Writing Alchemy: It’s Been Around a Long Time

by Matilda Butler on July 16, 2013

Writing Prompt LogoPost #180 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompts and Life Prompts – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

A Writing Discovery in a Most Unlikely Place — A Fort

Favorite houseguests visited recently for two weeks. We plan some activities well ahead of time and let others come upon us by surprise. So while tickets for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cymbeline, My Fair Lady, and The Heart of Robin Hood [where Maid Marian shows Robin Hood that he needs more than just to steal from the rich]) were in hand months ago, we hadn’t decided what to do on the first morning after our friends arrived. We picked them up at the airport in Portland in mid-afternoon and had spent the night at a nearby motel rather than driving down to Corvallis.

On a whim, we decided to visit Fort Vancouver, just across the river from Portland.

I Discovered Writing Alchemy, Right There at Fort Vancouver

This fort, the headquarters of Hudson’s Bay Company, accounted for the majority of the regional fur trade in the mid-1800s. In the buildings we toured, once more than 600 employees worked and managed goods moving between the Pacific northwest, Alaska, California, and even Hawaii. Just imagine how lively the place must have been. The employees and their families spoke primarily Canadian French and Chinook. They had homes, a school, hospital, dairy, and orchard. And dear to every writer, they also had a library.

With so much commerce, it’s not surprising that Hudson’s Bay Company had many accountants who spent long days at their desks maintaining the extensive record-keeping system that tracked purchases and shipments. Many of these employees kept personal journals as well as corporate ones. I was especially struck by the quote from one of these journals that was displayed on the wall of the Counting House.

Fort Vancouver and Writing Alchemy

“It is needless to describe the agonies I endured while sitting, hour after hour, on a long-legged stool, my limbs quivering for want of their accustomed exercise, while the twittering of birds, barking of dogs, lowing of cows, and neighing of horses seemed to invite me to join them in the woods.” –Robert Ballantyne, Clerk, 1843-1845.

Writing Alchemy and Robert Ballantyne

Consider how much Ballantyne accomplished in just one sentence. Of course, we don’t really believe that he did a Writing Alchemy deconstruction before he wrote, but consider how much the clerk put into his journal in a single sentence that seems as fresh today as was when he wrote the description. It is fresh and involves us since he included a touch of four of the five writing elements that we include in Writing Alchemy:

1. Writing Alchemy Element – Character (physical description): limbs quivered, sitting

2. Writing Alchemy Element – Emotion: agonies I endured

3. Writing Alchemy Element – Dialogue: (none in this sentence)

4. Writing Alchemy Element – Five Senses (sounds): twittering of birds, barking of dogs, lowing of cows, and neighing of horses

5. Writing Alchemy Element – Time/Place: invite me to join them in the woods (if he can hear animals in the woods, then we know he is sitting some place that is quite near a woods), long-legged stool (tells us about the place where he is rather than the place where he wishes he were)

Try This Writing Exercise

Take a single sentence you have written recently. Examine it. Really examine it.

  • How you gotten as much out of it as possible?
  • Does it really move your story forward?
  • Does the reader learn something about you or someone else as a character in your writing?
  • Something about the emotional state of the person?
  • Something about the sensory detail of the situation?
  • Something about the time and/or place?
  • I left out the element of dialogue because it can often be used to convey information about the other four elements. So see if you can let dialogue carry the burden for you.

    Now rewrite the sentence. See how much more work you can make the sentence do.

    Once you have finished the rewrite, pretend you have just picked up the sentence and read it again, but it is now 150 years in the future. Will it still seem fresh? Will it engage the reader?

    This is too tough of a standard for every sentence. Yet it needs to be in our minds as we write.

    Interested in Writing Alchemy?

    We often get emails from readers saying that they’d like to know more about our award-winning Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep. So in response, Kendra has put together a really great page where she describes the book, tells you what other authors are saying about it, and discusses the free charter membership you get in the Association for Writing Excellence when you purchase the book.

    If you are interested and want to learn more just follow this link to the page.

    Leave a Comment

    Interviews Category Interviews Category Interviews Category Interviews Category Interviews Category Interviews Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category StoryMap Category StoryMap Category StoryMap Category Writing and Healing Category Writing and Healing Category Writing and Healing Category Scrapmoir Category Scrapmoir Category Scrapmoir Category Book Business Category Book Business Category Book Business Category Memoir Journal Writing Category Memoir Journal Writing Category Memoir Journal Writing Category News Category News Category News Category