Wednesday, July 19, 2017

FICTION DEPENDS ON GREAT CHARACTERS

Here are four points to consider when creating fictional characters:
1. Spend less time describing characters’ appearances. Show their actions, especially if their actions put them in conflict with the norms of their worlds. another example of show not tell.

2. Use two or more real people as models for characters. Then your character will have a blend of interesting features, and you won’t be liable for defaming anyone.

3. If you usually write novels, experiment with short stories. When I started writing short stories eight years ago, I was forced to identify and demonstrate the key features of characters more quickly and succinctly than in a novel.
4. One trick for displaying unforgettable characters is to select the narrator of your tale carefully. Before I wrote short stories, I interviewed dozens of acquaintances about their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. In several cases, I listened to tales about the same person from siblings or spouses. I also knew several of the women described. I quickly recognized that reality depended on the eyes of the beholder. The point of view is important.

Then I wrote vignettes with surprising plot twists about mothers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (The Good Old Days?) and modern women (Other People’s Mothers). The women in each story made choices. The narrators of the stories often didn’t understand the basis of the decisions because of incomplete information or personal biases. Accordingly, they warped the portraits of the women, and I could develop the characters to be more memorable.
How do you develop characters in your fiction?

My collections of short stories are available in paperback and Kindle format at Amazon.
Other People’s Mothers: https://www.amzn.com/dp/1544895011

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

STRANGE THINGS HAPPEN

We all encounter strange events occasionally. You know - incidents you don’t quite understand. Some are scary; others are funny; many are just weird. Write them down. They make great material in a novel.

Let me tell you about an incident that surprised me and how I used it to create a character in my latest suspense novel, Riddled with Clues.

My dog Bug, a Japanese Chin, and I have done pet therapy at the local VA Center for years. This particular VA Center has a number of rehab programs and offers multiple programs to aid homeless veterans.

On a visit to the VA, a disheveled veteran sat and stroked Bug for several minutes without speaking. Then he looked at me and said, “What does this dog call you?”
I recognized this was a serious question and deserved a thoughtful answer. I didn’t smirk or giggle. “I think he calls me Mom.”

The veteran lowered his head to examine the Bug’s face and then resumed stroking him. After a minute, he nodded. “I think that’s right.”

Several months later, a neatly dressed man on the VA campus approached Bug and me. “Hello Bug and Bug’s Mom.” As he talked to me for several minutes, I realized this was the same veteran who had asked what Bug called me. He wasn’t pathetic; he had dignity.

His words kept replaying in my mind over the last few years.

Please note: HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) doesn’t allow health care workers or volunteers to identify patients. However, I don’t know the name of this man and I didn’t describe him in the novel as he looked. Everything about the character in Riddled with Clues is fictitious, except for the description of these two brief incidents. I think the incidents provide insight into the mental state and personality of a veteran in rehab.
Now aren’t you curious to find out how these incidents fit into the plot of Riddled with Clues? 

Don’t forget to write down strange things that happen to you. They might make great scenes in your next novel.

Blurb for Riddled with Clues: A hospitalized friend gives Sara Almquist a note, which he received just before he was severely injured while investigating the movement of drugs into the U.S. The note is signed by “Red from Udon Thani.” However, he doesn’t know anyone called Red, and the last time he was in Udon Thani was during the Vietnam War. After Sara listens to his rambling tale of all the possibilities, both are assaulted. The friend is left comatose. Sara must determine whether the attacks are related to events in Laos fifty years ago or to the modern-day drug trade. As she struggles to survive, she questions who to trust: the local cops, her absent best friend, the FBI, or a homeless veteran who leaves puzzling riddles as clues. 



Sunday, June 4, 2017

Great Fiction Depends on Great Characters

We all know character development is important, but most of us are tired of the standard advice: Avoid stereotypes. Model your characters on real people with foibles. 

Maybe these three points will start you thinking about character development.

1. Spend less time describing characters’ appearances and more time showing their actions, especially if their actions put them in conflict with the norms of their worlds.


2. If you usually write novels, experiment with short stories. They force you to identify and demonstrate the key features of characters more quickly and succinctly. Also, you're more apt to rewrite a character that you haven't become attached to after a hundred pages.
3. One trick for displaying unforgettable characters is to select the narrator (point of view) of your tale carefully. Before I started writing short stories, I interviewed dozens of acquaintances about their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. In several cases, I listened to tales about the same person from siblings or spouses. I also knew several of the women described. I quickly recognized that reality depended on the eyes of the beholder.
Then I wrote vignettes with surprising plot twists about mothers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (The Good Old Days?) and modern women (Other People’s Mothers). The women in each story made choices. The narrators of the stories often didn’t understand the basis of the decisions because of incomplete information or personal biases. Accordingly, they warped the portraits of the women, and I could develop the characters to be more memorable.
How do you develop characters in your fiction?

My collections of short stories are available in paperback and Kindle format at Amazon.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Little History for Memorial Day

After more than forty years, many of the “little stories” about the Vietnam War have been lost. That’s too bad because I suspect George Santayana was right: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Thus, when a friend, who was a medic in the secret war in Laos in the early 1960s, offered me his notes, I was thrilled. As a medic, my friend treated men covered with hundreds of leeches, a baby monkey, and Hmong children with yaws and vitamin A deficiency besides lots of wounded soldiers. He also received survival training in the Philippines, served as a medic for the Hmong general Vang Pao, and was sent home after he earned his fourth Purple Heart. 

My problem is I’m not a historian. I write modern thrillers and mysteries with a woman protagonist, Sara Almquist, who is too young to have first-hand knowledge of the Vietnam era.

I decided to set the novel, titled Riddled with Clues, mainly at the VA Center in Albuquerque because my dog Bug and I are a pet therapy team there. We’ve met Vietnam era veterans in the rehab programs at this large VA center. Many homeless veterans also roam the campus and its over seventy buildings. I realized the convoluted nature of the layout of buildings would be great for a chase scene, and the veterans in rehab units could be the basis of colorful supporting characters in the book.

Are you curious how I used the notes? Sara, a scientific consultant for the State Department, gets a mysterious summons to the VA in her hometown of Albuquerque. She discovers Xave Zack (her old friend from previous novels – Ignore the Pain and Malignancy) was seriously injured while tracking drug smugglers.  He hands her a note he received before his accident. The note is signed by “Red from Udon Thani.” However, he doesn’t know anyone called Red, and the last time he was in Udon Thani was during the Vietnam War. 

Xave proceeds to tell her potentially relevant details from his wartime experiences in Laos. (The experiences are all based on my real friend’s adventures). After Sara listens to his rambling tale of all the possibilities, both are assaulted. Xave is left comatose. Sara must determine whether the attacks were related to events during the war fifty years ago or to the modern-day drug trade. As she struggles to survive, she questions who to trust: the local cops, her absent best friend, the FBI, or a homeless veteran who leaves puzzling riddles as clues. 

Sound exciting? I hope so. Wouldn't it make great reading over the Memorial Day weekend?


I also hope you’ll gather “historical” information from older friends and relatives and use the details in your writing.