Character, Setting and Weather in your Memoir | Creating a World in Your Story


As writers, we all know that writing a memoir, a long full length story, pushes us to think on several levels at once—it’s like rubbing your stomach while patting your head, doing a tap dance and a few yoga moves all at once while singing an aria! Whew. And we need to weave images with a felt sense of the moments in time we’re creating, building a world for our readers to inhabit using the techniques of story writing.

One sticking point for memoir writing is characterization—our characters are real people, so we can’t just make things up. We have to use the real locations and settings—we can’t make that up either- they have to be accurate and true. To create a moving story that grabs the reader, we need to create scenes based on real events and real people saying real things—not easy.

There’s a lot to juggle.

Tips for characterization:

  • As you prepare to write a portrait of someone who will be a main character in your memoir, remember to use sensual details, including color, scent, sound, and feel. Use metaphors: He looked like Cary Grant. She moved like Marilyn Monroe—or more modern choices, depending on your audience.
  • Body language How would you describe the person’s body movements? Quick, slow, jerky, bulky, sensuous, lilting, blocky? Did a shoulder rise or a frown appear under stress? Did her face wrinkle up in laughter or confusion?
  • The feel, color, and look of emotion. How did the person’s face and posture change when sad, angry, joyful, hopeful, disappointed?
  • Who are the main characters in your story? Briefly list and describe them in order of importance.
  • Who are the minor characters—people who are significant enough to appear, but who aren’t in the spotlight. Remember, they need to have some significant role in your story to appear in your memoir. If you decide later these characters aren’t needed, you can edit them out. 

 Think about this when writing about characters: what might your life have been like without this person in it? (Consider the premise in the classic film It’s A Wonderful Life).

 Using an old photograph, write a portrait of a grandmother, grandfather, or family member you’ve never met. Try to imagine him or her living and breathing, walking and talking. Write about the story about the setting, before and after the photo was taken, and questions you want to ask them about their lives.


1.      Where is your story located, what part of the world? Even if it’s a small town where you were born, or where your grandmother lived, specific details and colorful descriptions are the secret to writing a memorable memoir.

For example: “We lived on the edge of town in a white clapboard house with a windmill in the back. All day chickens pecked the ground and clucked, and the wind blew the lace curtains in the dining room against the screens. It was hot in the kitchen because the wood cook stove had to be fired up even in summer, and sweat had to be mopped from our brow with an embroidered handkerchief.”

 2.      What is the weather during the different seasons? Be specific. Don’t just say, “Rain.” What kind of rain—horizontal rain, torrential rain, a mild mist, a cold rain, warm rain. Or was it sleet?

Notice your own bodily reactions to the images you capture on the page. Though your reactions are tempered by your own memories, if you are writing IN the scene, if you are gathering the details that make the scene come alive, you will feel it! And so will your reader.


My colleague Matilda Butler, co-founder of Women’s Memoirs and author of a new book Writing Alchemy has analyzed and broken down character types, and will discuss it at our National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminar November 16.

After the Memoir says “The End” Platform & Your Publishing Paths | Free Discussion with Brooke Warner


I love helping writers find information that helps them become an author, and this week, the Free Roundtable Discussion at the National Association of Writers is going to be invaluable. Sign up by clicking the link above!

October 11, 2012

4 PM PDT   5 PM MDT   6 PM  CDT  7 PM EDT

Brooke Warner, former Executive editor at Seal Press will talk with us about the three choices you have for publishing. In her new book What’s Your Book? Brooke outlines the three paths you need to choose as you consider how to be published: Agents Way; Publishers Row; and Self-Publishing Boulevard.

Brooke is going to discuss in depth the many layers of decision making that are involved in deciding how to become published. As you all know, the publishing world is changing week by week! This three choice model makes it easier for authors to understand how to make informed decisions. You need to know why you might choose your path, and how to manage these important career choices. Your mind-set, goals, and dreams will help determine what fork in thepublishing  road you want to take.

One of the important things Brooke writes about in her book, and we’ll talk about it on the Roundtable, is building platform—which means understanding your audience and your marketing plan–the best ways to get your book out to readers. Platform is important no matter what path to publishing you choose, and you can begin simply and long before your book is done.

More about platform:

  1. You need some kind of blog, with regular posts that cover the themes of your book.
  2. A presence on Facebook—at the minimum. You can begin with just your friends.
  3. Presence on Twitter is recommended—sign up for the free audio to learn more about why.
  4. Add other social media that you enjoy/or are learning to use.
  5. Create a list of ideas for  how and to whom you will market your book.
  6. It’s important to understand the role the author plays in today’s world of publishing.

Many writers stress about these things—platform and publishing—but there are simple ways to make all this work and ways you can enjoy the process. Join us to learn more about how you can be a successful author.

Brooke will be offering a special promotion on this call. Listeners will have an opportunity to win a copy of her new book, What’s Your Book?, in which she details common challenges writers must face on their writing journey; how to build an author platform; a roadmap to getting published; and much more. I have read her book, and though I have had several books published already, and am still building platform, I learned so many new techniques and tips that will help me continue to grow as an author.

Go to this link to sign up for this dynamic and informative free discussion, and have a chance to win a copy of Brooke’s book!

See you at the Roundtable!

Writing to Heal | Step by Step from Memories to Transformational Memoir


Writing to heal yourself is a powerful tool—a means of personal transformation. In my book The Power of Memoir, I present a step-by-step program to help writers grab onto the images and memories they want to explore, and to move past the pain and trauma to get to the “takeaway” of survival, learning, self-knowledge, and deep personal change. When a writer has a deeply personal and even painful story, here are some ways to help get that story out and onto the page.

First, think about the special moments, the turning points that changed the direction of your life in a significant way. Make a list of these moments, at least ten to twenty, and write down each event and when it occurred.

Memoirists get overwhelmed by the large number of memories that spill out in all directions. The turning point and timeline tools that I talk about in The Power of Memoir help organize memories and give a focus to creating a narrative. You need to sift through the jumble of memories to find the most important stories as a spine around which to build a longer work. You need to find a focus and a message–and you may have several messages to share. This is great—allow the creative juices to flow, using brain storming and journaling to invite your ideas to the page where you can objectively sort through them.

A way to help manage the emotional aspects of writing a memoir, particularly if there are dark parts to the story, is to keep track of the “dark” and the “light” stories. Again, list making helps to contain and focus what the lighter—happier, joyful, and inspiring moments were in your life. Perhaps you need to revisit the darker moments to help banish the stories that swirl in your head—and create a new narrative with the perspective you have now as an adult.

It’s very important to learn about story structure and scenes. A story, unlike a journal entry, must have a structure—a beginning, middle, and an end, and is constructed with an aim toward a goal and the unfolding of a plot where dramatic action guides the reader through the story. I devote a whole chapter in Power of Memoir to sketching out how a new writer can approach and learn about structure—it does not tend to be a strong point for most memoir writers, but you can learn it! Step by step.

Scenes bring your world alive!

Scenes are important! When we write a scene, we find ourselves in the places and times of our lives in a kind of creative hypnosis.  A story uses scenes to bring the past to life. A scene takes place at a particular moment in time, and draws upon the use of sensual details—smell, sound, texture, description, color, and taste, along with characters, dialogue, and action. In a memoir, you are both the narrator and the “I” of the story—the main character. This dual point of view helps to create a witnessing experience of yourself as you write from your current point of view about who you once were, an artful weaving of then and now, past and present.

Alice Miller, a Swiss psychiatrist, says that being witnessed is a significant part of the healing process, and of course we know that when we are seen and acknowledged, we feel affirmed and stronger. We are able to confront past experiences in a new way. Writing helps us to do this ourselves through the power of story. Writing a memoir allows us to witness all the stages of our lives, and when we read others’ memoirs, we witness and empathize with them, thus deepening our connection with humanity.


Tips for writing darker stories in your memoir.

  1. Create  distance from the story. Write about what happened in the third person: “she” or “he” instead of “I.”
  2. Write as if you are watching the event unfold in a movie.
  3. Write a scene about a difficult incident, but make it turn out the way you wanted it to, ending it positively.
  4. Tell what happened before and after a difficult incident. Write around it, but not about the event itself.
  5. Only write a darker story for 20 minutes.
  6. Follow up a darker story with a lighter, happier story.
  7. If the past is too painful, write about the blessings in your life now.
  8. Write about yourself as a survivor and hero of your life.

What helps you to write past your painful memories? How do you balance the dark and the light as you write? Share your tips here. We all need to weave these elements when we write a memoir.



Stop Procrastinating! Write Your Memoir on a Schedule



How do you get your writing done—or do you? Are you a procrastinator—do you let Time Bandits get in your way? The solution is simple and it’s one you use for the rest of your life: you have to schedule your writing dates. You make dates for everything else, right? Do you know if you’re more creative in the morning or at night? Be sure to plan your writing time around the best times of your day and week.

How do you feel about scheduling your writing? Perhaps you prefer to wait for the muse to knock on your door. Do you ever despair getting your book done? These questions are part of a writer’s dilemma. This is why books don’t get finished, and frustration sets in.

I used to be one of those “write when you feel like it” people. I believed in inspiration, I believed in the need for an extra adrenaline push to get started. But I didn’t write very often. I made this okay by telling myself I wasn’t a professional writer, and I had a lot of other things to do. I noticed that I did a lot of thinking instead of writing. I tried to work out the scenes in my memoir and the challenges I was having by having it whir around in my brain. However, I didn’t write enough, and the lack of progress made me wonder if I should be doing a memoir at all.

Then I listened to authors speaking in bookstores—back when there were several in town. I learned a lot from listening to these authors—all of them talked about engaging with their ideas, characters, and solving problems through writing. One author, I forget who, said, “Writing leads to more writing.”

Hmmm—I decided to check this out, and soon enough I found it was true. Once I sat down and re-read what I’d written the day before—which is what a lot of writers have done, from Steinbeck to Virginia Woolf, and as I began to read, the ideas started flowing. Soon I’d be writing, tinkering, editing—engaging with my material. It was so easy once I opened the document and began to read. And I discovered that the more I wrote, the more I was able to write. It became much easier to write for a longer period of time. It’s sort of like exercise—once you set the time aside, you build up your stamina and you WANT to keep writing.

Tips to Get Started

There are several ways to deal with getting yourself to write. One of the best is to set a time, and show up. You show up on time at work, right? If you make a coffee date with someone, you arrive on time. We learn to show up for others, and we have to do it for ourselves. We need to become our Writer’s Best Friend.

  1. Make realistic commitments to yourself about the time you set. If you are definitively NOT a morning person, 5:30 AM may not work for you. But you might need to stay up an hour or two later at night. Try both systems and see what works best. Set a system that helps you keep your writing time regular.
  2. Since you keep coffee dates with no trouble, set a date with your writer self at a coffee shop or café. These days, everyone is sitting around with computers or iPads, typing away. Set a date at a coffee shop especially if you are one of these people who CLEANS when you are at home. Get away from the sponge and mop, and get thee to the café. Bring your notebooks and your computer, get some tea or coffee, and tune into your writing.
  3. Set times with a writer buddy to get your scene done. You both agree on a time you’re going to write and then you keep the date, and check in later with each other. How much did you write, how did it go, when is our next date are good check in questions.
  4. Figure out how many words you want to get written and the time frame you are giving yourself. To get 60,000 words in 6 months you have to write 10,000 words a month: 10,000 divided by 4 weeks is 2500 words a week. 2500 divided by 7 days is 347 words a day. That is 1.5 pages, double spaced. You can do that!
  5. Know that creating a schedule and asking yourself to show up is developing yourself as a “real” writer, and helps you to feel good about what you are doing. It also creates a positive habit, and once you have a good habit developed, it’s much easier to keep going with little extra effort.
  6. Dream your book–do you see the cover in your mind? Where will it sit in the bookstores? Sleep with your manuscript under your pillow to invite your subconscious mind to help you while you sleep. But also…
  7. Make your writing dates, and keep them! Watch yourself get your book done in six months!

How do you feel about a strict writing schedule? Are you willing to experiment for a week to see if you can write more?

Are you stuck in your memoir? Join me and Brooke Warner for a FREE call about solving your stuckness Monday October 1, 4 PM PDT.

In this call we’ll identify the signs that you might be in the Muddy Middle and ideas for what to do about it!

Are any of these familiar? •Stuckness •Energy dips •Procrastination •Doubting memories

Join us at 4pm PST | 5pm MST | 6pm CST | 7pm EST.

CALL-IN INFO: (530) 881-1300 CODE: 879104

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Publishing Wild West Show–Finding your Way as a Memoirist

As writers, we find ourselves involved in the publishing world–either happily or with frustration and stress. Today at the Free Roundtable discussion at NAMW, I’m going to speak with Madeline Sharples, author of Leave the Hall Light On, a powerful book about her the son who committed suicide, leaving the family in ashambles, how she recovered her sense of self and family in the aftermath of the tragedy. Though it is tragic, Sharples’ skillful handling of scenes, unfolding awarenesses, and the recovery process makes it a book we all can learn from. Her book did well, but suddenly a few months ago, her publisher went out of business. The discussion we’re having over at the National Association of Memoir Writers will address how she found a publisher for her book, which was not a new book, and what he looks for in memoirs.

We’ll be talking with Mike O’Mary, publisher and owner of Dream of Things. We will look at that state of the publishing industry today, and what authors need to know about publishing before they look for a publisher.

Next week self-publishing is the focus at the member teleseminar on Friday, September 21 with Linda Austin and Sonia Marsh. We will be addressing the practicalities of publishing through the different platform, why one might be better than another, depending on your needs, and how to find out what you need to know to make the best choices.

There is so much to know. As both a self-published and traditionally published author, I have to say both are appealing in different ways, and that I still have a lot to learn, as the industry is changing probably every day. Stay tuned to more about publishing in this wild west ride the industry is going through. And in the meantime, write the best book you can write.


What do you think about self-publishing–is it something you would consider?

Or do you think it’s best to find an agent and a traditional publisher–and why??