How to Create Strong Characters in Writing Classes

Captain Ahab and Seattle writing classes.
Captain Ahab and Seattle writing classes.

In my writing classes, I emphasize the need to bring people to life on the page. Strong characters are the heart and soul of every great story, whether fiction or nonfiction. To make your story compelling, you have to ensure that readers care about your characters, whether in an epic like Moby Dick or a nonfiction book like Basin and Range.  Even a topic as seemingly dull and unpromising as Great Basin geology can enchant readers if the story comes through someone who cares deeply about it. This is exactly the strategy John McPhee employs in his book, Basin and Range. McPhee is a writer interested in everything: the Merchant Marine, Russian Art, the Swiss Army, the cultivation of oranges, the building of birch bark canoes, the collection and consumption of road kills. Yet he doesn’t assume a similar level of interest from his readers. Instead he courts them by seeking colorful individuals through whom he tells the story and so entices readers into the subject. In Basin and Range, he chose the geologist Kenneth Deffeyes.

“Deffeyes is a big man with a tenured waistline. His hair flies behind him like Ludwig van Beethoven’s. He lectures in sneakers. His voice is syllabic, elocutionary, operatic. He has been described by a colleague as ‘an intellectual roving shortstop, with more ideas per square meter than anyone else in the department–they just tumble out.'”

McPhee’s quick character sketch provides readers with a glimpse of the energetic, idiosyncratic geologist, the kind of man who should prove a worthy guide to the narrative. McPhee selected Deffeyes as the central character for his personality and familiarity with the Great Basin. The geologist serves as the entry point into the subject. Though him, general readers learn to care about such arcane subjects continental drift, subduction zones and seafloor spreading. They might never crack the cover of a geology textbook, but once they get to know Deffeyes, chances are, they’ll be hooked.

We’ll discuss how to create strong characters as part of my upcoming Seattle writing classes. There’s still room; let me know if you’d like to sign up!



Narrative Nonfiction in Seattle Writing Classes

Seattle Writing Classes: The Boys in the Boat
The Boys in the Boat

In my Seattle writing classes, I like to emphasize how to write nonfiction that exhibits the drama and depth of a great novel. I recently read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, a nonfiction book that serves as a fine example of this genre. The book is a meticulously researched account of the University of Washington rowing team who competed at the 1936 Olympics. The author met one of the team members, Joe Rantz, who lived nearby. By that time Joe was an old man, but he remembered well the experience of rowing for the Husky crew and of competing in the Olympics. He talked about the magic of being a part of “the boat” and what it meant to him and the other young men.

Brown realized that he had a story. He went back and interviewed Rantz as well as his daughter Judy. Slowly, the story began to materialize. This is a strategy I discuss in my Seattle writing classes, especially my fall writing class, Revising Your Life.

Brown organizes the book around Rantz and the other team members. Rantz is an especially appealing character, who struggled in his personal life, abandoned by his family. He had to make a living for himself during the Great Depression as well as compete for the crew team to make sure he kept his scholarship to the University of Washington.

Brown researched the book so he could add scenes of Joe’s early life in the Puget Sound area and the excitement of joining the crew team and competing with some of the best crews in the country and eventually the world. Drawing on journals, newspaper articles, and interviews, Brown weaves a compelling narrative about Joe and the other team members who shocked the world with their grit, tenacity and brilliance.

The books builds slowly toward the climatic scenes near the end, where the competition intensifies and Joe and the others have to dig deep to realize their dreams. The ending is especially moving, conjuring up a world now lost in time. The books is nostalgic in the best sense, reminding us of a moment of honor and selfless achievement that could easily be forgotten, but is lifted to permanent life by Brown’s extraordinary book.

Seattle Writing Class Hosts U.W. Press Editor

Regan Duff of the University of Washington Press speaking to my Seattle Writing Classes
Regan Huff of the University of Washington Press speaking to my Seattle Writing Classes.

In my Seattle writing classes, I always provide a detailed explanation of the publishing process. As part of this, I like to invite editors to speak about how they publish books and stories. Last week, we had the pleasure of hearing from Regan Huff, the senior acquisitions editor of the University of Washington Press who spoke to my summer Seattle writing class about the changing role of university presses, which have become to the go-to source for many books that once would have been published by larger houses.

“We’re non-profit so we can do books for a mission-driven reason,” she said. “We can keep books in print forever. We care about how books are designed. We care about authors.”

Most of these presses are attached to a university, so they do publish scholarly books, but in recent years they’ve branched out to more general interest topics and readerships. “We publish a lot of books on Asian and environmental issues,” she said. “We’re publishing a first-time author who is a pilot and engineer.”

Regan explained that the U.W. press publishes authors from all over, but they are focused on the Pacific Northwest region as subject material as well as other fields.

“If you are considering pitching a book, ask yourself, have we published something like your book?” she explained to my Seattle writing class. “Most presses are interested in books related to the current list, or a particular field. Go to the website and see what they have published recently.”

Make sure that your manuscript is a good fit for the press before submitting. This entails considering how the press will market it as well as the quality of the manuscript. “Look for a fit rather than holding your work up to be judged,” she told my Seattle writing class.

When you submit your manuscript, make sure that your pitch letter and book proposal reflect this understanding. “What is your book about and why is it interesting?” she said. “Who will read the book?”

Good advice for those looking to get published!



Travel and Adventure Writing

Travel Writing classes
Writer’s Workshop founder Nick O’Connell skate skiing at Home Ranch, CO, gathering material for a travel and adventure story.

Travel and Adventure Writing is some of the most enjoyable writing I do. It gives me an excuse to get out into the wild and leave behind all the email, texts, phone messages and other things I need to keep track of as a writer and founder of The Writer’s Workshop.

I had the pleasure of going on a press trip recently to the Home Ranch in Colorado. During the three-day visit, I took skate skiing lessons from Matson Tew, one of the guides at the ranch. The ranch offers lessons for cross country, skate skiing and even telemark skiing, which allows guests to try all kinds of skiing. I have telemarked for years and done classic cross country skiing a lot, but I had done little skate skiing and the times I’d done it, it had kicked my ass. It was so strenuous that I could only do it for a few hundred yards. But I figured if I had good instruction and the right equipment and a good course, I could at least make some progress, and get some material for travel and adventure writing.

In addition to taking lessons, I planned to write about it. The lessons and trip were essentially research for me. I no longer attend many city council or county commissioners meetings, as I did when I was a newspaper reporter, but I try to get out in the field as much as possible. I always learn a lot on such trips, soaking in the geography, the landscape, the people. And I usually return with a story as I did on this trip. As I teach students in my Travel writing classes, Seattle writing classes, and online classes, I like to use scene to organize such stories. Take a look at the story I wrote about the trip for a demonstration of how to do this.

The Quest Narrative: A Great Way to Tell a Story

A quest narrative is one of the oldest and surest ways of telling a story. The Odyssey is essentially a quest narrative, with Odyssey’s journey back to his wife and son serving as the basis for the quest. Since then there have been thousands of quest narratives written, including King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable, detective stories, Moby Dick, and many others.

The form of a quest narrative is simple. Basically, the author describes his or her desire to do something, see something, experience something, discover something. In describing the object of the quest, whether a grail, or castle or insight or pot of gold, it’s helpful to “sell” the quest, emphasizing why it’s important either to the writer or the reader. Since the writer is the reader’s surrogate, describing why you want to go to Mexico City is often enough, especially if you can make it seem an especially appealing destination. Some quests are so compelling they don’t need to be sold: the quest to find the Green River Killer or a cure for cancer but remember to be very specific.

The description of the goal for the quest encourages a sense of seeking, questioning and curiosity, propelling readers forward into the narrative. It gives a structure and suspense to a piece that might otherwise be flat and static.

This is a very adaptable form, appropriate to all kinds of subjects, whether personal essays, travel pieces, investigative journalism, memoir and even literary criticism. You can write a quest narrative about seeking to find the perfect peach, or the perfect glass of Pinot Noir wine, or about coming to terms with your parents. The quest narrative can be used effectively in many different contexts.

The form fits very well with the emphasis on curiosity as the basis of fine nonfiction writing. The description of the quest immediately poses a quest in the reader’s mind: will the author or narrator achieve the quest?

Quest narratives can be written in a number of points of view. First person is probably most common in nonfiction, but third person can also be used, as in the description of a scientist searching for a cure for the common cold.

Writing a Quest Narrative

  1. Describe the object of the quest and why it’s important. You don’t have to start the story with this statement, but it should come near the beginning, explaining why you’ve arrived in New Guinea, for example, and what you’re looking for there.
  2. Set out on the quest. What do you bring? How do you prepare?
  3. Dramatis personae – Who will accompany you on the quest? Who is the person (s) who will help you complete it? Attempt to thwart it?
  4. Describe the journey and the difficulties of achieving it, remembering to use scenes to highlight the conflict and drama, showing rather than simply telling, and making the story come to life.
  5. Describe whether you complete the quest or not.

The Storms of Denali Book Tour

For all those who like a cool, fast-paced read, that will act like air conditioning on a hot summer day, please crack the pages of my novel, The Storms of Denali, which will bring the temperature down in a hot house.

I’ll be reading from The Storms of Denali, my new novel, this coming Thursday, Aug. 9, at 7 p.m. at Auntie’s Book Store in Spokane. Please join me if you can!

I’ll also include the other venues, with more to come.

Auntie’s Bookstore, Spokane, WA Thursday, Aug. 9, 7 p.m.

402 West Main Avenue

Spokane, WA 99201


McCall Idaho Public Library, Thursday, August 16, 6 p.m.

218 E. Park,

McCall, Idaho

(208)-634 5522

Rediscovered Books, Boise, ID, August 17, 7 p.m.

180 North 8th Street Boise, ID 83702

(208) 376-4229

All Things Sacred, Galleria Building, August 18, at 7 p.m.

351 Leadville Ave N., Ketchum, ID


Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA, Sept. 4, 7 p.m.

1521 10th Avenue Seattle, WA 98122

(206) 624-6600

Icicle Creek Arts Center, Leavenworth, WA, Sept. 8, 7 p.m.

7409 Icicle Road

Leavenworth, WA 98826

(509) 548-6347

Black Diamond Retail Store, Salt Lake City, Thursday, Sept. 20 at 7 p.m.

2084 S 3900 E

Salt Lake City, UT 84124

Office: 801 993 1318

Maine Outdoor Adventure Club, Portland, Maine, Oct. 3 at 7 p.m.

Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church

P.O. Box 11251, Portland, ME 04104 . (207) 775-MOAC (775-6622)

Appalachian Mountain Club HQ – Boston, MA, Thursday, Oct. 4 at 7 p.m.

4 Joy St., Boston, MA 617-523-0655

AMC Joe Dodge Lodge at Pinkham Notch, NH Saturday, Oct. 6 at 7 p.m.

Appalachian Mountain Club PO Box 298 Gorham, NH 03581 603-466-8119

REI Soho, NYC, Monday, Oct. 8 at 7 p.m.

The Puck Building

303 Lafayette Street

New York, NY 10012

(212) 680-1938

The Book as Physical Object

The Storms of DenaliThe book as physical object. Though the number of electronic books continues to grow, there’s nothing quite like a book with an appealing cover design, elegant type and tempting jacket copy. With the explosion in growth of electronic books, such details are increasingly being lost. That’s why I so enjoyed receiving in the mail a stack of my new novel, The Storms of Denali. Yes, the carton was heavy, the postage was expensive, but turning the book over in my hands, the smell, feel, and tactile sensation of it was pure pleasure.

For an author, the physical book is a proof that your idea, your world, your characters have become real. Authors can tend to doubt this will ever happen, especially after working for years on a project as I did on the novel, wondering if the words will ever reach a larger audience. The physical book is proof that they will. The Storms of Denali will be out to bookstores within the next few weeks.

Readers benefit as a well-designed book enhances the pleasure and experience of reading, turning the pages with your fingers, working back and forth to take in all the details and insights and appeal of the manuscript.

I have nothing against digital books. I read them myself, but when it comes to a work I really want to devour, nothing beats the actual, physical, tree -sacrificed paper pages of a book.