Saturday, 9 July 2011

Memorable Characters Part 3

This is my third blog on writing memorable characters, and deals with dialogue.

Dialogue is the voice of your characters, and along with their actions and thoughts, tell the story of who they are and what they want. So it’s important to make every word of their dialogue count. 

In real life, day to day conversations can be monotonous. Here is a sample of 4 lines of dialogue between 2 characters:

“You’re late.”
“I know.”
“What happened?”
“My car broke down.”

Everyone has conversations like these. But they don’t belong in your book. 

Not only is this passage mind-numbingly boring, but the reader has no idea who’s talking. Two women? Two men? What is their relationship? How old are they? 

But it’s only 4 lines of dialogue, you could argue. The writer needs more time.  

You don’t have time, and neither does the reader. He could throw your book against the wall because it’s taking too long to get into, and open someone else’s book. He could watch television, listen to his Ipod, go to the movies, etc.  The competition for the reader’s time is fierce. You want the reader to connect to your characters as soon as possible, so they can form an emotional bond. And remember, every word of your character’s dialogue counts, since it tells the story of who they are, and what they want. Your characters need to leap off the page, and entertain. 

Okay, then just add speech tags. He said, she said. Then at least we’ll know who’s talking.

Yes, you could do that, but this is an exercise in dialogue, and a wise editor once told me that your dialogue should be so powerful, it should be able to reveal personality and character without using speech tags. Huh? 

So let’s try again. Same basic conversation, but with more powerful dialogue. And still no speech tags.

“Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“Sure, I can tell time.”
“Your father’s going to freak. Did you run out of gas again?”
“Cool your jets, Ma. My wheels broke down, so I hitched a ride.”

Ah ha. Now we have emotion, and a lot more information about who these characters are. A mother and son (you could argue a daughter, but the fact that he’s hitchhiking implies he’s male). The mother sounds upset. The son sounds disrespectful. He drives a car, which makes him a teenager or young adult. He has a habit of running out of gas, which means he’s not terribly responsible or organized. This isn’t the first time he’s been late, and he’s in trouble with a character who isn’t even in the scene – his father. 

Now this is a story going somewhere.

Try writing a few dialogue passages without speech tags or action beats. It's a great way to power up your dialogue and reveal character.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Memorable Characters - Part Two

This is my second blog on writing memorable characters, and it deals with character actions. 
As writers, we are the puppeteers. We can make our characters do whatever we want. We also know that conflict is the fuel that drives every story. Conflict is so important, it deserves its own blog, so more on that later. 

To create conflict, we make our characters run around and do things that will create tension. Right? 

Wrong. We shouldn't just push our characters aimlessly into circumstances designed to create conflict for conflict's sake. If our characters aren't properly motivated, any tension coming from plot situations won't ring true. It will feel hollow and false to the reader. And our characters will look stupid stumbling about the story with no real reason to act. 

If we don't properly motivate our characters' behaviour, they will seem like wooden puppets being pulled on a string, and acting on a whim. In other words, they won't seem like real people. 

Your characters must act like living, breathing people, filled with emotions, doubts, and conflicts. If they don't, the reader won't care about them. And the reader must care about your characters, or they won't finish your book. 

Motivation is what drives your characters. A properly motivated character will be believable to the reader. Motivation is the magic that allows your readers to empathize with your characters. Strong motivation will make characters face any challenge you throw at them. 

Take The Wizard of Oz, for example. Why did Dorothy stand up to the Wicked Witch of the West, one of the scariest villains ever created? Why didn't she just throw her hands up, grab Toto and live in Munchkinland? She could have, easily. 

But she didn't. Why not? Because she was a properly motivated character. 

She wanted to go home. Why? Because Auntie Em was sick, and might die. They'd had a horrible argument just before she left, and she felt guilty about it. She loved her Auntie Em.

Facing up to a wicked witch and hundreds of evil flying monkeys is a lot to ask of a teenager. But Dorothy never once backed away from the challenges facing her. She faced every action-packed moment because she had a strong motivation to do it. She was prepared to move heaven and earth to get home.  Behind every decision she made and every action she took, there was a strong motivation. Not just an author dreaming up exciting, tension filled scenes. 

If you provide a strong enough motivation for your characters, your readers will follow them anywhere. 

Are your characters properly motivated to face the wolves growling at their door? Or will they back out of the story and say ,"No, thanks. I think I'll pass."

Next blog - Dialogue

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Memorable Characters – Part 1

Readers remember characters, not plots. If they remember the plot, it’s usually because of the characters. In fact, strong characters can carry a weak plot, but weak characters can’t hide behind strong plots. 

Memorable characters should jump off the page, into your reader’s hearts and minds. The reader should connect to the character on an emotional level. It’s emotion that gives your character the breath of life. 

How does a writer create a memorable character? 
There are only 4 ways to present our characters to readers, since all we have is the written word: Physical description, character actions, dialogue and thoughts. 

Would you know what your characters looked like if you met them on the street? I must confess, I like to pin up photos of celebrities who I think resemble my characters. That way, at a moment’s notice, I have a good sense of their appearance, and it gives me a visual. 

It’s a good idea not to choose perfect, cookie-cutter cutouts of perfection. Remember, we don’t want perfection, we want memorable, and sometimes that means giving our characters flaws. I don’t mean a hunchback like Quasimodo--something more subtle, like a small overbite, a tattoo or a piercing. Something that distinguishes them from other characters, and makes them more real. 

And don’t forget your character’s closet. You should know exactly what you would find in there. Does your character dress for success? Or maybe they don’t pay much attention to clothes. Are their clothes hung in neat, color-coordinated rows, or are they lying in a messy, unwashed heap? Closets say a lot about a person. 

Finally, some writers write up a complete outline of their character’s physical appearance, and others find it unnecessary. What is your preference? As a reader, do you like to know every detail about the character’s looks, or would you rather imagine what they look like yourself? 

Next blog – I’ll discuss character actions.

Sunday, 26 June 2011


brain·storm (br n stôrm ). n. 1. A sudden clever plan or idea. 2. A sudden, violent disturbance of the mind. v. brain·stormed, brain·storm·ing, brain·storms ...

I don't believe I've ever had a 'sudden, violent disturbance of the mind', unless it was the time my hubby accidentally chopped off my favorite ivy at the side of the house, or maybe when the driver in front of me stops suddenly or doesn't signal. But I have had clever ideas on occasion, mostly when I least expect them--just before I go to sleep or standing in a lineup at the grocery store. Good reasons to always have a notebook and pen on you.

Brainstorming helps writers take advantage of their natural thinking processes by gathering their brain energy into a storm that hopefully transforms into words that lead to vibrant writing. It can help when you're devoid of plot ideas, inspiration, or too tired or anxious to write. In this case, brainstorming can stir up the dust, whip some air into our stilled pools of thought, and get the breeze of inspiration moving again.

There are also times when you have too much chaos in your brain and you need to bring it to some conscious order. Brainstorming can force the mental chaos onto the page, getting rid of the 'junk', so your thoughts will have more clarity.

If I can't brainstorm with my critique partner, my favorite method is freewriting: writing whatever comes into my mind. I turn off my internal editor and my inner critic and just write. I set a time limit (15 minutes) or a space limit (two pages) and write until I reach that goal.

There will be a lot of filler and unusable thoughts, but there are usually some gems in with the junk. Even if the gems are sparse, I've quieted the noisy chaos or greased my writing gears so I can begin to write about an idea.

Freewriting is just one example of a brainstorming technique. Does anyone else have any techniques that work for them?

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Worry-free Gardening

I enjoy gardening, but I’m not the sort of gardener who nurtures each delicate rose bush and tender shrub.  I’m too busy. I do enough nurturing in my life – I take care of my family, my house, my dogs, my job and my writing. The plants in my garden need to fend for themselves. They have one season to prove they’re worth keeping or they’re gone.
That’s right. If they don’t thrive on their own, without my help, I yank them up by the roots and toss them in the compost. 

I’m sure I sound like a heartless monster, but I have no patience with plants that need coddling. Or people, for that matter. It’s not so easy to weed out the high maintenance people in your life, but in the garden, it’s easy. One sharp tug, and it’s over.

There are two bushes at the front of my house that take first prize for being the toughest plant. Situated under the eaves trough, they get no rain. They face north, so they get no sun, either. But year after year, they bloom as though they were spoiled and coddled every day. They’re called Annabelle Hydrangeas, and I recommend them for anyone without a green thumb. One winter I ran over them with the snow blower and they came up the following spring just as always. They’re difficult to kill. 

What I know about gardening I learned from my mother, who taught me that the more ruthless you are with plants, the more they love it. I hacked my wild rose bushes mercilessly one day in early March, and I swear they had twice the number of blossoms on them that summer.  We had a weigelia bush in front of our cottage that my father loved to chop right to the ground. It grew faithfully every year, and was never attacked by any bugs. 

My kind of plants. Tough as nails, without any need of pampering.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Make Me Care

I usually try to blog twice a week, but I was under a 'book spell': I started reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on Thursday. It's over 800 pages long. I finished it on Friday. I literally couldn't put it down. That rarely happens to me, and it's why I love to read.

My sister-in-law lent me the book, along with the second in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire. I had planned to take them to the beach this summer, but I'll probably have the second one finished by the end of the week.

Suspense thrillers are not a genre I usually read, but I had heard the hype about the Larsson trilogy, so I decided to give the first one a try. And lately I've been discouraged by the number of amateur sleuth mysteries -- the genre I write -- that haven't held my interest. The stories are okay, the writing is professional, but the characters bored me, the story bored me, and I didn't care.

I need to care. An editor once gave me that advice at a writing conference. "Make me care," she said. "It's up to you to decide how to make that happen. But I need to care, or I'll toss the book against the wall."

My walls are starting to get pock marks from all the tossing. 

I know some readers who will finish every book even though they hate it. Strange. I have no problem reading a few chapters and giving up if it doesn't captivate me. 

Why does one book grab us and the other bore us to death? Now there's a question. I like books with characters who are out of the ordinary. Whose problems seem insurmountable and keep piling up. Who have unusual hangups. Who I feel sorry for. Who I care about. 

Ordinary characters with ordinary plots just don't grab me enough to want to read until the last page. I recently read a mystery where the heroine mostly made breakfast. That's correct. Every chapter, she made breakfast and thought about the events of the plot. She made blueberry pancakes, sausage frittatta, cranberry muffins and banana bread. My stomach growled a lot, but my curiosity wasn't peaked. 

Her love interest was the neighbour next door. A nice, handsome man who dropped by whenever she needed him. There was no tension between them, no problems that made me wonder, Are these two going to be a couple at the end? Honestly, I couldn't care less if they did or not. I might as well watch paint dry. 

If I want to see ordinary people acting ordinary, I can sit on my deck and spy on my neighbours. 

I didn't throw that book against the wall, since it was on my Nook, and I love my Nook. But I regret the money I spent on it. So my search continues for a riveting amateur sleuth mystery that captivates me. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Ideas R Us

Writers often get asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" I wish it were as easy as going to an Idea Store and picking out ripe ones, like mangos. 

Unfortunately, getting a fresh idea for a plot can be a challenge. How writers get their ideas is different for everyone. Some might be inspired through music or a controversial topic. Ray Bradbury, the renowned science fiction writer, made up the title first and then turned each into a novel, i.e. The Lake, The Jar, The Skeleton. Some might play the 'what if' game. "What if a degenerated man falls madly in love with a woman he's not worthy of?" Charles Dickens may have asked this question when he wrote A Tale of Two Cities.

If you think about it, everybody is full of stories-- from funny to tragic -- stories from their childhood, events they were directly involved in or heard about second hand. Everyone you meet is a walking story. So talk to your friends, family or coworkers. They might be a rich source of material.

If you're short on ideas for a novel, be observant to the life happening around you, and record your perceptions, feelings and interpretations. Read the newspaper. It's true what they say: Truth is stranger than fiction. I got a couple of great ideas from newspapers that I used in two of my novels. I read about a groom getting arrested at the altar, so I opened my first novel, Buried Secrets, using that idea. I read another article about orchid smuggling, and that became the cornerstone of my plot in Saving Haley.

Where do you get your ideas? Do you use the same process every time, or change it up? Can you pinpoint the exact moment you got your story spark? 

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Suspicious MInd

We need to be more suspicious. Especially us gals. Of the many qualities I admired about Nancy Drew, her suspicious nature was one of them. It helped make her a good detective. What kind of sleuth would she have been if she believed everything she was told or didn't question the odd behavior of others? 

If more women were suspicious, especially about the men in their lives, I think there would be fewer broken hearts. Take this season's Bachelorette Ashley, for example. (For those of you who live off the grid or despise mindless reality TV drivel, I guess you won't know what I'm talking about. But watching reality television is a bad habit I haven't been able to kick yet. Don't hate me.) 

So anyway, this poor girl is getting used and abused by a nimrod named Bentley, on national television. She was warned ahead of time by a friend, who knows his ex-wife, that he was only going on the show to promote his business, and was doing it for a lark. Wouldn't that make you suspicious? 

Instead of kicking him to the curb at the first rose ceremony, Ashley falls under the spell of his charming ways, and keeps him around. She doesn't even question him about his motives until a few weeks later. By then she's completely smitten. 

It's disturbing and disappointing how easily women can fall for the old lines used by players through the ages. Why do we let our hearts overrule our heads? A healthy dose of suspicion could have helped Ashley make a better judgment call. 

So the day after she confronts Bentley about his motives for being on the show, he arrives at her house to tell her he's leaving (which is exactly what Ashley's friend predicted he would do). Instead of listening to the loudly flapping red flags around her, she believes his excuse that he's missing his daughter, which is a crock. He's just not that into her, and he has already admitted that on camera. So everybody on the planet (or at least everyone who watches the show) knows he's duping Ashley, except Ashley. 

The most frightening aspect of this man's apparent total disregard for women is the fact that he's the father of a little girl. Is this how he wants his daughter treated by men some day? 

Ashley, for the self-respect of women everywhere, take off your rose-colored glasses and get suspicious. All these guys SEEM nice, but you don't know them yet. Make them prove they're worthy of you. Assume they're guilty until they're proven innocent. Pretend they're murderers and thieves until you know they're not.

In other words, be Nancy Drew for a day. It might change your life.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Tag, you're It

I was just tagged by my blogger buddy Angela over at Whimsey, Reading and Writing. I've never played blogger tag before, but it seems like a great way to meet more blog buddies, and since I just started my blogging journey and have so few (sniff) I'm up for anything. 

Here goes:

Do you think you're hot?

I'm always hot. I'm menopausal, and hot flashes are par for the course. My hubby calls them 'heat waves'. 

Upload a picture or wallpaper that you're using at the moment.
Since I write mysteries that involve dead bodies, this is appropriate wallpaper. The only thing missing is a toe tag.

When was the last time you ate chicken meat?

Last night, for dinner. I made Parmesean chicken fingers. 

The song(s) you listened to recently.

Bruce Springsteen's album, Working on a Dream.

What you're thinking as you're doing this.

That my back still aches from work today and I wish I had a personal masseuse.

Do you have nicknames? What are they?

Nanny Goat, Peanut, Mom, Mama, Nana.

Tag 8 Blogger Friends

1. Selena Robins 
2. Angela Scott
3. K.B. Owen
4. 2 Girls on a Bench
5. Cathy Yardley
6. Marnie Graff
7. Lynn Shepherd
8. Christin Mowrey

Who's listed as Number One?

Selena is my best friend, critique partner and fellow writer in crime. I don't mean she writes crime, she writes romance, but we've been partners in crime, especially when we travel together. 

Say something about Number Five.

I met Cathy via Selena. We are Twitter friends and I follow her blog. She writes fun love stories, and her books are on my tbr list. 

How did you get to know Number Three?

Kathy is also a twitter/blogger friend and I commented about Nancy Drew on her blog. Kathy is a historical mystery writer. 

How about Number Four?

2 Girls (Tricia & Siana) are blog and twitter buddies I ran across completely by accident. I liked their website. They write screenplays and make short films. 

Leave a message for Number Six.

Marnie, I really appreciated your welcome when I joined Sisters in Crime. You rock.

Leave a lovey dovey message for Number Two. 

Angela, I love your blogs. I think if we were in the same room together, we'd laugh about the same things. Thanks for tagging me, this is fun!

Do Number Seven and Eight have any similarities?

They're both female, both writers, both have blogs, both know me (in a virtual way, sorta, kinda). I think that's it.

Tag, you're it, guys. Your turn to play.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

School Photo, Age 8

There is a reason I posted this horrifyingly old photo of myself on my blog. It's for my blog buddy K.B. (Kathy) Owen, who was brave enough to post her school photos on HER blog. She double dared me - not exactly, but I figured I owed her, since she shared her photos.

Check out the glasses. I think those are actually back in style. Girls were envious of my long hair. But probably not my bangs. (Mother, what were you thinking?) We wore uniforms in those days. White blouses and tunics with a sash. God, I'm older than dirt. Thanks a lot, Kathy (kidding)!

Monday, 30 May 2011

Cheap Shoes

I was born in February, which means I'm a Pisces. According to the rules of astrology, this means I'm ruled by my feet. Apparently, it's my feet and toes that cause me the most anxiety. 

I would believe this even if I'd never read anything about horoscope signs. My feet seem to be the lightening rod for the rest of me. If my feet are cold, my whole body is cold. I spend a lot of money on foot massages, pedicures, creams, files and toenail polish. Oh yes, and shoes.

There are women out there who wear size 5, so they get incredible deals on shoes. They can wear sandals with tiny straps, thin soles and no support. They can walk effortlessly for miles on sexy, 3 inch heels.  

I'm not that woman. Even as a teenager, I was never that woman.

I wear size 9. I used to wear 8 1/2, until I had children and my feet got bigger. I thought it was imagination, but my doctor informed me that when you're pregnant, all the cartilage in your body softens (especially around the pelvis) to prepare for childbirth. This includes the cartilage in your feet. So the collateral damage of pregnancy -- along with stretch marks and a pot belly -- can be bigger feet. 

Just what I needed. Bigger feet. Anyway, I'm not alone. A lot of women wear size 9. I know this because whenever there's a sale on shoes, there are no size 9's left. Only size 5's. Does anyone out there have the same problem, or am I being paranoid? 

So I usually lose out on shoe sales. And I can't just walk into any old store and pick up cheap shoes. I need to buy good quality footwear, or I'll regret it in the form of pinched toes, giant blisters and aggravation of my chronic plantar fasciitis. My local foot clinic recommends that I buy shoes that can accommodate my $300 orthotics.  The problem is, sometimes the best shoe for my foot means the ugliest shoe available. 

I absolutely refuse to wear something like this. I'd rather ditch the orthotics and suffer through blisters until I'm screaming in agony. I pride myself on my personal style, and it doesn't include ugly, clunky shoes.

So I compromise. I do own a few shoes that fit my orthotics, which I wear at work or running around. But the rest of the shoes in my closet are expensive, well made, real leather, stylish shoes that are worth every penny of what I paid for them, and I paid a lot. 

But when your feet rule, you have no choice.


Friday, 27 May 2011

Things I learned from my dog.

1. Wrinkles define who you are.

Sam, our Sharpie - a.k.a. Samwise Gamgee, Sam Bob or Charlie Bear
 Wrinkles, freckles, age spots, flab -- all of that stuff -- means that you've spent more time than others exposing yourself to sunshine and lots of good things to eat. I inherited good skin from the women in my family, and don't have too many wrinkles yet. As for the rest, I try my best, but I'm never giving up chocolate.

2. Bacon is good

I know it's pure saturated fat. I try not to eat too much of it, or think about where it comes from, but dang, there's nothing like a few slabs of crispy bacon to go with your scrambled eggs and coffee on a Saturday morning. Sam isn't allowed bacon either, but once in a while he gets a tidbit when he smells it in the kitchen. He hoovers it off my hand so quickly, I can't tell if he likes the taste. 

3. Birds are fascinating

For very different reasons. Sam would like to kill them. I love to watch them at my feeders and in the bird bath, splashing and shaking their feathers. A great way to de-stress.

4. Never give up

Sam is VERY stubborn. He injured his ACL, and is currently wearing a brace. He's not allowed to jump up on things or climb stairs. The living room couch is off limits, and we've blocked the staircase with a card table. His favorite place to sleep when we're out of the house is our bed upstairs. He spends a lot of time huffing and grumping about the fact that he can't nap where he usually does. After a dozen attempts, he finally managed to move the card table aside and I found him on our bed yesterday, as usual.

5. Follow your dreams

Sam loves to chase trains, squirrels, rabbits -- basically anything that moves. Even with an injured knee, I know if I unsnapped his leash he'd be off and running. It's instinctual for him to chase what he was born to chase. I admire his determination. I think about that when I'm frustrated or discouraged.

6. Cesar Milan is cute

The Dog Whisperer has helped me cope with some of Sam's 'issues', like barking at the mailman or trying to eat my neighbour's face. Along the way I've come to love the show and its fearless star, Cesar.

7. Ice cream is good.

I know it's corn syrup, fat and artificial flavors. Sam doesn't care, so I don't. He definitely likes the taste. 

Dairy Queen Vanilla Soft Serve

Monday, 23 May 2011


Today is Victoria Day in Canada – Queen Victoria’s birthday (24 May 1819 – 22 January 1901).  I suppose this is our version of Memorial Day in the U.S., since it represents a long weekend and signifies the beginning of cottage season. We shop, we garden, we drink beer and throw off fireworks. Nobody really thinks about the Queen.

But ever since I saw the movie “Young Victoria” with Emily Blunt, I’ve been thinking about Victoria. She really was an amazing lady. She inherited the throne at the age of 18, ruled England for 63 years, and was madly in love with her husband and first cousin, Prince Albert, with whom she had 9 children.  She was known as ‘Drina’ as a young woman, and later named ‘the Grandmother of Europe’,  owing to the fact that 26 of her 42 grandchildren married into royal European families. 

That got me to thinking about some other famous women named Victoria. Does anyone remember Victoria Principal? She is lately known for starting her own line of skin care products and jewellery, but she is most famous for her role as Pamela Ewing on Dallas. Who can forget the famous scene where she wakes up, turns over and sees Bobby, the husband she thought was dead, lying next to her? I’m dating myself, I know. 

In an effort to get Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing) back into the show after killing him off, the writers turned an entire season into a bad dream. Viewers felt cheated, and there was quite an uproar. It’s what’s referred to in the arts as ‘deus ex machina’ – a plot device where a seemingly impossible problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with a contrived and unexpected intervention by higher forces - in this case, the producers. It was a lesson in how not to write a television episode. But you have to give them kudos for shock value.

The only other Victoria that comes to mind is Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie company. I have to say, they make the most comfortable bras EVER. I’ll never buy a bra anywhere else. I have to cross the border to buy them, but it’s worth it. 

Disclaimer: my bras dont' have tassles, and my boobs never looked like that, even when I was younger. Just in case you were wondering.
If I’ve forgotten any other famous Victorias, my apologies. 

Happy birthday, Drina.