Willis shares writing advice at Wood County Public Library workshop

Photo by Madeline Murphy From left, Christina Guisbert talks with novelist Meredith Sue Willis about her inspirations behind her new novel “Their Houses” at the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library on Wednesday.

PARKERSBURG — Meredith Sue Willis, novelist and teacher, provided a writing workshop and reading from her new novel “Their Houses” Wednesday night at the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library.

Willis was born and raised in Harrison County, W.Va., and teaches novel writing at New York University’s School of Professional Studies and conducts workshops for writers.

“I offer these writing exercises as a place for a community of sharing and exchange,” Willis said.

“I call them ‘exercises’ rather than ‘prompts’ or ‘lessons’ because I think of them as ways to strengthen the writing muscles that you already have and as ways to expand your range of techniques,” she said.

Workshop exercises included creating a character. She had attendees close their eyes and imagine a character starting from the outside going in, then sharing their characters with everyone else.

“My character is very tall; he has a scruffy beard and is wearing casual yet unkempt clothes,” said Christina Guisbert, who was attending the event.

Willis asked questions about the characters such as what they smell like, are their hands callused or smooth and if their voices were deep or higher pitched.

After attendees had an appearance imagined for the character, Willis had the attendees begin to create thoughts for that character.

Guisbert continued describing her character saying, “He is a judge, but he really wants to travel the world taking odds and ends jobs, exploring life without any preconceived ideas on the world.”

“A novel is made up of many pieces that all come together to create a story,” said Willis.

“Not every obstacle needs to be huge, so much of life repeats itself; sometimes it is good to use something ordinary that could happen to anyone and make it interesting,” Willis said.

To help attendees get a feel for character and story development, Willis read a few pages from her new novel “Their Houses.”

A summary of her novel states: “As children, two sisters make homes for their toys out of matchboxes and shoeboxes, trying to create safe places after the loss of their mother to psychosis.

Grace, now a schoolteacher married to a doctor, appears to have a conventional life but has a breakdown during an undesired move from her beloved cottage to another house. Dinah has married a self-ordained preacher with a troubled past and tries to keep her children safely separate from the world. Meanwhile, a childhood friend is linked to a militia’s abortive attempt to blow up the FBI’s fingerprint records facility in West Virginia, and later builds an isolated survivalist compound in the mountains.

These three adults, closely bonded in childhood, are reunited on this acreage once owned by a white supremacist group, where they discover in various ways that there is no final protection, no matter how hard they strive to find it or make it.”

After reading a section from her new novel, Willis described events that happened during her life that inspired characters, their backgrounds and book situations.

“I love attending the author workshops,” Jeanne Michie, librarian at the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library, said.

“Each person has different personalities and experiences, which I think is what draws people to reading in the first place,” Michie said.

Willis has written 20 novels, stories and writing aids published and for sale through her website MeredithSueWillis.com.