Visiting the Bone Orchard

Ann Stephens

Ann is a member of the Romance Writers of America, the Heartland Writers Group, the Nebraska Writers’ Guild and the Nebraska Writers’ Workshop. She lives with her husband, youngest daughter and a cat. Her other interests include college football, dance, needlepoint, and cooking. She also enjoys a good rake — the Victorian or Regency kind, not the garden kind. (Unless she stumbles across a rather naughty gentleman in the back yard. This hasn’t happened yet, but she keeps hoping.)

I know, it’s finally spring and I should be writing about the return of flowers and birds and anticipating warm weather. And I *am* excited about warmer temps, watching rain instead of snow (actually my part of the country got almost no snow this year, so any moisture is exciting). When I saw the first flying V of geese heading north, I dragged my husband outside to see them. And he and I are both excited to see the slender green blades of our crocus, daylilies, and daffodils fighting their way out of the ground.

But the other thing that I love about spring is that my imagination wakes up. I don’t consider that I have the luxury of not writing, but by the end of winter, even writing characters that are the children of my wildest dreams feels like a rut.

It’s time to visit the Bone Orchard.

In the slang of the Old West, that phrase is said to refer to a graveyard, filled with bones without flesh. But to me, the Bone Orchard calls up a less macabre place. It’s where I find basic story parts and then flesh them out with my imaginings. With sap coursing through the trees and birds in the backyard, it also feels like there’s a bit more life in my gray winter brain.

Sometimes writers start with a character archetype, like the Nurturing Mother or the Wounded Healer. Sometimes it’s a place, like an ordinary village that changes when a stranger arrives. The stranger could be a cowboy on the American frontier, or it could be a woman with a shameful secret in Victorian England, like the heroine of most recent manuscript. Sometimes it’s a theme, like ‘learn to trust your instincts’.

The thing is, the mother or the healer or the village or even the need to trust our instincts are not enough to make a story about. They’re vague. All by themselves, they don’t evoke an emotional response. They are nothing but dry bones, with no flesh and blood to support. They aren’t heroes or heroines yet, and I don’t know how they’ll get to their happy ending, just that somehow they will.

What I get to do is put muscles on the bones, and add a brain and a heart inside them. Names, a unique backstory, a specific problem to solve, and a good twist. What if that nurturing mother decides to resort to blackmail for the benefit of her beloved child? What if she went to such lengths not from malice, but out of a desperate need for money to pay medical bills? As a reader, would you identify with her fear? Condemn her? Either way, my hope is that you’d want to read more about her. My job, sitting at my computer day after day, typing words onto a blank screen, is to find fascinating characters for readers to care about, identify with, and turn the page for until they get to their HEA.

I love discovering new books and new characters to love, both mine and those of other writers! Who is the most absorbing fictional character you’ve read about lately?

4 Responses to “Visiting the Bone Orchard”

  • Quilt Lady [ 28Mar14]

    I love spring! I just got back from a walk because it in the 60′s today and its about time but I think we are going back to the 40′s tomorrow and believe me we had our share of snow this year and I don’t want any more for a while. Only in KY can you wear shorts one day and a snow suit the next. I am not sure who my absorbing fictional character is right now, but will let you know when I know.

  • Ann Stephens [ 28Mar14]

    Lucky you, Quilt Lady! We’re still have more chilly days here than temperate ones. Hehe, we’ve had days in Nebraska when we go from shorts to parkas within 24 hours as well. :D

    Keep us posted if you come across a really compelling character!

  • Mary Preston [ 29Mar14]

    I must admit I read “Bone Orchard” and thought graveyard, but I love your explanation re your writing.

    The fictional character I keep returning to in my mind lately is Severus Snape fro the HARRY POTTER books. I have just re-read the books & watched the movies & he has stayed with me. Of course, that could also be an Alan Rickman obsession.

  • Debra St. Johm [ 03Apr14]

    What an interesting and unique analogy.

    Ann, I’m actually a little bummed I can’t answer your last questions. I read half a dozen books while I was on vacation, but not one had a really stand-out character in it. How disappointing.

    Mary, Alan Rickman plays an excellent Snape. I also love him as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Kevin Costner version (yum!) of Robin Hood.

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