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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Writing Lessons I Learned on the Stage ~ Courtney Walsh

CourtneyWalsh’s debut novel, A Sweethaven Summer recently hit the New York Times bestseller list. She is a freelance writer and author of two craft books, Scrapbooking Your Faith and The Busy Scrapper. She was also a contributing editor for Memory Makers 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.


  1. Love this, Courtney & love watching your books soar!

    Pretty sure I tried to talk my mom into taking me to circus tryouts. Whew. Close one.

    I've been spending the last few weeks getting to know my characters before I embark on my next novel. Love the breakfast point!
    ~ Wendy

  2. Thanks for the creatively informative fly-by, Courtney.

  3. Thanks for the step-by-step things to consider and translate onto paper for the story. Details in a story, some unseen like motivation, and inner dialogue, compel me to read more. I've spent time contemlplating thesde aspects of my main character as I re-write the story.


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