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)!