esteem, and started building hope for a better future. It was a miserable era and I whined too much, drank too much, wallowed in self pity too much. I didn’t write a lot back then because I was too self absorbed. Of course, now I’m fully aware that all of us suffer at some time, some more than others,  but back then I was  using suffering as my identity. And that’s just plain pitiful.

During all this searching and wallowing I sought help from a woman who kept reminding me that people are timeless and limitless. Her words didn’t have much meaning back then, but  I’ve always clung to them and lately I’ve been rolling them around within. After all, July begins today which means we’re at the half-way mark for this year. Like me, are you struck by how fast time passes?  I mark the seasons through gardening and colors and the way the air feels on my skin, the light at dawn and dusk, the birds that visit. The seasons keep me grounded and engaged to this vast, spinning planet, but still they whiz past too quickly. bird-flying child drawing

Let’s bring this around to writing. Storytelling in all its forms is a timeless and ancient endeavor. As necessary to humans as air, fire, water. As precious as emeralds and songbirds. Writing is a beautiful way to spend a lifetime, another way to nurture our planet and fellow citizens.

But there comes the thorny issue of time. It seems there is never enough of it, especially in these golden summer months. All of us are pulled by other demands, from children to careers to aging parents. This means that hours we devote to writing need to be immersive, focused, and devotional. When you write you need to feel timeless and limitless, as if all that exists is you and the story.  With writing you need to enter a chamber, a place within where your stories live. Often connecting to these stories isn’t through conscious toil, as in ‘should I introduce my antagonist in this scene?’ Or through editing and revising which is done with the conscious mind–too many short sentences in a row, tighten the dialogue, punch up the action scenes.

Instead, your inner storyteller can be found in the dark, in the strata of the subconscious, or in the layers where dreams happen. We all have different ways of connecting with these layers, with achieving the marvelous flow that only happens when words pour out like lava. Until you have your writing practice nailed down or magical access to your subconscious,  start by focusing as tightly as possible. Handle the scene in front of you. If another idea for a scene swoops in, note it with a few words, concepts, then gently, gently turn back to your scene, your sentence. Just stay there, allowing movies to play out, or characters to start chatting. Or follow your character, feeling what she feels. Noticing what she notices.  Just stay there.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart






Written By: jessicap - Jul• 01•14

fireworks multiple

Quick Take: beware of thumbnail sketches

Written By: jessicap - Jun• 19•14

Avoid thumbnail sketches  or police blotter descriptions  whenever a new character steps into your book. (The suspect was a Latino male, 6 feet, medium build, scar on left cheek, tattoo of snake on right shoulder,  wearing black jacket, jeans and sneakers)This technique tends to feel contrived especially if used too often. A character doesn’t need to be described all at once, you can layer his or her appearance into the story in increments.  Here’s another example of piling it on: Allison, a 30-something,  5 foot 8 redhead, with heavily-mascaraed blue eyes and legs for days strolled into the restaurant her green eyes flashing. Her hair was shoulder-length, her figure striking, her fingernails painted a garish purple. She wore what looked like a real mink jacket over a tight, black dress and teetered on dangerously high heels. This is also direct characterization.

drag queen Pretend that you’re walking into a room and seeing your character for the first time. What are your first impressions?  Can you feel the force of his or her personality? Does he or she remind you of  a celebrity? Someone you know? It’s not all about the specifics of appearances—some people arrive on the scene full of confidence, some are hesitant or nervous. Why? Some people stand erect, some slouch. Some have lovely voice qualities, some people bray. Some wear too much cologne, some smell of fresh air or machine oil.  Use clothes, setting, and possessions, including large possessions such as cars to reveal characters.


Give Sorrow Words

Written By: jessicap - Jun• 11•14

Give Sorrow Wordsstatue covering face

There was a shooting in a nearby high school yesterday. A student dead along with the shooter. Details are still sketchy, motives unknown. This follows shootings in Las Vegas the previous day with two police officers gunned down while they ate lunch, a felon in possession of weapons, a suicide pact.

Yesterday was bright, the sky an innocent and faraway blue. Flowers nodding everywhere. The deep greens of the city as restful as always. But, of course, it wasn’t an innocent day.

When I was growing up tragedies happened. Kids died. A boy with epilepsy drowned in the Wisconsin River when he and I were about seven. It was such a raw, hollow afternoon. The fire department arriving with a giant, ugly hook searching the depths of the wide, south-flowing river. Clusters of us on the shore, whispers and acknowledgment of the depths of water. Sun scorching down on us. A hush that lasted throughout the day even after supper when the sun melted.

My aunt’s boyfriend, a high school senior, a young man full of promise, killed on New Year’s Eve in a car accident. The next day gathering and tears. There was my aunt’s miscarriage. Another with a stillborn baby. Sorrow was no stranger, but it didn’t visit often. And it was often faraway as with the scarring assassination of President Kennedy. Besides the president’s murder, these tragedies didn’t touch us kids much, it was the adults that whispered. We were concerned with smaller matters, the neighbor kid who jumped off our porch and broke his arm; another scarred from burns in a gasoline explosion. And schools were never a crime scene.

Yesterday when I  listened to the local news, students talked about how they’d been preparing for this day since middle school. How all the drills had paid off. Once in eighth grade I glanced out into the hallway just as our principal Mr. Kretchmeyer was about to press the fire alarm for a drill. I felt a delicious thrill of knowing when our eyes met, yet still the shrill bell grabbed at my heart as we filed outdoors.

I grieve for a world with shooter-in-the school drills, where hundreds of children in Nigerian schools are kidnapped, where I worry that my beautiful granddaughters aren’t safe. Where rampages in schools and colleges and shopping malls are starting to meld into an eerie, familiar sameness.

Some days the madness that has stained and spread across this country seems so crippling and unassailable. Some days every child in this country seems much too fragile. Some days I can hardly focus because a rage burns in me; a terrible heat that needs to be quenched. When my breath is a prayer that somehow sanity will prevail. That laws will change. That background checks will actually work and gun buying loopholes closed.

Which is when I remember lines from Macbeth, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break. ” I took this advice too often back in my teens and twenties. I nursed my heartaches on the page singing along to achy laments by Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt, playing the saddest songs over and over. Too much heartache, too little laughter showed up on in my journal entries and poems for years. My sorrows were my world, a small, tight place. Now my sorrows have so much more scope, take in so much beauty and danger that I feel made of glass at times.

But I’m a writer, you’re a writer. Give sorrow words.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Written By: jessicap - Jun• 02•14

June flowers

Last night we were eating dinner in the back yard. Birds were darting in to the feeders, down the block someone was practicing on an electric guitar, and the air was soft as velvet. Although it’s still not summer, it feels likes it.  The roses are abloom all over town and the greens have deepened to a summertime hue.

In the midst of all this wonder it’s a good time to review your writing goals. I know I am, aware that time is not forgiving. But there is still time in the calendar months ahead for big, messy dreams. For manuscripts to be completed, plans drawn for revision, contacts made.

Before the sweetness of the season nudges you out of doors, before the honeyed afternoons call, make your plans. Schedule writing sessions in your calendar.  Carry notebooks  everywhere. Collect the scents and glories of the season.  Search for colors and coax out the ghostlike ideas and images that nag at you.





I’m speaking at the June 3 Willamette Writers meeting, Portland

Written By: jessicap - May• 29•14

I’ll be speaking at the monthly meeting of the Willamette Writers on Tuesday, June 3.  Doors open at 6:30 and I’ll Elfen womanstart yakking around 7:00.  Free to members, $5 for nonmembers.

My topic: Risky Business or how to create compelling, larger-than-life surrogate warriors, bad ass anti-heroes, believable antagonists, and quirky, memorable cast members for your story.

Walter and Jesse-breaking_bad-5_1789We meet at the Old Church at 1422 S.W. 11th Avenue


Quick Take: Climax = Convergence

Written By: jessicap - May• 27•14

The climax in fiction is the mountain top, the battle, the declaration of love—where the story has been heading along, when the protagonist’s goal is achieved or denied, and the future is established. The major problem in the story is resolved and the scene contains intense emotions. It’s also the final turning point and can contain a revelation, a victory, a loss, a realization, an exposé. The foundation for the climax has been laid all through the story and the story question, established in the inciting incident, is answered in an unexpected way.
• In the film Titanic, Rose escapes her old life and takes a chance with Jack and the other passengers in steerage.
• In the film The King’s Speech King George IV gives an important speech about England’s involvement in the coming war as Logue coaches him from the sidelines.
• In The Shawshank Redemption Andy Dupree escapes from the prison.

Every story is made up of both a protagonist’s internal and external conflict. The inciting incident throw the protagonist off balance, upsets his inner world. His or her internal conflict stands in the way of resolving the story question and problem. In the climax these forces converge and the protagonist is revealed under the harshest light because it’s the toughest test.
• Rose resolves her loyalty to her family versus her need for an authentic life.
• King George IV decides to trust a commoner who knows him better than authorities around him.
• Andy realizes that the corrupt warden values his services too much to allow justice in his case.

This convergence is always highlighted in romance plots when the couple overcomes their inner conflicts to face a new world together. There is always only way forward once the inner conflict is resolved. Plan for this convergence when you start writing your novel.

A Room with a View or Not?

Written By: jessicap - May• 19•14

I’m inspired by the solace of nature, particularly the Pacific or a dense forest, sun dappling golden on the branches. Then again  the lullaby burbling of a  creek or river is my ideal soundtrack as I write.

Annie Dillard in The Writing Life advises: “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view so memory can dance with imagination in the dark.”

What do you think? Where do you write? creek