Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Stitching Up A Story, by Karen Rees

Being both a writer and a quilter I've discovered that piecing a quilt and writing a story have a lot in common. Take precision for example.

Any good quilter knows that precision is the key to getting all of those corners to come together perfectly. Not only precision when sewing pieces together, but precision from the beginning. I have to be precise in marking my pieces, cutting my pieces and then stitching them all together on the same side of that finely marked line.

Failure to be precise, even in small ways such as sometimes sewing on the wrong side of the line, will create blocks of different sizes and corners that don't come together as they should. The final result is a quilt that could have been better.

Precision is also necessary in piecing a story together. I have to select the word that best conveys the meaning I want. Carefully chosen words strengthen my writing and give it clarity. When I grab the first word that pops to mind, it's often not the best choice. I've discovered that I tend to write 'irritate' when I should use 'annoy'. (I make the same mistake when I talk.) What about the difference between brag and boast? In that scene does the character stroll, stride or amble? Does she drop her eyes or does she drop her gaze?

The blocks in my quilt, pictured above, appear to be two different patterns. In reality, all of the blocks are the same pattern – A Gentleman's Fancy. The apparent difference comes from my choice of colors. In some blocks I used light colors for a particular part, in other blocks I used dark colors. My choice of color and shade – light or dark – created the difference.

Writing is the same. The details that I give will create a particular impression in the mind of the reader.  When describing a park I could mention bird messes on benches and trash on the trails. Or I could describe colorful rose gardens and shady paths. The park may have both trash and flowers but the reader's impression will be formed by the details. Before I start writing, I need to decide what impression I want to give and then use the details that will create it.

This is equally true with my characters. Do I want readers to see someone as kind? Self-centered? Timid? Irresponsible? When introducing a character, what description or behavior will leave the desired impression with the reader?

A third similarity between creating quilts and creating stories has to do with the unexpected. I could have sewed every block in my quilt using red and some light color. But I didn't. Even when I used red in a block, I sometimes paired it with a dark color. Those particular blocks stand out like freckles on a blond. They add variety.

When developing characters, we can give them depth by adding something unexpected to their personalities. The hardened criminal who, now and again, treats some stranger's child to an ice cream cone. Why does he do that? Or the sweet elderly widow who has a history that would shock her neighbors.

Quilters say that it's not a quilt until it's quilted. In the same way a manuscript isn't a book until it's published. For a quilt to win at a quilt show and a book to earn honors, both need to contain our best work. Be precise, select the right details and create interesting characters. By doing that, you could end up with a winner.

Karen Rees and her second-generation missionary husband Benjamin have served in Hong Kong since 1975. Besides her involvement in the mission work, Karen loves history, quilting and writing. They have two children, Matthew and Megan, and two grandchildren, Hadessah and Arthur. She is the author of the award-winning historical novel, The Ruby Ring.


  1. I love the idea that "it's not a quilt until it's quilted." For me and my writing, that rings very true. I could never plan ahead for the inspiration that shapes my stories. Thank you, Karen, for your insight on the creative process!

    1. While planning and inspiration both have to be part of the writing process, they work differently. I do lots of general planning but my individual characters are who they are, regardless of any planning on my part. They bring the inspiration.

  2. Great analogy between quilting and writing. As one who has some experience with both, I especially like the comparison about piecing together a square and choosing the right word. A misplaced colour or fabric pattern can throw the whole square (and the whole quilt!) out of balance. And you're so correct when you say we've got to take care with our words. Thanks for such a visual reminder.

    1. Words are all we have to work with. They determine how readers see our stories.

  3. Great analogy, Karen. I loved to quilt once upon a time--but find I don't have time for both quilting and writing.

  4. I know what you mean about not having enough time. At least both writing and quilting are creative so, whichever I work on, I'm using my time well.