What Can Jim Henson Teach Writers?

It might be hard to figure out what Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy might have to offer us as mystery writers. And that’s just what I thought as I was listening to Brian Jay Jones, author of the new Jim Henson biography at the 12th annual James River Writers Conference on October 18, 2014. But if you think about it, what other characters are so memorable and immediately recognizable? Jim Henson board v2

That related to the first point. Practice. This type of character takes a long time to find and develop. It wasn’t as if Kermit just showed up one day. In Miss Piggy’s case, she was inspired by a karate chop one day. And Elmo’s voice and personality came when one puppeteer threw the puppet to another and said “Can you do something with this?” For those that want to know more about that, there’s a movie of the process called Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey.   This same process is what most of us do with our list of character questions or interviews or sketches. We work until we know enough or have practiced writing about or in that character’s voice long enough that it finally comes alive for us. Granted, there are characters that just show up but we still have to learn about them. And it was somewhat comforting to learn that the Muppet characters weren’t all just instant inspirations but took time to develop.

The second was Perseverance. It took 15 years for the Muppet Show to come to TV. That’s lots of hours developing the show, improving it and shopping it. For writers, we know all about the long hours of writing and editing, making our work the best it can be. And then there’s the time and energy to find an agent and/or editor, or self-publish. I hadn’t realized just how long that show was shopped.

Finally, the one that may be the most important – Have fun and be nice. I know this is a business and I’d add being professional to that one. But doing something you enjoy/love and being nice to people makes a lot of sense. It’s a good reminder on those really difficult days when the words just don’t seem to be coming as easy.

Mr. Jones was also on a research panel and he talked about the extensive research he Research paneldid.  He wants to try to live in the world of the person he’s writing about – much like we do in our fictional worlds. Mr. Jones likes to visit the actual places so he can walk where his subjects spent time and noted that sometimes his research can help set the pacing such as using medical records at the end of the book on Mr. Henson. I know that the time I just spent in Savannah will help with bringing that city alive in my mystery novel. But Mr. Jones also said that at some point, you have to abandon the research and just write.

At the start of the first talk, I was a bit skeptical about how much I might learn or have in common with a non-fiction writer but was pleasantly surprised. None of this was new or earth-shattering. However, his points were all good reminders and it was interesting to learn that Mr. Henson’s creative journey was not so different from our process as writers.

2 thoughts on “What Can Jim Henson Teach Writers?

  1. Interesting, Carolyn. When you spoke about recognition, I immediately thought of other timeless characters such as Winnie the Pooh and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Initially I had a harder time coming up with purely adult characters but once I got started the names flowed: Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Robinson Crusoe, Friday(!), Tarzan and Jane, etc., etc.

    As a native Savannahian, I’m, of course, very interested to hear that my beloved city will be featured in your book. Can’t wait to read it. Please contact me if you have any questions you think I can help resolve.

  2. Thanks for the offer- and good thoughts on memorable writing characters. There are some and I wonder how long it took the authors to come up with those or if they were a quicker inspiration. Fun to think about – and appreciate your comments.

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