Writing with a Partner

 

Where Ideas for Novel Begin

by Janet Elizabeth Lynn

5 ideasMy husband, Will Zeilinger and I co-write the Skylar Drake Mysteries, a hardboiled detective series that takes the reader to 1950s Los Angeles and other areas of the west. Our new book, GAME TOWN, is set in Hollywood and exposes a scandal that rocks the toy companies in Los Angeles.

While doing in-depth research into 1950s Hollywood, we came across news that amazed us! Because of the glitz and riches of old Hollywood we wanted to provide the feel of it. The only way to do that was to go to Hollywood and find what we needed.

All authors will give you a myriad of answers when you ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”  And we also give many ways in which we get ideas for our plots, sub plots, characters, and locations, which can be just about anywhere.

book cover As a co-author we agree on location first when we start a new novel, then comes the murders, victims and culprits. In GAME TOWN, we worked backward for some reason. We had the murder, victim and culprit, and lastly we decided where. Hollywood. But exactly where we weren’t sure.  We live about forty miles south of Hollywood and go quite often to events, affairs and for pleasure. So we are very familiar with the area, but exactly where…we didn’t know. FIELD TRIP shouted in our ears.

 

5 blue line We took the train to Hollywood, and began in the heart of it, Hollywood Blvd and Highland, right in front of the Chinese Theatre. We walked round among the street performers, gawking visitors and local business people. It was typical beautiful day in Hollywood, but nothing shouted out at us…until. We happened to come across the Egyptian Theatre with its beautiful Egyptian themed frescoes and statues. We noticed a red carpet had been set up for an event that evening… and it was heavily guarded.

5 Egyptian Theatre

As we walked around, both of us kept looking back at the red carpet setup. Will said, “There has to be something we can use here.”

5 Red Carpet 02 We both looked back at the red carpet, looked at each other and realized, Hollywood is known for its red carpet affairs, and various award shows.

We found a small park and began to research the 1957 Academy awards and Emmy awards. We discovered they were both held in March and only ten days apart.

“What a great way to begin a novel,” I said. Will agreed. But which one?

We continued walking through the streets of Hollywood looking at other restaurants, and famous sites to include in the book, but the idea of an award ceremony stayed in our head.

It was during the train ride back, I said in passing, “We should use both award ceremonies.”

Will said, “Let’s begin with the Emmys 3/17/57 and end the book with the Academy Award Ceremony 3/27/57. After all it is Hollywood.”

It was perfect.

So the moral of the story is: When you’re stuck for an idea, go for a walk, and visit locations that are similar or the actual location of your story to get great ideas and scenes.

book coverGAME TOWN is the fifth and final book in the series and yes… we are still married!

Website:  Janet Elizabeth Lynn     http://www.janetlynnauthor.com

Website:  Will Zeilinger                  http://www.willzeilingerauthor.com

 

 

 

Posted for our good friends, Janet and Will, by G.B. Pool. Good luck with the new book.

CLOSER by G.B. Pool

Launch Date is Here….

 

The old adage says to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but what if you don’t know who your friends are?

When the wife of an LAPD captain turns up dead on the pier in Santa Isabel, a relatively peaceful town along the coast in Central California, Police Lieutenant Shelby Ann Webb figures there’s a story there somewhere. She doesn’t realize the backstory will involve not only the captain, but also a big-time operator in illegal drug trafficking, a handful of characters you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, and some people very close to Shelby herself.

Shelby had her own troubles in L.A. before she was basically forced to leave the LAPD. Will her past hold her back in trying to solve this murder? Someone asked her what she would do if someone she cared about did something very wrong. Now she has to answer that question.

Don’t turn your back… It’s getting closer…

 

NOW on Amazon.com

Book is available on Amazon.Closer Cover with Title

Titles: Do They Work or Miss the Mark? by G.B. Pool

Target 1The Title of a novel or short story might seem like the first thing a writer thinks about before launching into the actual writing. Sometimes a title pops into the writer’s head before even a plot is considered. It’s happened to me many times. I have a file called Bits and Pieces with random titles and snatches of plots in it. Sometimes they’re written on a scrap of paper and stuffed in the folder because the idea caught my fancy with nothing more than a sentence stating what I thought that title might mean or the story behind it might be about. And once in a while it’s just the title.

Orville at the Castle cover (4)Here’s an example of what I mean: After Christmas several years ago I was looking through the half-priced ornaments on sale at a local hardware store and found one in the shape of a dragon no more than three inches tall. He was rubbery, not made of glass, but he was kind of cute, and so I bought him and took him home. Then on a walk one day around the same time, I found a small, sparkly thing on the ground. It was probably for a girl’s ponytail, but I picked it up and brought it home, too. I’m into miniatures and doll houses and to me the sparkly thing looked like a Christmas wreath. Not knowing what to do with it, I spotted the dragon and slipped it around his neck. Now the dragon looked very Christmassy.

Every castle coverI took him upstairs and set him on the roof of the Christmas castle I had built years ago and even wrote a story about called Bearnard’s Christmas. Looking at the little guy there on the roof, I said to myself: “every castle needs a dragon.” The phrase stayed in my head until I wrote it down and put it in that Bits and Pieces folder. A few years later I wrote the third of my Christmas stories with that as the title and the dragon as the main character.

But a title and a main character aren’t all there is to a story. I had to come up with a plot that incorporated those two pieces, but that’s what writers do. Or at least what we try to do. In my case I had to think about what a dragon might do up at the North Pole since this was to be a Christmas story. I decided to have someone leave a large egg in Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve and he has to figure out what to do with it when it hatches and turns into that little dragon. Wizards, magic powders, and a big Polar bear add to the mix. But there was a dilemma: I had to give the dragon some kind of special quality.

Medium Orville with Books (1)But, hey, I am a writer. I write books. I know folks who write books. We really want people, children and adults, to READ. We really are worried that the country is forgetting the value of books, so what better thing for this little guy to do than to “light the fire of imagination” under kids to get them to read when Santa leaves books under the tree on Christmas Eve.

So now I had my story and it all came from a title that popped into my head after finding that very special little dragon.

Target MissedBut not every time do titles and the story click. You might have a great title in your head or in that folder of ideas and you start writing. As often happens, your story takes a detour to a new and exciting place. All of a sudden your story has a life of its own, but now your great title doesn’t fit. But you love the title. Do you keep it anyway?

Of course you do, but for another book or story. The title will wait until you find it a home somewhere else.

So what should a Title do? There are many possibilities.

  • StageThe Title can set the stage, in other words, suggest the Genre or Tone of the work. It can tell the prospective reader if the book is Hardboiled Noir or a Romance novel. A book with the title A Killer Among Us won’t be confused with a romance novel that would more likely have a title like Passion in the Gazebo. The book title American Caesar sitting in the History section will attract history buffs. If it were in the Children’s section, it would be totally out of place. If it landed in the Cooking section by mistake readers might think it’s a salad dressing. So a title needs to fit its genre (and its spot on the shelf at the bookstore.)
  • The Title can hint at the outcome. After all, the title Gone with the Wind certainly says something about what happened to the Old South after the Civil War. Fahrenheit 451 is an integral part of Ray Bradbury’s classic tale about a future where books are being confiscated and burned. The temperature in the title is the temperature at which books burn. Sometimes these types of titles pop into a writer’s head as he is writing. Or maybe a character says something in the heat of the moment and you realize that is what your story is about and it would make a terrific title. Your characters can sometimes have a mind of their own. So listen to what they say. (I’m quite serious here, in a literary sense, of course.)
  • Perhaps the Title will introduce the main character and the continued use of that name will help carry on the series. How many Nancy Drew books have been written that now feature her name above the title? The Chronicles of Narnia use that main title to introduce each subsequent edition. If you are planning to do a series of books utilizing the same main character, you might want to use the character’s name in each of your titles so the reader can locate them on the shelf at the bookstore or find them easily on Amazon. My Chance McCoy short stories use “Chance” in every title. For example: Second Chance (both the collection’s title and one of the stories), “Ghost of a Chance,” “Chance Encounter,” and “Chance of a Lifetime.” Those are just a few of the titles so far. I have a file full of “Chance” titles waiting for a story to go along with it.
  • Target goalThe Title can also be a Goal or Destination. When you start writing a story you should have just such an objective in mind. The main characters and/or the villain might want something. Take Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Everybody was looking for that black bird. Or maybe the goal is to Kill Bill which is the title of the popular movie by Quentin Tarantino. The title was definitely the objective. And remember, other than wanting to get back to Kansas, Dorothy, with the help of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, were all looking for The Wizard of Oz.
  • Of course there is always the title that tells you Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ray Bradbury used that exact title for one of his stories. You might want to have your title suggest something looming over the horizon. I utilize that strategy in the titles of a few of my darker short stories: “Shoot Me and Set Me Free,” “A Role to Die For,” “You Can Only Die Twice.”
  • Titles can also multitask. My short story “Bloodlust” obviously tells you something unpleasant is lurking within those pages. The title actually captures several points in that single word. First, the title definitely sets the Tone or Genre of the piece. This is obviously not a cozy. And a single word like that acts as a Grabber because it doesn’t need modifiers to get to the point. The title can also Hook the reader with a compelling reason to keep reading, if they are into the darker side of mysteries. But then I do follow up with a dead body at both the beginning and end of the story. That ties the entire thing up in a nice red ribbon.
  • Make sure your title pays off in the end. Somewhere in all those words that follow the title should have some relevance to the plot or the point to your story. To see if it does, write a blurb for your story. This can be no longer than the sentence or two like the write-up you see in the TV Guide that describes an upcoming movie. Check those out every time you watch a movie and see how you can boil down your story to a few well-written lines. For my Johnny Casino Series I use the general title and volume number first. Example: The Johnny Casino Casebook 1. But each of the books in the three-book series has its own defining name added. For instance, the first book is called: The Johnny Casino Casebook 1 – Past Imperfect. The short blurb for the book is: “Johnny Casino is a retired P.I. with a past. He just hopes it doesn’t catch up with him.” My Gin Caulfield mystery series doesn’t happen to use her name in the title of each book. I didn’t know it was going to be a three-book series when I started writing the first book. But take the title of the second book in the series: Hedge Bet. The blurb reads as follows: “Is it a bet on the ponies or a high stakes gamble in the stock market that leads to a death at the racetrack and the return of Ginger Caulfield to her former profession as private investigator?” Whether one is gambling in the stock market or at the racetrack, the title is about betting.
  • Other than “How To” books in the Self-Help section, loooong titles can be difficult. The movie A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has a long title, but it also hints at being slightly funny or at least sarcastic. A long title can be ponderous, pretentious, and maybe even off-putting. Always consider what you are selling and who your audience is.
  • Dynamic and memorable titles are often short and pithy. A one word title can speak volumes if it’s the right word. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Bram Stoker’s Stephen King’s It. or Orwell’s 1984. I have one book called Caverns. It’s about caverns being carved out by large rats under Chicago. The skyline photo of Chicago on the cover also has a rat in the foreground. Here’s where one word and a cover to match go hand in hand.

 

Of course there are exceptions to rules, but it never hurts to really think about your title to make sure it fits what you are trying to say within those pages.

 

Now let’s think about what a Title should Not do? There are a few things in this category.

  • Don’t promise more than you can deliver. The title Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex better be one heck of a comprehensive book or Book One of a twelve volume series. You might be better off calling it Sex for Dummies.
  • supermanDon’t promise something and deliver something else. If your title is Roses and Pussycats and it turns out to be a slasher story, you will probably end up with a disgruntled reader. Or if the title is Killer Bees and there are no bees, again your readers will walk away dissatisfied. You will leave them wondering if you knew what you were talking about or worse; they might think they were too dense to understand your brilliant prose. You can bet they won’t be back for a second helping.
  • Don’t be “Too Clever by Half.” That old saying means don’t try to be ultra clever in your title because your reader might not understand your joke, point, or subtle pun. Take the title: “A Dyspeptic View of Murder.” I made it up. I have no idea what it means other than you might get an upset stomach somewhere along the line. But it could also mean the reader won’t buy your book because they have no idea what it would be about.

 

Target 2Something you might want to do, especially if you have beta readers. Those are folks who will read your final draft before publication. These can be friends, relations, or just a bunch of readers who will give you their two cents on your book. Take their advice with a grain of salt, but do listen. Sometimes they see something or misunderstand something that the majority of your readers might also misunderstand. But while they are giving you a few comments about your book, ask them if the title works. Since they just read the book, they might have some good thoughts on that very subject.

Here is something else to ponder or at least be aware of. Often one’s publisher has other ideas about your title. You might think it’s the best title ever. And it might be. But your publisher has the last word. Suck it up and let them have their way as painful as that may be. If you ever get dropped by your publisher or leave on your own, get back your publishing rights and re-publish it yourself under the title you had originally wanted.

There was a time during the last century when ladies’ magazines and other monthly publications printed short stories. Often these stories were turned into movies. Occasionally the title would be changed when it hit the big screen. “Madman’s Holiday” changed to Crack-Up. This was done to attract a certain kind of audience. It not only fit the era, the 1940s when Noir was hitting its stride, but it looked better on the marquee. Your title should first and foremost grab your audience.

Titles can change if others get a say in the publication; that’s the biz, but as a writer you want to be the first to crown your work with a fitting identity. It also reassures you that you know what your story is about in a few brief words. And it tells the reader what’s in store for them.

Something else that goes hand-in-hand with that all important Title is the Cover. It should also say something about what’s inside. When you are strolling down those bookstore aisles, glance at the covers. What do they tell you? Puppies and cartoon characters might work well in the children’s section; dark and ominous is what crime and murder is all about. A cute and cozy cover might also be about murder and mayhem, but most, if not all of the violence, is off the page. The title can be cute and cozy, too, with maybe an axe sticking out of the knitting basket.

But again, if you have a stubborn publisher who wants another cover than what you had visualized, hopefully your title will capture the reader’s interest.

Think about your audience and what they expect from the genre writing you are doing. Wander through a bookstore, if you can still find one, and look at book covers in the area in which you want to write. What do their titles tell you about what’s inside? Read the blurb on the back of the book and see if the title fits those few very important words.

Sing

Remember this: Often the book is not facing out on the bookshelf in the bookstore, so that title should say a lot. Make it sing.

The Devil’s in the Details by G.B. Pool

Computer Devils

When I teach my writing class, The Anatomy of a Short Story, I hand out a card to each student. I hope they tape it above their computer for future reference. It’s very simple. It’s only 16 words:

 

 

Always Ask Yourself:

Does it Advance the story?

Does it Enhance the story?

Is it Redundant?

Academic WisdomWhat does this bit of “academic wisdom” mean? It means that when you write your story, short story or novel length, and are in the editing phase, at least the preliminary editing portion, look at all that stuff you packed onto those pages. Some is Plot. Some is Character Description. Some is Scintillating Dialogue. Some is Painting a Background Setting. And Some is Just Plain Boring, Trivial, Superfluous, and Unnecessary.

It’s those latter ones we need to get rid of. But how, you ask, are you to know the difference between what to keep and what should you cut? First use Common Sense. I know that commodity can be in short supply if you are blinded by the abundance of words you have written in a fit of creative madness. But let me say this, Too Much is just as bad as Too Little.

Devil Half FaceLet’s say you did massive research on an area of the country that you thought would be terrific as a background setting for your story. You spent time in the library, on the Internet, or actually drove to the area and did the research live and in person. You know every street, tree, nook and cranny and you can’t leave any detail out. Problem: The reader might not want to spend eight pages reading a travelogue about a place no matter how fascinating you think it is. If you were writing an article for a travel magazine you could get away with the detail, but the gal reading your novel might not share that enthusiasm. And anyway, how many times did you mention the waving fields of corn at sunset, the majestic forest in the moonlight, or the quaint country village in the pouring rain? Paint a word picture, don’t graffiti the entire neighborhood.

Often a writer will pack all that cumbersome detail in the front end of the story, weighing it down to the point the reader can’t plow through all that description to get to the point of your narrative and they will put the book down… forever.

Here’s a suggestion: Spread out those details. Some really are worth keeping. Every time the hero drives by that picturesque spot he can see more detail. But remember this; don’t have him see the same thing each time, over and over and over until the reader says, “Enough, already.” The only time seeing the same dilapidated shanty again and again works is if one time the ramshackle building isn’t there. Now the hero has something to investigate. You’ve changed direction. A new path is to be followed.

So let’s take that little card I provided and look at each line a little closer.

Does it Advance the story?

One of the best ways to advance any story is through Dialogue. As each character speaks, they should relate something new about themselves, about others, or about their surroundings. Here’s an example:

Barney came stumbling in the General Store on his bum leg, the one he got in the last war. The few hairs on his head were standing straight up like he had been in a violent storm though the weather was calm at the moment.

“Did ya hear about crazy ol’ Betty up yonder in the haunted house? She done come into a passel a money and is spending it like a drunken sailor.”

_________________________

We got a brief description of Barney and his bum leg, but he Advanced the Story by telling us about crazy Betty, where she lives, and about that money. We also can tell by Barney’s accent that he’s a simple guy, not too well educated, and probably lives a fairly rural life.

Barney might be a minor character in this story, but he knows the town, because where does he run with the news about Betty? The General Store. Isn’t that where the town folks go to hear the latest gossip? From that launching pad others can add their two cents worth of knowledge about ol’ Betty. We will see her from different viewpoints, not one major information dump.

Advance Speed CarDialogue is a clever way to Advance the Story because it does it without beating your readers over the head with detail. It’s a natural way of imparting information because we all tell people what happened in our own lives by basically telling them a verbal story. Your characters will be doing the same thing. But just like the goofy guy up the street who you try to avoid because when he pins you down, he spends an hour telling you some long, boring story that you have heard twenty times before. You don’t want that to happen in your book. Spread the information out. You might even get that last strategic bit of information later from yet another character who knows a deeper, darker secret about ol’ Betty.

Go over the dialogue you have between characters. Ask yourself if one character told enough of the story to keep your reader interested or if they imparted way too many details that got in the way of the story’s pacing.

 

Paint BrushDoes it Enhance the Story?

While you are adding all that detail, ask yourself if it Enhances the Story. Enhancing is different from Advancing. Advancing does just what it says – It gives the story movement. It pushes the plot forward. It directs the reader to some goal.

Enhancing, on the other hand, adds color, texture, depth. But answer me this: Is knowing every fine detail of how an office is furnished necessary? Does the reader really have to know which period every stick of furniture is from? Or is the fact it is rich mahogany, fine old, oak, or from roughly the Louis XIV Period enough?

I have been reading book after book written by E. Phillips Oppenheim lately. He wrote his hundred or so books at the beginning of the last century. He has lots of detail in his stories, but he spreads it out. I get enough detail in a well-written paragraph, not a half dozen pages explaining everything in the room. He sets the stage. He doesn’t drag all that furniture through every scene strapped on the backs of the characters so we, as well as the characters, are weighted down with his prose.

Take that office reference I mentioned earlier. You might very well want to compare and contrast the guy wearing the ten-year-old sports coat with the frayed cuffs who works in a shabby office with grimy windows and torn leather chairs with the man wearing the Armani suit in the elegant high-rise with slick chrome furnishings, polished marble floors, and a monarch’s view of the city from the fifty-first floor.

How much more detail would you add or take away? What’s enough to get your point across? What’s padding? What’s the purpose of the detail in the two samples above anyway? You want to impart to the reader how each man lives. You want to show that one has money while the other is scratching out a living. It doesn’t take too many words to do the job. You might add another bit of detail the next time each man enters his respective office, but you don’t have to mention every scratch on the poor guy’s desk or every porcelain statue in that glass-fronted cabinet in the rich man’s office suite.

Is It Redundant?

Repetitive MarchingThe third line on the card that I hand out to students is the most important and the hardest one to recognize: Is it Redundant? It’s the trap some writers fall into when they have fallen in love with their own words. Not that we don’t love the language. After all, words are our life. But sometimes we say the same thing to distraction. True, we might use different phrases, but they mean the same thing.

For instance:

  1. She was a lovely girl. Petite, but feisty. And she was strong when she had to be strong.
  2. Later, it is said: She was as tough as a boot, a pretty boot, but the leather was sturdy and the seams sewn with two rows of stitches.
  3. And still later: She didn’t mind taking the bull by the horns even with those delicate hands that could rock a cradle, because she was made of sterner stuff.
  4. And finally: She knew how to stand on her own two feet because for a small girl, she had to fight her way out of tough situations using her clever wit.

 

I made the examples sort of corny because too often I have read well-meaning descriptions of a single character that became funny after reading basically the same thing over and over. Or how about repetitive actions like when the characters keep going to a tea room or restaurant and eat and eat and eat. I know real people chow down three times a day, but I would prefer characters in books to forgo a meal or two so we can get on with the story.

The best way to get the point across that the girl is feisty is to SHOW her doing something feisty like jumping off a horse to save a young child or diving into a lake to rescue a dog or maybe standing up to a bully and telling him to leave the handicapped kid alone. Showing the character doing something is always the best way to get your point across. Your reader will get the idea when they see her in action. And don’t they say: Actions speak louder than words. Of course you are writing words to convey that physical accomplishment, but you get the point. So will your reader.

Another classic “filler” in stories, books, TV shows, and movies, is the constant use of someone’s name or maybe a pending event. The movie The Outlaw Josie Wales is famous, or should I say infamous, for using the main character’s name to distraction.

Even in general dialogue between characters, they keep using each other’s name ad nauseam. They both know to whom they’re talking. You don’t have to use “he said” or “she said” all that often, either. If you are worried your reader might lose track of who is speaking, try giving the speaker some action to accompany the dialogue. “Where were you last night?” she sobbed while strangling a handkerchief. The word “said” is replaced by “sobbed” and it’s an action, physical. It moves.

Again, Actions Speak Louder than Words.

Scissors2But now you are saying to yourself, “Okay, I’ve cut out a lot of detail, how do I fill up those empty pages?” This is where the writer in you rises to the occasion. Use that freed-up space to tell a little backstory about your main character. You have gotten to know him or her a little better while writing that first draft, why not ask that character a few questions about his past or her family life or about “the one that got away.” You might discover some new and interesting sides to that character.

Let me tell you what happened when I was writing my Johnny Casino Casebook Series. I wrote the first book subtitled Past Imperfect knowing a few things about Johnny. He was raised in a Mafia crime family. His father was consigliere; his mother was one tough cookie. His brother wasn’t as smart as Johnny was, but he went along with the family business as it were because he had nowhere else to go. As for Johnny, he wanted to get out. He did. He changed his name and moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, but he still dabbled in crime. Then he met a female private detective and found a new calling. He became a P.I. Then he went out on his own and one day a new client asked him to find her long lost son. Finding that missing man changed Johnny’s life forever.

My point in telling that story is this: I used all those lovely empty pages to discover who the hell Johnny Casino really was. I asked him questions and dug into his background. This was all new territory. No redundancy. I wasn’t going over the same old road.

(I know you might think it odd that a writer would have a conversation with a character, but trust me, after a while that character becomes very three-dimensional. So just be quiet and let him talk to you about himself.)

You can do the same thing with a secondary character who really could use some more face time in your story. Or maybe there is a sub-plot that needs a little more detail… Did I say Detail? Yes. Sometimes you can actually add layers to the main plot to make the story seem more real. I don’t like to venture too far away from the main plot unless it somehow fits into the main story because it’s like taking a detour down a dead end road. You’ll have to double back to get on the main road again. Big waste of time… and words.

But how cool would it be to find out that the two guys who were hanging around Crazy Old Betty’s place… (Remember, she had come into that money that Barney mentioned earlier.) But What If she had really been a bank robber back in the day and the two guys were the sons of her dead partner? Now the cop in that small town can track down the two guys who just held up the local bank because the cop just got a huge lead. (PS: This is an actual plot from an upcoming short story.)

That What If approach can really help you flesh out a character or story because you take chances, think outside the box. That’s what makes a story memorable… something different, daring, and unexpected.

Layers, not redundancy, my friends. Your readers will appreciate it. It’s like having the apple pie with ice cream… and caramel topping.

So, read every word in that story you have written and see what you have mentioned way too many times. Take some of that redundancy out and then ask yourself, what can I add to make the story richer?

Just remember this…

The devil is in the details.

Devil with sword

What’s in a Name? by G.B. Pool

Romeo and JulietWilliam Shakespeare had Juliet utter these famous words: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But as Romeo and Juliet discovered, the entire story revolved around those names and the fact that he was a Montague and she was a Capulet and those two families weren’t destined to get together. The same with the Hatfields and the McCoys. Without the tension between those families, we wouldn’t have the classic story that we know today.

 

My point being: Names Matter.

 

There is a saying credited to Elmore Leonard who was a master at picking names for his marvelous characters. He said he was having trouble with a character until he changed the guy’s name and then he couldn’t shut him up.

There is so much truth in that. Go back to Romeo and Juliet. If Romeo had come from another family that didn’t have a lifetime feud with the Capulets, he and Juliet would have had no problem getting married. But he was a dreaded Montague and there was no peace between the families until half the cast of the play was dead and the survivors saw the error of their ways and had a group hug before the curtain came down. I’m making up the hug part, but you get the drift.

The same plot was used in the musical, West Side Story. Many of the Sharks and the Jets lay dead in the street by the time the credits rolled. But that was the story. The names mattered. So here’s a heads up: Your characters might be begging for a different name if you would just listen.

Hello My Name Is

Are you having trouble getting that guy you introduced on page 24 to fit into the costume you decided he should wear? Maybe the costume doesn’t fit the name you have pinned onto that character. Change the name and see if he looks better in that outfit. I mean really, would a guy named Bruno Lipbuster look right in a Saville Row suit? Or would Maisie Dalrimple look right with a crown on her head as queen of a mythical country in Europe?

Johnny Casino, the main character in my Johnny Casino Casebook Series, got his name when I thought about who he was and what he did for a living. He’s a private detective, so I wanted him to have a detective’s name. I knew his first name was going to be Johnny. But what about his last name?

My first thought was Sam Spade from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. I loved that movie and Bogie as Sam Spade. Then an old TV series starring David Jansen popped into my head. His name was Richard Diamond in the show.

That’s when I started to see a mental pattern forming. The characters’ last names were the suits on playing cards. The third name would be heart. What about Jonathan Hart in the old TV series Hart to Hart?

Okay, those names were all taken. What about the last suit of cards in the deck? That would be clubs. I couldn’t think of any character in movies or TV that was called Club. BUT, what is another name for a club? Not the wooden object that hits you over the head, but the one where you play cards: a casino. Ah.

Johnny Casino TattoosI had a name: Johnny Casino. I looked up the name on the Internet to see how many times it was used. A character in Grease was named Johnny Casino. There was also a tattoo parlor out here in California, now closed, called Johnny Casino’s Tattoo Parlor. The name wasn’t really over used. I picked that name.

And Johnny liked it, but there was more to his name than I knew at first. Johnny enlightened me. Johnny wasn’t born with the name Johnny Casino. It had been Johnny Cassini. He has a story in the second book, The Johnny Casino Casebook 2 – Looking for Johnny Nobody, that explains how he went from Cassini to Casino. But it all started with Sam Spade and a deck of cards.

And then there was Chance McCoy in my latest detective series. The title of the collection of short stories, Second Chance, and his name hit me like two trains colliding. I had written the first few pages of the first story back in high school. I didn’t know what to do with those pages, so I decided to save them. Sixty years later I looked at that opening and thought that this guy had a second chance in life. Bam! Chance had to be his name. I don’t know where the McCoy came from. Maybe he told me his last name. Nevertheless, I use the word “chance” in every title of every short story in the collection. His first name couldn’t have been anything else.

Minor character’s names seem to come to me when I think about who they are and what their background might be in my story. Elmer and Delmer were two goofy brothers in a short story. The rhyming, old-fashioned names fit the type of people I wanted them to be.

Dale Carr’s moniker was a take-off on actor Glenn Ford’s name. (A glen is another word for a dale; a Ford is a car.) I had my character basically co-opt the life of actor Glenn Ford, but I didn’t feel right using his real name in the story. I did use some parts of his life like a location that was used in one of his movies.

I did sort of the same thing in my spy novels though I did use real historical characters like Eisenhower and Ian Fleming and a few others. They dropped in for a guest appearance. Everybody else was a character that I created like Rhoda Zimmerman and Martha Rose. These two ladies were minor characters in the third spy novel, Star Power. The book dealt with communism in Hollywood starting back in the 30s and 40s. Both ladies were big-time communists. Both names are also a version of the color red. I’m not the first person to use that color to denote a fellow traveler. Communists did it themselves for aliases.

Many people in old Hollywood were Jews. I had a few guys with Jewish names appear like Sidney Berman and Martin Zimmerman. When I wanted a name that sounded like a famous writer I chose William Durack. How about an agent named Peter Roth? The name sounds like a talent agent.

I did have to consider the era in which the majority of the book takes place. No Tiffany’s, Amber’s or Kanisha’s welcome. I used Lillian and Estelle instead. And a maid called Hilda Brown. Back in that era many gals who went into domestic work were right off the boat from Germany or England, so they got the gig.

In the second book in the spy series called Dry Bones, I have Oriental characters. The Internet has places you can check to see what various Oriental names mean. One of the main characters in the book is Trang van Quang – Trang means intelligent, beautiful/ Van means cloud/Quang means clear. I liked what that name meant. Quang’s adopted daughter was called Su Linh – Linh means spring, soul. That totally fit her.

Dad in Japan 1945A recurring character in all three of the spy novels is an Air Force pilot named Major Ralph M. Barton. It’s no coincidence that the guy flew C-47s and was stationed in Okinawa, Memphis, France, and Florida. And that he had a daughter named Elaine who ended up being a writer who, in the first book, wrote a very similar book in order to catch a traitor. That was part of the plot. You see, my late dad’s name was Major Ralph M. Bartos, USAF retired. My middle name is Elaine. I knew these characters really well and the names had to be that close to the original people so I could tell the story. (Not everything in my spy novels is fiction, by the way.)

So my point in this piece is to mention how important names are to you and to the reader. Play with the names you have chosen. If those characters don’t speak to you, think about changing them until they won’t shut up. (Thanks Mr. Leonard for your quote.) The right name will help you write your story.

Who Am I

Accent on Character

by G. B. Pool

Talking Mouth

I have mentioned before that “Dialogue is the workhorse of the novel or short story.” It provides plot advancement, character development, and action or movement. In a way, it sings. In other words, it brings the story to life.

A character blurting out information that advances the plot is far more interesting than a long narrative description of same. Through dialogue we discover personality traits about the various people who populate our stories. How a person speaks and acts while talking says a lot more about him or her than words alone. And dialogue provides real time action. You are in the room with the characters as they speak. You’re eavesdropping or right in the middle of the conversation. Or the character might be speaking directly to you.

“There’s someone sneaking up behind you. Watch out!”

Got your attention, didn’t it? That’s what dialogue should do.

In order to know how a character speaks or acts, or even the words he uses, you must get to know your characters… intimately. I suggest that you write a biography of at least your principle characters so you know who they are.

First, make the characters seem real to you as well as to your readers. Let them speak to you and trust them. Most writers will tell you they actually “hear” their characters, and it is that particular “voice” that makes a character unique.

Talking Mouth 2Here is one really cool way to make a character different: Whether he or she is a major or a minor actor in the piece, give him or her an accent. That doesn’t mean you have to write their dialogue all in French or Pig Latin. In fact, too much of a good thing can turn off your readers. But a word or phrase sprinkled in to give the reader a taste of that foreign accent, regional twang, or distinctive way of speaking… speaks volumes.

An accent or even a stutter tells something about the character, at least where he comes from or maybe why she knows so much about French cooking. And it’s fun. It breaks up the monotony of every character sounding alike. A Southern belle would have far more sass that say, a straight-laced New England spinster. And a gal with a lisp can add a little color, especially when she struggles to tell about “a thip thinking in the harbor.” How long will it take for folks to realize there is a ship in distress?

Here are a few examples that might get you in the mood to try an accent:

 

An Accent Enhances the Character:

 In a simple scene where you have a neighbor who makes a guest appearance, why not make her colorful? The first example is a neighbor with no personality. The second example gives her some character.

  1. “Sweetheart, something has happened to your living room. Did you perhaps get another dog?”

vs.

  1. “Honey, somethin’s happened to yer living room. Did ya’ll get another dawg?” (from Hedge Bet)

 

Mexican senoritaHow About a Foreign Accent?

Let’s try Spanish –

The volcano erupted again. “No. No. NO! My Franco no cheat. He best jockey in dee worlds. He no fix dee race. Meester Paul Bradshaw, beeg shot at dee track, pick my Franco to be dee one to give check to Jockey Fund.”            (from Hedge Bet)

 

One thing I do when writing these accents is to put the foreign word or mispronounced (and misspelled) word in italics so the reader gets the hint that the word is supposed to be that way and that I’m not a poor typist or speller. It also makes reading those words a little easier because the reader goes along with the gag.

 

Maybe a Speech Impediment Might Add Character:

Remember, not everyone is Laurence Olivier with a perfect English accent. Take for example a time when your main character encounters someone who is going to give him information. What if she is both colorful in looks as well as speech? This old dear lisps and isn’t exactly a rocket scientist, but boy does she have character.

 

Mouse stopped eating. He must have been rethinking his desire to find the king’s killer. He gazed in the direction Buttons had taken and I think he would have bolted had PJ not spoken.

 

“We never thee what the people in the truckth are doing,” PJ said. “They want uth out on the thtreet or in the front of one of the thtoreth keeping them occupied.”                        (from Only in Hollywood)

 

What about a New England Accent?

Pahk ya cah in the rear so ma customers don’t think we’re bein’ raided,” said the woman.

Harry followed the two women inside. Before Jane looked at the copy of the photo from Evelyn Wright’s passport, she yelled over her shoulder to the L.A. cop, “Shut the doh-wah, honey. Don’t want any vermin gettin’ in the crockery.” (from Closer coming in 2019)

 

Try an accent the next time you want to shake up your dialogue. It brings added interest to your story. And when you “hear” how others speak you just might want to let some of your characters have a go at it. It’s fun and lets you stretch those writing muscles.

Travel

 

 

“I say, ’avin’ an accent is a bit of all right. So ’ave a go at it, guv.”

 

Thanks for dropping by. Write on. G.B. Pool

BREAKDOWN – LOSING THE CULTURAL TIES THAT BIND

Breakdownby Paul D. Marks

As writers we want to convey certain thoughts, emotions and ideas to our readers. To do that we may use literary or historical allusions, scientific and cultural references. And, for the most part, we expect our reader base to have a degree of shared knowledge so that when we mention certain things, anything from Freud and Shakespeare to Billie Holiday or Queen Victoria—who gave her name to a whole era—to the simple phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” they’ll be able to understand what we’re saying and relate to it. And if they don’t know something to hopefully look it up.

 

Unfortunately, our cultural ties-that-bind are breaking down, not being passed on to younger generations. Yes, I know, every generation says this regarding the successive generation. But I think it’s gotten worse in the last few decades. Blame the media or social media, blame the internet, video games, teachers, the educational system, parents, the breakdown of the nuclear family. Blame whatever you want, from whichever side you’re on, but it seems to be true regardless of the cause.

 

For a variety of reasons, younger people today seem very uninformed about history, literature, pop culture (except their own pop culture), high culture and most other things that came before them. And sure, in every generation something gets left behind. When I was a kid I might not have known who Catherine the Great or Katharine Hepburn were. W.E.B. Du Bois or Jorge Luis Borges. Or the difference between Benny Goodman and Beethoven. But eventually they came into my consciousness, because I was curious and because I was exposed to them one way or another. But people today don’t know major figures from the recent past or even from the present. They don’t know what major wars were about or even have a clue as to when—or that—they occurred. And they barely know major figures from the past, who they were and what they did, people like George Washington, FDR. Lincoln. Cesar Chavez. And for many of them it doesn’t seem as if this knowledge ever seeps into their consciousness.

 

CasablancaWhen I was going to pitch meetings in Hollywood, I would start off talking “normally,” as if the people I was pitching to had a shared base of knowledge with me. I quickly learned that wasn’t the case, so I dumbed down my pitches to not include anything that might make them feel insecure or ignorant. Hell, they didn’t even know the great movies, so it was hard to reference them as well. Sure, they’d heard of Casablanca, but most had never seen it. So if I was pitching something that was “a modern day Casablanca,” I had to do it by describing the plot in detail and maybe, or maybe not, throwing in a line about it being a modern day Casablanca.

 

And these were not dumb people; many of them came from and still come from Ivy League schools. Even so, they wouldn’t know such basic things as World War II or who fought on which side in Viet Nam or what the Cold War was and who was on which side there. Or that a “black comedy” doesn’t necessarily mean it has African-American characters. They also might not know basic phrases or expressions, like the one about the camel and the straws mentioned above, so you’d have to explain the meaning to them. Once you have to do that you’ve lost.

 

And this doesn’t only apply to Hollywood people, I’ve run across it talking with psychologists and other professionals while doing research, as well as people I meet in everyday life. Basically many under the age of forty or so, and plenty over forty too. What I’m saying here may be anecdotal, but there have also been studies and “quizzes” that prove the same thing. Some years ago, I remember seeing a questionnaire of, I believe, journalism students, showing how little they knew of the world around them, past and present. I was shocked by it, because if anyone should be curious about history, their history, world history, current events, you’d think it would be journalism students.

 

Many of the great works of literature have biblical references, but again, these people are unaware of them. Hemingway uses biblical allusions in The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises and other works. Moby Dick, considered by many to be the greatest American novel, is filled with them. T.S. Eliot uses them in The Wasteland. And Bob Dylan uses biblical allusions in many songs that would go over most people’s heads today. Even the TV show Lost used biblical and literary influences. I wonder how many in the audience knew what they were or bothered to look them up. How can they know what any of these people are talking about or trying to say if we don’t know what they’re referencing?

Old Books

Shakespeare

 

The same goes for Shakespeare, Greek mythology and other references to great works of the past that our society was built on. Even popular author Stephen King uses biblical and Greek mythology references and foreign phrases in some of his writing.

 

I remember looking up foreign phrases all the time when reading various things. So much so that in the pre-internet days I used to keep both a regular dictionary and a dictionary of foreign phrases close by when I was reading. I would look up references I was unfamiliar with. Pre-internet, I’d also look things up in the Britannica and other reference sources. I wanted to learn all of that and I didn’t feel inferior for not knowing it. But today, even though it’s easier with the internet and hyperlinks, it seems that many people lack the curiosity to expand their horizons.

 

On occasion, I like to use various cultural references in my writing. But if we have to think twice about including such references, it dumbs down our work and society too, as well as the cultural ties that bind us together.

 

When working on scripts, for both film and radio, I was actually told to dumb things down. On a radio show another writer and I were called on the carpet and given a condescending lecture by the producer about using words that were too big…like condescending.  I’m sure it was because he didn’t know what they were.

 

All one has to do is recall Jay Leno’s Jaywalking segments to see how little people know, if people today, a few years after he left the Tonight Show, even remember Leno had a show before his cars show. He would show people on the street pictures of Presidents Bush and Obama and many couldn’t recognize them. He would ask simple questions like who is Joe Biden or who crossed the Delaware. And he has said that, contrary to what some believe, they didn’t have to search for “dumb” people. Basically they just went with the first few people they came across, because they didn’t have to search any further. And maybe Jaywalking isn’t scientific, but my own personal experience has borne out those numbers. It’s not that they’re stupid, it’s that they’re apathetic. The why of that is for another article.

 

TelevisionWrapped up in their own little narcissistic worlds, many people don’t know what’s going on in the Ukraine or the Middle East—or across town. They know little about historic figures and literature as well. Of course nobody can know everything, but it seems that a thirst for knowledge has been lost to a great extent and that some people even seem to wear their ignorance as a badge of honor. Well, I guess I do that too. Aside from Kim, I can’t name another Kardashian. Aside from Pookie or Gooby or Snookie (hmm, the spell checker didn’t recognize Snookie’s name, but I guess it won’t be too long until it does), I can’t name another Jersey Shoreite—my badges of honor—assuming they’re even still around spreading their own special brand of sunshine.

 

AristotleWhile we have more options than ever for learning, do you think most people are using the net to look up Madame Curie or Plato? Of course there are some bright lights out there like the Khan Academy website where you can take courses on everything from art history to calculus. And Wikipedia is a great resource, but one that has to be used with caution, as a lot of the internet is filled with misinformation, conspiracy theories, celebrity gossip sites and pseudo news websites that are really thinly veiled advertising sites.

 

The use of computers, cell phones, social media and Twitter, etc., have changed the way we interact with each other and the world, along with the fact that, because everyone is so spread out these days, they don’t have their grandparents nearby to pass on that generation’s knowledge. People today have shorter attention spans, don’t want to read long articles, often don’t read about the past or even watch history shows on TV. And, of course, there’s little about literature and history, besides Nazis, on TV. The Discovery Channel shows BattleBots (a lot to discover there) and the Learning Channel runs OutDaughtered. And when there was a Biography Channel and it was actually running biographies (which was rare) they were generally about movie and TV stars of little significance and only once in a while could you find a biography of some truly important historical figure. And these days the Biography Channel has given way to some other amalgamation. But why is this? Well, one can only surmise it’s because people don’t want to learn about “real” people. They want to learn about vapid celebrities or watch superficial reality shows. So the Discovery Channel shows Naked and Afraid and the Biography Channel becomes a PR flack’s best friend. Hey, I watched some of those too, but it’s not all I watch or read.

Broken Computers

All of that said, it goes both ways. I frequently don’t know who this or that “important” person of the current pop culture is. But I also often look them up to see what I’m missing. There are more options today and more niches catering to smaller groups of people and that’s fine. But we still need a shared knowledge of our past, who we were and what makes us who we are.

 

I don’t like writing down to people. I think writers should challenge their readers to want to learn more, look things up, expand their vocabularies and their worlds. The writer needs to challenge them to pick up an encyclopedia, history book, or surf the web beyond the paparazzi photos and cute cat videos (hey, I like them too!). I love using examples from history and literature, etc., in my writing. And I’d hate to see those get lost in the quicksand of lethargy and jaded narcissism that is our society today. There’s more to life than celebrities and more to know than the latest housewives’ gossip and what’s happened just in the span of someone’s conscious memory. There’s more to life than selfies, in both the literal and figurative sense.

 

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And thank you for hosting me, Gayle and the Writers in Residence. I’ve enjoyed being here.

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Broken WindowsBIO: Broken Windows, the sequel to Paul D. Marks’ Shamus Award-winning mystery-thriller White Heat hit the shelves 9/10/18. Publishers Weekly called White Heat a “taut crime yarn” and said of Broken Windows: “Fans of downbeat PI fiction will be satisfied…with Shamus Award winner Marks’s solid sequel to… White Heat.” Though thrillers and set in the 1990s, both novels deal with issues that are hot and relevant today: racism and immigration, respectively. Marks says “Broken Windows holds up a prism from which we can view the events burning up today’s headlines, like the passionate immigration debate,

White Heatthrough the lens of the recent past. It all comes down to the saying we know so well, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.” His short stories appear in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines, among others, and have won or been nominated for many awards, including the Anthony, Derringer and Macavity. His story “Windward,” has been selected for the Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, edited by Louise Penny & Otto Penzler, and has also been nominated for both a 2018 Shamus Award and Macavity Award for Best Short Story. Ghosts of Bunker Hill was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. He is co-editor of the multi-award nominated anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea. www.PaulDMarks.com

 

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Posted for Paul D. Marks by Gayle Bartos-Pool. Thanks for joining us today, Paul, and for your words of wisdom.