Writing Tip — Writing in Time: Vacations as Writing Inspiration

amazingw-2412612_1280As summer enters its third month, August seemed like a good time to explore vacations as writing inspiration. Vacations are a gift to writers because the point of vacation is to experience something different from our ordinary routine and that opportunity gives writers a vast area to explore.

Change Agent

A main character (MC) taking a vacation can signal that he wants to make a dramatic change in his life, but for some reason, hasn’t done so. Perhaps he’s dissatisfied in his job and has been counting the minutes until he leaves on a vacation to a place he’s never been before. During the vacation, he comes to realize the permanent change he needs to make.

Test Relationships

If you’ve ever planned a vacation for more people than just yourself, or have vacationed with family, you know how getting away can test everyone’s patience. So if you need a source of tension in your writing, throw your characters into a vacation. It works for both serious and humorous stories.

A bad vacation can either pull people together or shove them apart. Sometimes both. When in my twenties, I drove back from a family vacation in the Smokies with No.3 sister, her husband, and No.4 sister. It took hours longer then it was supposed to. No. 3 sister bought a ceramic Christmas tree at stop. It was so huge that she had to prop her feet on it in the back seat. I drove too far off the highway, looking for a restroom. Our supper on the road was awful and too expensive. The directions that the boyfriend of No.4 sister gave us so we could drop her off at his parents’ home took us the long way around Cincinnati. When we finally found the parents’ home, I handed No. 4 sister her clothes, which were packed in a brown paper bag, saw that some underwear had fallen out, and handed those to her. In front of her future in-laws.

We were sick of each other by the time we got home. But it’s one of the most memorable trips we took, and we still talk about it.

Setting for Mysteries, Thriller, and Suspense

A vacation gives writers in these genres the perfect reason for the MC to get into trouble. With the ubiquitous use of cell phones, writers constantly face the dilemma of how to get their characters into jeopardy in a believable manner that doesn’t rely on the MC being just plain stupid.

Stupid MC’s aggravate me.

So on vacation, the MC, hiking in the mountains, may not know how drastically the weather can change. Or that local people avoid this part of the mountains. The MC could rent a house from someone with a criminal past and not know it.

How can you use vacations as writing inspiration?

Writing Tip — Death of a Character

gravew-3775464_1280I thought I was ready.

When an agent said I could send her the proposal for my YA crime novel, she also said I could send two-paragraph blurbs describing the other books in the series. When I got home, I was so excited and settled down to the job, eager to introduce into the second novel one of my favorite characters, a mysterious stranger who helps my main character and his family and whose motivations and history are revealed over the series.

Only I couldn’t summarize the book. No matter how I approached the blurb, I kept stumbling over my mysterious stranger. He wouldn’t fit easily into the narrative. He clashed and grated on other characters. His motivations never felt right. A few days before November 11 last year, I hit on the reason: I didn’t need him any more.

In my head, I’ve been developing this series for years, adding characters, changing personalities, explored motivations. I now had other characters, who could do the job of the mysterious stranger more easily and believably.

So on November 11, 2018, I killed my character. It didn’t bother me like I thought it would. I love my characters, feeling an almost maternal protectiveness (don’t tell my kids) as I nurture and polish them. But once I killed the stranger, I felt at ease. When a story isn’t working, I obsess over how to fix it because I can’t stand the feeling that something is wrong. After I made the the final decision to axe the stranger, the relief I felt signaled I’d made the right decision.

It also signaled I’d changed as a writer. My stories weren’t just about pleasing or entertaining me, although that’s important. I could never write a story without characters I didn’t care about or a plot that wasn’t interesting and rang true to life. This time, I found myself wanting to write the best story possible, no matter how painful the path to get there.

So, sorry, mysterious stranger. I may resurrect you for another story, change you a bit, cast you in a somewhat different role.

But for now — rest in peace.

 

Writing Tip — Fleshing Out Minor Characters

girlw-2022820_1280Minor characters can be tricky. You want them to be interesting while they are in their scene, fleshing out minor characters enough to seem real. But you don’t want them to take over the narrative from the major characters. (If you find a minor character taking over your story, maybe you should consider it for revamping as major character.) If appropriate to the story, I try to incorporate humor when dealing with minor characters. Readers will get a laugh or a smile as these characters help propel the story. I learned this technique from one of my all-time favorite series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

Never heard of it?

You’re not alone. Kolchak: The Night Stalker was a series of twenty episodes that originally aired on American television from 1974-1975. Before that there were two TV movies. Over the years, the series has developed a cult following, and Chris Carter, creator of the X-Files, credits it for inspiring his sow.

All the movies and episodes deal with Carl Kolchak, a rumpled, wise-cracking reporter, bent on getting his story out to the public, no matter what stands in his way. And what stands in his way are vampires, werewolves, aliens, and other assorted monsters. For some reason, whenever Kolchak starts to investigate a story, he runs into the supernatural.

What makes the series work for me is a perfect blend of humor and horror. When Kolchak believes he has stumbled across an otherworldly culprit, he always does research, consulting experts he thinks will help his story. The show cast strong character actors in those roles and let them shine.

  • When he finds feathers at the scene of a murder, Kolchak takes them to a taxidermist to be identified. The man gets extremely upset about how people don’t appreciate taxidermy as an art.
  • Several beheading murders prompts Kolchak to consult the curator of a museum exhibit on the Reign of Terror. While the curator talks to Kolchak, he fights with his assistant as they set up a guillotine.
  • Hoping to get at the college records of two dead students, Kolchak tries to con his way past the registrar with a lot of bureaucratic double-talk. Only she knows the bureaucracy backward and forwards and can’t be fooled easily.

In all these cases, the writers had to get information before the audience. By adding humor, they made what might have been dry dialogues into memorable exchanges that both moved the storyline and entertained.

What have you learned about fleshing out minor characters?

 

 

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

 

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: Who are Your Favorite Book Characters?

bookw-1012275_1280May’s theme is all about characters, my favorite aspect of writing. All my stories are character-driven. Once I know my main characters, I can run with my plots and settings. Reading about characters who touch me or with whom I identify inspires me to develop my own.

I have lots of favorites, but these are some of the characters I visit over and over again.

  • Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson
  • Archie Goodwin of the Nero Wolfe mysteries
  • The rabbits of Watership Down
  • Jeeves and Wooster by P.G. Wodehouse
  • Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton
  • Montague Egg by Dorothy L. Sayers

So who are your favorite book characters?

Writing Tip — Characters

avatarw-2191918_1280To accompany my post on Thursday about character development, here are two posts with two different views on the subject. In Leah Meahl’s post on the Christ is Write blog, she offers different ways to get to know your characters from the inside out. Henry McLaughlin writes in his post on the Write Conversation how he did elaborate background work on his major characters, but let his secondary characters develop as he wrote.

So how do you like to develop characters? Are you a plotter — do you have to know everything about your character before you start your first draft? Or are you a pantser — writing by the seat of your pants, allowing the characters to grow with the story? Or do you have a combination of strategies?

Writing Tip — Characters

filmklappew-3043193_1280Do you ever feel like a casting director when it comes to finding characters? You know what kind of a character you need but just can’t make him or her work. When that happens to me, it may mean I haven’t developed the personality enough, but more often, it’s because I can’t see him or her in my head.

For major characters, I have to see them as clearly as I do my family. Then I can   get under their skin and know their personalities and motivations like my own.

The physical appearances affects the character’s personality. If I can’t get that right, the character doesn’t work. I get the same feeling when I am watching a show and I don’t buy the character because the actor is miscast in the role. As author, I can’t make just any character work in any role.

In my YA novel, I knew I wanted Junior, my main character, to have a fifteen-year-old brother Merritt. Merritt needed to be optimistic and easy-going to contrast with Junior’s worry-prone, intellectual personality.

Originally, I imagined Merritt as slim, blond, with a sparse mustache, But with those looks, he kept changing into a nervous, eager-to-please character, like his cousin Gabe. I couldn’t have two characters with the same personality.  But I couldn’t force Merritt to be what I wanted, either, even though he was imagined.

So I changed his appearance. Merritt is still fifteen and thin, but now he’s half-European, half-Native American with shaggy black hair and midnight blue eyes. And he behaves like an easy-going optimist. I also like his ethnic background because it reflects the melting pot culture of America.

Why this change works, I can’t say. But when other characters have been problems, it is often because I don’t have an appearance that jives with their personality. The two must mesh for me to write about him or her comfortably.

How do you cast the characters of your stories? Or what do you do with a character that won’t behave?

Writing Tip — King Solomon as a Fictional Character

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Writing about Solomon and Ecclesiastes a week ago reminded me of what great inspiration Solomon can provide in developing a fictional character based on his life.

I don’t mean as a character in historical novels where an author fleshes out a Biblical story. Solomon works well as a characters in any time period, even ours.

We know more about Solomon than most people we read about in the Bible:

  1. The history of his parents David and Bathsheba.
  2. The stories of the tragic lives of his half-siblings Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom
  3. Solomon’s own clash over the throne with another half-brother Adonijah.
  4. Solomon’s personality and character become evident. How his humble desire to serve God as king gives way to his own desires for pleasing his wives which comes to mean more than pleasing God.

If I used Solomon for a contemporary character, I might cast him as the CEO of an innovative tech company, founded by his far-seeing father. This modern Solomon takes the company to new heights of greatness. Instead of being wise, I could say he is brilliant in business, but the pursuit of some personal indulgence, not necessarily women, make him appear stupid even to his friends.

In the end, the company is broken up, and his son, or daughter, only inherits a fraction of it.

This story arc will work with just about any occupation:

  • a dazzling politician
  • a successful actor
  • a stunningly skilled surgeon

It will work in any genre too:

  • a king in a fantasy world
  • politician in a crime novel
  • a powerful British duke in a historical romance

Because I am using Solomon as just inspiration, I can change his story to suit my narrative needs. Instead of the fictional Solomon ending his days with most of his power gone, at odds with God, I could have him repent, learn from his mistakes, and die a happy man.

What possibilities do you see for using the story of Solomon as inspiration for a character?

Writing Tip — Lesson #2 from The Deer on a Bicycle

group-1825513_1280“Pat, your characters are always yakking away at each other. How come?”

Mr. McManus answers that he “enjoys writing dialogue.” He also writes that “when I have trouble coming up with a story idea, I will put two characters in a scene and start them talking. Often, an idea for the story will emerge from their conversation.”

I think this is great advice if you are brainstorming for some kind of story, or if you are stalled in a scene of a larger work.

This is espeically helpful to me because I am a character-driven writer. I develop characters first, get to know them inside and out, and then try to concoct a plot for them. When I really know my characters — and some I have known longer than my husband — scenes sometimes just write themselves.

One Sunday I sat down to write fiction just for the fun of it and used characters from my novel. I had had a scene in mind for a long time. Like many of my scenes, I knew how I wanted it to start and how it should end, but the journey between those points was completely unknown.  That’s when the fun began.

The scene consisted of only three characters in a conversation. Once I began writing, my regular characters took over. I found myself writing dialogue that surprised me and yet I was thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly what Mike would say.” It felt like, as Mr. McManus writes, I was “eavesdropping on my own characters.”

If you like creating characters and writing dialogue, get your characters yakking. You could find a new approach to your writing. Or just a lot of fun.

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