Propping up our stories: creating characters with prop-building

Propping up our stories: creating characters with prop-building

I’ve been doing a lot of prop-building lately—for example, crafting dragon eggs. Since prop-building is such an important part of my writing process, it’s something I like to bring to my students as well.

Getting away from the screen

One of the great things about prop-building is that it allows me to work on my book without staring at the screen. Let’s face it: Writing is hard and often exhausting. Sometimes, I feel like I have no words left in my brain, but I still have the desire to playin my world.

I’ve found that prop-building is a way to accomplish that. Working with tangible objects, working with my hands, has helped me to sort out plot problems. It’s kind of like doing the dishes and being suddenly struck by a eureka moment. Of course, when you wash dishes, all you get is clean dishes. When you build a prop, you get a tangible item from an imaginary world.

Nightmare Bottles

I’ve been working with a group of tween and teen writers this spring and one of the things I’ve tried to do is bring in the prop-building angle.

One of our first projects was to build “nightmare bottles.” This involves creating a character and metaphorically putting their fears in a bottle. Of course, this could provide fuel for a story in its own right, but the main purpose here was just to coax the kids into some brainstorming time.

Here’s some of their creations . . .

cwc_coquitlamb_2018_dreambottle07

cwc_coquitlamb_2018_dreambottle06

cwc_coquitlamb_2018_dreambottle05

cwc_coquitlamb_2018_dreambottle04

cwc_coquitlamb_2018_dreambottle03

cwc_coquitlamb_2018_dreambottle02

cwc_coquitlamb_2018_dreambottle01

 

Character Kits

The main prop-building project I introduced this term was to create a personal kit for each character. This could also be metaphorical or could actually appear in the students’ stories. I’m big on inventing interesting “tools” for my characters and, especially if you are writing a fantasy book, I think you have a lot of opportunities to add extra sizzle to your story.

For this project, the students get to decorate and paint the kits themselves, then fill them with a variety of mini-props that fit their specific characters’ journeys.

cwc_coquitlamb_2018_characterkit03

cwc_coquitlamb_2018_characterkit02

cwc_coquitlamb_2018_characterkit01

This project has also tasked my students with a different approach to creativity. I’ve been trying to make sure they solve some of the problems they face.For example, one of my students wanted to build a spy kit with a gun. I looked around for toy guns and felt the creativity being sapped right out of me. I decided we could do something more original and unique. So, instead of buying a pre-made toy pistol, I bought tiny water guns and told the student to use it as a base for building something more unique.

He took one look at the brightly colored water guns and scoffed. I couldn’t convince him what a little paint a few cannibalized odds and ends could do. There was nothing I could do to change his mind, so I went home and built my own gun.

raygun_watergun

Admittedly, my gadget turned out part steampunk, part alien ray gun, but I hope I’ve made my point! And, now, I have something more unique and interesting that I can use—yep, I decided this can belong to a character who’s currently running around causing havoc in one of my own stories.

That’s the power of prop-building!

Advertisements

A new addition to the dragon’s nest

A new addition to the dragon’s nest

I have been building dragon eggs for a couple of years now, but I recently took on the challenge of crafting a giant one. I originally wanted to build an egg so that I could use it as reference in a book I’m working on (not the MAIN book I’m working on, but a side project).

I realized that my eggs were all too small—I wanted a model that would be the exact same size as the one my characters would have to deal with in the book.

So, I hunkered down over spring break and set to work . . . Here’s all the stages, starting with the raw materials: a giant plastic Easter egg shell, acrylic jewels, and plaster.

largedragonegg01

I started by plastering. This is the same type of material that doctors use for casts, but you can buy it at most art stores. I cut the plaster sheets into manageable strips then begin forming designs on the shell.

largedragonegg02_plaster

The plaster dries quickly, but can snap off if you’re not careful. A coat of mod-podge does wonders to keep it intact.

largedragonegg03_plastering

largedragonegg04_plastering

Once I was done with the plastering, I began the bejeweling phase, using a variety of different sizes and colors—the color variation doesn’t actually matter, because everything gets painted over at the end.

largedragonegg05_bejewelling

I like to start with a black coat of paint, then build up color afterwards.

largedragonegg06_painting

I chose metallic greens for the final color, so started dry-brushing over the black undercoat.

largedragonegg07_painting

Here’s the final product, sitting in my studio and shown next to an average hen’s egg, to show scale!

largedragonegg08_final

And here’s four of my dragon eggs, showing the different sizes, colors, and patterns.

four_dragon_eggs.jpg

 

The nightmare escapes: a writing prompt at our creativity camp

The nightmare escapes: a writing prompt at our creativity camp

My wife and I our currently in Korea, teaching a creativity camp for tweens and teens. We’re combing writing, art, prop building, and acting to provide the students with a week of intensive creativity!

One of our opening activities was based around the idea of bottling dreams. Students brainstormed characters, focusing on their fears and nightmares. The students then “built” the nightmares by imagining that they had been bottled.

Students could be as literal or symbolic as they wished. I brought a lot of general supplies such as black sand, hair, cotton, and feathers, all of which could be trimmed or stretched to represent the negative qualities of nightmares. There were also some more “on-the-nose” objects, such as plastic bugs and snakes!

For story purposes, those bottles get accidentally opened, unleashing story inspiration!

Here are some photos of the students’ bottles and brainstorming . . .

cwc2017korea_nightmarebottle_building

cwc2017korea_nightmarebottle01

cwc2017korea_nightmarebottle02

cwc2017korea_nightmarebottle03

cwc2017korea_nightmarebottle04

cwc2017korea_nightmarebottle05

cwc2017korea_nightmarebottle06

cwc2017korea_nightmarebottle07

cwc2017korea_nightmarebottle08

cwc2017korea_nightmarebottle09

The thief who coveted the dragon’s scale

The thief who coveted the dragon’s scale

As a middle-grade fantasy author, a big part of my personal process is bringing my worlds to life through prop-building. It’s also something I love bringing to the classroom.

A recent project I’ve worked on with two different creative writing classes for tweens and teens is something I call “The Dragon and the Thief.” In this series of workshops, we build dragon scales then write a series of pieces about two adversarial characters.

The first set of writing is a pair of poems. The first one, “I am a Thief,” is from the perspective of a character who wants to climb the mountain to snatch a dragon’s scale.  The second one, “I am a Dragon,” is from the perspective of the fantastical beast who is being pilfered. To get the students started, I have them work on a couple of brainstorming sheets.

Of course, some students choose to do their own brainstorming in their notebooks:

cwchl2017-dragonscale00

Afterwards, the students choose the perspective that they feel most connected to, and write a short story.

And, of course, along the way, we build the scales themselves. These are fairly simple to craft, though they do demand some time and patience.

The first step is to cut out some basic scale shapes from soda bottles. Then it’s a matter of using plaster to “sculpt” around them. Depending on what you want, you can just simply leave the surface flat and smooth, or sculpt in ridges.

dragonscale01-form

dragonscales01

dragonscales02

dragonscales03

This is where the patience comes in; after this stage, you just have to wait for them to dry! At this stage, the scales should look like the ones below, with a gentle curve (which you get naturally from the soda bottle).

cwchl2017-dragonscale01

The next stage is to texturize the scales by adding acrylic gems (though other materials could work, too). Once the gems are glued down, we then paint the scales with mod podge, which helps bind everything together.

dragonscales04

dragonscales05

dragonscales06

dragonscales07

cwchl2017-dragonscale03

cwchl2017-dragonscale02

cwchl2017-dragonscale06

Then we need more patience, to let everything dry . . . but once that happens, then it’s just down to painting. I usually recommend painting the whole scale black for a base, then dry brushing metallic paint overtop to achieve the desired color and texture.

Here is a gallery of the scales that my students have produced. I think they look pretty darn amazing!

cwchl2017-dragonscale05

cwchl2017-dragonscale07

cwchl2017-dragonscale09

dragonscales08

dragonscales09

dragonscales10

cwchl2017-dragonscale08

dragonscales11

dragonscales12

dragonscales13

dragonscales14

dragonscales15

dragonscales16

 

Cool creative writing activities—pirate style

Cool creative writing activities—pirate style

Last week author and colleague Kallie George and I finished up a two week creative writing camp for kids aged 9-12 through CWC. The theme was one of our faves: pirates!

Kallie and I have taught many camps before, but we wanted to try and do something a little different this time. Even though the goal of the camp was to just immerse kids in creative writing, we decided we needed to give them a goal.

So, we decided to have them produce handmade pirate “journals” that would chronicle the adventure of a character who ends up sailing the seas.

Once we had that decided, it was just a matter of developing and fine-tuning some topics . . .

Day 1: Introduction – What kind of pirate are you?

For the first day, we just warmed up the kids by introducing them to our theme, having them take a fun quiz (What kind of pirate are you?), and doing some writing warm-ups.

Day 2: Plot me a treasure!

We introduced our overall goal, to make a pirate log book and began the project by drawing treasure maps. One of my goals in all of my writing classes is to have the kids work hard on developing better ideas. To this end, I had them complete a brainstorming sheet before they began drawing.

The brainstorming sheet outlined various features they might include on their map and come up with inventive names for them. I find that many young writers will just pick the first name that pops into their head and not give it a second thought. The brainstorming sheet helped them come up with a much more imaginative and evocative world for their journal.

map01map02map03map04map05

This was also the day the students began handwriting their journals. Many of them chose to do rough copies that they could then copy into their final booklets (after a quick edit, of course).

Day 3: Pirate Particulars

Pirates love clothes, so on Day 3 we had the students approach character design through a strong visual approach. The kids designed a complete pirate wardrobe for a character, including clothes, tools, tattoos, and the ultimate fashion accessory—a pirate pet.

pirateparticulars01pirateparticulars02pirateparticulars03

Day 4: ARG! Pirate Lingo

One of the most fun things about pirates is the way they talk, so we led an activity to help students practice pirate lingo.

Day 5: Settings that Sail

This day was all about the ship and the flag. We showed the students diagrams of famous ships from film and literature (my personal favorite being The Dawn Treader), and went over the flags used by real-life pirates.

Afterwards, the students brainstormed and designed their own pirate flags. Once again, I had the students do a few thumbnail designs before committing to a final since this does always seem to turn up the best ideas.

flagdesigns01

I ended up designing my own pirate flag, too . . . one to go with a book I’m currently writing.

flagdesigns02-captaintraxx

Day 6: Treasure Ahoy!

We had started the camp giving the kids miniature treasure chests loaded with gold, rubies, and pears. On this day, I brought in other pieces of treasure—mirrors, kaleidoscopes, ancients coins, pots, and so forth. Each student picked an object (and many of them were actual antiques) and were asked to describe it using the five senses.

Once we shared our descriptions, the next task was to invent one magical or unusual thing about the object. So, for example, one student decided that a kaleidoscope showed the true path to the pirate treasure and the other decided that the mirror had captured the soul of a wayward sailor.

description01felix&charlottepirate-treasurechestpiratecamp

Afterwards, we did a visualization activity in which the students all shut their eyes and we played the sounds of a ship at sea during a storm. Afterwards, the students wrote about the experience, concentrating on the five senses.

The purpose of this day was to just make sure the students understood the concept of show-don’t-tell and to help them invest more description into their stories.

Day 7: Sea Shanties

This was one of the most fun days in the camp, as we had the students listen to a cargo of sea shanties then craft their own. Some were ballads, some were call-and-response songs, and others were more free form. Also, most of them were about how to drop me, “Cap’n Wiz.”

seashanty01seashanty02seashanty03

Day 8: Legends & Lore

This was a day to bring on the sea serpents! We explored real legends and myths of sea creatures and then asked the students to think about their own monsters by drawing and sculpting them out of clay. Of course, afterwards, they could incorporate these creatures into their pirate journals.

seacreature01seacreature02seacreature03

Day 9: Message in a Bottle

By now, it must be obvious that we like buidling stuff in our creative writing camps! On this day, the students wrote messages and put them in bottles, which they painted to make them look like they had been adrift for awhile. The story prompt here was that the students’ characters could be sending out a cry for help.

Day 10: Seal ‘Em Shut

This was the day the kids finished up working on their journals. We had a plan to tea-stain the journals, but then were a bit worried about some of the ink smudging. In any case, this is something the kids could do at home.

The main task we wanted to focus on was making sure the covers look interesting. We procured some brown cardstock and had the kids draw on them with metallic markers. We also got some wax to drip overtop so that they could “seal” them with an impression of a skull or some other design.

piratejournal01piratejournal02piratejournal03piratejournal04piratejournal05piratejournal06piratejournal07piratejournal08piratejournal09

I’m pretty impressed with the final products and, considering this was the first time we did this project, it turned out rather smoothly.

Well, now it’s time for me to switch gears and turn my attention to my next summer creative writing workshop series: Galaxy Camp!

 

 

How a new children’s book series reminded me about the magic of world-building

How a new children’s book series reminded me about the magic of world-building

Author (and friend!) Kallie George recently wrote a guest post on my blog in which she described her world-building process for her brand new children’s book series, The Heartwood Hotel. 

Since that post, Kallie officially launched the series with a fun and engaging event at Kidsbooks, our local bookstore that specializes in catering to young readers.

heartwoodhotellaunch-kalliegeorge

The launch was a stupendous success. Families were lined up down to block as they waited for the doors to open, clamoring to hear Kallie share her new world. For Kallie, that mean not only mesmerizing the kids with a reading of the first book in the series, but also providing amazing and tangible pieces that were completely interactive.

I was reminded, once again, about the magic that can happen when you really put the “build” into world-building.

Mapping

In the earlier post on my blog, Kallie talked about using mapping as a way to construct a believable and interesting world. If you haven’t read that post yet, then I really encourage you to do so.

04_tree_map_floors

Mapping has long been a key technique that I use in my own writing process, and, as Kallie describes in her post, I helped her map the Heartwood Hotel, too. Personally, I map all kinds of spaces in my books, everything from entire worlds to one-room settings. I find it’s a great way to “stage” a scene and to help make it logical.

These maps don’t need to be slick and professional for the purposes of the author’s writing, but, of course, they can end up becoming the basis for something your publisher can use for the final book.

Dioramas

The kids who turned up to meet Kallie at her book launch were in for a real treat. Kallie and her husband Luke put in many late nights working on a model of the Heartwood hotel–a sort of doll house complete with furniture and accessories.

heartwoodhotel-model00.jpg

heartwoodhotel-model01heartwoodhotel-model02

The only thing missing?  Well, that was the figures. But no worries! Kallie provided wooden peg figures so that the kids could make their own animal critters that were the perfect scale to roam around the Heartwood Hotel environment.

heartwoodhotel-joanne

Of course, the kids got to take their peg figures home with them, but I love the idea that they could imagine that they got to stay in the hotel first.

Props

Well, if you’re going on a vacation, you also need a suitcase. Kallie provided miniature suitcase templates that could be cut out and folded into shape.

heartwoodhotel-activity

heartwoodhotel_suitcase_on

If you weren’t so lucky as to attend the launch, you can still make your own Heartwood Hotel suitcase. Just head over to the official website to download the template.

The final activity that I wanted to mention was that the kids attending Kallie’s book launch also had the opportunity to leave behind a record of their stay at the Heartwood Hotel by filling out an entry in one of the many pages in the beautiful guestbook created specifically for the book launch.

heartwoodhotel_guestbook

heartwoodhotel-book.jpg

I thought this was a fabulous idea . . . the kids could base the entry on the peg figure they created, or even put their own name (though, really, no humans are allowed at the Heartwood!). This guestbook really helped immerse the kids in Kallie’s world.

Why put the build into world-building?

If you’re a fantasy author—especially a fantasy author for kids—I think you have a really great opportunity to bring your world to life in every way you can. Maps, dioramas, really can make for a magical book launch or school visit.

Building for your readers

We live in an interactive but highly-digitized world. More than ever, there is something enchanting about kids being able to look at a tangible, three-dimensional prop and to hold it their hands. I can’t tell you the number of times a child has examined one of my dragon eggs or magical potions and asked, “Is it real?”

So, these add-ons can really help attract kids to the worlds you have created or deepen their affection for the love they already have for a story. If you ask me, they are a must for a book launch or school visit!

Building for you

So, making magical potions, building a diorama, sketching a map . . . they might be great for promotion, but what do they do for the book itself? Do they make the words better?

I think so. The writing process can be arduous and taking a break from the screen to build something connected to your world can really help you examine your story from a different angle. I like to think of it as getting to play in my world, but in a different way than using words.

I can recall so many times in which I’ve imagined a magical item, written about it, then built a prop of it, only to realize that the final prop is vastly different than the way I originally imagined it—in a much better way. So, in essence, prop building helps enrich the ideas in my story. When you’re a fantasy writer, that’s critical.

Building for teachers

Kallie and I have worked as creative writing teachers, often in tandem, for many years and we have always taken the philosophy of putting the “build” into world building seriously. We often encourage our students, young and old to draw maps of their worlds, build diorama of key settings, create costume designs for characters, and to find or fashion important props.

Of course, these techniques can also be used to help kids connect to books as readers. In my time as an author, I’ve seen pictures of kids connecting to my worlds through costume, dioramas, and figurines. Recently, one student even made her own history book or “EEN-cyclopedia” of my worlds!

What do you think? If you’re a teacher, do use these techniques? If you’re an author, do you use them? If so, which ones?

More Kendra Peg Figures

diorama_ratchetsstump

eencyclopedia.jpg

mulgrave_kendras

 

 

In which I survive my most recent tour and visit a magical island

ferry.jpg

I recently  made it back from a second tour in three weeks, in which I visited eight schools in four days, followed by a day of presentations at the Vancouver Island Children’s Bookfest. You can only get to Vancouver Island by ferry, so I opted to drive over with my car so that I could cart all my various props and supplies.

What supplies? Well, for one, that included my Tour Survival Kit. I knew it was going to be a tough slog, energy-wise, just because I had come off another recent (and hectic) tour of schools, so I prepped a kit that included:
~ throat tea
~ vitamins (echinacea, golden seal extract, vitamin C)
~ coffee
~ cereal bars
~ hand sanitizer
~ more coffee

toursurvivalkit

Unfortunately, just before heading out, I caught a bug and that really played havoc with my voice. Without the benefit of days off or rest, I had no choice but to just plow straight ahead and squeak like a teenager going through puberty.

Thankfully, I was billeted for the week with one of the festival volunteers. Laurie tended to me like a nurse, which helped me make it through all those school visits. One day, I headed off to my school without my thermos of tea and when I came out into the parking lot, there she was, waiting with it! Now, that’s dedication!

It’s a challenge doing this kind of tour because it not only involves during several presentations in one week, but doing them at several different schools a day. For an author such as myself, who loves his props, that means a lot of quick set up and tear down, not to mention all the driving in between. Luckily, I have all of this down to a fine art.

Throughout the week, I did a variety of brainstorming activities at the schools. We often brainstormed doors, but we also did creatures and entire worlds. I even got to spend a couple hours talking archetypes with Grade 6s and 7s at Queen Margaret School in Duncan.

nanaimo2017-door01

qms_lef_workshop2017

nanaimo2017-door02

nanaimo2017-door03

nanaimo2017-door04

nanaimo2017-door05

nanaimo2017-door06

nanaimo2017-door07

Doing so many presentations in a condensed period of time takes its toll on me physically, but mentally as well. It’s fun brainstorming with kids, but it fires up my imagination. By the time I am finished for the day, my brain is percolating like a pot on the stove and I feel the urge, despite my exhaustion, to create.

One way I tried to purge my brain of all the creative clutter was to do some character naming. I ended up generating a long list of names for background characters in a world I’m building. That seemed to be able to settle my mind down enough to get some sleep.

wizardnames.jpg

By the time Saturday rolled around, the day of the Book Festival, I felt I had made it over the hump. My voice was holding out, and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I did two presentation/workshops at the festival, and was delighted to have my room teeming with kids and parents. For the festival day, I decided to try something I hadn’t quite done before, and that was brainstorming a magical market with the kids. I’ve done this sort of workshop before, but it’s usually with more time, and in a more classroom-style setting. This was the first time I did it with the sort of raw brainstorming approach. Thankfully, the kids (and parents) embraced the activity and we ended up with many fun and lively shelves full of all sorts of magical items, strange foods, and bizarre curios.

nanaimo-bookfest-workshop2017

bookfest2017-magicalmarket01

bookfest2017-magicalmarket02

bookfest2017-magicalmarket03

bookfest2017-magicalmarket04

One of the most fun things about going on this sort of tour is all the people you get to meet. I really enjoyed meeting my billet, Lauri. Her home has a very cool vibe to it, for it is full of treasures such as old-fashioned school desks, antique cameras, and typewriters. Laurie saw how enamored I was with her collection so bequeathed to me one of her typewriters.

typewriter

Of course, there were many other people to meet: all the librarians, book vendors, and other volunteers who helped make the festival a possibility. There were many other authors and artists to meet as well. This year’s presenters were Celestine Aleck, Scott Chandler, Eugenie Fernandes, Suzanne de Montigny, Ruth Ohi, Chieri Uegaki, Richard Van Camp,  and Cybèle Young.

I had met some of these creators at past festivals and events, so it was great to see old acquaintances again. (If you have ever met Ruth Ohi, then you know she pretty much takes the party with her. There’s a certain shake in her soda).

As a special treat, we were taken out to nearby Protection Island, which is a short ferry ride from Nanaimo. Protection Island is a real treat. I’m pretty sure it’s enchanted.

First of all, the ferry is for passengers only; no cars. So any cars on the island itself had, at one time, to be barged over. In fact, there are no stores on the island, not even a small one. The only business at all is a pub (well, I guess they got their priorities right). So, the people who live there have to bring everything over on the passenger ferry (that includes canisters of petrol for their cars).

protectionisland-dock

protectionisland-sign

That means the island is quiet and peaceful; no urban noise, no cutter for the ears. The island and its views are stunning, and we had a wonderful dinner hosted by residents Dora and Jerry who founded the Children’s Book Festival many moons ago. As I said, I feel like there’s a rumbling of magic on this island. It also sort of reminded me of Tom Sawyer’s island; it just had that sort of vibe.

I especially enjoyed seeing the heron nesting site. Apparently, the herons themselves have moved on, but you can still see the evidence of their habitation.

protectionisland-heronnests

My deepest thanks to all the organizers, volunteers, and administrators who helped make Bookfest Nanaimo 2017 such a success. Also, my thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts, whose funding helped make my participation possible. It was a rewarding week full of adventure and inspiration!

protectionislandpano