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?

Favorite Books — Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle

Since this month’s theme is focusing on setting, I checked out several books on the topic and found a wonderful resource in a new favorite book Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle.

In my prompt from last week, I related Mr. Rozelle’s advice about carrying a journal with you wherever you go so you can make notes on memorable people, places, and things and then draw on those notes when you need inspiration.

The book is chock full of great advice like that. It covers topics in chapters such as “Showing, Telling, and Combining the Two”, a skill difficult for me to acquire, “Sensory Description”, and “Description and Setting in Specialized Fiction”. Mr. Rozelle uses examples from fiction and nonfiction and from both literary and popular fiction.

All the chapters had useful advice and information, written in an engaging style, as if the author was sitting across from you at a coffee shop. Even more helpful were the three to four exercises at the end of each chapter so readers can practice what Mr. Rozelle preached.

With so much information to learn, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. I summed it up for myself this way: the setting must do more than hold characters. It should do double, triple, or even quadruple duty.

Pulling double duty

For example, my WIP, A Shadow on the Snow, is a mystery novel with a nineteen-year-old girl named Rae as the protagonist. She is an amateur photographer. That interest influences how she sees her world. I write in first-person, so the entire novel unfolds through her eyes.

Let’s say Rae enters a house and describes it in unflattering terms. Then she meets the owner and doesn’t like him either. Through my description of the setting, I’ve told readers something about Rae, something about the house, and something about the owner of the house. If this dislike makes Rae act in a certain away, then my description has also influenced the plot. So the setting is working hard, not only being the background for the action but revealing characters and affecting the action.

It’s similar to laying clues in a mystery. Readers don’t know if a conversation is only imparting information or if it’s also providing a clue. Or it may be a red herring. But a conversation, action sequence, setting, or character should be more than what it initially appears to be.

This concept energizes and intimidates me. I love the challenge of making my settings work that hard but also wonder if I can meet the challenge. Some of Mr. Rozelle’s examples are so perfect that I feel I could never equal them.

How do you work your setting? Do you have a book you recommend?

Writing Tip — Favorite Books: Journals

If you are a beginning writer, or a seasoned one having trouble finding inspiration, keeping a journal may be the style of writing that will help.

I first started journaling the spring I was seventeen in this book, which just has lined paper.IMG_2840 I journaled about what happened each day and really didn’t like keeping it. I might have liked it better if I had narrowed my focus. Back then, I was an avid fan of old movies (still am). My journal could have been about the movies I’d watched and my opinion of them

Now my daily journal is about what happens to my kids. I hope the journal will remind them of the events of their childhood.

At some point in my life, I began carrying a three-ring binder every where I went. IMG_2838I only use it for my journal and fiction. I like this kind of binder because I can add and remove pages. Since I began publishing, I have graduated to a second binder. That holds my WIP (work in progress) novel, and the ancient red one holds the journal and blog posts. I’m almost sure it’s older than my oldest child.

Another kind of journal offers prompts. I won 300 Writing Prompts at a book festival. IMG_2837Many of the prompts ask you to examine something in your own life and seem most appropriate for personal essays with questions like “What is your favorite way to spend a lazy day?” and “What do you look forward to every week?”

Some prompts seemed aimed squarely at fiction, like “You are the wind’s interpreter. What is it saying?” and “Write a diary entry, dated 10 years in the future.”

One thing that I’ve learned about inspiration is that I never know what will ignite a spark and set a story on fire.

If you struggle to write regularly, the demands of a journal may be what you need. And it is private, unlike blogging, allowing you the freedom to explore topics and your own internal landscape.

Like any other skill, writing improves the more often you do it. And with a journal, you can keep your earliest, most inept attempts to yourself, then bask in the the joy of your progress when you look back and see how much you’ve improved.

Do you keep a journal? What do you journal about?

 

Writing Tip — Favorite Books: One Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith

winterw-1998359_1280Did you know One Hundred and One Dalmatians was a middle grade novel before it was a movie? And did you know it was a Christmas story?

I’d forgotten all this when my youngest, the Fishing Fanatic, watched a bunch of classic Disney movies on a long drive this summer. We recently watched it again, and I remembered how much I loved the novel as a kid. I’m reading it to my kids now, and they love it, too.

The movie is a very good abridgment of the novel. So if you liked the characters and the fantasy world of the dogs, you’ll love the book, which gives much greater details than the movie.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’s about a young couple, the Dearlys, who live in London with their Dalmatians, Pongo and Missus. Their neighbor is Cruella de Vil. She lives for furs. She only married her husband because he is a furrier. Missus gives birth to fifteen puppies, who are stolen. Pongo figures out that Cruella has taken them because she wants to make a Dalmatian coat.

When Scotland Yard says it is “Frankly Baffled”, Pongo and Missus decide it’s up to them to find and rescue their puppies. They use the Twilight Barking. A dog barks a message, and the next dog to hear it barks it on. They spread the news all over England.

A week before Christmas, Pongo and Missus receive word that their puppies are being held out in the country at the ancestral home of the de Vils. They set out, relying on the dog network to provide food, shelter and information, while trying to avoid all people because their “pets”, as they call the Dearlys, have advertised that they have gone missing, too.

The details of the dog network are wonderfully imagined. Once Pongo and Missus bark that they are leaving, the dogs swing into action, working out a route, that will get them to the home. Other animals help out, as if they are an underground network of resistance in enemy territory, as author Danny Peary points out in his book Guide for the Film Fanatic.

Cruella is one of the great villains of fiction, and in the book, we learn more about her. She puts pepper on all her food, and when one of the pups nips at her ear, it tastes like pepper. We also get some of the history of the de Vil family and how their country home came to be called Hell Hall.

The main reason this story has stayed with me all these years is because it has one of the best descriptions of evil that I’ve come across.

At the end of the book, Cruella’s cat comes to live with the Dearlys and Pongo and Missus. She tells them the de Vils are financially ruined. Missus says she feels sorry for Mr. de Vil. He seems so meek, and Cruella dominates him so much that she made him take her last name.

But the cat says not to bother. “He’s as bad as Cruella. The only different is she’s strong and bad and he’s weak and bad.”

When I read that at as a tween, I knew it had great insight. Even now when I create bad guys, I often think about whether he or she is strong and bad or weak and bad. And like the cat said, both kinds of personalities are equally evil.

What books from your childhood have always stayed with you?

 

Writing Tip — Favorite Book: Police Procedures and Investigations by Lee Lofland

Police procedureIf you are looking for one resource to introduce you to the world of law and order, I highly recommend Police Procedures and Investigations: a Guide for Writers by Lee Lofland.

Last winter, I got the inspiration for a a new mystery series and realized I needed to know a lot more than I already did about police work, which was zero. This book covers such areas as how men and women are trained at a police academy, the proper process for arrests and searches, the different departments of law enforcement in the U.S., how the court system works (I’ve never understood which courts try which crimes), and much more.

The copyright date is 2007, so some of the science may be out of date. My favorite chapter is the last one. Mr. Lofland writes about how many Americans believe they understand law enforcement from what they see on TV. This leads to people on juries misunderstanding forensic evidence because it’s not presented in a trial like it is on the C.S.I. shows.

Mr. Lofland offers some quotes of what real police officers think of their fictional counterparts.

“Police officers don’t fire warning shots! For goodness’ sake, what goes up must come down!”

“TV cops return to a crime scene over and over again to collect evidence. In real life, you usually get one shot at the scene.”

All of these quotes are from officers in Ohio, which is especially helpful to me, because that is where my series is set.

Another part of the book that I found fascinating were the short, personal essays. The author relates stories concerning the first autopsy he watched, putting a gang under surveillance, and trying to arrest a mountain of a man without using his gun. Those stories make law enforcement seem real to me.

No one in my family, except for a cousin, who is now a member of the Army police, or my husband’s family is involved in law enforcement. So reading this book has opened my eyes to a life I knew nothing about. As a writer, I want to tell a compelling story. But not at the expense of reality. I want to write about the men and women in law enforcement in a realistic way. I’ve found the more research I do hasn’t limited my inspiration. It has actually sparked it.

What book do you recommend for mystery writers?

Writing Tip — Favorite Books: The Deer on a Bicycle by Patrick McManus

735600I featured this book a couple of years ago, but I am revisiting it because this month’s theme is humor, and Patrick McManus is my favorite humor writer. His stories appeared in Field & Stream and Outdoor Life and then were collected into books. He also wrote a series of mysteries featuring Sheriff Bo Tully.

One of the many great things about this book is that Mr. McManus’s day job was teaching writing at Eastern Washington University, so not only could he write, he could teach it, too. Even if you don’t write humor, The Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor is packed with great advice.

I like the framework for the first half of the book. Mr. McManus has an imaginary character named Newton ask questions about writing, such as “Pat, what do you mean by ‘indirection’ in a story?”, “What do you believe is the ultimate in prose style, Pat?’, and “Short humor, Pat. What is it and who cares?”

In the second half of the book, the author selects twelve of his short stories and provides commentary about each one, focusing on structure or characters or some other writing techniques.

In his commentary on the story “Sequences”, Mr. McManus describes the Recognition Factor. These are little aspects of life that are true to almost everybody. Writers notice these thing because we are always on the look out for inspiration. The reader “gets this little charge of delight” when he reads something in a story that he recognizes from his own life.

When he comments on a disastrous camping trip in “The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw,” Mr. McManus explains that he visualizes “the kind of disaster I want to produce”. Then he plots the events “that will lead to that disaster.”

Both of these pieces of advice I can use in my mysteries. In my upcoming short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, my main character owns a beat-up truck with gears that jam. My dad had a truck like that when I was growing up. Many readers have had a vehicle that  quits working when they need it most. That’s the Recognition Factor.

When plotting a mystery, I often know where I want to end. Then I plot backwards and see how I can logically arrive at my ending.

I’ll be discussing other pieces of advice from this book later this month.

Has a humorous story contained a Recognition Factor for you?

Writing Tip — Favorite Book: 20 Master Plots (and How to Build Them) by Ronald B. Tobias

20 Master PlotsPlotting seems to be my weakest skill, so I’m always interested in improving it. I snatched up 20 Master Plots (and How to Build Then) by Ronald B. Tobias when I found it at the library. The edition I read was published in 1993. A newer edition was published in 2003.

Mr. Tobias categorizes the twenty plots in chapters with titles like “Quest”, “The Riddle” (of particular interest to this crime writer), “Temptation”, and “Sacrifice.” For each plot he summarizes classic examples. In “Quest”, he uses The Wizard of Oz and the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece. In “Sacrifice”, he describes the plots for the movies Casablanca and High Noon. The 1949 film noir D.O.A. is the example for “The Riddle”.

Before he gets to the master plots, Mr. Tobias has five chapters on some basic principles of plot, including story vs. plot, creating opposing arguments, and the inseparable link between plot and character. Some of his points I already knew and appreciated the author’s confirmation. Others were new to me. Some I disagreed with, such as Mr. Tobias doesn’t like plots that exist solely to deliver a “gotcha” to the reader. I loves those kind of plots in short stories.

Warning for Worriers

When I first had my kids, I tried to read What to Expect When You are Expecting from cover to cover and gave myself a terrible case of anxiety. Every time I read about a particular developmental problem or disease, I worried that one of my children was exhibiting those symptoms. I learned I should only consult the book when I had specific need, such as a teething problem.

It works the same with books on writing.

If I pick one up without a specific purpose in mind, I imagine my writing has every problem the author of the advice book outlines. If your mind runs this away too, then only go to writing books when you want help in a specific area. When several agents told me to work on “show, don’t tell”, I bought two book on the topic. When I thought my dialogue could be better, I checked out a book from my library.

What resources have you found to help you with plot?

Writing Tip — Favorite Book: The Outsiders

OutsidersThe Outsiders was the one Young Adult (YA) novel I read as a young adult and actually liked. By the time I was twelve, I was reading adult books, mostly mysteries from the Golden Age of Detective fiction and action-adventure novels by Alistair MacLean. I only discovered the novel when the movie aired on TV when I was sixteen. I wrote about that two years ago when it was the fiftieth anniversary of The Outsiders.

Today I am writing about the things that made me fall in love with the novel, qualities I try to remember when writing my YA fiction.

Kids on Their Own

I think one of the reasons I switched to adult fiction is that I got sick of books with teen characters, who make huge mistakes — dumb ones in my opinion — and then get corrected by adults. I had enough of that going on in reality. In The Outsiders, Ponyboy Curtis, the main character, lives with his twenty-year-old brother because their parents recently died in a car accident. He has to work out the problems in his life for himself or with the help of his brothers or friends. I found the absence of adult figures, except for a few key scenes, greatly appealing.

First-Person Narration

Ponyboy tells his story in first-person. His narration is so personal that I felt like he was sitting beside me, talking to me as a friend. Author S. E. Hinton threw in all kinds of extra detail that didn’t directly affect the plot but made Ponyboy, his brothers, and the friends of his gang seem real. Such as the Curtis brothers like chocolate cake for breakfast, Ponyboy hates most guys with green eyes, and he loves to smoke but also runs track.

I still enjoy reading YA fiction because so many authors use first-person. I don’t find it nearly as often in adult fiction of any genre. Many times the third-person narration keeps the characters at a distance from me.

Characters Described in Depth

Ms. Hinton introduces Ponyboy and the other main characters in the first chapter with detailed descriptions. Today her style is considered poor writing. But I loved it then and still do. In a few pages, Ms. Hinton allowed me to imagine those characters vividly.

Sodapop Curtis –” . . . he has a finely drawn, sensitive face that somehow manages to be reckless and thoughtful at the same time.”

Dallas Winston — “He had an elfish face, with high cheekbones and a pointed chine, small, sharp animal teeth, and ears like a lynx.”

Johnny Cade — “He was the gang’s pet, everyone’s kid brother.”

What’s your favorite YA novel? Do you still love it as an adult?

Writing Tip — Favorite Books and Giveaway: “The Emotion Thesaurus”

Emotion-Thesaurus-2nd-EditionI can’t remember how I found The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, but it was one of the best books I’ve bought on writing technique. It’s so good that everyone who comments during the month of May will be put in a drawing for it. To enter the drawing, you must be a U.S. resident You can comment from now until May 31 at 5 p.m. EST. I will notify the winner that day.

When my freelance editor Sharyn Kopf tackled my YA novel, The Truth and Other Strangers, she pointed out that I used the same facial expressions to convey emotions, usually smiles, grins, and the width of the eyes. So I had to figure out how to describe emotions in a variety of ways.

The Emotion Thesaurus offers loads of descriptions for 130 emotions. Under each one is a definition, a list of physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, cues of an acute case of this emotion, and cues of suppressing it, along with a writer’s tip.

Whenever I see that I am falling into the trap of relying too heavily on my character’s grins or narrowed eyes, I pick up the thesaurus. Reading the list of physical signs lifts my imagination out of its rut. Sometimes, I don’t use the exact sign the authors have listed, but the signs have sparked my creativity, and I come up with one of my own.

For example, when my main character experiences fear, I often use shortness of breath or a sick stomach. The thesaurus suggests such reactions as “lowering voice to a whisper”, “pleading, talking to oneself.”, and “stiff walking, the knees locking” among 33 physical signs. For the main character of my recent mystery short story, I decided when she was scared that she would raise up on her toes, digging in like a sprinter, to be ready to run.

These authors have other writing thesaurus, which I have not read, but I’m intrigued by The Rural Setting Thesaurus. Although I live in the country, I know I can use someone else’s perspective to see a familiar setting with new eyes.

Be sure to comment during May and to be eligible to win The Emotion Thesaurus

 

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