Writing Lessons I Learned on the Stage ~ Courtney Walsh

CourtneyWalsh’s debut novel, A Sweethaven
recently hit the New York Times
bestseller list. She is a freelance writer and author
of two craft books, Scrapbooking Your
and The Busy Scrapper. She
was also a contributing editor for Memory
magazine. A Sweethaven Homecoming is her second
novel. Courtney recently returned to her home state of Illinois where
she lives with her husband and three children.

“Writing Lessons I Learned on the Stage”

By Courtney Walsh

During my senior year of high school, I had the wild
notion that one day I was going to be an actress. (In my head, I’m saying that word in my best Marilyn
Monroe impression.)

It sounded so fancy and I had stars in my eyes. I
went on a college visit where I sat in on an acting class, and yes,
it pulled me straight in. This was where I belonged.

Much to my parents’ chagrin, I insisted on
going away to a private university to study theatre. Wonderfully practical.
Like all good parents, they wanted me to have something to “fall back
on” so 
I chose to double major in journalism, which taught me things
I knew I’d never need to know.

After all, I was going to be an actress. (Marilyn again.)

Before I headed off to do my four-year-sentence at
the institution of higher learning, my dad said something to me I’ll
never forget. He said, “You really need to think about doing something
with your writing.”

Of course I laughed it off. I wasn’t a writer (Woody Allen creeping in there). I was an actress. (Ah, Marilyn.)

I spent the next four years playing different roles,
becoming different characters. I joined in theatre games out on the
quad that made me feel foolish and left me praying no one was watching.
I spent a summer in New York studying at a Broadway theatre, learning
the ins and outs of movement, dance, scene study…I was determined
to make this my profession. 

I graduated college with the intention of moving to
Chicago and trying my luck on the stage, but a funny thing happened
along the way. I started writing. I found myself bored one night (remember
those days?) with a computer and a story rolling around in my head.
I sat down and wrote a short play for four women. Strong women. Women
I would’ve liked to be friends with.

And I suppose that was the beginning.

My entire adult life, in one way or another, I’ve
been writing, and it wasn’t until I started writing my first novel
that I began to see my theatrical education wasn’t wasted. While it’s
been years since I stepped foot on a stage, in some ways, this abandoned
dream gave me an advantage when it came to creating a character.

It turns out you can learn a lot about writing in
an acting class.

While you may not be interested in performing, here
are four important lessons I learned in my study of acting.

1. What’s my character’s motivation? It’s a long-running
joke in the theatre community. The question that makes an actor sound
pretentious. But determining the reason a character does what they do
is imperative for both actors and writers. Why did she flee the scene? Why did she burst into tears? Why did
he leave his homeland to go on a dangerous quest?

Determining the why will bring your character to life, make him more believable
and keep your reader engaged.

2. What is unique about your character? I once played the role
of an older woman who smoked too much, had a thick New York accent and
a crabby disposition. I couldn’t have played a part more unlike me
(at age 22), so I knew I would need to do a bit of research. I saw her
in the grocery store—the woman who finally made it click for me. She
moved slowly, like a person with a shooting pain in her hip, and her
shoulders were hunched over. I was able to adopt her mannerisms and
movements in order to bring my crabby old lady to life. What nervous habits does your character have? What makes her different
from everyone else? How does she carry herself physically? These
are crucial questions.

Get up and walk around for a minute. Walk like yourself.
How does that feel? How do you carry yourself? Now, take another lap, but this time, embody
your character. Let the character get in your head first, then into
your body. Every movement is theirs. Pay close attention to every detail.
Do it as many times as you need to, then translate the way you felt
to the page.

3. What did you character have for breakfast? It’s the first
of many questions you can ask to get to know your character better.
It’s no secret that details are important to any good story, and those
details should start with the characters. When you’re writing, allow
yourself to really become the character. It’s great for you to spend time talking
to your protagonist, but becoming your protagonist is even more beneficial.

You’ve got the movement down, you know how to carry
yourself, so now think about her personal choices. What foods would make her cringe? What clothes would catch her eye
on a mannequin? What is her daily schedule? Spend some time in
your character’s everyday shoes and you might be surprised what they
reveal to you.

4. How does your character sound? Perhaps the most important
thing I learned from studying theatre is the benefit of believable dialogue.
This requires that I tap into my inner actress and perform a scene as
I’m writing it. There is nothing (in my opinion) that pulls a reader
out of a scene like bad dialogue. Stage plays are nothing but dialogue—with
very limited stage directions—so every word counts, just as they should
in your novel. Determine the speech patterns, slang, vocal inflections
of your character in order to create a more dimensional person.

Yes, it would seem that my dreams of becoming an actress were
inside of me for a perfectly valid reason, though not one I ever expected.
Bringing a character to life on the page is far easier if you get that
character in your bones.

Go ahead, talk to yourself. We won’t say a word. 

A Sweethaven Homecoming:

The Sweethaven Circle is back—and so is the friend
they thought they’d never see again!

Country music star Meghan Rhodes has moved on
with her life, leaving Sweethaven and its painful memories in the past. But
when she is confronted on national television with her ex-husband’s plan to
file for sole custody of their twins, Meghan takes the first flight home, back to
the charming lakeside town full of regrets and relationships that need mending.

As Meghan searches for forgiveness—as well as
the ability to forgive—she is overcome with the need to make things right with
her children, her ex-husband, her mother, and even the friends she’d convinced
herself she no longer needed. But is she too late?
The Sweethaven Circle is together again as
Meghan works with Campbell, Jane, Lila, and Adele begin a new scrapbook for
memories yet to be made. Picking up where A
Sweethaven Summer 
left off, A Sweethaven Homecoming explores the strong bonds of
friendship, the power of forgiveness, and the importance of unconditional love.