Writing Tip — Writing in Time: Lonely Places as Writing Inspiration

fogw-3461096_1920Lonely places aren’t unique to October, but I wanted to write about them for this month’s theme, mysteries. I’m drawn to lonely places, whether it’s an abandoned house, an office building after hours, or an empty beach. The lack of people suggests some kind of story behind the emptiness. Or it allows me to project all kinds of ideas for stories.

In my short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, an abandoned children’s home is a clue and a key setting for the mystery. Many, many years ago, when my dad would take me out into the country to practice driving, we would pass what looked like a large, two-story house. He told me that at one time it was a home for orphans. The building was made of stone or brick and had a simple, flat facade with the door centered on the bottom floor. As I drove by it in the evening, with the windows dark, the home sitting by itself in a field, I got an eerie feeling.

Below are four ways to use lonely places as writing inspiration.

Set the mood or foreshadow

If I want to make my readers uneasy, setting a scene in a lonely place is a great way to do it. It’s an experience all of us have had, so readers instantly relate to it. The lonely place hints at something awful to come. Or I can subvert that notion. I can have my characters worry about being in some dreadfully lonely place only to discover friends are waiting for them.

Aid character development

Having a character seek out lonely places can tell the reader something about their personality. Does she visit a local cemetery because she’s morbid? Or is it the closest place she can go to get away from violence in her home? If I create a character, who regularly visits the mountains to hike, I can signal to readers that he likes challenges, or he needs to relieve stress, or he’s chasing freedom that he can’t find in his usual routine. If my character is drawn to an old house with a spooky legend attached to it, I can show that she’s curious or a truth seeker or wants to see justice done.

Challenge the main character

At a conference I attended, author Steven James recommended isolating the main character (MC) to increase tension. Lonely places do that and also give me the opportunity to stress and test the MC. I’m a hug fan of the underdog story, and the best way to set that up is to force the MC to go it alone.

And I don’t use lonely places just for physical isolation. If I really want to get the MC to rely on her strengths, I need to isolate her from technology. That’s one of the reasons I love rural places and visit rural areas to see where I can realistically cut off the MC from the rest of the world.

I can also create tension in a lonely place by having my MC phone for help that will be a long time in arriving. But I prefer to cut him off completely. Then the readers can anticipate the MC will have to succeed on his own abilities.

Slow the pace for reflection while maintaining tension

When writing a chase or action sequences, the MC has no time to think. Surviving is all that matters. But if I need her to realize something during the pursuit, I can have her find a lonely place. She can hide, catch her breath, and be on the alert for her antagonist but also think about what’s happening. Maybe she suddenly realizes the identity of her mysterious pursuer. Or she figures out how to elude him. Or she reasons out the key to the mystery she’s been trying to solve and must escape to tell the police.

A lonely place works just as well if all I need it for is time for the MC to think, even if it’s as simple as having him taken a walk in the morning. But I must make sure when I slow the pace of my narrative not to bring it to halt by dumping information I haven’t worked into the storyline yet.

What stories have you read or movies you’ve seen that effectively use lonely places?

 

Writing Tip — Let the Humor Come Naturally

boyw-2604853_1920At the beginning of the month, I linked to a post on the difference between comedy and humor. Comedy is a deliberate act to be funny. Humor comes from observing situations, remarks, or actions with a humorous attitude. I am a mystery writer who stumbles upon humorous things as I’m writing. Since I am not a gifted humor writer, I find it best to let the humor come naturally to my story.

In my short story “Debt to Pay”, a wife has plotted to kill her millionaire husband by sabotaging his plane. He survives the crash and hides out with two brothers, who live in a remote cabin in Wayne National Forest. When the wife discovers her husband at the cabin, she offers the older brother money to kill her husband on the spot. She says, “You’ve never had money. You don’t know what it can do for you.”

As I wrote that scene, it occurred to me that the twenty-two-year-old brother actually did know what money could do for you. It could get you smashed to pieces in a plane crash masterminded by your wife. Since that observation was suitable to the character’s personality, I had him say it. It was a bit of humor true to the situation and character.

Another way to let humor come naturally is to know my characters in detail. If I have a talkative character, and I pair him with a very introverted one, I just start writing and see what the characters do. The humor surprises yet still feels natural because I know my characters so well.

It’s also a gift to readers if they are reading in a series withe reoccurring characters. If I present my characters vividly enough for my readers to get to know them like family, then when I put, or trap, characters with clashing personalities in a scene, readers get a thrill as they anticipate the conflict and humor to come.

WARNING!

The one rule you want to follow when placing humor in your stories is that you don’t want your characters remarking about how funny a situation or person is.

When my kids were little, they sometimes watched the PBS children’s show The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That. The Cat made lots of funny remarks. And the two kid characters were constantly laughing at them. I don’t know why the creators did this. It was as if they didn’t think the children watching the show would get the jokes. I found it irritating, even for a kids’ show.

Humor in a story is for the reader. I need to trust that they will get it. Sometimes, I can write that a character laughed or chuckled and then keep on going with my story. For example, in my YA novel The Truth and Other Strangers, I have my normally quiet main characters crack a joke. His younger brother laughs “so hard he almost fell down the mountain.” That’s the last line of the chapter.

My description of the younger brother laughing isn’t a cue to my readers. It’s character development. My main character did something unusual, and his younger brother showed his surprise and appreciation. Done, end of chapter, move on.

What are some of your favorite funny novels or short stories? I’d love to find new stories that make me laugh.

Writing Tip — 4 Ways Humor Helps Characters

mentorw-3610255_1920If it’s appropriate to you story, let humor do the heavy lifting when it comes to character development. Here are four ways humor helps characters.

Humor makes characters likable.

Giving a character a healthy sense of humor automatically makes her more likable to most readers. In real life, someone with good sense of humor is more enjoyable to hang around. The same principle applies to characters. If I like a character’s humorous thoughts or remarks, I’m much more likely to follow that character into a story, regardless of what style or genre it is.

Humor makes character unlikable.

Creating a character with a nasty sense of humor is a quick way to turn your readers against him. It will also intrigue your readers. I’ve read many crime short stories in which the main character is the criminal, and he relates how he committed his crime with an arrogant attitude and vicious barbs directed at the lesser mortals surrounding him. I don’t know if such a vile character could sustain a whole novel, but I stick with the short story because I know the main character forgot something in the commission of his crime and will get found out some way. Waiting for the high-and-mighty to be brought low is delicious to read about.

Humor makes the characters relatable

I’ve been in situations that seem so ridiculous that I have to laugh. Or I look on an irritating situation in a humorous light because it’s so much better than losing my temper or fuming.

When characters see the humor in situations familiar to readers, such as the arrival and dismissal for the car-riding students at an elementary school (don’t get me started), readers find something of themselves in the character.

My husband and I recently watched Justice League. I loved the Flash. As a young man selected by Batman to join the League and act like superhero for the first time in his life, the Flash is a character the audience can relate to. He makes the comments we might if we found ourselves thrust into such a bizarre world. Like when he thinks Batman’s idea of bringing Superman back to life is a plot straight out of a Stephen King novel.

Humor makes readers care for characters.

If characters are likable and relatable, then readers will care what happens to them. Humor makes the drama more dramatic, like the way salt heightens the sweetness in cookies. Such as when a character is in a terrifying situation and cracks a joke. That makes the audience root all the more for the character’s escape. The juxtaposition of opposites enhances both of them.

Who is one of your favorite character with a great sense of humor?

Writing Tip — Character Thumbnail Descriptions

boardw-973989_1280Can you summarize your character in a a few words? This is an excellent question for so many reasons, many of them explained in this blog post in which the author uses a two-word thumbnail description for each character. I found two words too hard but summaries of my characters that are five words or less helped me delve into the core of their beings.

In my YA crime novel, The Truth and Other Strangersmy main character is Junior Lody, and three relatives are the other major characters, who help him in his efforts to hold his family together. Below are the thumbnail descriptions:

  • Junior Lody: sixteen years old, intelligent, protective worrier
  • Mike Lody: Junior’s twenty-one-year-old uncle. Hot-tempered, loud-mouthed, big-hearted.
  • Gabe Lody: Junior’s sixteen-year-old cousin: nervous, eager to please, musician.
  • Merritt Lody: Junior’s fifteen-year-old half brother: easy-going, optimistic, nature-lover.

Having those summaries in mind are a great help when I’m writing a scene and I’m not sure who should say or do what. Knowing each character’s core personality helps the narrative to ring true. It also helps me when I develop new characters. If I already have a character with a comeback for everything, do I really need another? If I do, perhaps the new character can be a foil for the old one. If I find I have two characters with similar summaries, it may be time to eliminate one.

Probably because I grew up as one of four sisters, I tend to think of characters interacting in groups of four. I understand that kind of relationship dynamic and how four different personalities can play off each other.

Recently I’ve been working on the personalities of four grown siblings in their thirties, who would appear in a series of mysteries. I’m having trouble with the youngest. Here’s what I have so far.

  • Oldest sister: Thirty-nine, dreamy writer and family peace-maker.
  • Oldest brother: Thirty-seven, big-hearted, protective law enforcement officer.
  • Youngest sister: Thirty-three, impulsive, enthusiastic private investigator.
  • Youngest brother: Thirty-one, ??????

I’d like the Youngest Brother to be a first responder. I’ve been thinking about a firefighter or paramedic. I also think he should be quiet, balancing his more extroverted siblings, Oldest Brother and Youngest Sister. But he just hasn’t come into focus for me. I may have his face wrong, and that’s why I can’t work on him. I know I need four siblings and not three and he should be male. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

And please share any thumbnail descriptions of your characters below. I’d love to hear about them!

Writing Tip — Finding Faces for Characters

peoplew-2887485_1280I am a character writer. My main character attracts me because his or her personality and relationships are ones I want to explore through story. But for me to use this characters, I need to see him or here as clearly as my friends and family. And it all starts with the face.

What kinds of faces catch my attention? After decades of looking for them, I can’t answer that question. All sorts of faces pique my interest, not just ones that could get their owners a contract in Hollywood. I just have to make some sort of connection to a face and know I could build a character behind it.

I’ve found faces in some very unlikely places, here are situations where I’ve been inspired.

Crowds

Sometimes, I will pass a person in a crowd, and his or her face draws my attention. I know nothing about this person, and I don’t think I want to because I want to put my own character behind the face.

At our county fair, my kids and I were walking through the midway when I saw a teenage boy — average height, 16 or 17 years old, golden blond hair, very light-colored eyes, mustache and chin stubble. After taking several opportunities to look but hopefully not stare, I had a minor character who resembled  a female character I had already selected. Now I had her son.

For my short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, I needed a man in his late thirties, wealthy, devoted father and sole guardian of his three children. As I rummaged my memory for a suitable candidate, I recalled a soccer coach from the league my youngest plays in. I didn’t know the man, had only seen him in passing, or when his team played my youngest’s team.

He stood out from all the other coaches because he was immaculately dressed. Most of the dads who coached wore baggy T-shirts and shorts. This guy wore a navy blue windbreaker and white shorts, no bagging in sight, and his dark hair was sprayed or gelled to perfection. He looked like he’d just left his yacht. I had my wealthy dad.

Portraits

I love looking at portraits, whether paintings or photos. I needed a dark-haired woman, near forty, as a villain. While watching an old Disney movie with my kids, I noticed a portrait on the wall of a set. That portrait kicked off a very successful construction of an evil character. (For those of you who know old Disney movies, it’s the portrait of Aldetha Teach in Blackbeard’s Ghost.)

Other Sources

Yearbooks

Movies and shows

Google images

Family albums

Free photos sites (like Pixabay)

Where have you found faces for your characters?

Writing Tip — Guest Blogger, Amy C. Blake

SONY DSCI’m so excited about May’s theme, creating characters, that I’m starting a day early! Here to discuss characters in her latest release is YA fantasy and suspense writer, Amy C. Blake. Welcome, Amy!

Which comes first when creating a story – characters, plot, or setting?

I usually have some idea of plot and setting, but I need to know my main character in great detail before I can do much with a story. Since what happens in the plot depends so heavily on my protagonist’s personality and background, I’d say character is the most important factor for me.

Do you use a different approach for villains and heroes?

My hero is a critical part of my story, so I get to know him/her completely before I start writing. While I also need to know my villain thoroughly, that character is somewhat dependent on my hero. In other words, I want my villain to be the best antagonist to fit my hero. For instance, in my Levi Prince series (my new release The Fay’s Apprentice is the third book in that series), Hunter is the perfect villain for Levi. Hunter is rich, self-confident, and insolent. Levi is poor, gawky, and self-conscious. In addition, the ancestors of the two boys shared a similar antagonism to theirs, a factor Levi is only beginning to understand by his third summer in Terracaelum.

Who was the easiest character you’ve created? Who was the most difficult?

The easiest character is a toss-up between Patience from Whitewashedand Levi from my Levi Prince series. Patience was easy because I tend to be impatient like she is. Levi was easy because he’s a homeschooled pastor’s kid like my own children. Christy from Colorblind was the most difficult because she’s super sweet but was also not a believer during much of the story.

What do you think is the key for creating main characters that readers can relate to?

I think it’s key that my main characters be real. They need to be basically likable people but with at least one flaw many readers share. As I mentioned earlier, Patience tends to be impatient. Many of us battle that tendency as well, so she’s relatable. However, Patience isn’t just impatient. She’s also kind to a young mother trying to pacify twin babies on an airplane, and I’m careful to show that side of her personality before I show her flaw(s).

What’s been your most unusual source of inspiration for a character?

My main characters are all homeschoolers, something I haven’t seen in the mainstream or Christian markets. As a homeschooling mom of four, I wanted to show that home educated kids are well-rounded, likable but flawed individuals, just like everybody else.

To follow Amy, visit her at the following sites:

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FaysApprentice_FlatOn Levi’s third summer at Camp Classic, he’s torn between two responsibilities. On the one hand, his parents expect him to watch over his little sister Abby, who has no clue their summer camp is a haven for mythical creatures. On the other hand, Mr. Dominic wants him to train at Fort Terra, a full day’s hike away from his sister, because of Levi’s previous encounters with the demon sorcerer Deceptor. Although he enjoys training with his friends, Levi finds life at Fort Terra difficult thanks to the ongoing tension between him and Hunter and the stress of having his former kidnapper Regin as his chaperone. When the woman Regin claims to be the evil sorceress Anna appears, Levi faces a whole new challenge. (Book 3 in the Levi Prince series)

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Award-winning author Amy C. Blake is a pastor’s wife and homeschooling mother of four. She has an M.A. in English from Mississippi College and has written articles, devotionals, and short stories for a number of publications. She’s also writing two series for the Christian market, her Levi Prince YA fantasy series and her On the Brink Christian suspense trilogy.

WhitewashedColorblind, and Tie-Dyed, featuring three homeschooled girls on the brink of adulthood…and danger, are available in paperback and Kindle. The Trojan Horse TraitorThe Fall of Thor’s Hammer, and The Fay’s Apprentice, about homeschooled pastor’s kid Levi Prince and his adventures in Terracaelum, are also available in paperback and Kindle. She’d love for you to visit her website at amycblake.com.

 

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