Telling the Story

Super-excited to have as guest blogger, Chris Pepple! She writes just about any form you can name–poetry, podcasts, novels, and more. Today she explains how she determines the most appropriate genre for telling the story. Welcome, Chris!

When I speak to writing groups, I am often asked why I choose to write both nonfiction and fiction books. Writing for me is a way to start conversations with others. My writings also open doors for my readers to join in discussion on various topics that they may have never addressed before reading one of my books. Both my nonfiction and fiction pieces give me the opportunity to introduce readers to the stories of people that I have met in my community and in my travels.

I write poems, novels, short stories, blog posts, podcast episodes, and devotionals. Through all of these genres, I invite readers into my conversations on healing, on change, on hope, on courage, on determination, on love, and on self-discovery. Sometimes fiction provides a way to share a story of one person or group of people in a more expansive format than a biography, allowing me to generalize some parts of the story so a broader audience can relate and come to understand more about the journey of people in their communities. There are times, however, when a specific person or organization needs to be highlighted in a nonfiction piece so people can put a specific face to a particular cause.

Both nonfiction and fiction can be used to capture moments in life that are touching and honest. For example, my fictional ‘slice of life’ short stories, my poetry, my blog posts, and my nonfiction podcast transcripts give my readers a glimpse into lives of ordinary people who walk through life with an extraordinary determination. The people in each story, poem, or podcast may seem familiar, but they will also surprise us with something that had been kept hidden or had gone unnoticed.

Writers can stay true to our voice across multiple genres. Each story that needs to be told dictates which genre best helps the reader identify with the life being portrayed or the thought being conveyed. A well-written short story or a poem can carry as powerful a message as a biography or a devotional. Give readers and book clubs a list of questions to ponder, and all genres can be used to start conversations.

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Need help with your writing? Or looking for a guest speaker? Click here to learn about the services Chris offers.

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Chris Pepple is an award-winning author with six published books. She is also a freelance writer, manuscript consultant, and editor. Her articles have appeared in many local and national publications. She is a guest speaker for nonprofit groups and writing groups, leading seminars and retreats throughout the nation. You can follow Chris on her website www.chrispepple.com, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Nonfiction That Complements the Novel

Cindy Thomson returns to my site today, and just in time for St. Patrick’s Day! Cindy has written three novels set in Ireland during the Dark Ages as well as nonfiction that complements those novels. Click here to read her previous guest blog. Glad to have you back, Cindy!

Before I published a novel, I dreamed of not being called an author, but a novelist. I’d written some magazine articles and was in the process of having a baseball biography, Three Finger: the Mordecai Brown Story, I co-wrote published so I could rightly be referred to as an author, but novelist was my ultimate goal. Then after my first novel, Brigid of Ireland, was published, I realized that I had done a lot of research on the history of ancient Ireland that I thought readers might be interested in. And so I returned to nonfiction with a book titled Celtic Wisdom, published by an imprint of the same publisher. That book went out of print and having the rights returned to me, I re-published it under the title The Roots of Irish Wisdom, Learning From Ancient Voices. As I continued to write novels in that ancient time period, I followed Roots up with a book titled Celtic Song, From the Traditions of Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales.

You might wonder if I was enjoying nonfiction after professing my love for fiction or if it had been a simple business decision. There was a time when I told the agent I was with back then that I was afraid I might be better at nonfiction than fiction. That was a reluctant confession because as I said, fiction was my dream. Readers are the final judge, but that no longer concerns me. I enjoy writing both and can foresee doing so in the future especially when the nonfiction has a connection to the fiction.

I write historicals. As a reader, I’m interested in the background history of a novel. Had an English king actually relinquished his crown to marry a divorcee? Were American-Italians actually sent to internment camps along with the Japanese during WWII? A really good story will often send me off to look up more information. Many of the readers of my books tell me they are the same way so this is an instance where nonfiction and fiction can marry happily. But I also write some baseball pieces. A biography on a little-known player that I wrote about will soon appear in a book on the Federal League. I haven’t written any genealogy articles lately, but I hope to return to that one day. These are nonfiction projects that I enjoy and I’ve done these types of articles and essays for many years, long before my fiction was published. I think it’s okay to have many interests as an author. But the idea that nonfiction can pair with fiction only came to me after my first novel came out. And it took me awhile to write the second book, but I would like to continue if I can. I’m curious about things so my readers will likely see me put that curiosity into research that will eventually come out in a book somewhere.

What about you? Do you follow up novels with some nonfiction reading?

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I thoroughly enjoyed Celtic Song. So much interesting information. In Celtic Song, I learned that my favorite hymn “Be Thou My Vision” might have originated in the eighth century, and it is written in the poetic form called a lorica. I’d never heard of that kind of poetry before I read Cindy’s book.

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Known for the inspirational Celtic theme employed in most of her books, Cindy Thomson is the author of six novels and four nonfiction books, including her newest, Finding Your Irish Roots. A genealogy enthusiast, she writes from her home in Ohio where she lives with her husband Tom near their three grown sons and their families. Visit her online at CindysWriting.com, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest: @cindyswriting and Book Bub: @cindyswriting.

Guest Blogger Maryruth Dilling

My guest blogger Maryruth Dilling, is new to JPC Allen Writes. She kindly volunteered to do this post when I was looking for guest bloggers who write both nonfiction and fiction. Welcome, Maryruth!

This past November during NaNoWriMo 2019, I took a giant leap at a writing project I had been percolating in my head for over a year. I’m a nonfiction writer who creates educational programs to help people move from barely surviving to abundantly thriving. For my first real attempt at NaNoWriMo, I wanted to try something different in the fiction realm, using the novel as a vehicle to educate. 

I didn’t meet my word goal, but I learned a great deal about the difference in writing a novel and writing a nonfiction, educational piece. 

When I develop a class, I may jot down ‘session’ divisions (similar to chapters), but it is mainly with the purpose of making sure I do not leave anything important out. If I find I have too much information for one class, I will develop a second class (similar to a second book in a fiction series). 

With my classes, I write from decades of knowledge. Organizing sections happens almost as easy as breathing to me. With the move toward the fiction genre, I had to learn some new skills. 

The first thing I realized was that I needed to flesh out my characters. This took time, but they soon took on a life of their own. I also needed some type of outline. Normally, a ‘pantser’ when I write, I learned that even though parts of the story could be done as such,  some type of loose outline was needed. 

Personally, I did not write a full outline. Since it is a dystopia book, I jotted down some scenes which were important to build suspense and lead the reader to where I wanted him to go, giving him a reason to want to learn what I wanted to teach. 

Other differences, outside of character development and outlining, I had to brush up on dialogue skills. With my usual nonfiction, I had no need of dialogue. The dialogue itself was not difficult. Remembering the bits and pieces of punctuation with dialogue required review. The challenge was that when I began writing, I wanted the main character to be the aunt who is the knowledgeable one teaching about herbals. Instead, after the first chapter, an original secondary character stole the main spot in the story. This led me to rewriting a few sections. I do believe with the new main character, the story will be stronger, leading to more lessens for both the characters and the reader to learn. 

Another new lesson for me to brush up on with fiction is writing the scenery. With program development, no scenery is required. Scenery development has been the biggest struggle to learn. Show, don’t tell, is a mantra writers often hear. Learning to combine enough detail to put the reader in the same time/place as the character, yet not become bogged down by details is a skill I’m still working on. 

With the scenery, I decided to write enough detail to remind me of where I want the characters to be in the rough draft and fine tune the scenery when I go back for my edits. In the meantime, I continue to learn about improving my craft as I move from only writing educational nonfiction to using the vehicle of fiction as a teaching tool. 

I hope my experience has motivated you to step out of the comfort zone of your current genre and step into a new world. 

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Maryruth Dilling, author/speaker/coach, describes her job as CEO/Founder of Kindling Dreams as one who educates, challenges, and encourages as she helps people through personal coaching and educational programs to achieve their potential. For more information on available services or products, contact Maryruth at kindlingdreamsllc@gmail.com or visit her website at kindlingdreams.com. You can also visit her on LinkedIn and Facebook.

Favorite Books — Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

This book changed my life. I can’t say that about a lot of books, but Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis did. No book, outside of the Bible, has had more impact on me. Through logic, Mr. Lewis reasons his way into why Christianity is true. He addresses many objections he had when he was an atheist.

My dad gave me a copy of Mere Christianity in college, but I didn’t read it until just after I was married. I’m sorry I didn’t read it earlier, since it was a gift, but I’m not sure if I could have handled the weight of the subject at a younger age.

I had never read such an intellectually challenging book. I loved it. My brain couldn’t get enough of it. Apart from the way it changed my life, this book also influenced how I write my fiction.

Creating Precise Images

Mr. Lewis writes about some extremely difficult theological concepts but makes them accessible through his use of precise analogies.

One of my favorites is comparing human society to a convoy of ships. The convoy is only a success if it reaches its destination. It can’t do that if the ships don’t watch each other to prevent collisions or if the crew of each ship doesn’t maintain its internal mechanisms.

Humans operate the same way. We can collide when we don’t care about other people or when we have so many internal problems that we can’t help but create conflict with others.

Such well-constructed, clear images inspire me to create metaphors and similes like that for my fiction. I want to describe people or settings or even explanations of a mystery so well that readers see it like a sharp-focused photo.

Building Better Villains

Mr. Lewis has many sections on the nature of evil. Although I know when I’ve done sinful things, it was helpful to learn the reasons why. Not only does this give me insight into my spiritual life, it also helped me build better villains.

In a passage, the author explains that one huge difference between good and evil is that people will do good even when they don’t feel like it, or when it won’t benefit them. They do good because they know they ought to.

No one ever did bad because they thought they ought to, when they didn’t feel like it. Every evil action benefits the person somehow. Even cruelty, which seems like evil for evil’s sake, provides satisfaction or pleasure to the person or else he wouldn’t bother.

Those explanations about evil have helped me climb into the skins of my villains and understand their motivations, helping me create believable characters.

What books have changed your life?

Boredom as Writing Inspiration

I stared at my sheet of notebook paper, completely dry of inspiration. March had defeated me. I needed an idea for how to use the month as writing inspiration, and I came up empty. March is such a boring month. I’d already written about Lent, St. Patrick’s Day, and March Madness. I could think of nothing else, so I hit on boredom as writing inspiration.

That sounds like an oxymoron. Writers don’t want to bore readers. But boredom can serve storytelling as a comic element and character motivation. I just have to write it in an entertaintng way so that while my characters experience boredom, my readers do not.

Comic Possibilities

Author Patrick F. McManus wrote several short stories focusing on boredom. He exploits the problem as a way to propel his characters into comic situations.

Mr. McManus shared my loathing of March. He uses the boredom of the month for his humorous short story, “Brimstone” from the book How I Got This Way. As a teenager and outdoorsman in rural Idaho, he laments how he can’t hunt, fish, or camp during the miserable muddy weather of March. His sole hobby is staring vacantly out a window. When a deputy sheriff arrives at his house looking for someone in his family to guide him to a neighbor’s shack, the teenager’s mother forces him to go with the deputy. The rest of the story relates how March and its mud can thwart even the long arm of the law.

In “Another Boring Day” from the same book, eight-year-old Pat and his best friend Crazy Eddie can’t find anything to do on a summer day. They’ve already built their own scuba equipment, constructed an airplane, and dug a pit for wild animals. When they tell their mothers about their boredom, both women grow alarmed. If the boys find a solution to their boredom, their parents will become unbored very quickly, too.

Character Motivation. Part 1

If I need a character to make a radical change in her life, boredom is a perfect engine to steer my character onto a new road. In many books, tragedy forces characters to change. While we all face our share of tragedies in this life, most of us won’t lose a spouse to a drunk driver, have a fiancee dump us for our best friend, or have a child murdered.

But all of us have faced boredom. This universal problem should make a character wrestling with it instantly relatable to readers. When I worked at a public library, I found myself trapped in a meeting with two supervisors who were locked in opposing views like the Zax in the Prairie of Prax. My boredom grew to such a level that my only hope of escaping with my sanity was to broker a peace treaty. My director complimented me on finding a solution. But I had acted out of self-pervation. I didn’t want to go mad at twenty-seven.

I can use a meeting like that to instigate a character to quit his job and try a new career. A bored, stay-at-home mom volunteers at an animal shelter, meets new people, and finds a new passion. A teenager stuck babysitting younger siblings all summer makes friends with an elderly neighbor. Boredom is a plausible reason for all these characters to try something they normally would not.

Character Motivation, Part 2

Although amateur detectives are an old tradition in the mystery genre, getting them involved in a case in a believable way is difficult. A character’s boredom is a perfect excuse to start them snooping.

The classic example of this is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window from 1954. A photographer is laid up with a badly broken leg in his small apartment during a hot summer in New York City. Out of extreme boredom, Jeff begins watching his neighbors who live in the apartment building across the courtyard. He notices the unhappy marriage of one couple. When the wife disappears, he’s convinced the husband has killed her. After the police refuse to investigate, Jeff enlists the help of his girlfriend and his part-time nurse.

I can turn any of the suggestions from the previous section into a mystery. The stay-at-home mom meets another volunteer, who seems troubled, at the animal shelter. That volunteer later turns up a dead. The teen and elderly neighbor are suspicious of a family who has just moved onto their street.

How would you use boredom as writing inspiration?

29 Unique Settings to Spark Your Imagination

As we round up this month of setting tips and inspiration, I wanted to leave you with a list of settings you may not have considered before. My kids and I brainstormed and compiled these 29 unique settings to spark your imagination.

  • Inside a termite mound in Africa
  • A strip mine
  • A sinkhole
  • A sledding hill
  • Marching band practice
  • A 4-H meeting
  • A demolition derby
  • A space station
  • Jupiter’s smallest moon
  • A flooded cave
  • A fire tower
  • A sewer
  • An orthodontist office
  • Antarctic research station
  • A blimp
  • The top of a dam to a lake in a state park
  • A church during vacation Bible school
  • A car stuck on a road that is closed due to a snowstorm
  • An alpaca farm
  • A small, older home next to a new development with huge, new homes
  • A fishing tournament
  • A science fair
  • A prairie dog town
  • A rest stop along a highway
  • An electric company’s substation
  • A catamaran
  • An abandoned railroad line
  • An outdoor art festival
  • An open mausoleum — This one needs a word of explanation. My oldest and I took a history walk with a librarian at a local cemetery. Her research had uncovered records of three mausoleums built into the hill below the cemetery. The one closest to the road had fallen into such disrepair that the doors had opened. The county had bulldozed a mound of earth in front of it to keep out vandals. The other two mausoleums were lost in the woods that had overgrown the hill. Being curious, I returned to the cemetery and found the other two among the weeds and trees. They were both open, doors having come loose and hanging crooked. But I didn’t get too close. It seemed disrespectful to do so. But I really want to use this scenario in a mystery.

For more inspiration, visit my post “How to Thicken Your Plot, Part II” about how to examine settings to generate ideas for plot. All my posts under the category “Writing in Time” are listed here.

And last but not least, this post on “Almost an Author” recommends changing the setting in which you write to give you a fresh perspective as well as ideas.

What other unique settings can you think of? If any setting from our list inspires you, let me know!

Setting Sets the Mood

Setting sets the mood in a story just as efficiently and vividly as character. If I combine the two components, not only do I set the mood, I am well on my way to hooking readers’ attention and immersing them in my story.

Below are three examples of how descriptions of setting in the opening paragraphs establish mood and the personality of the main character.

“The Cloak” by Robert Bloch

The author sets the mood right away for this Halloween story. “The sun was dying, and its blood spattered the sky as it crept into a sepulchre behind the hills.” These are the thoughts of Henderson, who is looking for a costume shop in 1930’s New York City. He scolds himself for his flight of fancy and then describes the sunset as just “dingy red”.

Henderson likes the idea of all the ancient terror Halloween evokes but still wants to be a rational, twentieth century American. The short story combines and clashes the age-old legends of vampires with a high society costume party. In four short paragraphs, Mr. Bloch has established the setting, the mood of the story and the character, and a great amount of tension.

“The Crime Wave at Blandings” by P.G. Wodehouse

“The day on which lawlessness reared its ugly head at Blandings Castle was one of singular beauty”. In the first paragraph, Mr. Wodehouse goes on to describe a fine summer day in England. The second paragraph completely changes course by discussing how fans of thrillers don’t want pretty descriptions. They want the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the crime, and the author had better get on with it.

Mr. Wodehouse has created not just the image of a tranquil summer day but the breezey tone for a comic story about members of an earl’s household taking potshots at an annoying guest with an air gun. The description lets readers know exactly what kind of story they’ve settled down to read, and the author doesn’t disappoint.

“A Rose from the Ashes” by JPC Allen

I wanted my first scene to establish a lonely, eerie mood for my YA Christmas mystery. My main character Rae is a amateur photographer. This influences how she sees the world. When describing the sunset on a December evening, she thinks about how “gashes of blood-red light seeped through the clotted clouds, creating an ominous background for the gray, stone building that was rumored to be the scene of a murder.”

To emphasize the loneliness of the place, as well as the Rae’s loneliness, I use “a few caws from crows and sighs as the wind sailed through empty window frames.” I’m making my setting work hard, providing a background for the action, developing my main character’s personality, and creating symbols to represent my character’s feelings.

At the end of the story, I wanted to let readers know something unusual is going to happen. Rae is back at the “gray, stone building,” which is an abandoned children’s home, on Christmas Eve. The moon is almost full on a frigid, clear night and brings “an otherworldly silver sheen, like the home and all the land outside was bathed in a fairy spell.” Rae is hoping she will find her father, and he will accept her. The otherworldly light represents the main character’s hope and foreshadows the plot twists.

A Word About Symbolism

In Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle, he recommends not consciously working in symbolism. If you do, the symbolism will seem obvious and heavy-handed to readers. So how do you include symbolism if you can’t do it consciously? Mr. Rozelle says to write your story the best you can, and then when you review it, you may find that settings or characters or objects have naturally become symbols.

That happened in my story, but I didn’t realize until I was helping my oldest child with an extremely tough question for a language arts assignment. He had to find passages in a story that showed a change in a character through a change in how he or she viewed a setting. We were both stumped. Then I remembered my short story, which had just been published. How Rae views the abandoned children’s home reflects her feelings at the time, at first lonely, then hopeful.

I was surprised I’d included symbolism in my story. And happy that I helped my oldest complete his homework.

What stories have you read in which the setting sets the mood particularly well?

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