Building a Character Arc

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

Part 2

Here’s Part Two of the Character Arc Blog I started a few weeks ago. We discussed the main points of not only the Character Arc, but also the Three-Act Structure that works right alongside it. Here are some other points that you might want to consider.

Here’s the harsh reality that I warned you about in Part 1: If you write a book and the story is sold to the movies, your ending might be changed. It’s happened many times. Just cash the check and hope people read your book and see what you wanted to happen in the original version. The Lord of the Rings, Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, and I Am Legend all had their ending changed. There are many more examples out there. Some were better endings, some worse than the original, for some it didn’t matter (except maybe to the author, but they still cashed the check and moved on. What else could they do? That’s Hollywood.)

Nevertheless, write your story as if it will be carved in stone.

So let’s continue. Whatever happens to your main character(s) during that final Act and phase is going to threaten/effect not only the protagonist, but many of the characters who populate your story. But it’s the protagonist we will be watching to see how he/she handles the crisis. In a mystery it’s usually the villain of the piece who tosses in a few monkey wrenches or hand grenades. This is the time when the hero needs to see what skills they might have within themselves to overcome the obstacles.

Here’s a breakdown of Scarlet O’Hara’s arc in Gone with the Wind.

Scarlet is basically Orphaned because of the Civil War.

As the Wanderer, she nearly loses Tara; she does lose her mother; gains and loses a husband.

She starts replanting and harvesting cotton, dispatches a thief; meets Rhett Butler; learns she can’t have Ashley, she marries Rhett, but loses her daughter during a very busy Warrior phase.

Scarlet learns even more during the Martyr phase. She discovers she has to stand on her own two feet while rebuilding her life. As for getting Rhett back, she’ll think about that tomorrow.

What is so helpful about knowing these Character Arc phases is the fact you can start forming your story around each one. They give you the basic outline along with the Three-Act Structure. It’s a game plan.

You probably have a rough idea who your main character is. Now you can give him or her a kick in the pants to get them out there in the world. You get to paint that new world they find themselves in. Is it bleak? Does it start out rosy and then all hell breaks loose? Is there a misunderstanding that thrusts the character(s) into chaos? There needs to be some major change to their life to get them on the road to solving this problem. The reader has to see this little Orphan out there all alone. That’s how you grab their attention when they first open your book. Make your main character likeable and the reader will want to see how they solve the dilemma they are in. I have actually read a few big-time authors whose characters were so unlikable that I didn’t care if they succeeded or not. A few of these books I put down just a few chapters into it, never to be picked up again. That is not your goal as a writer.

Once your Orphan is out there in the wilderness, (this usually means in an unknown environment or one radically changed by circumstances like a crime or poverty or holocaust), it’s time for your character to take a look at this new landscape. The writer can use the next phase to paint a picture of where the Wanderer is wandering. Readers do like to see new places, so paint a good picture. You also need to show how your character(s) react to this new place. Their reaction will say something about who they are. They should be wary at first. This place is all new. They are learning what the boundaries are. What their limitations are. One character might crumble, another will rise to the challenge.

As your main character starts to grow, they meet people who aid or even try to block their progress. This Warrior Phase lets you introduce new characters or expand the personality of characters already introduced. You don’t want to drop all the characters into the first part of the book. Even if you might have mentioned them, you can reveal new things about their character in this phase. It’s the middle of the story. The Second Act. Even minor characters can have a bit of a Character Arc as the story unfolds.

By the time you get to Act III and the Martyr Phase, your main character(s) need to hit a wall. This is true for a mystery or regular fiction or any fiction. Some problem needs to confront your hero so the reader can watch them overcome it or have a meaningful exit from this world because they did the right thing to solve the dilemma. This is also the time the writer discovers that special trait in their hero that sets them apart. They have learned things during their journey and now they can use those lessons to solve the problem facing them.

Do yourself a favor and watch old movies or read a classic novel and see how this method was used. I mention using older examples because I know they work. When you watch newer movies or read more contemporary books, see if they follow the same game plan. If not, ask yourself if their method worked as well or if there is need for improvement. The old method worked for centuries.

There aren’t many steps in this format. Four Character Arc Phases within Three Acts. Keep them in mind when you’re crafting your story. Write On!

“Write What You Know” : An Author’s Experience of Living in Africa

by Guest Author, Victoria Tait

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SONY DSC

A common piece of advice given to school children and new authors alike is “Write what you know”.  But many established authors dismiss the principle.  Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, told The New York Times, “One of the dumbest things you were ever taught was to write what you know.   Because what you know is usually dull.”

So where does an aspiring writer begin?  Unlike most authors, I had no lifelong desire to write a book and only considered it as a potential career two years ago.  We moved back to the UK from Kenya so my husband could begin training for his next military posting in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  I realised that as I didn’t speak Bosnian, and the country had a high unemployment rate, I was unlikely to find a job.

Further, as a family we would be moving around the UK, and potentially the world, for at least the next eight years.  I needed to keep myself busy and engaged, but not with a physical business like the farm shop I had set up in Kenya.  My new venture needed to be portable and flexible to work around the demands of my family.

I first considered writing as a method to convey the incredible experience I’d had living in Kenya, in Eastern Africa.  I’m not sure if moving to Kenya or returning to the UK was more of a culture shock.  In Kenya I’d become used to a way of life lived at a slower pace, with no judgement of what people wore or what car they drove, and far less emphasis on the material side of life.

Giraffe samburuIn Africa, the first priority is to survive and so each day, and certainly every birthday, is celebrated.  After that come friendships and community and, of course, enjoying the glorious sunshine, fantastic scenery and amazing wildlife that Kenya is famous for.

P.D. James wrote in her “10 Tips for writing novels” for the BBC, “You absolutely should write about what you know.  There are all sorts of small things that you store up and use, nothing is lost as a writer.  You have to learn to stand outside yourself.  All experience, whether it is painful or whether is is happy is somehow stored up and sooner or later it’s used.”

My Kenya Kanga Mystery Series is set in Nanyuki, a small market town three hours north of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.   It is dominated by the often snow-capped Mount Kenya which, at over 17,000 ft, is the second highest mountain in Africa.  This is where I lived for six years, and it’s the perfect setting for a cozy mystery series.

Mkt St SceneIn my books I’ve used actual locations, such as Dormans, a town centre coffee shop and a hub of gossip, and the relaxed garden location of Cape Chestnut restaurant.  Other places, such as the Mount Kenya Resort and Spa, are recognisable as being based on real settings which I’ve altered to suit my stories.

Small towns in cozy mystery series can develop the “Cabot Cove” syndrome; if Cabot Cove existed in real life it would top a number of categories of the FBI’s national crime statistics. 

To avoid this phenomenon, I themed the second and subsequent books around actual events.  These include an important elephant focused wildlife summit, a 4×4 off-road charity event in the Maasai Mara and, in the book I am releasing in May, a marathon in a UNESCO World Heritage wildlife reserve.

Elephant Mother & Child PuddleA sense of place is important to me and my writing.  Has a certain smell or the call of a bird transported you back to a memorable location? I try to convey the smells, sounds and sights of the individual settings and it does help that I’ve visited most of them.  And if I haven’t, as P.D. James said, I can use snippets of other places that I have stored up to successfully create them.

The characters are another aspect of my books which I’ve developed as I’ve expanded my writing craft.  Mama Rose is based on an incredible friend of mine, now in her 80s, who is a community vet, a staunch catholic and a member of various committees.  The help and assistance she has given, and continues to provide, those less fortunate than herself can not be fully conveyed in my books. But is it important to recognise, and remember, that there are still people who put others before themselves and work for what is morally right and just in life.

The other characters have developed from meeting people and observing situations in Kenya: the interaction of customers and stall holders at the local vegetable market, street sellers trying to persuade tourists and visitors to buy their wares, and the ability of a charismatic priest to captivate his audience in a town centre park.

A snippet I have woven into one of my books occurred when I took my young children to mitumba; a large jumble sale of donated thrift clothes, and other items, from first world countries which are shipped to Kenya and sold in makeshift markets.

Mitumba 3Two raggedly dressed, and shoeless, children tentatively approached our car holding out their hands in a begging gesture.  I remembered two squares of jam sandwich which my boys hadn’t eaten.  I handed the pieces to the children expecting them to stuff them into their mouths, but instead they just stood and waited.   Slowly they were joined by a group of similarly attired children, and those who had the sandwiches carefully divided them up until every child had a small morsel to eat. 

This was an incredibly humbling experience.  So perhaps it is not necessarily “write what you know” but “write what you feel”. After all, as writers we strive to elicit an emotional response in our readers’ minds.

Finally, Dan Brown said, “You should write something that you need to go and learn about.”  As writers we do need to expand our knowledge, and understanding, and researching is one of my favourite area in the writing process.  I have learnt so much more about Kenya than I knew, or understood, when I lived there.

RHINO CHARGERhino Charge, my third book, has many Kenyan Indian characters.  It evolves around events at a 4×4 vehicle off-road event which is popular amongst the Kenyan Indian community.  Whilst I had Indian friends, I wasn’t aware of how, or why, their ancestors had settled in Kenya.  Researching this aspect of the Kenyan culture was fascinating.  I learnt that Indians came to Kenya with the British and supported the creation of the East African Protectorate, which became Kenya, as clerks, accountants and police officers.

Two and a half thousand Indian labourers died during the construction of the Mombasa to Uganda railway line, including those killed by the infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo.  The rupee was the first currency used in the colony which was ruled using an extension of Indian law.  On the 22nd July 2017, President Kenyatta officially recognised the Indian community as the 44th tribe of Kenya.  Researching and learning this extended my knowledge and increased the depth of Rhino Charge.

Not all authors are luckily enough to live in extraordinary locations such as Kenya, or Bosnia and Herzegovina, but small towns still have their own customs and query characters. 

I’m currently planning my next series which will be set in areas of the UK I have lived in and visited. The theme is antiques, of which I have no knowledge.  I enjoyed, and was fascinated by, auctions which I attended on my return to the UK, to buy furniture for our house.  And I observed some fantastic people for the basis of my characters.  I’ll research collectibles, antiques and related crimes to build interesting stories with “can’t put down” plots.

Mostar, HerzigovinaWhen I can finally move freely around Sarajevo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, I will begin researching for a future series.  I’ve already discovered that everyone here has a story to tell from the devastating war and various sieges, including the longest in modern history in Sarajevo.  As I search for potential locations, characters and stories my attention will be more focused as I learn to observe and record even the smallest incidents.  Who knows what snippets will make into future books.

 

Author Links

You can find Victoria at https://www.victoriatait.com/ or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/VictoriaTait

Blog/News: https://victoriatait.com/news/

GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/20373879.Victoria_Tait

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/vataitauthor/

Purchase Links – Amazon – B&N – Kobo – 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JH

Busy Then and Now 

By Linda O. Johnston

I’m busy.  I’m always busy. But busy before the pandemic began is a lot different from busy now.

Is that true for you, too?

 I’ve been writing forever, and I’m fortunate to be traditionally published a lot. That means I generally have faced a lot of upcoming deadlines. That hasn’t changed, although at the moment there seem to be more than usual.

But my busy-ness before was enhanced a lot by get-togethers with other writers at meetings of local chapters of Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, and sometimes more.  Then there were all the conferences I attended, which often included the Romance Writers of America National Conference, held annually in different locations. Then there were Malice Domestic, Left Coast Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and other mystery-related conferences. I attended at least one a year.  And in addition, there were annual conferences locally, such as the California Crime Writers Conference.

And now?  Well, some get-togethers are available virtually. I’ve attended some chapter meetings that way, but not annual conferences.  I know Malice Domestic will be virtual this year and I keep receiving emails about it—but so far I haven’t decided to go.

That’s all certainly different from before.  But things seem to be improving now, as far as the ability of people to meet in person, though in smaller groups, and the necessity of being vaccinated, and wearing masks, although that seems to be changing at least to some extent and in some locations.

So will I go back to the old ways as things open up again?  I don’t know yet. Tempting, yes, but I want to feel more secure that I won’t get sick or bring the virus home to others. And maybe I’m getting into bad, more solitary habits this way.

I’ve been delighted, though, to meet some of my fellow Writers in Residence for our usual—formerly—monthly lunch recently!

And you? Do you attend conferences now, virtually or in person? Writing events? Reading events?

Image by TaniaRose from Pixabay

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN

            By Rosemary Lord

            It was Virginia Wolfe who, in 1929, famously said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction.”

            I thought about that as I de-cluttered my office-space for the umpteenth time, trying to create more writing space. I’d even bought myself a new smaller office chair – petite, chrome with pale gray leather. Much prettier than the traditional tall black swivel chair I’ve had for years. You see, I don’t have an actual office – a separate room – but use the far corner of my living room, surrounded by bookshelves, for my office. It would be nice, I thought, to have a separate office with a door – that I could shut at the end of each work day, and ignore my mess of research papers and note pads.

            Agatha Christie had a lovely, bright office in her sprawling country home, Greenway, on the River Dart in Devon. Now a National Trust property, the view from her office window is of green lawns and masses of colorful wild flowers. But she said she really did her thinking, about her plots and characters, in the huge claw-foot bath-tub in the upstairs Victorian bathroom.

            Men who write fiction need a room of their own, too. I also visited Bateman’s estate: Rudyard Kipling’s Jacobean home in Burwash, Sussex. You can walk into his book-lined study and see his wide writing table covered with travel mementoes, his inkwell, pen and assorted hand-written pages. Next to the table is a daybed, where Kipling would spend part of his writing day reclining and thinking through his books before he committed his tales to paper. Tall windows overlooking rolling fields and farmlands, made the room surprisingly light.

            Beatrix Potter began writing as a very young child, when her nursery was on the top floor of the family’s tall, Victorian London house. (At least she had a room of her own.) She would be brought downstairs to visit with her mother for an hour each afternoon. Her only companions were the household staff. When her lunch (delivered to her room daily on a tray) was late one day, a maid explained “Cook’s got mice in the kitchen!” Beatrix was intrigued: “What’s ‘mice in the kitchen’?” A houseman brought one of the mice in a cage for the little girl to see. The rest, as they say, is history. She asked to keep the caged mouse as company and began to draw the furry creature and write stories about it. Her literary work expanded when, as a teenager, they moved north into the countryside, where she found Mrs. Tiggywinkle and all the other characters she brought us.

            In today’s world, most writers have a room of their own in which to write.  Although Carol  Higgins Clark started out writing on the corner of the kitchen table. She would retype her mother’s (Mary Higgins Clark) novels to send out to her agent. Carol said her mom explained everything she was doing, so that eventually Carol was able to write her own novels and found her own literary success, following her late mom’s very successful path. She now can afford her own office.

            Jackie Collins wrote hugely successful novels set in glamorous Beverly Hills and Hollywood in her equally glamorous office, with big picture windows overlooking Beverly Hills. The furniture was light beige and luxurious, her desk semicircular with a high-back soft beige leather chair. Jackie wrote all her novels by hand on yellow legal pads. She wrote daily from nine to five, with a short lunch break.

jackie-collins-study

            Danielle Steel has not just one Room of Her Own – or office – but two: One is in Paris, where she grew up, and the other in San Francisco. She travels back and forth. The mother of nine now-grown children, Danielle has written almost two hundred books. Her passion for writing has led to an intense schedule. At her desk, built to resemble a stack of her books, Danielle begins at 8 am each day and does not leave until a draft is complete. Sometimes she just stops for four hours sleep and carries on until the book is finished. She wears her comfy cashmere nightgown and eats at her desk, with refills of de-caffeinated iced coffee and a stash of bittersweet chocolate. When she is in San Francisco, she writes on her 1946 Olympia standard typewriter. As I said, Danielle Steele has TWO rooms of her own in which to write her fiction.

danielle-steeles-desk

            I remember visiting fellow Brit-born writer, Jacqueline Winspear. She had a lovely, small home-office, where she wrote many Maisie Dobbs novels. The walls were lined with shelves of books, research, and jumbo post-it notes, with a large table under the window and a comfy chair. Jacqui said that when she shut the door and closed the blinds, she could lose herself back in the Maisie Dobbs world of England in the 1930s.

            I was envious that Jacqui had a room of her own in which to write. A room with a door that she could shut. I remember thinking that if I had a cozy office with a door that I could shut, then I could easily write at least one novel a year – just as Jacquie has done.

            But now, as I settle down again at my table in the corner of the living room and start scribbling another segment of my next Lottie Topaz novel, I look across the room to the patio and the pool outside. I realize that I can’t continue without another cup of tea. Kitchen here I come. Then I have an idea for a contemporary mystery I’m working on set in St. Tropez. You see how quickly I distract myself?

            While other writer friends have churned out dozens of novels, I realize that I have allowed my life and time to be torn in different directions, sorting other people’s problems and dramas. But, hey, I’m getting better. At least I am writing a few times a week, for a couple of snatched hours. I just want to be totally dedicated to writing several hours, every single day, like the aforementioned writers. What’s wrong with me?

            Aha! I have found the real reason behind my lack of focus. I don’t have a

proper office – with a door that I can shut on all those distractions. I need a room of my own.     

            Well that’s my excuse for today…. What’s yours?

LadyWriting

Posted for Rosemary Lord by Gayle Bartos-Pool.

Mining Your Own Business

by Miko Johnston

That’s not a typo, it’s a play on words, inspired by a stream of advice I’ve gotten from many writing experts on a touchy subject. We’re told, write what you know. Does that include exploiting who we know?

MINING. Miriam pexels-keira-burton-6147138

How far are you willing to go to write a tantalizing mystery, an emotionally powerful drama, or a deeply moving character study? Would you base it on an actual incident or situation in someone’s life and its effect on them? I’m not talking about libel, but morality.

A piece in your news source of choice might inspire you to write a “ripped from the headlines” novel. Legitimate public information is fair play for adaptation, such as a criminal case or someone’s media appeal to raise attention to an issue. For example, some couples have had children in hopes of providing bone marrow or other vital tissue to save a stricken older child. In addition to non-fictional accounts and memoirs written by family members, many authors, including Jodi Picoult, opted that storyline for novels. Dramatic, yes. Is it exploitive?

What if something noteworthy happened in your own life? You might write a memoir detailing the experience and how it changed you. Or you could draw on the event to fashion a scene, and more importantly, for the emotions it evoked, whether it’s the pain of loss, the thrill of first love, the shock of violence or post-traumatic stress inflicted by a drastic incident. When I write about grieving or passion, feeling afraid or distraught, it comes from my own experience, but I do so voluntarily.

We base our characters, at least in part, on people we’ve known. We imbue them with that person’s physical characteristics or personality traits. Say you’ve given your sleuth, a Vietnam vet, the same war wound as your brother, and his nemesis flashes the pasty-faced smirk of your loathsome ex-boss. Those qualities illustrate the characters, but don’t define them.

Great writers incorporate their lives into their stories. They tend to base some characters on family members and people closest to them, portraits which are often unflattering and unkind.  Writers also mine tales from family and friends for source material. My own series of historical fiction novels began with a rumor about my grandmother. Stories about transformation, triumph over tragedy, and overcoming loss are rich with potential. As an example, a brilliant, successful woman marries a man who never divorced his first wife – and his family knows that when he walks down the aisle – makes a great storyline. What if she was your best friend? Or if a couple in your family, grappling with an intellectually disabled son who’s growing stronger and more aggressive, are agonizing over whether to institutionalize him?

In Betsy Lerner‘s excellent book, “A Forest For The Trees”, she urges writers to use whatever they can in their own lives to enrich their story, including incidents in the lives of the people closest to them. “If you are going to be honest and write about all the untidy emotions, the hideous envy, and disturbing fantasies that make us human, how can you not offend your loved ones, your neighbors and community?” A New York Times piece by James Parker, contributing editor at The Atlantic, endorses the practice of “invading” other people’s lives, but only if you can elevate it above exploitation; the purpose must be empathy.

For me the issue goes deeper than adapting an external experience. We can take plotlines from personal sources and show how one might feel in that situation, but what about someone far removed from ourselves? Each day I’m exposed to people whose experiences, based on their race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality, shape their world view, which differs vastly from mine. Are there places within a person that are too intimate to go, too unreachable to know?

MINING. miriam pexels-anna-shvets-5325091

In 1990 I worked on a conference sponsored by an organization of scientists who explore the repercussions of technological advancement. They chose as their conference  theme: Can We Do It? How Do We Do It? Ought We Do It? As a writer, I ask myself the same questions in understanding the social implications of storytelling, crafting diverse, authentic characters and emotionally compelling plots. Characters and plots that ring true to those outside the world I create as well as to those within.

A fiction writer’s goal is to produce a logical and believable manuscript, populated with characters, many who’ll be familiar to us and a few who thankfully bear no resemblance to anyone we know. We can borrow from their histories or instead, as Parker says, “invade” other people’s lives; strive for realistic portrayals or take Lerner’s advice to “be honest” enough to “offend”. That leaves me wondering: Is it proper to take the experiences of those we know best for the sake of a good plot?  Is it possible to mine the depths of emotions, or the most intimate thoughts, of someone so dissimilar from us?

Can we? How? Ought we?

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers in Residence, is the author of three novels in the  A Petal In The Wind  saga, as well as a contributor to anthologies including  LAst Exit to Murder. She is currently pages from competing her fourth novel in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband, who graciously helped her revise this post. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Photo by Keira Burton from Pexels  

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Mystery People

by Jill Amadio

CeeCee James was recently a guest blogger here. Her story interested me as a multi-series author. I interviewed her for a UK magazine, and thought The Writers in Residence might like to read what she told me.

Several authors on both sides of the pond pound the keyboard with more than one mystery series but few write as many as bestselling CeeCee James. She has no fewer than seven different series out there. Most of them cozies, their eclectic plots feature pets, farm animals, flamingoes, recipes, a book club, circus life, history, a tour guide, and a host of other characters that people her world.

Her first published books, however, comprised a three-book award-winning series based on her own life that brought brilliant reviews as “heart-breaking, raw, and inspiring.”

Childhood experiences, good and bad, are often expressed in a writer’s fiction whether consciously or unconsciously and can be, say therapists, a way of working through them and letting them go.  In James’s case she frankly talks about her difficult times as a young girl, bringing a compelling depth, compassion, and growth to her characters and her writing.

But why so many series?

“My life has been full of adventures and journeys. We moved 40 times and I attended 10 schools from coast to coast. In all of my works I draw on my own personal struggles, shortcomings, and victories. I had a rocky childhood, and spent time in foster care,” she said. “I feel blessed I’ve been able to realize a childhood dream to be able to share my stories with others. I can’t imagine too many careers that are as rewarding,”

No surprise that her first series was largely autobiographical and based on many of her personal experiences, but then she lightened up and plunged into the world of murderous cozies. Starting with the Angel Lake Mysteries, it centers around new beginnings, marking a significant turnaround in James’s own life. 

“My first mysteries are about the character, Elise, who is starting over and not quite sure where she fits in. Her journey is about finding confidence in who she is. There’s always a little bit of me in these characters, a voice for thoughts I didn’t know I had.” Next James explored the curiosities of hotel life with the Oceanside Hotel mysteries with plenty of humor from a mother and daughter team.

 

Then came the Baker Street Mysteries. Set in Pennsylvania the books feature a tour guide who presents re-enactments of the American Revolutionary War. The author moved on from 1775 to take readers into circus life, with the first in the series titled Cirque De Slay.  

Time to switch hats again, and James produced the Flamingo Realty Mysteries, wherein she blends in a couple of characters from her previous series.

Among reader favorites are the Mooved to Murder mysteries with their covers of cows, lambs and other farm animals, and her books with kittens and puppies. The newest series stars members of a book club in The Secret Library Mysteries

How does she manage to keep them all straight?

“I write one series at a time so that gets all my focus. I time going back to my other mysteries when I’m ready to take a break from my current series. My favorite place to write is curled up in a fat, oversized chair with a cup of coffee and my two mini dachshunds sleeping at my feet.”

A favorite character among the many amateur sleuths? She said that each main character takes a turn as being her favorite at the time, especially when they are going through something she can relate with, and their vulnerabilities make her fiercely protective of them. When she moves on to a new series, she’s infatuated all over again “with a new baby.”

As for choosing settings James said she writes what she wants to read and what interests her at the time. She researches towns and villages looking for small restaurants and shops to get a feel for it and its flavor, many of which she has lived in at one time or another.  She looks up local plants and landscape terrain, and of course researches for toxins and poisons.

A “pantster” rather than an outliner, James finds her stories emerging as she writes.

“I tried outlining and immediately hit writer’s block. I have to have the freedom to let the story lead me. If I am really struggling with it I’ll reread an old favorite like Lord of the Rings, or The Stand. I admire those authors’ skills so much it almost always inspires me.”

The past that has provided grist for the mill drives her intense interest about how other people experience their lives. The pandemic, too, has brought back memories of feeling trapped.

“I was surprised to find that feeling lurking around in my subconscious. I remember the strength and hopelessness of that emotion while growing up. It hit me in a very weird spot.”

In between James’s massive literary output, she paints in several media including watercolor, ink, and acrylics. She also makes miniatures, and crochets during which one imagines her mind is working overtime to plot another crime.

 

Phew! Makes me feel pretty lazy – again.

Things native english speakers know….

…but don’t KNOW they know!

Ajectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-orgin-material-purpose Noun.  So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you will sound like a maniac. 

It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list. But almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before color, green great dragons can’t exist.

Try it in your own writing. Check out your most recent book, or the book lying nearest to you right now. It’s a phenomanon!

Green dragon yard hanging.

 

 

Literary Pixie-Dust

In this short post, I’m indulging myself musing over a realization that hit me the other night—an insight into reading, rather than writing, and for what I’m fancifully calling “Literary Pixie Dust.”

Alas, I’ve never had great eyesight, and with age, it’s gotten worse, so a lot of my “reading” is moving into audio books, or Kindle text-to-speech. Sometimes I’ll also get the book because of the touch and feel…and smell of books. Several nights ago, while falling off to sleep, I was listening to the audio book Light Darkens by Ngaio Marsh and read by Philip Franks, and it hit my conscious psyche[i] that with my favorites like her, there’s “something special” from the very beginning. And that “Something” is not something I remember ever reading or talking about.

But fanciful and goofy as it might sound, there is a “magic”[ii] that takes you into the story—and in that you’re not just reading, not just enjoying, not just picturing[iii]—but your mind is dusted with some kind of story-pixie-dust. Indeed, the characters, the scenery, the plot—including the overarching musicality of the author’s writing that I’ve gabbed about before—all seem to twinkle. (I’m not surprised if you’re laughing by now!)

As I fell off to sleep, I was kind of laughing at myself. Must be the audio experience itself, the book reader, his voice. So, next morning I found my book copy of Light Darkens, and “it” was still there. I could hear it while reading with my eyes. (M.C. Beaton sprinkles the same pixie-dust on her delightful Hamish Macbeth novels.)

It’s similar to several movies I’ve seen during my life that had a “special something” outside of all the good movie-making mechanics like directing, photography, screenplay, casting, etc.

I’m pretty sure I’m not a pixie-dust writer[iv], but I am a reader. And I’ve heard said in so many ways how wonderful reading is, all the places you can travel, all the characters you can meet…but it really is also “magical” for some readers like me. A thought, which led me to feeling so lucky to be involved in the reading and writing world throughout my life.

This was a different kind of rest stop on the winding road of writing for me. But, on that winding road, my writing goal for this year is–to do more of it, and along the way learn as much as I can! Pixie-dust magic is not on the agenda. Indeed, I’m not sure this indefinable (but very real to me as a reader) element is something one can actually learn? Regardless, it would sure be nice to have. Hats off to Ngaio et al.!

Happy Writing and Reading Trails!

 


[i] I’ve read the book in the past, but not heard the audio book.

[ii] I’ve searched my mind (and on line thesaurus for the perfect word)—but it won’t come. Hence “magic.”

[iii] Wrote a post here in the past about pictures left in my mind from some books.

[iv] Even if I dreamed of being such, don’t think my style, characters, or topic lend to that sort of “magic.”

 

Bad Manners

After trying her hand at various jobs including telemarketer for a funeral home, Jacqueline Vick combined satirical humor and the quirks of her ginger mutt to create the Frankie Chandler Pet Psychic mysteries. She is also the author of the Harlow Brother mysteries, as well as some standalone novels. She currently resides in Southern California with her husband. Join her Mystery Buffs Newsletter to keep up on the latest news, or check her out on Instagram.


Thank you, Jackie Houchin, for allowing me to take your spot this week on Writers in Residence and all of the WinRs for having me on your blog. I’m here to give a brief etiquette lesson.

In my Harlow Brothers mystery series, manners rule. Usually. Edward Harlow secretly writes the Aunt Civility etiquette books, and as her official representative and public face, he has to be up on proper behavior. His younger brother, Nicholas, who is also his secretary…not so much.

My description of good manners agrees with Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart on pornography: “I know it when I see it.” If you get more specific, you’ll find not everyone agrees on what constitutes proper etiquette.

  • In Brazil, eating with your hands is bad manners. Even a sandwich.
  • If your business meeting is in Germany, you should allow the eldest person to enter the room first.
  • In Japan or India, avoid using the word “no”.
  • In Australia, punctuality is important.

Still not clear? Here are a few examples of proper – and improper – behavior.

In the following example, Cary Grant shows good self control when he remembers, after pulling a fist, that a man should not punch a lady.

Never try to talk with your mouth full. (Even when you are facing a killer who looks like Boris Karloff.)

Arsenic and Old Lace

Under no circumstances is is okay to play with your food.

Public Enemy

Now that we’re clear on the rules, is it ever okay to break them?

In Deadly Decorum, the third Harlow Brothers mystery, Edward is the celebrity guest at a weekend charity fundraiser. When a board member is killed, he comes perilously close to losing everything, including his manners, when a killer decides he doesn’t want the Harlow Brothers investigating the crime and threatens everything dear to him.

Deadly Decorum comes out on May 19, 2021.

Building a Character Arc

                                   by Gayle Bartos-Pool

There aren’t strict rules for writing fiction, but at least one character needs to change in some significant way by the end of your story just to make the journey worth taking. But it doesn’t have to be the main character. If you’re writing a series, whether it’s in book form or a television series, you can take a lot longer to have your main character or a series regular change in some significant or meaningful way. If a character is making a “guest appearance,” they can change dramatically in that one book or show. But whether it’s a novel, short story or screenplay, one character should have a true Character Arc in each outing.

Part 1

So what is a Character Arc?

A main character needs to go through phases during any given story. Usually it’s the protagonist in a movie or stand-alone novel, but sometimes it’s a character very close to the lead character. That person usually has these phases thrust upon them by nature, or willful intent by another character (the antagonist), or by a fatal flaw in that particular character. Or, here’s a fun reason: the character learns something about himself or herself that alters their personality or their way of thinking because of that revelation. Maybe they’re from outer space or somebody else is really their father or they have a twin. This kind of thing can happen to the hero or a major player. It’s how the character deals with it that makes the difference.

Watch old movies and pick out these arcs or phases as the movie progresses. It is amazing how many screenwriters use these phases. They work perfectly in a short story, too.

You will find many books on the topic of the Character Arc. Even if the phases are given different names, the description is pretty much the same.

The Phases:

            Orphan – the character feels alone or is literally abandoned

            Wanderer – the character goes looking for clues or answers

            Warrior – the character decides to fight for what is right

            Martyr – the character risks everything for his ultimate goal

Character Arc from “A Role to Die For” – G.B.Pool

  • Orphan – middle-aged actress starts losing roles to younger actresses
  • Wanderer – she starts looking for one last, great part
  • Warrior – she defends herself against the person who wants that part
  • Martyr – she risks getting caught for doing a dastardly deed, but doesn’t flinch when confronted

Character Arc from The Wizard of Oz

  • Orphan – Dorothy is blown to Oz by the tornado
  • Wanderer – Dorothy wanders around Oz and meets several characters who accompany her on her journey
  • Warrior – Dorothy and her pals have to brave their way through the woods and flying monkeys to get to the Emerald City
  • Martyr – Dorothy dispatches the evil witch and then can’t catch the Wizard’s/Professor’s balloon to get back home. She fears she will be stranded there until she is told she has the power to go home in those ruby slippers.

Dorothy’s Character Arc is also an outline for what is called The Three-Act Structure which is the basis of most every story ever written. Follow:

Act I – A young girl finds herself alone in a strange place; she meets a few characters who are willing to help her in her quest: she wants to get home.

Act II – She is told she must ask the wise man in the city that is far away for help; but someone who wants what she has doesn’t want her to make it to the city and throws out roadblocks.

Act III – She and her new friends have to fight their way through some tough places to get to the city and she ends up saving her friends’ lives; the wise man leaves without helping her; and then someone tells her she has had the means to get back home with her all along – the ruby slippers.

The basic Three-Act Structure (or Beginning, Middle, and Ending) is found in most great movies and books and short stories. It’s simple. It works. It goes hand-in-glove with the Character Arc phases.

Okay, let’s dig deeper into this Character Arc concept.

You know there should be a plan, but how do you know what your character is supposed to be doing in each Character Arc phase? That’s where your Plot comes in. You can’t really have a story without both Plot and Character, can you? If you know roughly where you want your character to go, you can plot/plan/prepare the journey.

Your character(s) must have a destination in Act I, even if they don’t realize they are on a journey when they wake up that morning. In most stories the journey is thrust upon them. They are living their lives when all of a sudden they find themselves out there in the wilderness. In a mystery, the protagonist is either the main suspect or asked to find the clues leading to the real killer and is basically left to their own devises. In other words: Orphaned in the story.

In the Act II they need to gather both clues and maybe some help in order to solve the crime. In a romance, the girl (it’s usually a female in these things) finds herself in a new town or a new job or a new environment like aboard a ship or even a spaceship. The character finds his or her self wandering aimlessly (hence the Wander Arc) and needs to get his or her bearings.

Also during Act II the character (the Wanderer) can learn a few things about himself or about the people around him. This is also the time the character begins to question not only others, but themselves.

It’s during the transition from Act II and Act III (or Warrior phase) when the main character has obstacles thrust in their path. This can be red herrings in a mystery or maybe an earthquake or hurricane or drought in an adventure. Books come in all flavors, so whether you’re writing Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Thriller, Romance, Westerns, Dystopian, or a Contemporary story, this phase comes into play. But it’s also during Act III when the Martyr Arc kicks in. It’s the Do or Die phase. Does the hero succeed or die trying? Not all stories have happy endings, but they should have an ending that fits the story the author is writing. And I do mean that the author has a choice to make (At least at first; more on that subject in Part 2). There is no formula here. Write the ending that fits the story you want to tell.

Along with the Character Arc for either your main character or a character whose life is sort of the center of the story you are telling, there is also a Character Arc for another central character in your story, especially if you are writing a mystery. This is the Arc for the villain. Remember, the villain is the guy or gal who caused all the trouble in the first place. This character sets the action in motion, is introduced somewhere around the early part of the story as just another character, then tries to thwart any solution to the problem during the middle of the story, and is brought to justice or a reawakening of his or her soul by the end of the story. That’s four parts, just like the main Character Arc.

Some writers both past and present will drop in the bad guy right at the end of the story with no early introduction which isn’t fair to the reader or the story. This character has two faces. Usually the first one seen is nice, sympathetic, tries to help find the solution to the problem at hand. Of course, what this character is actually doing is seeing what holes he can patch up before he’s caught. Sometimes those methods are diabolical, but that’s why he’s the bad guy.

While the Wandering hero is gathering friends to help him solve the puzzle, the bad dude is working in the background to make that not happen, sometimes offering to help as well. When the hero becomes the Warrior, the villain has to double-down. Bad stuff starts to happen and the hero has to make serious decisions. The villain already knows what he will do. And it is never very nice.

The last phase has both hero and villain battling to the death, both figuratively and actually in your story. Sometimes heroes die. Again, that’s your call as the writer. But always keep in mind who the villain is and what he or she wants. That Arc will show the reader what kind of person the villain is. Will he sacrifice everything for whatever it is he wants? Money? Power? Or does he just hate the hero because of jealousy? Just keep in mind the villain’s Arc while you are crafting your story. And remember, even if it’s not a mystery, a love story or saga can have one person trying to screw up the life of the main character. And it can be because of love, money or power. Craft that Arc well and you will have a good story.Part Two of this blog will be coming up in a few weeks. Watch for it!