Words, words, words. More than three million of them.
That’s how many a Tamil in India wrote. Granted, the words were spread over 26 volumes but still, quite remarkable. Chinese authors wrote lengthy books, too, while contemporary writers like J.R.R. Tolkien confined himself to a mere 558,003 words to complete The Lord of the Rings. J.K. Rowling wrote 1,084,170 words in the Harry Potter series. Carl Sandburg threw half a million words onto the pages of Remembrance Rock, while Stephen King prefers to write long, and his thriller, It, has a whopping 1,138 pages for a paperback price of around $30. A bit heavy for reading in bed. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is around 500 words under 50,000, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace that everyone thought to be the longest book in the world offers 587,287 of text.
I was curious last week as to word count while putting the finishing touches to my 9/11 novel. Based on a true story, I found, to my horror, that the manuscript only contained 61,000 words. I know for cozies that is acceptable but anxious to check out what the going word count was for novels these days I went online to research.
Happily, the consensus is that the majority of publishers are content with a range of 50,000 to 100,000 of an author’s polished prose. One site claimed that anything over 40,000 is acceptable. However, books by C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, and George Orwell among others were bestsellers with books under that number of words.
It actually depends on genre. A literary novel, one site tells me, and by the way what the heck is a literary novel as all writing is, by definition, literary, no? No. It turns out that literary fiction must be intellectual, have depth, character and style. Surely, mysteries fit right into the middle of those requirements.
Publishing industry standards can vary. Authors of romance novels typically write between 80,000 to 100,000 words, and science fiction and fantasy can exceed 140,000. Westerns are, surprisingly, shorter, between 45,000 and 75,000, and novellas can be from 18,000 to 40,000 words The Reedsy blog site points out that a too-long word count is a symptom of a major plot or pacing problem. First drafts can usually tell us whether we’ve overstepped the yardstick, and where to cut. Most editors warn writers not to edit their manuscript until that first draft is complete, and keep an eye on bringing too many characters into your story.
It is tempting to include extraneous material when your write about a favorite hobby or pastime you love but it’s a no-no for publishers unless it’s a theme like knitting, baking, or cheese. Frankly, I enjoy learning something new and my current read, The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths is an archaeological mystery that briefly explains many of the basics of the discipline in dialogue, the perfect place.
Thus armed, I began to edit my latest novel’s first draft and found I was right in the ballpark of acceptable word count. Of course, if you are going to self-publish with KDP, or other places, you can make up your own rules. But if readers expect a certain number of pages in your series it makes sense to adhere to that. Another point to keep in mind is that if you are adding an audiobook to your editions it could require a rather lengthy listening period that could get tiring.
A godsend to writers is the software that continually counts your words as you write and at the same time posts the page number you are currently on. A few writers I know never look at those results over periods of days or weeks in order to be wonderfully surprised when they finally do take a peek. Or not. They say that being required to produce or eliminate a certain number of words is soul destroying.
As several authors have commented when considering word count: “When it’s done, it’s done. When the tale is told, it’s told.” End of story.
Scenery and characters—for me, writing’s “Holy Grail!”[i] And luckily, several weeks back, Writer in Residence Gayle Bartos-Pool wrote an excellent post on Character Arcs, which sent me down a writing road side trip—reviewing how I’ve been developing my characters for readers to see, feel, and know them. Something in my past writing, I’ve just done—and not really thought about—can I do better?
I should have been paying more attention to my character development, especially, since as a reader, if I don’t like, can’t see, or don’t identify with a character (or set of characters), I don’t enjoy, and often don’t continue reading a book. Shut it closed, and move on to the next one in my stack. So my thinking after Gayle’s post is/has been from a reader’s perspective. Learning how to do something is indeed very important, but figuring out what you should be doing in the first place, is even harder, I think.
So thinking and looking back, I’ve unconsciously been using—first a characters words (through dialogue/interactive and solo), second, what they are thinking (in narrative exposition parts), and then what they actually do (storytelling and action bits). Sometimes, their words, thoughts, and deeds are contradictory, which can also define their character.
But that’s not enough.
For example, my latest protagonist, Leiv Everett Rhodes, doesn’t always communicate what he’s thinking via what he says. I’m hoping what he “does” are his written character-defining moments. So, I did some prior writing scanning[ii] And no, I have not adequately developed Leiv enough, on any level for a reader to say, “Wow, I like this guy a lot.”
So, what am I going to do? For starters, the “physicality” of the man is not clearly defined. Which is sort of on purpose—giving a vagueness that gives a reader an outline to fill in from people they’ve met. I’m also going to have him do more things, and how he does them hopefully will give some likeable glimpses into him. For sure, I know exactly how Leiv Everett Rhodes looks in my eyes, but not sure if my readers do. Although I don’t think I want a reader to see “my” Leiv in their eyes, but a Leiv they like looking at. Another tightrope!
I’m going to stop here, because I have more thinking to do—but here’s where I’m ending up with this post—it’s not enough to tell a good story, indeed, I think writers owe their readers to be taken away into another world and be led there by characters they want to follow. And self-critique, no matter how difficult, can’t be replaced by editors, beta-readers, writing groups, friends… And for sure, rereading and rewriting our own work, trying our best to be “outside” our creation is very difficult.
When I read back over this post, it sounds rather simple-minded and straightforward. Yet, as a reader, I’ve closed too many books–not because of plot or lack of an interesting story premise—but because I either actively disliked—or at a minimum, was not grabbed by the characters.[iii]
Maybe, I’m just becoming a grumpy-reading person, and at an age where I’m not that easily pleased?(smile) even by myself. Gosh, I hope not…
If you are like me, you’ve never heard of a Spine Story (or Poem) before. I hadn’t until I read Erica’s wonderful children’s blog “What Do We Do All Day?” about a Summer Literacy BINGO game.
In the game, some of the squares were titled; learn a new song, finish a crossword puzzle, read a book outside, listen to an audiobook, and write a comic strip. As the the kids do each thing, they cross off the square. Five in a row means a BINGO win.
The square that caught my eye was, create a spine poem.
I’d never heard of a spine poem before so I clicked on a link to her page that explained them. Of course, if you’ve viewed the photos in this post, you will already know what one is. I call them stories instead of poems. A real challenge would be to do a Haiku poem in Spines.
I’ve yet to create one myself, but by the end of this post, I promise to put one together to share. Meanwhile, here are a few in Erica’s post.
(In case you can’t read the above Spines, they say “How to Write Poetry” “Brainstorm” “Where do You Get Your Ideas?” “All the world.”)
At the end of her blog on Spine Poems, she added a link to 100 Scope Notes which had a slew more of these poems/stories, titled “2013 Book Spine Poem Gallery”. There are other years of galleries available too. Lots of laughs and some really good Aligned Spines.
Okay, here are a few I tried. (haha) It was actually more fun than I thought. Once I’d done two, I saw many more possibilities!
Now it’s your turn.
Gather some of the books on your shelves or TBR stacks and try to create a few stories or poems? I’d love to see a photo, or just write the titles in your comment below. Hey, you are very talented storysmiths. Let’s see what story you can tell… from your bookcase? Create a cool, scary, funny, mysterious, clever, or romantic “aligned spines” story.
Here’s Part Two of the Character Arc Blog I started a few weeks ago. We discussed the main points of not only the Character Arc, but also the Three-Act Structure that works right alongside it. Here are some other points that you might want to consider.
Here’s the harsh reality that I warned you about in Part 1: If you write a book and the story is sold to the movies, your ending might be changed. It’s happened many times. Just cash the check and hope people read your book and see what you wanted to happen in the original version. The Lord of the Rings, Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, and I Am Legend all had their ending changed. There are many more examples out there. Some were better endings, some worse than the original, for some it didn’t matter (except maybe to the author, but they still cashed the check and moved on. What else could they do? That’s Hollywood.)
Nevertheless, write your story as if it will be carved in stone.
So let’s continue. Whatever happens to your main character(s) during that final Act and phase is going to threaten/effect not only the protagonist, but many of the characters who populate your story. But it’s the protagonist we will be watching to see how he/she handles the crisis. In a mystery it’s usually the villain of the piece who tosses in a few monkey wrenches or hand grenades. This is the time when the hero needs to see what skills they might have within themselves to overcome the obstacles.
Here’s a breakdown of Scarlet O’Hara’s arc in Gone with the Wind.
Scarlet is basically Orphaned because of the Civil War.
As the Wanderer, she nearly loses Tara; she does lose her mother; gains and loses a husband.
She starts replanting and harvesting cotton, dispatches a thief; meets Rhett Butler; learns she can’t have Ashley, she marries Rhett, but loses her daughter during a very busy Warrior phase.
Scarlet learns even more during the Martyr phase. She discovers she has to stand on her own two feet while rebuilding her life. As for getting Rhett back, she’ll think about that tomorrow.
What is so helpful about knowing these Character Arc phases is the fact you can start forming your story around each one. They give you the basic outline along with the Three-Act Structure. It’s a game plan.
You probably have a rough idea who your main character is. Now you can give him or her a kick in the pants to get them out there in the world. You get to paint that new world they find themselves in. Is it bleak? Does it start out rosy and then all hell breaks loose? Is there a misunderstanding that thrusts the character(s) into chaos? There needs to be some major change to their life to get them on the road to solving this problem. The reader has to see this little Orphan out there all alone. That’s how you grab their attention when they first open your book. Make your main character likeable and the reader will want to see how they solve the dilemma they are in. I have actually read a few big-time authors whose characters were so unlikable that I didn’t care if they succeeded or not. A few of these books I put down just a few chapters into it, never to be picked up again. That is not your goal as a writer.
Once your Orphan is out there in the wilderness, (this usually means in an unknown environment or one radically changed by circumstances like a crime or poverty or holocaust), it’s time for your character to take a look at this new landscape. The writer can use the next phase to paint a picture of where the Wanderer is wandering. Readers do like to see new places, so paint a good picture. You also need to show how your character(s) react to this new place. Their reaction will say something about who they are. They should be wary at first. This place is all new. They are learning what the boundaries are. What their limitations are. One character might crumble, another will rise to the challenge.
As your main character starts to grow, they meet people who aid or even try to block their progress. This Warrior Phase lets you introduce new characters or expand the personality of characters already introduced. You don’t want to drop all the characters into the first part of the book. Even if you might have mentioned them, you can reveal new things about their character in this phase. It’s the middle of the story. The Second Act. Even minor characters can have a bit of a Character Arc as the story unfolds.
By the time you get to Act III and the Martyr Phase, your main character(s) need to hit a wall. This is true for a mystery or regular fiction or any fiction. Some problem needs to confront your hero so the reader can watch them overcome it or have a meaningful exit from this world because they did the right thing to solve the dilemma. This is also the time the writer discovers that special trait in their hero that sets them apart. They have learned things during their journey and now they can use those lessons to solve the problem facing them.
Do yourself a favor and watch old movies or read a classic novel and see how this method was used. I mention using older examples because I know they work. When you watch newer movies or read more contemporary books, see if they follow the same game plan. If not, ask yourself if their method worked as well or if there is need for improvement. The old method worked for centuries.
There aren’t many steps in this format. Four Character Arc Phases within Three Acts. Keep them in mind when you’re crafting your story. Write On!
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.
I’m busy. I’m always busy. But busy before the pandemic began is a lot different from busy now.
Is that true for you, too?
I’ve been writing forever, and I’m fortunate to be traditionally published a lot. That means I generally have faced a lot of upcoming deadlines. That hasn’t changed, although at the moment there seem to be more than usual.
But my busy-ness before was enhanced a lot by get-togethers with other writers at meetings of local chapters of Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, and sometimes more. Then there were all the conferences I attended, which often included the Romance Writers of America National Conference, held annually in different locations. Then there were Malice Domestic, Left Coast Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and other mystery-related conferences. I attended at least one a year. And in addition, there were annual conferences locally, such as the California Crime Writers Conference.
And now? Well, some get-togethers are available virtually. I’ve attended some chapter meetings that way, but not annual conferences. I know Malice Domestic will be virtual this year and I keep receiving emails about it—but so far I haven’t decided to go.
That’s all certainly different from before. But things seem to be improving now, as far as the ability of people to meet in person, though in smaller groups, and the necessity of being vaccinated, and wearing masks, although that seems to be changing at least to some extent and in some locations.
So will I go back to the old ways as things open up again? I don’t know yet. Tempting, yes, but I want to feel more secure that I won’t get sick or bring the virus home to others. And maybe I’m getting into bad, more solitary habits this way.
I’ve been delighted, though, to meet some of my fellow Writers in Residence for our usual—formerly—monthly lunch recently!
And you? Do you attend conferences now, virtually or in person? Writing events? Reading events?
It was Virginia Wolfe who, in 1929, famously said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction.”
I thought about that as I de-cluttered my office-space for the umpteenth time, trying to create more writing space. I’d even bought myself a new smaller office chair – petite, chrome with pale gray leather. Much prettier than the traditional tall black swivel chair I’ve had for years. You see, I don’t have an actual office – a separate room – but use the far corner of my living room, surrounded by bookshelves, for my office. It would be nice, I thought, to have a separate office with a door – that I could shut at the end of each work day, and ignore my mess of research papers and note pads.
Agatha Christie had a lovely, bright office in her sprawling country home, Greenway, on the River Dart in Devon. Now a National Trust property, the view from her office window is of green lawns and masses of colorful wild flowers. But she said she really did her thinking, about her plots and characters, in the huge claw-foot bath-tub in the upstairs Victorian bathroom.
Men who write fiction need a room of their own, too. I also visited Bateman’s estate: Rudyard Kipling’s Jacobean home in Burwash, Sussex. You can walk into his book-lined study and see his wide writing table covered with travel mementoes, his inkwell, pen and assorted hand-written pages. Next to the table is a daybed, where Kipling would spend part of his writing day reclining and thinking through his books before he committed his tales to paper. Tall windows overlooking rolling fields and farmlands, made the room surprisingly light.
Beatrix Potter began writing as a very young child, when her nursery was on the top floor of the family’s tall, Victorian London house. (At least she had a room of her own.) She would be brought downstairs to visit with her mother for an hour each afternoon. Her only companions were the household staff. When her lunch (delivered to her room daily on a tray) was late one day, a maid explained “Cook’s got mice in the kitchen!” Beatrix was intrigued: “What’s ‘mice in the kitchen’?” A houseman brought one of the mice in a cage for the little girl to see. The rest, as they say, is history. She asked to keep the caged mouse as company and began to draw the furry creature and write stories about it. Her literary work expanded when, as a teenager, they moved north into the countryside, where she found Mrs. Tiggywinkle and all the other characters she brought us.
In today’s world, most writers have a room of their own in which to write. Although Carol Higgins Clark started out writing on the corner of the kitchen table. She would retype her mother’s (Mary Higgins Clark) novels to send out to her agent. Carol said her mom explained everything she was doing, so that eventually Carol was able to write her own novels and found her own literary success, following her late mom’s very successful path. She now can afford her own office.
Jackie Collins wrote hugely successful novels set in glamorous Beverly Hills and Hollywood in her equally glamorous office, with big picture windows overlooking Beverly Hills. The furniture was light beige and luxurious, her desk semicircular with a high-back soft beige leather chair. Jackie wrote all her novels by hand on yellow legal pads. She wrote daily from nine to five, with a short lunch break.
Danielle Steel has not just one Room of Her Own – or office – but two: One is in Paris, where she grew up, and the other in San Francisco. She travels back and forth. The mother of nine now-grown children, Danielle has written almost two hundred books. Her passion for writing has led to an intense schedule. At her desk, built to resemble a stack of her books, Danielle begins at 8 am each day and does not leave until a draft is complete. Sometimes she just stops for four hours sleep and carries on until the book is finished. She wears her comfy cashmere nightgown and eats at her desk, with refills of de-caffeinated iced coffee and a stash of bittersweet chocolate. When she is in San Francisco, she writes on her 1946 Olympia standard typewriter. As I said, Danielle Steele has TWO rooms of her own in which to write her fiction.
I remember visiting fellow Brit-born writer, Jacqueline Winspear. She had a lovely, small home-office, where she wrote many Maisie Dobbs novels. The walls were lined with shelves of books, research, and jumbo post-it notes, with a large table under the window and a comfy chair. Jacqui said that when she shut the door and closed the blinds, she could lose herself back in the Maisie Dobbs world of England in the 1930s.
I was envious that Jacqui had a room of her own in which to write. A room with a door that she could shut. I remember thinking that if I had a cozy office with a door that I could shut, then I could easily write at least one novel a year – just as Jacquie has done.
But now, as I settle down again at my table in the corner of the living room and start scribbling another segment of my next Lottie Topaz novel, I look across the room to the patio and the pool outside. I realize that I can’t continue without another cup of tea. Kitchen here I come. Then I have an idea for a contemporary mystery I’m working on set in St. Tropez. You see how quickly I distract myself?
While other writer friends have churned out dozens of novels, I realize that I have allowed my life and time to be torn in different directions, sorting other people’s problems and dramas. But, hey, I’m getting better. At least I am writing a few times a week, for a couple of snatched hours. I just want to be totally dedicated to writing several hours, every single day, like the aforementioned writers. What’s wrong with me?
Aha! I have found the real reason behind my lack of focus. I don’t have a
proper office – with a door that I can shut on all those distractions. I need a room of my own.
That’s not a typo, it’s a play on words, inspired by a stream of advice I’ve gotten from many writing experts on a touchy subject. We’re told, write what you know. Does that include exploiting who we know?
How far are you willing to go to write a tantalizing mystery, an emotionally powerful drama, or a deeply moving character study? Would you base it on an actual incident or situation in someone’s life and its effect on them? I’m not talking about libel, but morality.
A piece in your news source of choice might inspire you to write a “ripped from the headlines” novel. Legitimate public information is fair play for adaptation, such as a criminal case or someone’s media appeal to raise attention to an issue. For example, some couples have had children in hopes of providing bone marrow or other vital tissue to save a stricken older child. In addition to non-fictional accounts and memoirs written by family members, many authors, including Jodi Picoult, opted that storyline for novels. Dramatic, yes. Is it exploitive?
What if something noteworthy happened in your own life? You might write a memoir detailing the experience and how it changed you. Or you could draw on the event to fashion a scene, and more importantly, for the emotions it evoked, whether it’s the pain of loss, the thrill of first love, the shock of violence or post-traumatic stress inflicted by a drastic incident. When I write about grieving or passion, feeling afraid or distraught, it comes from my own experience, but I do so voluntarily.
We base our characters, at least in part, on people we’ve known. We imbue them with that person’s physical characteristics or personality traits. Say you’ve given your sleuth, a Vietnam vet, the same war wound as your brother, and his nemesis flashes the pasty-faced smirk of your loathsome ex-boss. Those qualities illustrate the characters, but don’t define them.
Great writers incorporate their lives into their stories. They tend to base some characters on family members and people closest to them, portraits which are often unflattering and unkind. Writers also mine tales from family and friends for source material. My own series of historical fiction novels began with a rumor about my grandmother. Stories about transformation, triumph over tragedy, and overcoming loss are rich with potential. As an example, a brilliant, successful woman marries a man who never divorced his first wife – and his family knows that when he walks down the aisle – makes a great storyline. What if she was your best friend? Or if a couple in your family, grappling with an intellectually disabled son who’s growing stronger and more aggressive, are agonizing over whether to institutionalize him?
In Betsy Lerner‘s excellent book, “A Forest For The Trees”, she urges writers to use whatever they can in their own lives to enrich their story, including incidents in the lives of the people closest to them. “If you are going to be honest and write about all the untidy emotions, the hideous envy, and disturbing fantasies that make us human, how can you not offend your loved ones, your neighbors and community?” A New York Times piece by James Parker, contributing editor at The Atlantic, endorses the practice of “invading” other people’s lives, but only if you can elevate it above exploitation; the purpose must be empathy.
For me the issue goes deeper than adapting an external experience. We can take plotlines from personal sources and show how one might feel in that situation, but what about someone far removed from ourselves? Each day I’m exposed to people whose experiences, based on their race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality, shape their world view, which differs vastly from mine. Are there places within a person that are too intimate to go, too unreachable to know?
In 1990 I worked on a conference sponsored by an organization of scientists who explore the repercussions of technological advancement. They chose as their conference theme: Can We Do It? How Do We Do It? Ought We Do It? As a writer, I ask myself the same questions in understanding the social implications of storytelling, crafting diverse, authentic characters and emotionally compelling plots. Characters and plots that ring true to those outside the world I create as well as to those within.
A fiction writer’s goal is to produce a logical and believable manuscript, populated with characters, many who’ll be familiar to us and a few who thankfully bear no resemblance to anyone we know. We can borrow from their histories or instead, as Parker says, “invade” other people’s lives; strive for realistic portrayals or take Lerner’s advice to “be honest” enough to “offend”. That leaves me wondering: Is it proper to take the experiences of those we know best for the sake of a good plot? Is it possible to mine the depths of emotions, or the most intimate thoughts, of someone so dissimilar from us?
Can we? How? Ought we?
Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers in Residence, is the author of three novels in the A Petal In The Wind saga, as well as a contributor to anthologies including LAst Exit to Murder. She is currently pages from competing her fourth novel in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband, who graciously helped her revise this post. Contact her at email@example.com
Ajectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-orgin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you will sound like a maniac.
It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list. But almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before color, green great dragons can’t exist.
Try it in your own writing. Check out your most recent book, or the book lying nearest to you right now. It’s a phenomanon!
In this short post, I’m indulging myself musing over a realization that hit me the other night—an insight into reading, rather than writing, and for what I’m fancifully calling “Literary Pixie Dust.”
Alas, I’ve never had great eyesight, and with age, it’s gotten worse, so a lot of my “reading” is moving into audio books, or Kindle text-to-speech. Sometimes I’ll also get the book because of the touch and feel…and smell of books. Several nights ago, while falling off to sleep, I was listening to the audio book Light Darkens by Ngaio Marsh and read by Philip Franks, and it hit my conscious psyche[i] that with my favorites like her, there’s “something special” from the very beginning. And that “Something” is not something I remember ever reading or talking about.
But fanciful and goofy as it might sound, there is a “magic”[ii] that takes you into the story—and in that you’re not just reading, not just enjoying, not just picturing[iii]—but your mind is dusted with some kind of story-pixie-dust. Indeed, the characters, the scenery, the plot—including the overarching musicality of the author’s writing that I’ve gabbed about before—all seem to twinkle. (I’m not surprised if you’re laughing by now!)
As I fell off to sleep, I was kind of laughing at myself. Must be the audio experience itself, the book reader, his voice. So, next morning I found my book copy of Light Darkens, and “it” was still there. I could hear it while reading with my eyes. (M.C. Beaton sprinkles the same pixie-dust on her delightful Hamish Macbeth novels.)
It’s similar to several movies I’ve seen during my life that had a “special something” outside of all the good movie-making mechanics like directing, photography, screenplay, casting, etc.
I’m pretty sure I’m not a pixie-dust writer[iv], but I am a reader. And I’ve heard said in so many ways how wonderful reading is, all the places you can travel, all the characters you can meet…but it really is also “magical” for some readers like me. A thought, which led me to feeling so lucky to be involved in the reading and writing world throughout my life.
This was a different kind of rest stop on the winding road of writing for me. But, on that winding road, my writing goal for this year is–to do more of it, and along the way learn as much as I can! Pixie-dust magic is not on the agenda. Indeed, I’m not sure this indefinable (but very real to me as a reader) element is something one can actually learn? Regardless, it would sure be nice to have. Hats off to Ngaio et al.!
Happy Writing and Reading Trails!
[i] I’ve read the book in the past, but not heard the audio book.
[ii] I’ve searched my mind (and on line thesaurus for the perfect word)—but it won’t come. Hence “magic.”
[iii] Wrote a post here in the past about pictures left in my mind from some books.
[iv] Even if I dreamed of being such, don’t think my style, characters, or topic lend to that sort of “magic.”