* I wish I could take full credit for the title, but a google search uncovered it as the title of another blog post about graduate student life at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec Canada. Suffice it to say this refers to something completely different.
My attitude toward procrastination varies depending on if it’s helping or hindering my progress – as a writer, as a wife, as a friend, and a human being. Sometimes I chastise myself for what I perceive as laziness, or cowardly behavior. I rarely see it as praiseworthy. Nevertheless, I can say procrastination has made me a better writer.
My first book took over ten years to get published. I’d finished it long ago, at least in the “The End” way, but endless tinkering, at first over chapters, then scenes, then words, kept me from getting it into print. I finished my second book in that time. It turned out to be a fortuitous move.
When I finally got up the courage to query a publisher, I had not one, but two completed books in a series, to offer. This probably helped draw interest to my work. Naturally, finding the right match of writer and publisher helped as well, and I was fortunate enough to find myself in that situation.
My first book took eight years to write and my second book, four years. I half-bragged/half-joked that at this rate I’d get book three done in two years, and number four in one. And did I?
Of course not. Some unexpected delays occurred. Part of my writing method is to immerse myself in the time period, right next to my characters, and through research and logic balanced with creativity, I can turn out good scenes. When I can’t get immersed, it’s a problem, as when I tried to write about the suffering in Europe during the tragic “Turnip Winter” of WWI. Picture Ireland’s Potato Famine coupled with an abnormally cold winter in the middle of a war. Now imagine trying to put yourself in that mental state when you’re vacationing on a tropical island where, much to your surprise, you’ve been given luxury accommodations.
The biggest writing lapse I’ve taken so far has been between a promising start on my fourth book and writing the final chapter. An eighteen-month gap lingered between the last pre-pandemic chapter I’d written and when I returned to finish the story in early 2021.
During that time, between Covid and the socio-political turmoil we went through, I saw too many parallels between current events and what occurred a hundred years earlier, when the novel takes place. It seemed disingenuous to ignore, so when I returned to writing it I included many of those similarities into the story, then went back and rewrote the earlier chapters to delve deeper into the effects of a world-wide pandemic and political discord on the characters.
With book four completed, you’d think I’d take advantage of the momentum and begin the final book in my series. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in “Casablanca,” you’d be misinformed. In the past I’ve taken the last two months of the year off from writing, as I tend to be very busy with holiday plans and travel. This year is no different. I am still working out how to finish the story I’d begun twenty years ago, which will prepare me for writing it after the new year, but should I instead dive in and “just write?” Am I procrastinating yet again? I suppose I am, but it may lead to a better finale. Time will tell.
Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers in Residence, is the author of the historical fiction saga A PETAL IN THE WIND, as well as a contributor to anthologies, including “LAst Exit to Murder” and the soon-to-be-released “Whidbey Landmarks”.
Miko lives in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Moving from California to Connecticut, coast-to-coast, during the first months of the COVID pandemic resulted in flying out of an airport almost devoid of staff and passengers. I sailed through Security with only two other people in line. In fact, the airport was a ghost town, as was LaGuardia when I reached New York. No coffee shops or stores were open, but, warned ahead of time, I’d brought my own travel cup and, of course, my kindle loaded with eBooks.
It had been 23 years since I had lived in CT and discovered that I knew not a soul any longer except for my son and daughter. I searched the Obituaries pages for news of long-lost friends and called up a newspaper I used to work for but no one had heard of my fellow reporters from so long ago.
Needing to get back into the writing community I joined the New York chapters of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and renewed my Authors Guild membership, but there were no actual meetings scheduled except for Zoom. Like most writers I thrive on in-person contact where we have an opportunity to pick up characteristics of other humans, locales, and other, often small, details we put to use in our books.
I cast around for any group related to writing that met in person and this month, lo and behold, I was told of a women’s book club that was actually meeting at a coffee shop. There was also a memoir group at someone’s home. I’d been to several book clubs in California as their speaker when one of my books was the subject of discussion but what would it be like sitting on the other side of the table? I’d been treated with great respect, gentleness, and politeness each time with questions that were easy to answer and expected the same for this author and his work.
Instead, it was a revelation and a lesson in reality.
The book under discussion was a pretty hefty novel by a renowned author. I was struck the most by everyone’s intensity, enthusiasm, and deep knowledge of each character and their supposed intent; the proposed meaning of every scene, and talk about the author’s hidden message on almost every page even if there were none. It was fascinating to hear that three members said they were in disagreement with the author because one character didn’t really mean what he said and other members backed her up. Another lady said a character should not have done what she did and offered an alternative to what the author wrote, and yet another lady said two of the characters should never have had the argument they did if only they had done so-and-so.
Suggesting rewriting parts of an important classic to suit varying ideas about where the plot and its people should have gone gave me an introspective that I knew was impossible to achieve. There are a couple of classics wherein the author addresses the reader as “dear reader,” in his/her books but I doubt it is a plea for understanding the book’s intent. Authors cannot please everyone, and occasionally cannot please themselves when they re-read a book they wrote years earlier, perhaps, and see one or two parts they’d like to edit.
I enjoyed the back and forth between the ladies who were diplomatic in their critiques despite opposing opinions. One tended to hog the limelight by going on and on until the group leader gently cut her off. I was surprised that 4 or 5 of the 14 in the group remained mute the entire time but the others made up for their silence with well-articulated points of view, albeit wishing the author had written some scenes a bit differently.
As the newcomer I mostly listened and didn’t reveal I was an author. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered but I was there to discuss someone else’s work. Only at the end did I disagree with the general conclusion that the main character had redeemed herself by her ringing endorsement of a couple in love rather than try to split them apart as she had earlier in a book-long fit of jealousy. One member asked if the author wished readers to come to like his previously nasty main character at the end by having her do a complete turn-about of herself.
My take was that she was self-serving by pretending to have changed in order to receive everyone’s good wishes instead of their usual disparaging remarks when she dissed them ad nauseum. She was congratulated and basked in their comments, but to me she was still living up to her me-me-me attitude. My statement was then discussed and agreed to by a slim majority of members, while others said they hadn’t thought of it that way but, yes, it made sense.
Perhaps had the author been at this meeting he would have been flabbergasted at the suggestions for changes, as sensible as they were, and probably even a little daunted at the thought but, all in all, I liked the fact that these book clubbers genuinely loved books and discussing them in depth was important to their lives. I am glad I joined and plan to attend every month.
Should I take a lesson from the discussion? Yes, very much so except I am still writing what I want to write. If a reader finds problems in a book that is fictional the author can be excused. What have been your book club experiences?
Jill Amadio is a ghostwriter and cozy mystery writer. This is her new novel.
A leggy wildflower of a girl, teenage Sofia runs away from rural Oregon to big city Portland where she meets and marries a charismatic Saudi Arabian later known as 9/11 hijacker #13. While a slumbering America embraces feng sui and pizza she is present when terrorist sleeper cells are organized in her home, maps of landmark buildings, airports, and bridges are studied, and teams of recruits take flying lessons.
IN TERROR’S DEADLY CLASP, a novel, is based on her true story, providing a rare, chilling glimpse under the radar of the terrorists’ daily lives as they enjoy strip clubs, fast food, and freedom from their religious rules. After warning the FBI of the Arabs’ photo sessions, driving several men into America illegally from Mexico, and other suspicious activities, she goes undercover for U.S. intelligence agencies with deadly consequences.
In my library are three slightly repellent books. One is the colour of poisoned custard, and the other two are a poisonous purple.
They look as if they’ve been through a lot. And they have.
These fat volumes, of about 500 pages each, were compiled in a time of disaster, and at the time, I didn’t know what I was doing or why. All I knew was that it needed to be done.
But first, a word of explanation. I am often asked, as are most writers, “Where did your main character come from? How did you go about creating him/her?” The simple answer is “I didn’t”, but the truth lies hidden in the thousand and more pages of these three uneasy books.
We had, at the time, a comfortable home on the edge of a forest – just like in the fairy tales. Until one night, lightning struck, and our forest was ablaze. Although we managed to get out safely with our pets, just ahead of the flames, more than 200 of our neighbours’ homes were reduced to ashes. When we were finally allowed to return, several weeks later, we found ourselves living in a blasted landscape: skeleton trees in a dead landscape of soot and ashes.
Time changed, and everything became different, including ourselves. What were we to do?
Sometime during those long hours and days and weeks that followed, I began compiling a compendium of poisons. The psychologists ought to have a field-day with that! Without knowing why, I had begun collecting and collating everything I could find on poisons and their history, all nicely filed alphabetically and indexed all the way from ‘A is for Arsenic’ to ‘Z is for Zarutin.’
The files grew from a folder, to many, and then to a book, then two, then three.
They contained detailed descriptions of the life and crimes of famous and not-so-famous poisoners, the history of specific poisoners from antiquity until just yesterday, the chemistry of poisons and their medical aspect. Ancient newspaper accounts told many a grim story, all so sadly the same: love gone wrong, ambition gone mad, and cleverness come a cropper.
There were heart-breaking tales of poor children who, in searching for something to eat, had – but enough! You get the idea.
Then, as the world around us restored itself, I put these books away, not knowing if I would ever look at them again. Whatever angel had caused me to compile this stuff had not bothered to leave an explanatory note. When the time came, I would know why.
Several years passed. Five, in fact. And there came a day when I decided that it was time to sit down and write that ‘Golden Age’ mystery novel I had been mulling since my younger days. It was a book that I much looked forward to, a tale that would draw on my years of experience in television broadcasting. Something fresh – something startling.
But it was not to be. I got no farther than the second chapter when, in a scene involving a visit to a crumbling country house in England, an eleven-year-old girl materialised suddenly on the page and would not, in spite of my every effort, be budged. She would not be written out and she would not be ignored. After a time, I realised that she had taken over my book completely. It was her book now, and my role was to sit down, shut up, and write what she told me to write.
And it came as no real surprise that her whole being revolved around a passion for poisons. Her knowledge of the subject was, you might say, voluminous.
Since then, she has more or less dictated ten novels, and has gathered readers around the globe in forty-some countries and forty-some languages. She has been on the New York Times bestseller list.
And that, dear reader, is the origin of Flavia de Luce, as best as I can manage to explain it.
And these three noxious volumes are the only proof I have that all of this is true.
I grew up in a small town in Southern Ontario, and being always fascinated by the magic of light and colored glass, naturally went into television broadcasting, both private and public. After twenty-five years as Director of Television Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, I took early retirement to write a mystery that never got written. I did manage to write other things, though.
Now that I’m retired from retirement, having lived for a while in Malta, my wife and I now live in the Isle of Man, in the shadow of an old castle, where we keep an eye on the sea at our door, which was once frequented by Saint Patrick and the Vikings.
Alan Bradley has written TEN Flavia deLuce books, plus a short story, The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse. His newest novel is The Golden Tresses of the Dead. All the books are available in audiobook form (which I love).
He also wrote a wonderful ebook memoir, The Shoebox Bible.
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.
In 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.
In 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.
A 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.
Two 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 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.
When 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.
Frequent readers of this blog may recall me referring over time to the fourth novel in my APetal In The Wind series, which I’ve been writing for more than a year. I got stuck. My plot points kept stalling out, but I had a breakthrough after my last post. Whew! Until then I worked on revising earlier chapters. In one I found something I not only rarely do, but scold other writers for doing – I repeated myself in consecutive scenes. The actual scene played out first, and on the next page my protagonist Lala told another character what happened.
Then it occurred to me – maybe I didn’t repeat myself; maybe instead, I wrote the scene in two different perspectives. I didn’t need both, but I could compare them and keep the better of the two. Out went the full scene; the gist from her dialog worked better. Lala had to have her say about the incident, and that clarified why I got stuck finishing the novel. Lala found my direction for her ‘wanting’. I realized I kept forcing the plot in a way that wasn’t true to the character, so I ‘asked’ Lala to explain, in a few sentences, what she sought for herself. That solved the mystery. I feel confident she – and my readers – will agree this new direction sounds like the Lala we’ve watched grow up.
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Our characters must be real to us, for if we can’t envision them, body and soul, no one else will. It’s why I always write: characters ‘who’, rather than ‘that’, and say they’re created, not invented. KEEPING IT REAL: PART I focused on writing series, where you have more time and pages for character development. When creating and developing characters for a short story or stand-alone novel, how do we keep them ‘real’?
Give them a background
Begin with a basic police description of gender, age, and physical size: Asian male, mid- thirties, five foot ten, 170 pounds. Ask them what you’d ask any person you’ve just met – what’s your name, where are you from, what do you do? Delve further and observe. How are they groomed and dressed? What do they sound like? Are they eloquent, plain-spoken or inarticulate? Adventurous or timid, gregarious or shy? Many writers, including our own GB Pool, recommend writing biographies for your primary and secondary characters. It’s helpful in writing a short story but vital in a novel.
Find inspiration in real life
Often we base characters on actual people we know. We observe strangers in public places, listen in to their conversations. We play-act, or fantasize about what a celebrity might be like. That may make them real to us, but it doesn’t always translate onto paper. If you write fiction, you don’t have to recreate an exact duplicate. Instead, borrow traits from the person, like appearance, personality, or history. Use those elements as a foundation to write a unique character who reminds you of what you love, or hate, about their real counterpart. I based one character on a dear departed friend who suffered more than she deserved, and gave her a better life. I’ve also created some who resemble people I know and have one trait in common – their taste in clothes, or their bluntness. The rest I fictionalize, but with qualities I’ve found in real people.
Get to know them
We must become familiar enough with a character to understand what they will say and do. Talking to your characters, questioning or interrogating them will flesh out little details. Are they outgoing or shy, active or couch potatoes? Do they like to travel, or are they homebodies? Do they eat to live or live to eat? If they could change any aspect of their life, what would it be? What flaws does your hero possess, and in contrast, what are your villain’s fine points? The more you know the better you’ll know them. To grow interrelationships, try free-form dialog, where you write a conversation between two of your characters. Sit down and begin to write without pausing, without dialog tags or punctuation. Just write, and after a few minutes your logical left brain will switch over to your more creative right brain. Try this for at least ten minutes and see what your characters have to say about each other, and by insinuation, themselves.
Go beyond words and actions to thoughts and motivations
To really understand someone, we need to know more than what they say or do, but why they say or do it. Your biography will help with this, but like the exception proves the rule, contradictions in characters prove their ‘realness’. Look for contradictory traits, for everyone has a touch of hypocrisy within them. Even if your characters don’t know why they say or do something, as often happens in real life, you – their creator – must know and present it in a way the reader can deduce it without being told.
Set them apart
To create characters who are not cardboard cutouts, begin by avoiding clichés and stereotypes. Not everyone from Mexico is named José (or Maria) Gomez, and you can’t always tell by appearance or mannerisms if someone is gay. Real folks are a mixture of commonality and individuality. What we share in common makes us recognizable, but our uniqueness sets us apart. Think of anyone you know and list five traits that they share with many people. Then list two or three that are different. My five shared traits would include compassionate, sensible, impatient, analytical, and curious. What sets me apart? Despite being a mature adult, put me in an environment with animals and I turn into a giddy three-year-old, as I recently demonstrated in the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Let them be
Once you’ve created your characters, allow them their voice. Let them tell you what they want and don’t want, and listen to them. It could save you hours, weeks, even months of writers block. You don’t always have to obey, but trust and respect them enough to hear them out. Also allow them some privacy. Instead of writing in every detail, give enough to flesh out the character and let readers have the pleasure of filling in the rest.
All this may seem like a lot to compact into a story or book, but the sum of big picture and little details about characters humanizes them. It also makes them vivid in our minds, which enriches the story, for even above plots, great stories revolve around the people who occupy them.
If you saw a stranger walking down the street, what can you tell from her clothes? Sherlock Holmes could determine the social standing, wealth, occupation, education and gender of persons by their clothes.
Authors use to spend much time in describing their characters’ garments, sometimes to a fault. Without TV or film, writers felt they needed many words to help readers depict the characters in their minds.
In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Arthur Conan Doyle writes: “His dress was rich with a richness which would, in England, be looked upon as akin to bad taste. Heavy bands of astrakhan were slashed across the sleeves and fronts of his double-breasted coat, while the deep blue cloak which was thrown over his shoulders was lined with flame-colored silk and secured at the neck with a brooch which consisted of a single flaming beryl. Boots which extended halfway up to his calves, and which were trimmed at the tops with rich brown fur, completed the impression of barbaric opulence . . .” Sensory overload!
Nowadays writers limit their characters’ physical description, because readers often skip over lengthy sketches to get to the action, and also to encouraging readers to imagine their own selves in the story.
The only physical description we have of Nancy Drew is her “titian hair” and “blue eyes.” However, we hear a lot about her chic wardrobe and apparently endless clothes closet. Beyond her stylish threads, Nancy often dresses in costumes and old garments found in attic trunks. When the books were originally released in the 1930s, low-income readers could imagine wearing Nancy’s pretty outfits for themselves.
Cozy mysteries continue the trend of “less is more.” Clothes are mentioned briefly, if at all. With the modern heroine’s casual lifestyle, her wardrobe consists of tee-shirts, sweats and jeans. Readers want a quick and easy read without wading through mounds of description.
But when I started writing my Psychedelic Spy retro-cozy series, clothing was crucial.
The books are set in 1967, an era of vibrant and varied clothes. Poodle skirts and bobby socks gave way to miniskirts and pillbox hats. East Indian garments were in style. The “British invasion” of roc
k music also brought English designers such as Mary Quant. African Americans adopted styles that expressed their ethnicity. The hippies had their own unique forms of dress.
Clothing of the 1960s differs so much from today’s styles that I had to describe nearly everything that people wore. I tried to keep such explanations to a minimum, yet the clothes were essential to place the reader into the era.
My protagonist, Noelle McNabb, is single and 25 years old. She apparently spends most of her income on clothes. In the first book, “Flower Power Fatality,” Noelle wears 14 different outfits! And her clothes are new, many purchased at the big city mall. She talks about how she loves shopping and checking out the latest fashions.
In finding clothes for Noelle, I’ve used a few costumes that I’ve seen in 1960s TV shows. I also have a great reference book, “Fashionable Clothing from the Sears catalogs: Mid 1960s.” The book has actual photos (and prices) from the era’s Sears mail order catalogs. I’d love to see those clothes come back into style, as they’re more beautiful and feminine than the women’s tee-shirts and leggings sold today.
Clothes also express the generation gap. When Noelle wears a miniskirt to church, her mother complains that the dress is too short. Mom is clad old, fussy dresses with below-the-knee skirts. Mom wears stockings and garter belts; Noelle is in pantyhose and colored tights.
In the 1960s, women wore dresses more frequently than today. I put Noelle in dresses most of the time. Even when she wears pants at her record store job, she’s in nice slacks and pant suits. The only time she’s in dungarees is when lounging around home.
Jeans are reserved for my “bad boy” characters, a group of young males who spend their time racing their choppers, shooting craps and smoking Marlboro cigarettes. In the mid 1960s denim was only slowing becoming acceptable as a fashion choice.
Destiny King is an African American agent who takes Noelle on her spy missions. Destiny sports a trimmed Afro and frequently wears jumpsuits. Her clothes are functional in more ways than one way. For example, she has a pair of earrings that are really plastic explosives.
My hippie couple, Rambler and Moonbaby, are the most fun to cloth. Hippies wore an eclectic style, often put together from castaways and thrift store finds. Styles, patterns and colors did not need to match. One useful reference book is “The Hippie Handbook” by Chelsea Cain, which has a chapter on “How to Dress Like a Hippie” and information on making skirts out of old jeans and how to tie-dye a shirt.
Trevor Spellman is a newspaper reporter on the prowl for a big scoop. He rebels against the small-town norms by wearing his hair long—below his ears—and he never puts on a tie. In the 1960s the collarless shirt became appropriate for formal/dress wear.
The clothing of Mr. Baldwin, the audio-visual technician at the high school, describes him well: white shirts, skinny dark ties, dark pants, plastic-rim glasses and a “dorky haircut.” Did “geek” and “nerd” pop into your head?
What the retired Army colonel wears also paints a picture. He’s in an Army bomber jacket over a khaki shirt. “His voice was as crisp and sharp as the creases pressed into his khaki pants.” Even in retirement he runs his life with military precision.
Clothes can describe a character more efficiently than a long list of traits, helping a reader to visualize a person more so that relying on the reader’s imagination alone.
Sally Carpenter is native Hoosier living in southern California. She has a master’s degree in theater, a Master of Divinity and a black belt in tae kwon do.
Her Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol books are: The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper (2012 Eureka! Award finalist), The Sinister Sitcom Caper, The Cunning Cruise Ship Caper and The Quirky Quiz Show Caper.
Her Psychedelic Spy series has Flower Power Fatality and the upcoming Hippie Haven Homicide (2020). Sally has stories in three anthologies and a chapter in the group mystery Chasing the Codex.
On a recent short-term mission trip to Malawi for my church, I had the opportunity to teach Writing classes to two groups of home schooled MKs (Missionary Kids). These were children from American, Canadian and South African families. There were nine in the 3rd-4th grade group and seven in the 5th grade and up group.
After reviewing the stories and talking to the other home school teachers, we all agreed that the kids needed help in character development. The action was amazing; the worlds they created were vivid, but the heroes, helpers, and villains were flat and hard to imagine.
This would be my topic then. I prepared workbooks for each of the classes. We did some work in them in class, but there were “homework” assignments for them to do at home as well.
Before I arrived I asked that the kids (both classes) bring the first several paragraphs of a story they had written to class. In class, I had them each read their paragraphs aloud. There were Captain Jack, Commander of a Starship, twin girls named Peace and Harmony, and a 20-year old girl named Ella who wanted to become a princess (and a dozen others).
I asked the listening students how they “pictured” each of these characters. There was either confused silence or vague and differing descriptions. I then asked the authors to describe how their characters looked in their own mind’s eye. They came up with a lot of colorful descriptions that were not in their stories. Suddenly they “got the picture,” and from there I showed them ways and examples of taking the images of their characters from their minds and putting them on paper for their readers.
For the younger class, I had them draw in their workbooks a circle for a face, then slowly add features (eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair) and write a description of each as they went. Next they drew bodies with any kinds of clothes and shoes (or not) they wished. I had them write why these “characters” were smiling, wearing… glasses, a soccer jersey, a swim suit, a long dress, a tutu, and had on sandals or swim fins. They began to see how to show what their story characters looked like by writing descriptions, and in the process developed more interesting information about them. (I could see “light” dawning in their eyes!)
We talked about what a boy’s face and posture would look like if he were angry, sad, or excited, and how to describe that in words. Then I had volunteers come to the front and walk like someone angry, sad, sick, old, or excited. The class called out descriptions of the body movements (facial features, arms swinging, shoulders slumped, stumbling, skipping, marching etc.) that portrayed the emotion. Suddenly they began to see how they could “show” these actions in their stories instead of simply “telling” the reader that the character was sad or happy.
We talked briefly about similes (and metaphors for the older group). Wow, did they come up with some doozers! At this point I had to remind them not to overload the story with these, but to sprinkle in descriptions as the story progressed in action or conversations.
Next, we had fun with thirty-six Character Trait cards (ten seen at left) that I purchased from Amazon. I had them each choose a positive trait and a negative trait and to explain their choices. I asked them to describe the animals in the picture illustrating the trait. We talked about how they could write about the kind of person (animal) their character was by using these traits (such as, mischievous, responsible, persistent, mean, honest, loyal, etc.)
As an exercise I had them use these two opposite traits and write a short paragraph in their workbooks, describing how that character trait would look in actions. “Harmony was dishonest because she….. or Timothy was peculiar because he….”
For another exercise, I had them draw a large “T” diagram on one page, labeling the left side “What a character looks like” and the right side” How a character behaves.” They made a few comparisons from their own story characters. At home, they would make more of these diagrams and fill them in for other characters, or ones from books they liked.
For the older class (all boys, and most writing sci-fi or fantasy) we delved a bit deeper into making their characters memorable by using various ways to describe physical as well as personality traits. They practiced describing a character in an action scene (showing fear or bravery without actually using those words) and played around with using an occasional quirk, flaw, or unconscious mannerism to reveal hidden traits.
We talked about body language and how personal beliefs and moral standards could affect their characters actions and words in certain situations. These t’weens and teens also enjoyed acting out emotions and physical limitations while the rest of the class called out descriptions. It’s a great exercise in noticing small things and putting them into words. Their favorite was imagining a large magnet across the room, and a piece of iron stuck on various parts of their body (forehead, stomach, etc). They were to show being pulled by that force and trying to resist. (Some were hilarious!)
These boys also wanted to read from their stories, using some of the descriptions they’d learned inserted here and there.
I think they got it! By George, they got it!
(I can’t wait to read the complete exciting, imaginative tales!)
At the end of the two-hour sessions, I sent both groups home with assignments to sharpen their skills. Hopefully they will follow through and I will have a new pack of stories to post on my blog, with characters you can clearly imagine, love, or love to hate.
I love these kids, and I really had fun…. as you can see!
Post Script: I used several limericks in the classes, to illustrate teaching points, add humor, and keep the class attentive. One of the kids in the older group took one of these limericks, combined it with a vocabulary assignment from his home school writing class and came up with a HILARIOUS story – The Virtuous Walking Fish. Check it out too, and leave a comment for Jacob K.
Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.
As I get older, I seem to be experiencing an odd form of dyslexia (I think) where my brain transposes letters in words so that I read something that’s not there. Only on second glance do the letters rearrange into what they’re supposed to be.
This has been a boon for me in one way: character names. For example, I came across the surname “Murdock,” but my eyes thought they saw “Mudrock,” and after my initial annoyance at myself, I thought, what a great name for a character.
I collect names because few things are as frustrating to a writer as creating a new character and not being able to name them, right? First names are easier to come by; I pop open 1001 Names for Baby and can usually find one that works. But surnames? The tone must be just right.
In my novel MendingDreams, the main character’s last name is Krajewski [yeah, even now I have to look it up in the book to spell it correctly], and that was intentional. I knew a fellow with that last name, and he used to joke about how people mispronounced it. I wanted the character, Susan, to have willingly kept the name even after she and her husband divorced. Her maiden name was Stafford, and it says volumes about her and her feelings about her ex-husband that she kept his name despite the difficulties it could cause.
My list of unusual surnames fills several pages in my notebook. One I’m trying to find a story for is “Evilsizer.” Meaning no disrespect to real people with this name—and I found several via Google—I think it would be perfect for a scheming couturier. Or maybe someone who is really nice. . .
Strong first and last names are essential to me so I can paint a picture in my own mind of the character before I start writing. Names help me visualize characters—sometimes even more than physical descriptions. Names bring with them associations for me personally that color a character’s nature and behavior.
Take the name “Joan,” for example. What does this name conjure up for you? Joan of Arc? Joan Crawford? Joan Baez? For me, it brings back the memory of a woman named “Joanie,” the utterly helpless wife of a fellow I worked for. This woman would call my boss with every little challenge life presented her. If she locked her keys in the car, her first call wasn’t to Auto Club; it was to her husband. I haven’t found a role for Joan or Joanie in my stories yet, but some day I will.
Names and the way they are used in a story also reveal behavior and sometimes emotion. The main character in my novel Write My Name on the Sky goes by “Kate,” but when she exasperates her mother, she becomes “Kathryn Ann.” How many of you remember hearing the sound of your first and middle name as a cue that you were in big trouble with a parent? And if they added your last name—run for cover!
Sometimes the way a name is mis-used in a story can affect the outcome, too. For example, my flash fiction piece “What’s in a Name?” answers that question with one word at the end of the narrator’s date with the man of her dreams. If you want to check it out (it’s only 532 words), follow the link on my website: http://bit.ly/2En7TJw
Yes, names are important to writers, and to readers. And not just the human characters. The animals in our stories need particular names, too. After all, none other than the masterful poet T.S. Eliot admonishes us to give thought to the naming of cats: http://bit.ly/2mZ47xQ
How about you writers: do you struggle as much as I do to come up with suitable character names? And, readers: any favorites among your literary heroes and heroines? Any tips for good name sources?
A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (G.B. Pool) writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Mysteries. She also wrote the SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power; Caverns, Eddie Buick’s Last Case, The Santa Claus Singer, Bearnard’s Christmas and The Santa Claus Machine. She teaches writing classes: “The Anatomy of a Short Story” (which is also in workbook form), “How to Write Convincing Dialogue” and “How to Write a Killer Opening.” Website: http://www.gbpool.com.
“Hi. My name is Johnny Casino. I’m a retired P.I. with a past. I just hope it doesn’t catch up with me. That’s how I was introduced in the first book about yours truly. It was fun reading about my exploits. I guess when you’re in the middle of it; you don’t see what’s happening around you. But the stories in The Johnny Casino Casebook 1 – Past Imperfectdo a pretty good job telling part of my life story.
“Since the book is about pasts, mine and a few other people I bumped into along the way, it gives you a pretty good idea who I am. Anyway I thought so when I read it. But sometimes what you think you know isn’t the truth. I found that out the hard way.
“You see, I grew up in a Mob family in New Jersey. Nothing like having a father who is the consigliere for one of the top Mob families in the country. And my darling mother was the daughter of another Mob boss right outta Chicago. What a pedigree. My name was Johnny Cassini back then.
“Me and my brother were raised thinking this was the only life there was. But after a while I got tired of it. Maybe that’s because I watched a lot of old movies while waiting for protection money to be dropped off at my hotel room in those days. These were Black & White films on the movie channel. But a steady diet of Bogie, Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson opened my eyes. And it wasn’t just seeing them splattered on the pavement. Sometimes these tough men played the good guys. That’s when I started seeing a different side of things.
“So I fled to Miami and joined another Mob. I know that didn’t exactly remove me from the life I was starting to hate, but I was seeing it from a different perspective. I worked on a gambling ship and met a lady who changed my life. She wasn’t the only one. Not by a long shot, but this gal was the wife of the Mob boss in Miami. She was steering me away from her daughter who was even more trouble. And then everything went to hell.
“A dealer on that gambling ship went overboard one night, literally, so I switched identities with him and then hightailed it to Los Angeles. So Johnny Cassini died and Johnny Casino was born. But the story didn’t end there. I was having a hard time shaking my life of crime and got myself into some hot water when I was working for this guy in L.A. He had me kidnap this lady. She’s the one who really changed my life.”
“Let me take over from there, Johnny. Hi, my name is Ginger Caulfield. I’m a private detective, too. I was on a case and ran into Johnny during his crime wave here in Los Angeles. It was an odd meeting to say the least. He kidnapped me, but I could tell the guy had something, so when the case was over I told him to look me up sometime because I might have a job for him. He did.
“Johnny worked for me several years until he had enough P.I. hours under his belt to go out on his own. I hated to see him go, but I knew he worked better alone. Most of the time I do my work solo like the case at the racetrack in Hedge Bet. I should amend that statement because I got my husband, Fred, to do some work for me. His trip to Mexico to bring back a witness led to a few choice words from him, mostly unprintable. But the guy’s a natural P.I.
“I had been in the detective business for a while and knew good people like Johnny when I saw them. In fact I knew a few things about Johnny that he didn’t know, but I have a reason. You see my uncle is a spy. His name is Robert Mackenzie and he has had some incredible exploits around the world ever since World War II. His story, at least the parts that can be told, are in a series called The SPYGAME Trilogy documented by a writer who I got to know through the years. She’ll explain this next part.”
“Hello, folks. My name is Elaine Barton. My dad was involved in Colonel Mackenzie’s exploits and I got caught up in a few exciting adventures in books like The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power. The trilogy covers about fifty years and follows not only Mac’s life but also my father’s Air Force career. Parts of my life got caught up in this tale, too, and I put it all in book form. Though you’ll see in the books, some of it almost didn’t get written.”
“Thanks, Elaine. Since I knew my Uncle Mac had ways of checking on people, I had him check out Johnny Casino. I learned his real name, or at least I thought it was his real name, until another story in the Johnny Casino Casebook series uncovered something that even Johnny didn’t know. It changed everything for him. It’s in The Johnny Casino Casebook 2 – Looking for Johnny Nobody. That’s when I started seeing a pattern.”
“Hey, Gin. Johnny here. You aren’t the only one who is starting to see a pattern. When I had a case in Las Vegas, I met one of the biggest headliners in the world, Jack Lynn. He turned up in two of my stories, but then I noticed he was also in The Santa Claus Singer about a lounge singer called Frankie Madison. He met Jack, too.”
“I’ve got another one for you, Johnny. One of the guys I trained after you went out on your own, Chance McCoy, has a story about him and me in the upcoming short story collection called Second Chance. Chance is a special guy. You see, he got killed on a case, but his story doesn’t end there. Not by a long shot.”
“I can give you another one, Gin.”
“Lay it on us, Elaine.”
“I’ve heard a rumor that there is a particular elf, yes, I did say elf, who is thinking about starting his own private detective agency to help ‘the little guy.’ How does something like this happen?”
“Maybe we should ask the author of all our books. Hey, G.B. What goes? The ladies and I want to know.”
“Okay, Johnny. I’ll confess. When I started creating this fictional world I had no idea you all knew each other, but as this world grew I saw connections between all of you. First it was Johnny knowing Ginger Caulfield. Then I wondered how Gin knew so much about Johnny’s past and I realized her uncle was Mac Mackenzie. Who else would have access to all that secret stuff?
“As for Chance McCoy, he told me a bunch of his stories and when he needed a fellow P.I. to help him out in a case, it just happened to be Gin Caulfield.
“Did I say ‘he told me’? Yes, I did. If any of you readers have ever been to an author panel, I bet half of those writers mentioned that when they write their stories, especially the dialogue, they just sit back and let their characters speak because those people really do talk to us. That doesn’t mean we are ready for the padded cell… yet.
“We do ‘hear’ those voices if we have created a character with a past and a personality. And by that I mean that you should try writing a biography of your main characters and even for a few of the other people who play an important part in the story.
“You, as the writer, need to know as much as you can about the character you are working with. If you know where he or she was born, their education or even lack there of, or maybe even their desires or hates, you will be able to craft a character with depth. And maybe, just maybe, you will discover something about a character that they didn’t know. That’s what happened when I found out something about Johnny that shocked him and me.
“I can’t explain it, but by knowing who my characters are, I hear their voices and I basically transcribe what is being said in my ear. On top of that, I marvel at the fact that some of my characters actually know each other, but the small world I created is only a part of the larger world around us. I sometimes wonder if any of my other characters know or have run into these people sometime or somewhere. Anything is possible in fiction… if it is fiction. Or maybe there is a parallel universe where they all live—”
Knock, knock, knock.
“Excuse me; somebody is at the door. I think it’s the guys from the asylum. They tracked me down and they are going to take me back so I can do some more writing.
Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.
The recent uproar over the lack of non-white nominees for the Academy Awards got me thinking, because I seldom explicitly depict people of color in my books and stories. I don’t think I’m a racist, so why is that?
First off, although I have many friends who are Black, Asian and Latino, I don’t think of them by that label. I think of them as my friend who was with me during a traumatic purge at our former employer, or my gal pal who shares my love of classical music. And so on.
Therefore, I don’t often assign a racial label to the characters I write about. Many of my characters could be black or green or blue or purple, but it’s not relevant so I don’t go into it.
The reason I ask is that our books and stories are often source material for films and television programs, so in a sense, diversity starts with the writers. But is it myjob to impose diversity? I’m not sure.
When I was working in the business world, I certainly enjoyed a diverse assortment of co-workers, many of whom became close friends. Then I retired and spent more and more time in my home community, which has a predominantly White population. I didn’t notice the change at first, preoccupied as I was with making the transition from worker bee to independent writer.
Then I joined a Tai Chi class at the local Y, and the first people to welcome me were an Asian couple. The teacher was Black. A graceful Filipina taught me some of the moves. Suddenly, my world grew more colorful again—no pun intended there, or maybe it is. And I realized how I’d missed hanging out with people who didn’t look or talk like me. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.
We need variety and color in our lives; it enriches us and makes the world more interesting. The universe offers a panorama of colors, shapes, sizes, sounds, tastes and smells to experience.
But back to my question: should I be more explicit in my character descriptions to make it clear that the protagonist or her friend or her boss is a particular race or color? Is there a way to denote ethnicity—to make my writing more polychromatic—without being obvious or patronizing?
After all, despite the self-important proclamations of certain performers, Hollywood would be nothing without the written word. So to circle back to my original premise, your book or my short story might be the starting point.
Sometimes the story or the situation demands a character be a certain race, but often he or she could be any race, at least in my stories. Then the reader can decide for himself or herself if the character is Black or Asian (or Martian.)
Weigh in with youropinion on this admittedly tricky subject. Do you consciously include a variety of ethnicities in your writing? Do you think it’s a good thing to do? Or is it better to let the reader fill in the blanks and imagine a character in any color they want?