When Characters Step Out of the Mist by Laurie Calkhoven

Every writer and illustrator I know uses tools for brainstorming—freewriting, idea clusters, long walks in the country, etc. One of the most productive for me is meditation.

I’ve been meditating off and on since I was a senior high school. It was natural for me to use meditation as a tool when I started writing. It helped to quiet the shallow thoughts swirling around in my overactive brain. After 15-20 minutes of following my breath, my mind was quieter and open to ideas. I could let my subconscious out to play. The freewrites and idea clusters I did afterward were both deeper and more productive.

Along the way I discovered that meditation is a great way to get to know my characters. I started doing visualizations at the end of my meditations to envision my characters walking toward me, stepping out of a mist, ready to tell me a story or a secret. I developed a series questions and let them surprise me with their answers. Most of those questions and answers don’t end up in the finished novel, but they inform the story and add a richness and depth to the characters that wasn’t there before.

But sometimes those secrets do end up in the book. Asking Daniel what he had in his pockets (clay marbles), led to the opening and closing scenes of DANIEL AT THE SIEGE OF BOSTON. Will’s treasure box and its contents appear in WILL AT THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG, and Michael’s strong memory involving a parent is his driving force in MICHAEL AT THE INVASION OF FRANCE. These small and big details add a texture to the story that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

The element of surprise helps. If I know ahead of time about what I’m going to be writing about, then I tend to keep coming back to that in meditation. So I surprise myself. For those or those of you interested in trying this, I suggest having a number of questions on index cards face down on your desk. When you’ve finish your meditation and your character is present, turn a card over and begin to write. Keep your hand moving and let whatever bubbles up out onto the page.

Meditation didn’t just lead to better-developed characters. I found those visualizations so helpful that I developed others to help me conjure scenes, to brainstorm plot elements, and to solve story problems. Today I couldn’t imagine writing without meditation. I’ve even created a workshop that has proven to be as helpful to other writers and illustrators as it has been for me.

But you don’t need a workshop, really. You just need a comfortable seat, a notebook, and a pen. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Let your characters step out of the mist and tell you something that only they can.


  1. Having taken one of your workshops, I can attest to the effectiveness of the meditation technique. I am at a standstill with a current character and don't know where to go. So, my next stop is going to be meditation. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. We could use another one of your workshops!

  3. I love the idea of using meditation!


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