BACK TO BASICS: WRITERS’ BOOT CAMP PART II

by Miko Johnston

In any story, the beginning sets up the problem that must be solved and the ending solves it. How that happens comprises the plot, which plays out in the middle chapters. A good plot is like a good EKG, with lines that zigzag up and down. When tension and stakes increase, the line climbs upward. You never want a flat line; in matters of the heart and story, it indicates death.

In my last post we reviewed the three basic ways to begin a story as well as some techniques to get those opening pages written. What if you’ve gotten that far but haven’t moved forward?

Many writers get stuck after writing the opening chapter. A common problem is trying to perfect that opening. As a bone fide Brooklynite, I can say fuhgeddaboudit.

Nothing will hang you up more than trying to go over and over that first chapter, endlessly fine-tuning it before moving on. You can’t. You shouldn’t. Put it aside and keep going. Finish your first draft. Once you know how the story unfolds, go back and figure out how to fix the beginning.

Do you have a beginning and an end in mind? Then build your story like a bridge – set down firm spans on both ends and connect them in the middle. I wrote my first novel that way, working the plot backward from the final chapters and forward from the earlier chapters. Mysteries often fall into this category; you know the crime (beginning) and whodunnit (the reveal at the end). Work your clues in both directions until they meet in the middle.

What if you don’t know where the story is going? Many writers prefer to wait for the muse to whisper in their ear rather than draft an outline. In that case, why not choose a path and follow it to its logical conclusion? Think of it like those maze puzzles – a path may lead to a dead end, but then you’ll know it’s a dead end and try another path, eventually finding the one that leads you in the right direction. Everything you write will help guide you to The End. Two caveats, though:

-If you have a beginning and only a vague idea of the end, you’ll want to have enough to get you well into the middle before you tackle a novel, otherwise you may never reach your destination. My second book took over four years to write; I meandered through two plots I ultimately discarded, then conceived a third one worth pursuing.

Some writers feel as soon as it’s on the page, it’s permanent. Not so. In my second novel I found a way to solve a plot problem with a birthday surprise for my heroine, but I’d already given her a different birth date in my first novel. How could I get away with that? It took a week to realize an easy solution: neither book had been published yet, so I could change the date in book one to fit my new development.

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Are you stuck in the middle?  Writing your middle chapters, but unsatisfied with them? Fortunately, sit-ups and planks aren’t required.

Ways to improve a weak middle:

1 – Always keep your genre and theme in mind.

Your genre can shape how your story unfolds. A humorous cozy should be light and fun. Noir should be steeped in atmosphere. Use your theme or log line as the foundation on which you build your plot, and a guide to move it along.

2 – Take advantage of the multiple uses of dialogue

It can move the story forward, briefly slow the pace, draw our focus to a plot point or clue like a camera close-up, inform us of character, or foreshadow a later development.  Dialogue tags like Jon said identify the speaker, but by using a bit of action – Jon tossed his keys on the table – you also add movement. Finally, consider how your characters speak and what they don’t say.

3 – Keep the plot, and your character, active.

Not enough action will bog down the pace, but action means more than shooting and fighting, or running after suspects. Action can be physical or mental. Action is your character DOING whatever it takes to reach her goal.

4 – Have at least one mid-point crisis.

A good story always launches with a crisis and climaxes with a bigger one. Crises generate tension, which keep the middle from sagging. Introduce sources of conflict, whether leads in the investigation that fall through, the death of a material witness or ally, or a setback in the hero’s goal. Just make sure the crisis fits the story’s momentum and doesn’t exceed your climax scene.

5 – Avoid dumping in too much backstory.

Whether you’re trying to bring your character to life or writing a sequel, you need some backstory, just not too much. What are you trying to accomplish with the information? Insight into the character’s past that would explain why she does what she does? A reminder in a sequel of an event in a previous book? Ask yourself three questions:

            Is this information necessary for this story?

            Does it help to define the character or support the plot?

            Does it move the story forward?

If no, leave it out. If yes, then keep it brief. I read a few series and find the best of them will remind readers of characters and events with a line rather than a paragraph.

6 – Watch out for repetition.

We all know best-selling authors of series who, after a dozen or more books, begin padding their sequels with repetition. Just like unnecessary detail will bog down your story, so will repeating events or dialogue over and over and over and….. If you’ve just written a scene where an action occurs, your character doesn’t have to repeat this information to another character in the following scene. She told him what happened or words to that effect will suffice. If we need a reminder of what transpired later in the story, keep it brief.

7 – Reward and surprise us.

What’s worse, a story that’s totally depressing or totally predictable? Trick question; it’s a tie. Even the most dystopic stories must have moments of lightness. Whatever your character’s goal is – trying to solve the murder, find true love, succeed in business or win the battle – mete out some successes along with the setbacks. Lace in enough twists and surprises to hint how the story might end without giving the ending away.

This is particularly true in mysteries. Setting up a good red herring can be tricky since readers expect them. They’re delicious when they surprise us, but like all fish, if they’re mishandled they stink. As much as I enjoyed Girl On A Train, it was obvious who the murderer was a hundred pages before the book’s conclusion. Nothing’s more disappointing than knowing without a doubt exactly how the book will end. You presume the detective will solve the murder, but still want the pleasure of discovering HOW it happens, especially if the manner is unexpected. Just make sure that the reward or surprise is rooted in the story. Don’t plop something in for convenience. Weave a subtle thread back to earlier chapters to set up the surprise properly, or base the reward on something she wants or needs, even if she doesn’t know it.

8 – Keep the dialogue and prose in proportion.

Do you have enough dialogue? Too much? What about sensory detail, setting, character descriptions? There’s no magic formula but we don’t always consider the balancing act. Rereading your story, looking for something you don’t always consider, gets you looking at your pages in a different way. You may catch something that’s not working, even trigger an idea or solution. 

9 – Keep the middle in proportion.

I am not partial to using formulas for writing books (and have the luxury of not having to rely on them). However, if you’ve written several chapters and are unsure how the story is progressing, consider the percentage of pages dedicated to the middle versus the beginning and end. Although not a precise measurement, the opening, from Once upon a time to the inciting incident that launches your story, should comprise about a quarter of the total number of pages. So should the final act, from the climax scene to The End. That means the middle should be roughly half of the story. If your opening chapters comprise sixty pages and you’re up to page 300 but nowhere near the climax, your middle is probably bloated. If your middle is proportionally light, flesh it out or shorten the rest.

*          *          *

Still stuck? If you’re a visual person, try charting out your story, or as much of it as you know, on some kind of diagram. I’ve used line graphs, with peaks for crisis points and valleys for slower parts. I’ve used box charts, where I divide a sheet of paper into sixteen boxes – four for the beginning, eight for the middle and four for the end. In each box I briefly describe what’s happening at that point of the story. This shows me how the plot is developing as well as the balance between the acts. Since I write historical fiction, I also parallel historical events with my characters’ lives. If you write mysteries or thrillers, especially the cat and mouse variety, you can chart your hero’s progress against your villain’s actions.

If you’ve conceived some scenes but not an entire chapter, write it in chunks and assemble it later. If you prefer working with a hard copy, write the individual scenes, conversations or actions, leaving ample white space between them. Print them, cut them into sections and assemble them as you think works best. Move everything around until you have the order you want, and insert blank paper between the sections that need connecting. Pencil in notes about what you need to connect the passages. Use this to guide you through completing the chapter, or flesh out other chapters. It moves you forward. If you don’t like the direction, at least you’ll know another dead end to avoid. This can be done on the computer if you prefer working that way.   

Another technique that has proven helpful is to change ‘jobs’; instead of writing prose, think of yourself as a movie director. Can you visualize the scene you’re trying to create? How would you direct your characters? If there’s something missing in the scene, get input from the set dresser or wardrobe coordinator. As authors we tend to see our work from on high. Peering at it from a different angle gives us another perspective. Even closing your eyes and envisioning the words you’ve written (or listening to them being read) will make them pop and come alive, or hint at why they don’t.

Consider writing free-form dialogue, which I’ve described in this earlier post. This gives your characters an opportunity to speak for themselves. Sort of like the director asking the actors to ad lib their lines. If that doesn’t work, you may not know your characters well enough to ‘speak’ for them. In that case:

-Play the “who would I cast as…?” game – think of people, either famous or those you’ve known, and match them with your characters. Consider why you chose that person to help you flesh the character out.

-Try to describe your key characters in a word or brief phrase, then look for signs of commonality and discord between them.

-Define them with an image. For example, think of type fonts as a logo. If you were to assign a different font for each of your characters, which would represent them best?  

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Once you’ve written an attention-grabbing beginning and a turn-the-page middle, you need to reward the reader with a satisfying ending. In the final installment, we’ll explore what that means and how to achieve it.

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of three novels in the historical saga A Petal In The Wind, as well as several short stories. She is currently completing the fourth book in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Back To Basics: Writers’ Boot Camp

by Miko Johnston

Have you been writing? No? I hear you. We can’t seem to find the energy, or the creativity, to write. Even though we have a file full of ideas to play around with, or a started piece, or a half-finished manuscript. Even though we have plenty of time to write with no excuse other than the million other things we can be doing. Cleaning out the hall closet. Again. Thinking of a new way to use canned tuna.  Researching unfamiliar candidates on my primary ballot – maybe I would want the next governor of Washington to be Goodspaceguy* : )

I sympathize. It took me a few months to get inspired enough to write again (see my last post).  If you’re still stuck in neutral, I’m here to help get you in gear. And what better way than to get back to basics – how to write a story.

WHAT IS A STORY?

A story is a fully formed concept that has a beginning, middle, and end, plotted with characters, goals, conflict, and stakes. This applies whether you write short stories, screenplays, novellas or novels.

HOW TO BEGIN:    

When you consider buying a new book, you generally open it and read a few pages before you decide to take it or leave it – you can even do that online with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. If the book’s middle sags, or the ending isn’t satisfying, you won’t know that until after you’ve purchased it. However, if the beginning doesn’t grab you, it’s not going home with you. That’s how readers will react to your book. This is why the most important part of a story is the beginning.

A beginning has to serve many purposes. It must introduce us to the ‘who’ of the story, also some of the what, when, and why. The tone and genre should be apparent. It should also give us enough to pique our interest; too much bogs down the story and too little leaves us scratching our heads.

As authors, we really begin by sitting down and writing. Thinking, mulling, researching – all important, but they won’t get the words on the page. Once you’ve committed to writing, you need a way to begin. The possibilities might seem endless, but there are basically three ways to launch a story.

I           Mid-action

This is when you begin at the last possible minute to give the reader a sense that the story has already started and they’re joining it already in progress. This may seem counterintuitive, like walking into a movie after it’s begun, but it tends to get the reader curious about what’s going on, so they keep reading to find out.

A good example of this would be a murder mystery that opens with the detective arriving pre-dawn at the crime scene; a beat cop hands her a take-out coffee and reads his notes: “The vic is….”, which gives readers information simultaneously with the detective. We don’t need to be in her bedroom when she’s awakened by the precinct’s call, or watch her get dressed, fix breakfast and head out to her car. That would be like arriving at the movie theater before the commercials. With mid-action, you get the reader engaged right away and weave in the details as you go.

II         Setting a scene that’s about to change

This is when you open with a scene of normal everyday life. It could focus on a character, like a young woman celebrating her promotion with her office mates, then walking home alone. Or a place, like a military base in the Middle East, where soldiers are relaxing. Often the genre hints that the placid opening will be disrupted with a bang – maybe literally. If the book’s a mystery or a thriller, you know something is going to happen – that young woman will be murdered; the soldiers playing cards or tossing a football around will suddenly come under attack. If the genre doesn’t imply something will happen, hint at it in your opening paragraph or page.

The key to this method is to hold off the revelation long enough to generate tension. Change it too soon and it will be like shouting BOO; startling but not satisfying. Wait too long and the reader will lose patience as well as interest. It also must depend on the length of the manuscript. You can take more time with a novel than with a short story.

III        A statement or explanation

Common in many great classics, this type of beginning employs a form of narration:

            A nostalgic “I remember…” musing

            A “Let me introduce myself” statement

            A narrator’s observation

            An implied ‘bookend’

            An omniscient point of view.

Mysteries that open with the murderer observing his deed, such as Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Train, is one example, since the murderer is not the protagonist. Using an implied bookend, Lawrence Hill begins his engrossing novel,  Someone Knows My Name, with his elderly heroine ready to tell a packed audience her life story. The rest of the novel is told in flashback up to the climax, which brings us back to her about to go on stage.

Using this method addresses the reader in a direct way, which builds a bond. However, it introduces the plot slowly, in a cerebral rather than a dynamic manner, so it must intrigue us enough to keep reading. You can accomplish this with an opening sentence in a short story, but longer form fiction allows for more time.

Confused yet? Think of beginning a story like getting into a pool. Some just jump right in – method one. Others will dangle their feet in the water awhile, then slip in – method two. Others (me) will dip a toe in, complain about how cold it is, then slowly inch deeper into the pool until the water’s shoulder-high before gliding under – method three.

*          *          *

Are you are having trouble starting your story? Consider writing three different versions using each of these methods, then see which best accomplishes the goal of an opening. Which will lead you in the direction you want to go? Even though you’ll reject two of the openings, you may keep a nugget from them to use elsewhere. Or, if you decide to use a bookend opening, you can convert one of your other versions into chapter two.

Have you begun your story but aren’t satisfied with it? Does it feel bloated with backstory? Does it convey enough to grab the reader’s interest? Which type of beginning did you use? Does it satisfy the goals of that method? If so, perhaps trying another method would be more effective, or it might suggest a fix for your original beginning.

Your opening should not only prod your readers to keep going, but you as well. Again, even outlining an opening using another method of beginning may prompt some questions or ideas that will move you forward. If you’re writing a sequel, try rereading your previous book, or go back to the beginning and reread them all. It may give you momentum, or you may find some detail that triggers an idea to follow up on.

*          *          *

Have you gotten stuck after writing the opening and can’t seem to progress? Does your plot feel bogged down and going nowhere? In the next installment, we’ll look at ways to keep the middle from sagging or lagging.

*Spacemanguy` was an actual gubernatorial candidate in Washington state’s primary election. He lost.

Miko Johnston is the author of three novels in The Petal In The Wind series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com 

How to Write a Humorous Book (a not-very-serious version)

An Author Guest Post by Marc Jedel

People always ask me about my writing process for my humorous murder mystery series. They’re interested in how I get the ideas and how these turn into a novel. “Magic,” I tell them, but that rarely suffices. Some authors seem to swim in an endless pool of plots and characters, effortlessly plucking out one plot twist or character arc after another until they’ve burned through their keyboard.

Not me.

So how does it work for me?

Research. That’s a fancy term for my process. I start by collecting funny anecdotes, interesting people or snatches of overheard conversations. Back in the days when I used to leave my house, I would add notes to my phone about what I saw in daily life. (Don’t worry if you see me hanging around now, I’ll be wearing a mask.) I also change the names and exaggerate—or combine—the incidents to protect the guilty.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that I pay much more attention to my surroundings than I ever did. I also have become more willing to approach strangers and ask them questions. Who’d have expected that the solitary life of a writer would make me more social?

Plot. As plot ideas smack me in the face, I jot them down before I forget. My extensive study of bestselling books clearly highlighted the importance of having a plot. All those other successful authors must be on to something. I try to come up with ideas for challenges to throw at Marty (my protagonist) and then think about how he might solve the case despite those problems through his powers of self-delusion, attention to detail, and the inability to leave a coherent voicemail message.

Characters. Once I developed the concepts for a few of my regular characters, I find myself wondering how to make life more difficult for them during the course of the book and how they’d react to unexpected situations. Having my novels take place over the course of about a week has been a deliberate approach to force myself to increase the pace and make the characters act and react more often.

Humor. By setting up an imperfect character who’s not particularly good at the one thing the reader expects him to achieve in the story, and then making his life hectic, I’ve found plenty of opportunities for situational humor. Personally, I’ve always been better at coming up with a quick, funny comment in the moment than telling canned jokes. I can never remember punchlines so there’s no chance of my doing standup comedy even if I were funny enough.

Dad Jokes, Puns, Shakespeare Lines and Lyrics as Humor. These make me laugh as I’m writing my stories. Writing can be a long and lonely process, and editing even more boring. My dog is great company but not the best conversationalist so I have to entertain myself as I go. Sometimes that spontaneity happened months ago and I wrote it down and sometimes it comes to me as I’m writing. Typically, the use, or misuse, of parts of music lyrics as dialogue hits me on the spot. Same for most of the puns. Fortunately for readers, my editor is awesome and she removes the attempts at humor that aren’t quite funny enough.

A while back I read a good article about famous Shakespeare put-downs and quotes. That gave me the idea to develop a key character in my third novel, SERF AND TURF, who plays the Bard in Renaissance Faires and tries to use Shakespeare’s quotes whenever possible. He wound up as a fun character who starts off as a suspect and winds up … well, you’ll have to read the book.

Outline. Some writers are ‘pantsers’. This means they fly by the seat of their pants, writing without a detailed plan. Not that they wear pants. Some authors probably do wear pants when they write. That’s kind of a personal question best unasked of an author, especially in these days of shelter-in-place.

I outline. I admit to it. If I didn’t, I’d still be trying to figure out how the book would end, or who gets killed. Creating an outline with each scene on one line of a spreadsheet helps me to look at holes, try to spread out when different side characters show up, and make sure the action keeps moving forward at a good clip. Then I go through all my notes and put most of the notes into the relevant scene so I can include all the right amount of humor as well as balance tense vs wacky situations. Once that’s done, there are no more excuses. It’s time for the next stage.

Write and Edit. This part sounds simple — write, edit, repeat.  Eventually magic makes it good.

My books in the Silicon Valley Mystery series, starting with Uncle and Ants, are humorous murder mysteries. The first three are available as audiobooks from Tantor Audio almost everywhere that audiobooks are sold. The books can be read standalone but I think you’d enjoy reading all 4 of them—and probably enjoy it even more if you buy copies for everyone you know. I know I would.

Silicon Valley is not your typical cozy mystery locale and Marty Golden doesn’t fit the normal profile of a mystery protagonist. Despite finding himself thrust into challenging situations, Marty isn’t exactly hero material. He brings a combination of wit, irreverent humor and sarcasm mixed in with nerdy insecurities, absent-mindedness, and fumbling but effective amateur sleuthing skills. With an active inner voice and not a lot of advanced planning, he throws himself into solving problems. Sometimes, he even succeeds.

Hit and Mist, book 4, was just released on May 8 and can also be read standalone. The books are free to Kindle Unlimited readers. Buy them on Amazon at: amazon.com/gp/product/B07PHNT7XM.  For more about my books or me, please visit www.marcjedel.com.

*****

Bio for Marc Jedel

Marc JadellMarc Jedel writes humorous murder mysteries. He credits his years of marketing leadership positions in Silicon Valley for honing his writing skills. While his high-tech marketing roles involved crafting plenty of fiction, these were just called emails, ads, and marketing collateral.

For most of Marc’s life, he’s been inventing stories. Some, especially when he was young, involved his sister as the villain. As his sister’s brother for her entire life, he feels highly qualified to tell tales of the evolving, quirky sibling relationship in the Silicon Valley Mystery series.

The publication of Marc’s first novel, UNCLE AND ANTS, gave him permission to claim “author” as his job. This leads to much more interesting conversations than answering, “marketing.” Becoming an Amazon best-selling author has only made him more insufferable.

Family and friends would tell you that the protagonist in his stories, Marty Golden, isn’t much of a stretch of the imagination for Marc, but he accepts that.

Like Marty, Marc lives in Silicon Valley where he can’t believe that normal people would willingly jump out of an airplane. Unlike Marty, Marc has a wonderful wife and a neurotic but sweet, small dog, who is often the first to weigh in on the humor in his writing.

Visit his website, marcjedel.com, for free chapters of novels, special offers, and more.

Uncles ants    Chutes Ladders    Serf Turf   Hit and Mist

 

(To read my review of Serf and Turf, click here)

 

 

 

This article was posted for Marc Jedel by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

 

 

Stuck at Home? Write That Book!

By Jeanette F. Chaplin, Ed.D.

This devastating pandemic took us all by surprise. With no time to prepare, we were suddenly either inundated with work and/or home obligations, or we found ourselves isolated and wondering what to do with all the spare time.

writing-923882_640 (1)Here’s a suggestion for wannabe authors. You’ve pondered that writing project for years; now you have time to get those ideas down on paper (or computer, or recording device). What would it take to turn that dream into a manuscript?

In a perfect stroke of timing, CampNaNoWriMo begins the first of next month. If you’re not familiar with the National Novel Writing Month challenge, it provides a venue for novice and accomplished alike to focus for an entire month on writing. The goal is to produce 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. I’ve done it a few times and managed to produce a satisfactory draft in the allotted 30 days. Except for the year I had an emergency appendectomy on November 6!

CampNaNoWriMo is more flexible, allowing you to work on a project of your choosing, setting your own goals. I’ve signed up and plan to compile my advice for beginning writers. At the same time, I’ll be posting the most relevant tips in my Avid Authors Facebook group. Join me there and immerse yourself in learning about writing at the same time as you write.

bookstore-4343642_640 (1)I’ve opened membership to this site on a temporary basis. Here’s a place for you to learn about the author’s journey from “aspiring” to “avid.” Find out how to improve your writing, where to market your work, and ways to research trends in the industry. Get questions answered from an author who’s been there.

* * * * *

Jeanette Chaplin I’m a semi-retired college English instructor and published author with a doctorate in English composition. I self-published the Self-publishing Guide in 1979 and went on to self-publish print versions of a mystery series and several non-fiction books. I’ve given workshops through libraries, bookstores, writers organizations, and continuing education departments and have written for writers’ newsletters, homeschooling blogs, inspirational magazines, and publications such as the Des Moines Register.

Disclaimer: I focus on writing as a craft and what a beginner needs to know. I’m still learning the ever-changing marketing and digital publishing aspects of the industry. I have no affiliation with NaNoWriMo and receive no compensation for referrals.

Check out the latest writing tips and find more info about the “Camp” at https://www.facebook.com/groups/AvidAuthorsGroup/

 

This article was posted for Jeanette F. Chaplin by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

 

 

 

Keeping It Real: Developing Characters, Part II

by Miko Johnston

Frequent readers of this blog may recall me referring over time to the fourth novel in my A Petal 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.

*          *          *

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’?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

To find more writing on the subject throughout this blog – just put CHARACTERS in the search line. For an in-depth look at how to create villains, see my earlier post:  https://thewritersinresidence.com/2015/07/15/building-a-better-villian-by-miko-johnston/ If you have any advice you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you.

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Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

 

 

This article was posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

 

Time-Tripping to 1902: The Mary MacDougall Mysteries

By Richard Audry

When I first saw the movie adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Room with a View, I immediately fell in love with the passionate, rebellious Lucy Honeychurch character.  At that same time, my wife and I had become big fans of Masterpiece Mystery’s Sherlock Holmes series, with Jeremy Brett playing the coldly logical, unemotional detective. I had been toying with the idea of writing a mystery for a while, and I had an inspiration: What would you get if you mashed up Lucy Honeychurch with Sherlock Holmes? And that is the origin story of Mary MacDougall.

My Mary MacDougall series takes place in the Upper Midwest c. 1900 and stars the eponymous 18-year-old heiress, whose unlikely and socially inappropriate dream is to become a consulting detective. I wrote the first book a number of years ago, in period style. And that’s when I stumbled across my first principle of historical mystery writing:

Begin with primary historical source material, if it’s available.

For that original Mary MacDougall novel, I spent weeks in a university library hunched over a microfilm machine, reading newspapers from that period. I immersed myself in the real news and life of the early 1900s. I learned what people were thinking back then, how they were behaving, what the news of the day was at a granular level. Occasionally, serendipity struck, such as the time I stumbled across a full-page feature story titled “Women As Detectives.” The thousands of advertisements were another valuable window on that era.

I also obtained two sources from the period that have proven to be vital. One, which I found in the back recesses of a used bookstore, is a world almanac from 1904, packed with general information—nearly a thousand tissuey pages. Another is my reproduction copy of the 1902 Sears & Roebuck catalog, now close to falling to pieces.

(Wishbook Web.com is a great source for writers who need details about clothing and products from the mid-20th century and later. It has every Sears catalog of that era. Even if you don’t need it for research, it can also be nostalgic trip back in time. Project Gutenberg is a great place to find thousands of free public domain books from the 19th and early 20th century, including travelogs and non-fiction.)

Doing research for a historical mytery can actually be quite enjoyable, especially if you’re a history buff. We booked a trip to Michigan’s Mackinac Island a couple years ago, to flesh out scenes for Mary’s vacation there in A Daughter’s Doubt (Book 3 in the series). The island was a popular tourist destination at the turn of the 20th century, with notables such as Mark Twain booked in for lectures and presentations.

More difficult than doing the research, I think, is deciding what to use. How much is too much? Some readers love rich immersion in historical detail. This seems especially true if you’re writing straight historical fiction. But I think with the historical mystery genre, readers’ expectations are a bit different. When I decide what to include, I have one clear guideline:

The research has to serve my characters and their stories, not the other way around.

In other words, I don’t want to be showing off my research and bogging down the plot. I’ve seen it happen too often. By oversharing research, you run the risk of boring readers and losing them. But determining what to include and what to exclude isn’t easy. For my mysteries, I find that watercolor brush strokes of history work better than photographic specificity. Still, on my second or third reads through the manuscripts, I’ll end up cutting descriptive sections that I know are slowing down the tempo of the narrative.

When I finished my first Mary MacDougall, I received compliments about its authentic voice but the book failed to sell—to agents, publishers, or readers. Discouraged, I set it aside and concentrated on a couple of new contemporary mysteries and an alternative history sci-fi ghost trilogy. A few years back, I revisited that first Mary MacDougall story. I realized my main character was not very likable—more Sherlock Holmes than Lucy Honeychurch.

I decided to give her a personality makeover. And to loosen the restraints that would have actually been put on a young, wealthy woman back in 1901. Which leads me to my next rule of thumb:

I am willing to fudge some historical outlooks and prejudices for the sake of a good story.

That meant, for example, that Mary’s father, a wealthy businessman, needed to be a bit more accepting than might be expected when his headstrong daughter seeks a career in detecting. True, he disapproves and complains and threatens a lot. But he allows Mary to set up shop with her cousin Jeanette, as secretary/chaperone—trusting that the daily grind of business will wear her down. Then, he hopes, she’ll see the sense in marrying some solid man of business. He even grudgingly tolerates Mary’s infatuation with an unsuitable fellow who happens to be an artist—trusting she’ll grow out of it.

And what about Mary’s corset? Where is the lady’s maid to help her put it on? My heiress/sleuth is no hoity-toity duke’s daughter or snooty Manhattan debutante. She’s a practical Midwestern girl who can take care of herself. And she’s also something else that I think is essential in a historical mystery.

Mary is the modern reader’s agent in a tale from the past. Her point of view is closer to ours than to that of a real heiress of 1902.

I want to be able to identify with any protagonist I write, and I want the reader to feel the same. That requires Mary to be kind of a version of you or me. If you or I were in her shoes, we might attempt the same things, which would be in tune with modern sensibilities.

For instance, in the new book, Mary takes up the cause of a street urchin whose most prized possession, a valuable pocket watch, has been stolen. The matter seems trivial, on its face. But her concern is an expression of her awakening notion that homeless children are deserving of justice just as much as anyone. In fact, it’s this particular epiphany that gets Mary in the gravest peril of her career. I believe it’s that sort of thing that makes her resonate with readers in 2020. She is our champion.

Writing about the bawdy, brilliant historical comedy The Favourite, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane put his finger right on it: “…all historical reconstruction is a game, and to pretend otherwise—to nourish the illusion that we can know another epoch as intimately as we do our own—is merest folly, so why not relish the sport?”

I certainly have relished putting Mary through her paces in her first four adventures. And I have many more plots in mind than time to write them. I’d love to bring her out to the Carmel/Monterey artist colony to try and talk some sense into Edmond Roy, the man she loves who refuses to follow her advice and stay in Duluth. And then there’s the possibility she may go spying in Europe for the State Department—imagine how much fun that story would be to research. There could even be some cloak and dagger during the Atlantic crossing. (A tip of the hat to Jackie for that idea.)

 

RichardAudry (1)In closing, I have a request for writers in this group.

I’m starting work on a non-mystery novel about two young nurses who travel from the Midwest to work in California right after WWII. I’m looking for sources that would give me a flavor of what life in Santa Barbara was like in that period. Any suggestions for books (fiction or nonfiction), articles, websites, or libraries would be much appreciated. You can contact me at drmar120@netscape.net.

 

Here are the Mary MacDougall Mysteries in order, in their Kindle editions. The first three titles are currently available from other booksellers such as Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. A Fatal Fondness will be available in Epub versions later in February.

A Pretty Plot  A Pretty Little Plot

Stolen Star  The Stolen Star

DaughtersDoubt  A Daughter’s Doubt

A FATAL FONDNESS   A Fatal Fondness

Also, please consider visiting my website  and liking my Facebook author page.

 

This article was posted for Richard Audry by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

 

For a preview of Richard Audry’s A Fatal Fondness, please check out my FIVE STAR REVIEW on my:  Here’s How It Happened – A Fatal Fondness

 

In Defense of Clichés (and Other ‘Adjusted’ Words)

 by Miko Johnston

william-james-booksellerI frequent a bookshop in a neighboring town that sells books for and about writers, along with writing-related merchandise (if you’ve been to Port Townsend Washington you know which store I mean). They carry postcards and T-shirts with writing slogans like “Avoid Clichés like the Plague”. Cute. Unfortunately, it denigrates clichés. The meaning of the word has been ‘adjusted’, and unfairly so, IMHO.

Hear me out. I’m not endorsing the constant use of ‘isms’ we now label as cliché. But the word has become synonymous with trite, and that’s unfair. While some clichés may be trite, most are merely unoriginal, though with good reason – they’re shorthand for knowledge that’s been established throughout the ages and shown to be generally true.

clicheWhen selectively used, a good cliché expresses wisdom through metaphor. A stitch in time figuratively saves nine. Actions often do speak louder than words. Sometimes it is a dark and stormy night, but since that opening line shows up more in humorous writing nowadays, we expect it to be funny, not dark. Like cliché, the expression’s meaning has been ‘adjusted’.

Not a unique situation in phrases or in words. So many words have been adjusted – either with new meanings added on, or by having their definition abridged to one exclusive meaning. In one of my older posts (see July 17, 2019) I mentioned how Clarity in writing must include weighing a word’s intended meaning against what it’s perceived to mean.

Also consider how even when the word’s meaning should be clear, many don’t understand what the word means. Take secret, for example. It’s supposed to mean confidential, not to be disclosed, but too many people seem to be unaware of that, otherwise they wouldn’t try to get you to reveal a secret. Isn’t the very meaning of that word to withhold information based on a vow?

Or take the word average. It’s a mathematical term, meant to express the value of a group of data by adding it up and dividing it by the total of their number, yet it’s taken on social connotations. We hear the expression, the average person, or man, or woman, and wonder what that could be. We equate average with falling straight down the middle of a ranking system, not being good or bad, not taking sides. Somehow average has become something to avoid, either as a person or as an opinion. And don’t get me started on how compromise has become synonymous with cowardice.

How about proud? According to my dictionary the noun proud means: feeling deep pleasure or satisfaction as a result of one’s own achievements, qualities, or possessions, or those of someone with whom one is closely associated. Have you heard anyone say they were proud of themselves, even without accomplishing an achievement (which I believe includes making the attempt, working hard and doing your best)? Or proud of a celebrity whom they’ve never met?

As a writer, knowing words – their meaning, and using them in the proper context to express thoughts – has become more challenging as the meaning of words have become ‘adjusted’. Have you noticed this trend? How have you ‘adjusted’ to it?

 

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Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

 

This article was posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin

Deadlines–The Good, the Bad and… any Ugly?

By Linda O. Johnston

 

calendar and writingI’m a writer.

Writers have deadlines.

If we’re traditionally published, they’re set by the publisher, with our agreement.  If we’re self published, they’re largely set by ourselves.

I’ve been doing this for a while and generally consider deadlines my friends.  They certainly keep me moving.

Recently I’ve been under deadlines for four Harlequin Romantic Suspense novels.  I met the first two with no problem, but I’d agreed to the third being shorter than usual thinking I could meet it anyway–but I had to ask for an extension.

I just turned in that manuscript.

DEADLINE1Now I’m working on the fourth of those books. I’m first doing a synopsis and three chapters to turn in, then finishing the rest of the manuscript.  I have a few months, so I should be fine. But right now I’m looking at all the weekend events, panels and more, that I’ve agreed to in the near future. Then there will be a visit from some dear family members that will probably use up a week. And an annual trip that has been extended to see those family members at their home. So… well, I’m worried about meeting that deadline.

After I do?  Well, I’m not sure what I’m writing next.  I’m hoping to do more mysteries, but I’m not under any contracts.  And I’d enjoy writing more romantic suspense books as well.

But after that deadline is over, I have some trips planned, so I’ll have to be careful.

Okay, I’m not the only one with deadlines. And I had all kinds of other deadlines when I was also a practicing attorney. Nearly everyone has deadlines in their lives. Do you? Writing deadlines? Work deadlines? Family deadlines?

calendar for deadlineYes, deadlines are a part of life.

What do you think of the ones in your life? Do you face them down and stare at them and meet them? Or do you cringe when you think of them?

Or do you want more of them, as I do?

 

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lindaphotoLinda O. Johnston, a former lawyer who is now a full-time writer, currently writes two mystery series for Midnight Ink involving dogs: the Barkery and Biscuits Mysteries, and the Superstition Mysteries.  She has also written the Pet Rescue Mystery Series, a spinoff from her Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime and also currently writes for Harlequin Romantic Suspense as well as the Alpha Force paranormal romance miniseries about shapeshifters for Harlequin Nocturne.

 

 

This article was posted for Linda O. Johnston by Jackie Houchin

 

 

 

What Did You Say?

By Miko Johnston

I’ve been thinking a great deal about words lately. Part of the reason is that I recently pitched a story I’d written almost two decades ago to a producer who’s shown some interest in the project. It contains language that would be inappropriate for this blog, but while the comic murder mystery at the heart of the story is meant to entertain, its satirical backdrop illustrates society’s relationship with certain words over the last half-century.

Anyone who’s lived more than a few decades has seen a loosening of standards in the media as well as in general life. While this blog – and  I suspect some of you – may eschew using certain words, I’ll bet your standards have changed along with the rest of our world. I’ve seen words in newspaper articles I’d never expect to see in print. I rarely watch TV except when I travel, but even with my limited exposure I’ve heard language in television programs – and I’m talking network TV, not cable – that wouldn’t have been permitted in the past.

Do you recall George Carlin’s Seven Words you can’t say on TV? Lately a few have slipped by. I recently heard a TV news anchor say a word I never expected to hear, having to do with bovine excrement, without a peep from the network or FCC. One of the Democratic candidates uttered another Carlin no-no during the first debate. A few words are still off-limits, and by my account we’ve added a new one to the list (hint: it starts with an N).

I’m not only thinking about obscenities. I’ve also noticed how many ‘ordinary’ words have been redefined or had their meaning augmented. Take the word average. It’s a mathematical term, yet it’s taken on social connotations. We hear about the average person and equate it with falling straight down the middle of a ranking system, not being good or bad. No one aspires to be average anymore; it has become something to avoid, either as a person or as an opinion.

As a writer, I find I must be more precise in my usage of certain words because of this. It concerns me that something I say or write could be misinterpreted. As a former journalist, my goals in reporting were ABC: Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity. Let’s not get into accuracy in news. Brevity translates into sound bites – catch phrases and such, or interrupting a speaker who takes more than a microsecond to get a point across. These days Clarity must include weighing a word’s intended meaning against what it’s perceived to mean. Social shifts, political correctness, and cultural rebranding have all contributed to this landscape, opening up new possibilities for writers as well as new dangers.

On occasion I’ve read lines of writing that could be misinterpreted. In each case I had close ties to the author, so I knew better than to take offense at what they wrote. However, readers who lack that personal advantage might not see it that way. I also worry a great deal about doing that myself and have on more than one occasion censored my work rather than risk the possibility of having someone take my words to mean something I never intended.

Have you thought about this as well? Are you concerned with the possibility that something you’ve written could be taken as insulting or offensive even if that wasn’t your intent?

 

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Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

*****

 

(Posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Writing in Africa

Ah, the stories they tell!

IMG_0643MeTeachOn 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.

Two years ago I taught most of these kids “How to Write A Short Story.” Their creations were marvelous, and in fact, I posted some of the stories on my blog, Here’s How It Happened. (See the mystery, “The Tay Diamond”,  the action-packed, “The Adventures of Timmy, the Squirrel”,  and the creepy, Twilight Zone-esque “The Mirror”)

IMG_1133Booklet coversAfter 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.

IMG_0645MeTeach Young classBefore 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.

IMG_0640MeTeach Micah,TylerFor 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.

Character traits 71T4QNm+soLNext, 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.

IMG_0654 Older writing classFor 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!)

IMG_0651MeTeach MatthewIMG_0653MeTeach AndrewThese 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!

IMG_0667MeTeach fun

 

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.