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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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The Truth and Other Strangers

Writing Tip — Food as Writing Inspiration

foodw-2879403_1280Food, like music, is a universal language. Everyone, and every living thing, must ingest some kind of food to survive. Regardless of genre, all writers can us food as writing inspiration.

Historical Fiction

Historical fiction has the difficult job of making readers understand a time that they know little or nothing about. Writing about the food of a time period is one way to help readers connect with those distant eras. Because her novels are set during the American Civil War, my friend Sandra Merville Hart tests early American recipes on her website “Historical Nibbles”. Describing food in a historical story tells a lot about a character’s class, ethnicity, and wealth. The lack of food is also a critical component in many historical periods. In Sandra’s latest novel, A Musket in My Handone of the reasons two sisters disguise themselves as men and join the Confederate army is because Union troops keep raiding their farm for food, and they are barely surviving.

Speculative Fiction

In many ways, speculative fiction is similar to historical fiction because other genres introduce readers to unfamiliar worlds. Some worlds in speculative fiction are so alien that writing about the food the characters eat makes it seem not so strange after all. In Watership Downwild rabbits in England try to survive while establishing a new warren. Food is always on their mind, and writing about how they think of food draws readers into their world.

Romance

So much of romance centers around food — couples get to know each other going out to dinner, grabbing a cup of coffee, planning a meal where they will meet each other’s families. Liking the same food can be a symbol for showing how well a couple is matched. And if they have very different tastes in food, that can be a symbol that all is not well in their relationship. How they interact through a meal can be a comment on the relationship. In the classic movie Citizen Kanewe watch the disintegration of Charles Foster Kane’s marriage during a montage of breakfast scenes. When they are first married, he and his wife sit right beside each other, chattering away. As the years pass, they sit further and further apart until they sit at opposite ends and eat in silence.

Crime Fiction

Since I write crime, I have first-hand experience with working food into my narrative. A good way to get characters to discuss a problem, and impart information to the reader, is to have them sit down to a meal. It’s a natural way to slow down the pace and have a thoughtful conversation. Analyzing clues during a running gun battle just doesn’t work.

In any genre, a character’s food likes and hates adds a layer of believability or a quirk, like I wrote about in this post. In the Nero Wolfe mysteries, Nero Wolfe’s gourmet tastes are one of the reason he’s a private detective. He charges exorbitant fees to feed his exorbitant appetite.

The Truth and Other Strangers

As I look over my YA Christian crime novel, I realize food is an essential part of my storytelling. My characters eat pepperoni rolls, which were invented in West Virginia, the setting of my novel. My main character  Junior is often hungry, showing the poverty his family lives in. When he thinks a group of thugs has torn up the family’s garden, Junior is worried about how to feed his family. Two discussions of serious events take place during meals.

How would you use food as writing inspiration?

 

Writing Tip — Writing with Senses

womanw-546103_1280Cyle Young’s article on how to write using the sense of smell has a great exercise to practice this type of description.

Writing about smell might be the most difficult sense for me. I think that’s because, first, I have a very dull sense of smell. I’m sure a skunk could spray at my feet, and I ‘d only notice a slight change in the surrounding air. My youngest has a terrific sense of smell and lets me know with questions like “How come your car smells so bad, Mom?”

A second reason for my difficulty is that, as abundant as the English language is, we don’t have a lot of words to choose from that concern only smells. We have to describe it in other terms, like the physical reaction to a smell.

Mr. Young points out no sense can stir memories like smell. A smell can be a very natural and meaningful way to start a flashback because everyone has had this experience. When I smell onions cooking, no matter where, I grow very nostalgic because it reminds me of my grandmother’s house. The combination of sunscreen and bug spray immediately reminds me of marching band camp.

I am going to revisit my novel The Truth and Other Strangers and review how I have used the sense of smell in it. Here are some settings and other characteristics of my novel where I could use it:

  1. Mountains — My novel is set in the eastern mountains of West Virginia in July. The rhododendrons bloom in that month but don’t have much of a smell. I could use that, such as, “Funny, how something so pretty had no delicate scent to partner it.” Since my main character Junior loves being in the mountains, I would select only pleasant smells to support his feelings.
  2. Food — Because Junior’s family is poor, he often is hungry. So the odors of food means more to him than to well-fed characters. He has recently lost the aunt who raised him, so I could use a smell to bring back memories of her and underline how much he misses her.
  3. Vehicles — To me, vehicles have their own peculiar smells. Junior’s family has nine kids and owns a very old, battered van. All kinds of smells could be trapped in its abused interior.
  4. Bar — Junior visits a notoriously rough bar twice. Describing only bothersome smells, like cigarette smoke and alcohol, would show how uncomfortable Junior is in this setting.
The Absence of Smell

The lack of smell can also be used dramatically. If your characters are animals and lose their sense of smell, that would be traumatic. In a work of speculative fiction, an object’s or area’s lack of smell could be a signal to the characters that something is horribly wrong.

How do you use the sense of smell in your writing?

Writing Tip — Writing in Time — July and Independence Day

sparkler-839806_1280America’s birthday provides a fertile field of ideas for a writer. The celebration can serve as a backdrop for exploring America’s history, politics from local to national, and values. Since I have mostly lived in small towns, I have experienced the holiday with all the charm and wackiness inherent in a celebration which isn’t trying to do anything more than salute our nation and entertain neighbors.

Because of holiday parties, themes of family and friendship can be addressed during the Fourth of July. The movie Junior Bonner depicts the fracturing of a family during the local celebration in Arizona.

With family parties in mind, July, as well as June and August, can also be the setting for a family reunion. Comedy or tragedy, a family reunion provides limitless avenues for a writer to explore with themes of love and hate, retalliation and redemption and forgiveness, secrets buried and secrets unearthed.

thermometer-1917500_1280My own novel The Truth and Other Strangers is set in July, shortly after Independence Day, primarily because it is more plausible for the kids to succeed in the con they are pulling if they aren’t in school. But I also like July for it’s extreme weather. In my novel, the weather is very hot and humid, adding another layer of oppression to what my main character already feels from his family and the people in his county.

The heat, humid or drought-producing, makes July a great setting for crime fiction. The quote below came from 1953 science fiction movie It Came From Outer Space, but it seems better suited to a crime movie:

“Did you know … more people are murdered at ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once — lower temperatures, people are easy-going. Over ninety -two, it’s too hot to move. But just ninety-two, people get irritable.”

Hot weather seems to fray nerves and stoke tempers until characters snap and commit crimes they haven’t had the courage or anger to perpetrate during more pleasant weather.

The summer months are also vacation months. Vacations offer as much potential for storylines as family reunions. A vacation forces characters into new, unusual, or even dangerous situations, which can be written with any attitude from low-comedy to high tragedy. A road trip can mirror the internal journey the character takes, so it works as a symbol of change.

How do you experience July where you live and what stories does it suggest to you?

Writing Tip — Favorite Story — The Outsiders

The_outsiders_1967_first_editionI hadn’t realized until I saw this interview on the CBS Sunday Morning show that The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was turning 50 this year.  I learned some of my first writing lessons from reading that book.  In fact, I learned them so long ago that I’d forgotten where the lessons came from.

At twelve, I began reading adult books, skipping YA books completely.  Until I was sixteen.  Late one night, I caught the end to the 1983 movie The Outsiders. It hooked me.  The cute actors in all the lead roles probably helped.  But the characters and storyline are what drove me to read and reread the book.

In high school, I felt like an outsider in a gang of one, so I identified with the main character Ponyboy Curtis. I wished I had a gang of tight friends like Ponyboy. I was also aware the haves and have-nots in my town and found the battles between the rich Socs and the poor Greasers relatable.

My very first novel was based on the concept of rich kids fighting poor kids in a small town.  My current novel The Truth and Other Strangers is about outsiders who are poor, but they are a family instead of a gang of friends, and they are outcasts because of their family’s bad reputation, not their social status.  So I owe Ms. Hinton a big thank-you for providing me with such long-lived inspiration.

Movie-or-Book-Cover-the-outsiders-8576871-454-707

Two other things I learned from The Outsiders:

Make your characters distinct.  S.E. Hinton did a great job of giving Ponyboy and his brothers and friends specific qualities: Ponyboy is the dreamy intellectual, his brother Sodapop is carefree and fun-loving, Dallas is the tough guy,  Johnny is the scared one everyone tries to protect.  She also gives most of the characters a chance to grow.  Dallas isn’t as tough as he seems or even thinks he is.  Johnny displays bravery. Sodapop isn’t as as carefree as Ponyboy thought.

Since my main character belongs to a large family, I try to give each relative a distinctive personality, even the preschoolers.

Give your characters strong relationships. I came to care about Ponyboy and his gang because of the relationships within it.  And not just with the main character, although Ponyboy’s relationships are more prominent because he tells the story.  All the dynamic interactions between characters propel the plot.

I love to write interactions between my characters.  Because I have given them strong personalities, relationships can develop that I haven’t planned but they make sense, given who the characters are.

I read other YA books by Ms. Hinton, but I never fell in love with them like I did The Outsiders.  They were fine books, but they didn’t hook me.

I haven’t visited Ponyboy in years.  Maybe it’s time I did.

Here is an interview with S.E. Hinton.

Writing Tip

hello-1502386_1280Still Naming Names

When developing names for characters, here are some general rules to keep in mind.

1. Names must be easy to read.

2. Names should be appropriate for the genre or historical period.

3. Names can not be ones that are overwhelmingly identified with one person or character.

my-name-is-1185862_12801. Names must be east to read.  This is true for every kind of writing, including science fiction and fantasy. If readers stumble over a name, they will not sit there and puzzle it out. They with either substitute something close to it or just “bleep” over it, which is what I tend to do.

In the middle-grade series Guardians of Ga’Hoole, the author had to create names for talking animals, mostly owls. The names needed to sound unusual, but easily understandable for kids. “Lyze” is an imaginative creation. It looks suitably foreign with the “y” and “z”, but it follows the well-known pattern of silent “e” making the vowel long. Other names used are “Thora”, “Gilda”, and “Felix”, human names but ones that aren’t used much any more.

2. Names should be appropriate for the genre or historical period. The best way to learn this is to read books in your genre and study how other authors have created names. For crafting historically accurate names, research into the appropriate time period is necessary.

The Social Security website has great pages for researching the most popular names from 1879 to the present.

If you can visit the location of your historical story, walk through local cemeteries.  Reading names on the markers will give you examples of the first and last names of different time periods.

3. Names can not be ones that are overwhelmingly identified with one person or character.

In my novel The Truth and Other Strangers, I had two sisters named “Joli”, short of “Jolene”, and “Angel”.  An agent told me I couldn’t use those names together.  They sounded too much like Angelina Jolie.  That really annoyed me.  Here I had thought up two great names, just to have some stranger steal them.  But when I thought it over, I realized that “Joli” wasn’t appropriate for the one character.  She is a hot-tempered redhead, and “Joli” sounds like to should be applied to a jolly, bubbly person.

In the Beyond series of baby names books, authors Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran provide lists of names that are already taken by famous real and non-real people.  Like, “Sherlock”, “Ebenezer”, “Oprah”, and “Madonna”.  You just can’t work against a name that is so closely identified with one individual.

That series has been the most helpful name books I have found.  With informative essays on style, class, and naming trends, as well as all kind of lists like “Western Cowboys”, “New England Names”, and “Royal Names”, you are overwhelmed with inspiration for character names. Beyond Ava and Aiden is one of their books that I have found helpful.

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