08 March 2013

Daydream Believer ... at Play

by Dixon Hill

The Children's Museum in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Supposedly the largest children's museum in the world.
Today’s post was inspired by Louis Willis’s post, last week, concerning character development and the impact it has on a writer’s sanity.

When I responded to Louis’s post, in the comments section, I’m afraid I have to admit . . . I wasn’t completely honest in my response. A sin of omission, in fact.

I wrote that I agreed largely with comments written by two other Sleuth Sayers (Elizabeth and Fran), tempered by a comment from a third (RT). The gist being:

(1) My writing seems to function best when plot grows organically, through character interaction.

(2) When characters refuse to drive the plotline where I desire, I tend to let the characters carry the day -- unless this pushes the plot into dimensions unfit for the story as I’ve come to perceive it.

(3) If things get too far out of control, I try to plant something farther forward in the narrative, which I hope will lead one of the characters to alter behavior in a way designed to organically correct the plot growth in the desired direction.

Now, all of the above is true. And, this may sound quite scientific and high-brow. But the truth is: It’s not.

Day Dream Believer

Last school year, I voluntarily assisted my son’s teacher, by helping to administer Accelerated Reader Tests to kids in my son’s class, when they used the Computer Lab on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Quen had a very nice teacher, that year. It was her first year with her own classroom. She was young, energetic, bright-eyed and excited to en-flame young minds with a desire to learn.

Which is why it caught me by surprise, one day, to hear her single-out a student while bringing the kids into the Computer Lab, by calling: “Okay, where’s my daydreamer? Where’s (whatever his name was), who’s always daydreaming? Huh?” When the kid presented himself, she sat him in the corner with a workbook, saying, “You sit there, where I can make sure you’re working. No daydreaming allowed here. You’ll never get ahead by daydreaming!”

Now, I understand kids need to pay attention in class. And, I know they need to get their school work done. But, the look on that kid’s face …

Like all his dreams had just been shattered!

I understand the importance of not undermining the authority of a leader or teacher, so I sat on my tongue. But, my heart really went out to that kid. I wanted to go over and put an arm around him and say: “Cheer up, buddy. They gave me trouble for daydreaming, too, when I was in school. But, now I make money that way. I turn my daydreams into written stories that I sell to magazines. And, now I’m even working to turn one of my stories into a book. So, don’t let it get you down.”

You see, what I wrote in the comments section of Louis’s post, was really only the first part of my TRUE ANSWER to his question.

The second part of my TRUE ANSWER is: “I daydream.”

And, this is largely what I meant, when I wrote that I agreed with Fran’s statement: “...I generally need to let [characters] float around in my mind for several days to become real enough to me for their representation to seem right in the writing.”  I've never met Fran in the flesh, and I can't be sure exactly what she meant, but as for me: I daydream those characters into life.  That's how I get to know them.  And, sometimes my daydreams get a bit carried away.

In his post, Louis also asked some questions, which invoked a comparison of the methods writers might use to achieve character development or expression, against methods an actor might use to achieve the same ends. He wrote (italics added for emphasis): "Actors take what the playwright or screen writer has written and make the character their own, becoming the character. You fictionists, on the other hand, have to create several characters in one story, sometimes in paragraph or even one sentence. I was just wondering if you become each character in order to create him or her, to give them personalities, including the various emotions each must have to be believable."  

Yeah, see, I do that “letting them float around in my mind” thing by daydreaming. But, sometimes … (lean closer, because I have to whisper this) …

Sometimes I do it by pretending I’m the people I’m daydreaming about.

At Play

This admission about pretending is really rather embarrassing for an adult, of course. I mean, it’s bad enough that I’m a grown-up daydreamer, without having to admit that I also sometimes “play” out what I’m daydreaming.  But, that's really the third part of my TRUE ANSWER to Louis's post:  "I play!"

On the other hand, this is really very similar to what I believe Louis meant when he spoke about actors becoming their characters. And, I learned to do this when I took on-camera acting classes at an academy downtown, when I was in high school.

There, for instance, I was taught to work up the emotions called for by a certain character in a certain situation, then to fix that expression -- the one that had been naturally called-up by the emotion in question -- on my face, and to study it in the mirror, looking to see which of my muscles were doing what, if some of my teeth were showing (and how and where they showed), etc. I was then supposed to back up and examine my body, my stance, and what was going on there.

I’m probably not a very good actor. However, I find myself doing the same thing when I’m working on a character, and jotting down notes about what his face might look like, or how his eyes might be squinted, his teeth showing only in the back lip-pocket below his jaw line as he snarls. And, I think these are useful details.

I also learned to do something similar in the army, but there they called it “conducting a rehearsal” or “dry-run practicing.” The army runs rehearsals for every operation it conducts, or at least tries to. When practiced on a grand scale, these rehearsals are called “maneuvers.” On a small scale, they may be called “rehearsal of actions on the objective,” or “practice moving through a denied area,” etc. But, they can also be practiced on an individual basis.

I don’t recall which book it was, but I do recall reading a James Bond story in which Bond is in his hotel room preparing to go into a dangerous situation. After dressing -- with his weapon in a shoulder holster, I believe -- he drops the magazine out and clears the chamber to be sure it’s unloaded. Then, he practices drawing the weapon and shooting himself in the mirror several times, altering his stance and grip until he’s sure he can draw and fire it the way he wants to -- at the target he intends.

When I went through SOT school in the army, I was surprised to discover that this is actually an accepted method of improving one’s marksmanship when conducting a quick-draw. And, I’ve done it several times since then -- in groups, and on my own -- working to simultaneously get my draw-time down and my shot-group focused.

No, I don’t jump around my office or living room, pretending I’m in a gunfight, or engaged in hand-to-hand combat, every day. But, I do find it useful sometimes, particularly when I’m not sure a fight scene in my mind makes sense. At these times, I’m likely to practice my hand-to-hand as if I’m in the situation I’ve dreamed up for the story. And, I try to see what “feels right.”

All of this, of course, is very much like “playing.” It’s very similar to what a child does when s/he plays. At the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, I learned that children learn by playing. And, as a writer, I continue to learn by playing. Just as I did when studying acting, and as I did when conducting rehearsals in the army. It’s all a form of play-learning. And, I find it invaluable.

Though, it’s a bit embarrassing when my wife comes through the door, just as I kia! loudly while front-snap-kicking some invisible foe. Or, when I’m riding down the street in our car, and my wife suddenly asks, “Oh, my God. Who are you now? And who are you talking to?” because I’ve been sitting there silently mouthing words and moving my hands.

So, today's question is: 

Anybody else out there find themselves acting out scenes from their stuff? (And, remember: you can always turn off your recognition with Google to post anonymously. lol) 

See you in two weeks,


  1. I know about the Children's Museum in Indianapolis, because my wife is from Indy and we've taken some of our kids there. Last time I saw it, however, there was a Polar Bear out front instead of dinosaurs.

  2. I daydream… and sometimes just dream. I try to get in characters' heads and run through conversations and dialogue.

    I've been to the Children's Museum in Indianapolis twice, once as a kid (I remember a huge dinosaur skeleton) and again as an adult when they had a raptor program. Great, isn't it! They claim it's for kids but we know better.

    Who knew the US Army developed such talents? Truly, be all you can be.

  3. Oh my, Dix, with your daydreaming and play acting, getting into so many characters, I think maybe I should write that letter to Dr. Fischer.

    The kid who daydreamed has my sympathy, for I, too, was a daydreamer, especially after watching a cowboy movie at the theater on Saturday. And I still am. As a reader, I sometimes lay the story I’m reading aside, close my eyes, and try to see and feel what a character or several characters sees and feels. Writing that sentence makes me wonder about the connection between reader and writer, but I’ll have to do a little more thinking on the subject before writing a post on it.

    Thanks for letting me into the mind of a crime fiction writer.

  4. Dixon, please allow me to use a moment of your comment time to reply to you, Jeff, John and Eve on comments yesterday. Your kind words have got me tossing around the idea of an Awesome Moments in Writing column, and Jeff, wish I'd been there with you for an early Randy Travis performance.

    Now, Dix, how do you expect me to write this book when you get my mind all focused on how my characters develop? I also daydream and play. In fact, I've done it for so long that I can appear to be totally engrossed in a speech or sermon (oh! my! did I just admit that?) and actually be miles and years away.

    My sympathy for the daydreaming student with the bee-ahtch teacher. She probably thought she was keeping him "focused." However, we daydreamers tend to survive. How much better I think it would have been to give him some paper and crayons or pens and suggest he write or draw what he was thinking about.

    The last year I taught, my new principal, told me that she respected my students' acheievements but that I wasn't always following her minute-by-minute plan for instruction. When I explained that my lesson plans were as detailed as anyone's but I also taught "to the moment." If the students were all excited about something, we worked their enthusiasm into the lesson. She told me, "I know you promote creativity in your students, but if you have to crush their creativity to meet MY plans, just crush it."

    And that, my friends, was the last year I taught!

  5. No acting out, but High Quality Bruce on the Mac voice synthesizer reads out every word.

  6. Ah, YESSSS! We writers of crime fiction do daydream and act out before we place those precious words so delicately, like rare diamonds, on the page! Why, how do you think all those dead bodies pile up on the city streets - they're the detritus of all our planning ahead... we don't dream up all those villains for nothing! Thanks for a fun ride this morning early!
    Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  7. I daydream, I act out, I listen ENDLESSLY to what my characters are saying, I run the same section of dialog over and over again, but what most people see is me, staring into space a lot. My husband, bless him, says "I can smell the rubber burning", but then he's an artist, so he understands that daydreaming (spacing out, drifting, zoning, whatever) is essential.

  8. I apologize that it’s tough for me to respond to early comments in a timely manner. The problem is that my post goes up at (currently) 10:00 pm Thursday night AZ time. And, by the time morning rolls around here, and I’ve gotten the kids and my wife fed and off to work and school, plus made and shared breakfast with my dad, then drive back to get on the computer, it’s nearly noon back east.

    Leigh, thanks for you comments about daydreaming vs. dreaming, and working out dialogue while getting into your character’s heads. I plan to touch on some of this in my next post. Also: I’m wondering if the Raptor program you saw was that animatronics exhibit I saw, in which they sort of recreated Jurassic Park stuff.

    Well, Louis, SOMEBODY had better write to Dr. Fischer on my behalf! Lol And, I do the “lay the story aside” and imagine it thing, too. In fact, following a suggestion from Dean Koontz, I discovered that, sometimes, one of the best ways to launch myself into my daily writing, is to read someone else’s great stuff first, then lay the book aside — it gets the imagination fired up and the juices flowing. And: THANKS, LOUIS for opening up this line of questioning! My next post will continue to follow the thread.

    I think an Awesome Moments in Writing column would be absolutely FRAN-tastic! Love to read it. Additionally: thanks for your candor about daydreaming and play in your own processes. Good luck on that book! I know it’ll be as wonderful as the others.

    “…if you have to crush their creativity to meet MY plans, just crush it." WOOF! It’s so-called-‘educator’ attitudes like this that drive me, as a parent, absolutely crazy! I can understand why you couldn’t teach under such conditions. Frankly, when I see the frustrations many of my kids’ teachers face, because of administrative foolishness, it just really gets me. Your idea of having the kid write or draw what he was thinking about – actually putting his daydreams down on paper, a practice that might prove highly useful in his future – is brilliant. I wish I’d thought to suggest it to the teacher, afterward – but I’m just not that bright.

    Janice, you’ve written about Bruce before. And, I’m planning to try him out on my next story. Great idea!

    Ms. Straw (May I call you “Thelma”?), you’re welcome for the ride. And, it’s a pleasure to meet a fellow traveler. Hope to see you here in two weeks, when I’ll discuss a bit more about the subject. Love to get your input on that, too.

    My husband, bless him, says "I can smell the rubber burning", but then he's an artist, so he understands that daydreaming (spacing out, drifting, zoning, whatever) is essential. Eve, you ARE blessed, having a spouse like that. My own wife took quite a while to come-around. For a number of years she complained: “But you’re not working. You’re just sitting in front of your computer, staring into space!” It was quite a relief when she realized I WAS working — and very hard, too! Really appreciate your candor. And, I’m particularly glad you mentioned listening to your characters’ voices. My next post will include some of my own experiences listening to character’s voices – something Elizabeth mentioned in the comments on Louis’ blog post.

    I’ll try to check-in and respond to comments throughout the day, however I have to take my dad to get his radiation treatment in about an hour (he can’t ride his recumbent trike, because it’s raining here), and later I need to take him to get some skin cancer removed. I’ll see comments on my phone, while I’m out, but it may take me little while to respond (commenting with the phone is tricky), so don’t let my silence keep anyone out of the comment loop.


  9. When I was in first grade, at the parent-teacher conference, the teacher told my mother that I daydreamed. Unfortunately, my mother was & is a very exacting, critical sort of person, so I was constantly blamed for the teacher's statement about me. When I was in my late fifties, my mother finally told me the second half of what the teacher said -- if I didn't stop daydreaming, I would never learn to read!

    Never been to the Children's Museum in Indianapolis, but the one in D.C. is fabulous.

  10. Excellent post Dix, loved it, plus got a few chuckles from it.
    One of the things I enjoyed about my past job was I didn't have to grow up. Like a kid, I could playact and be anyone I wanted to be, all I had to do was imagine myself into that character and start acting. Of course there could be some serious consequences for falling out of character when in the company of the wrong people. But then, I also had all the characters, actions, dialogue etc. from novels such as TREASURE ISLAND, SCARAMOUCHE, THREE MUSKETEERS and several other action classics I had read under the desk during 4th & 5th grade math class to fall back on during sticky situations. Those guys knew how to get out of a tight spot.
    Now, I merely let my mind wander through the past to dream & daydream up scenes and characters. And yes, my wife has caught me silently mouthing dialogue. "R.T.," she says, "you're talking to yourself again." "It's okay, babe," is my reply, "it's dialogue you'll find when you critique my next story." That usually covers my hind end.
    With our two local grandsons, I've encouraged creativity ever since I would tell them stories at nap time, in which they were frequently the hero in whatever circumstances they requested in that made up on the spot tale. Now, at ages 6 & 9, they write some pretty good stories on their own for school.
    Long live creativity.

  11. Hey, I'm daydreaming right now! :) Seriously, I've never acted something out, but I talk to myself all the time when I'm dreaming up a story! Advantages of driving a truck for a living!

  12. Anon, I’m sorry to hear about your experiences with your mother. Thankfully (for me, that is) I was the last kid born in my family, so by the time teachers complained that I had too much imagination, my mom took it in stride and told me: “They don’t give people enough credit for imagination, in school. Don’t let their shortcomings bother you; you’re okay.” I suspect my older siblings got treated more like you did, however — as my mom, too, could be quite exacting and critical at times.

    "It's okay, babe," is my reply, "it's dialogue you'll find when you critique my next story." RT, I gotta remember that one, and use it next time it happens to me! lol Man, that’s no joke about “serious consequences” in those circumstance you were in.

    … I talk to myself all the time when I'm dreaming up a story! Advantages of driving a truck for a living! I’m totally THERE, Jeff. Often wish I drove for a living. When I can’t get things to come out of my fingers into the computer, tooling down deserted midnight streets (I tend to write late at night while wife and kids are sleeping) really helps fire my imagination. I have no idea why, but guiding a vehicle in motion seems to set my mind in motion too.

    What sort of truck do you drive, Jeff? Long haul OTR? Biggest thing I’ve ever driven was a 20-ton dump — only truck I’ve ever driven that had an engine brake, but I only drove it a few times, short distances. Spent a LOT of time on standard army 5-ton and 2.5-ton trucks —both on and off road — and really enjoyed that. (You may know that the army rates it’s truck tonnage capacity by halving what the truck can carry on the road, and uses that figure to estimate what it can carry off-road, so a 5-ton is really a 10-ton road truck, for example—I thought I’d explain for those who weren’t aware.)

    I ALWAYS wanted to get behind the wheel of a big rig, but never really got the opportunity – which is something my wife chides me about, since she drove an articulated fuel truck into Iraq on Zero Hour, in the initial assault wave of Desert Storm (her unit’s task was to refuel the tanks after they made the initial breach). That was before we got married, and her maiden name is Click, so her compadres called her “Double-Clutch Click”. LOL

  13. Dear Mr. Hill: Just came across your post. Been working on taxes. How fun to find out that all of you tend to "daydream." Know what? To me, that's the pipeline to creativity. I love the fact some of you were teachers or related in some way to teachers. Teaching requires an imaginative mind. Planning ahead, setting goals,and realizing when it was time to set the lesson plan aside for free exchange. Students like classes that sometimes go with the flow. Personally, I believe that all this mandatory testing in the U.S. is a bunch of nonsense. Students and teachers should be evaluated on indivdual growth from one stage to the next. Plus, results vary from one socio-economic group to another. My last year in teaching mirrors that of Ms. Rizer. Our very inexperienced Principal,and his totally incompetent Dean of Studies, which he put in place, basically gutted our successful Science program. Guess what? They both lasted 3 years. Yours truly, Toe.

  14. Toe, feel free to call me Dixon or Dix. I’m sad, but not surprised to hear of the experiences you suffered during that last year of teaching. And, pleasantly surprised to learn the culprits were ousted in less than a decade. Frankly, it’s been my experience that such people tend to get promoted into the upper echelons of the district admin offices, where they can spread the misery across an increasingly wider area – that’s what happens around here, from what I’ve seen. And, from what the teachers tell me.

    Thanks, also, for your suggestion that daydreaming may be the “pipeline to creativity.” I think that’s a terrific phrase! I’ve noticed your posts on SS in other columns, and hope to see your comment here in two weeks, when I continue this train of thought.


  15. I thought I wrote this yesterdayh but apparently my iPad censored it. Great piece, Dix, and I love the museum entrance.

    My characters tend to stay in my head and not wander out, for good or bad.

    Made me think of two songs you might enjoy. Buddy Mondlock's The Kid was big for Peter Paul and Mary. I can't find their version on Youtube but a Japanese PPM cover band (!) has a note perfect version. http://tinyurl.com/ajuw3lk

    And "Back When I could Fly" by Trout Fishing In America. http://tinyurl.com/bzvqakj

  16. Rob, I'm listening to the Japanese version of The Kid… pretty damn good!

    Toe, I had two hideous, humorless principals in a row, sadists who should never have been around children. Ugh.

  17. Just now had a chance to catch-up on postings and have to tell you I often act out something my character might do. I remember long ago wondering how a woman would act if the police cme to the door and told her that her husband had been killed. I got up from the computer, heard the doorbell ring and went and actually opened the front door. In my mind I could see the policemen, but only their name badges were clear in my mind. In reality my hand flew up to my heart as if to hold it inside my body. When I wrote that scene I felt it rang true.
    Another time I put duct tape around my wrists (in front) and on ankles lay on the floor and discovered I could scoot worm-dance-like to a cabinet and pull up my the drawer handles to find a knife.
    Somehow it just seems like playing along with day-dreaming have to come into my writing. Most of the time these days I do more day-dreaming as I'd never be able to get up from the floor if I got down there.


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