Showing posts with label characters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label characters. Show all posts

21 November 2018

Meeting Some Old Friends

by Robert Lopresti

I had an odd and  interesting experience today.

I am working on the seventeenth story in my series about mystery writer Leopold Longshanks.  This one will include several characters who have been mentioned before and I realized I needed a scorecard, so to speak. So I skimmed through all the previous stories to see what I have already mentioned about any characters who have, or are likely to, appear more than once.

And am I glad I did.  It turns out that the woman I have been referring to in my draft as Meghan McDonough is really Megan McKenzie.  Oops.

More annoying is the fact that another character I wanted to bring back is Fiona Makem.  It is an absolute grudge of mine about authors who confuse their readers by giving characters similar names.  If you have five people in your story why name them Pete, Pat, Paul, Polly, and Thusnelda?  There are so  many initial letters to choose from!

But in my case Makem and McKenzie had appeared in separate stories so I hadn't noticed the similarity before.  So in my current tale I got them on a first name basis immediately.

Another reason to make careful notes is that Fiona is attempting to write a mystery novel set in each county in Ireland.  I need to remember that she has already covered Death in Donegal, Whacked in Wicklow, and (my favorite) Plugged in Cork.  God only knows how she is going to handle Fermanagh and Laios.

My list of characters also set my fevered brain to work. What if straight-laced Officer Dereske met eccentric philanthropist Dixie Traynor?  That might provide some fun.

I always make character lists before starting a novel (for one reason, to avoid multiple use of the same initial, of course).  But this is the first time I have had to do it with a series of stories.

And I guess that's a good thing.  I like a series with a large supporting cast.  Think of Nero Wolfe or Amelia Peabody.

Now I had better get back to story #17.  Our hero is just about to reveal the solution...

18 September 2018

Put Some Feeling Into It

by Barb Goffman

Authors often hear the advice to write what you know. The advice is usually offered to make sure the author gets plot details right. You wouldn't want to write a story about a police officer if you know nothing about police procedure. You wouldn't want to write about skydiving if you know nothing about the sport. Getting details wrong annoys readers who knows those details. And you don't want that. You want readers to turn pages without noticing, to be enveloped by the story, not disengaged by errant details.

The beauty of such a predicament is you can find out what you need to know. You can interview police officers. You can go on ride-alongs. You can watch skydivers. You even could jump out of a plane. (The emphasis here is on you. I would not jump out of a plane for any amount of money. I like it when my stomach isn't six feet below the rest of my body.) Ultimately you can learn the information you need to provide a true reflection of whatever it is you choose to write about.

But correct plot details will only get you so far. If you want to write a story that readers love, you need to write characters that are real, and that means characters that react like real people do. This is what readers are talking about when they say they don't like two-dimensional characters. They don't want to read about someone who's all good or all evil. After a while, such characters become predictable and boring. Readers want to see the shades of gray. They want to see characters acting like real people do, with all the emotion that entails.

And the good part about all this? You don't need to interview people or go on ride-alongs to get these details right, though you can. (And is there a "right"? More on that below.) To get emotions and emotional reactions right, all you need are two things: a good imagination--which I hope you have if you're a writer--and you need the special sauce of solid writing, empathy.

First imagination: A good imagination will enable you to understand, to truly picture, whatever scenario you're writing about. And I don't mean to simply imagine the setting. I mean imagine who your character is in relation to the conflict in which you are placing him or her in that setting. You could write a setup involving an avalanche, for instance. A character who is an expert rock-climber would react differently to it than one who is a first-timer.

Now once you've got your characters established and your setup and conflict imagined, empathy enters the picture. You may have never been in an avalanche, but can you imagine how someone in that situation might be feeling? I hope so. Dig deep if you have to. Not everyone will react the same way, even first-timers. But react they will in some way. Some will be terrified. Some will be practical. Some might even be invigorated. If you truly know your characters, you should be able to empathize with each one and understand how he or she would react to different situations in thoughts, words, and actions. Showing those thoughts and how they impact the dialogue and actions is what brings the character truly to life.

That brings me to the question I asked above. Can you get emotions wrong? Not if you make them seem realistic. Not if you let the reader understand where the character is coming from. Show a character whose mother just died and he merely shrugs, and your reader might think the character is one-dimensional. They might have a gut reaction that no one would act that way. But if you show the conflict in the character's head, letting the reader understand why he's shrugging, then that action can become believable. And the character is suddenly real.

I dug deep, trying to make my characters real, when I wrote my newest short story, "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast," which came out last week in this year's Bouchercon anthology, Florida Happens. My main character's husband has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. I've never been in that position, but I've watched friends and family dealing with a parent with such a diagnosis. So I've seen what the reactions can be. But even if I hadn't had this experience, I could imagine it. A character could be horrified, saddened, determined to do the right thing, or some or all of those things at onceor have some other reaction. If you can empathize with who your character is, you can understand how he would react to the situation he finds himself in. And then you need to show it in thoughts and dialogue, as well as actions.

In my pot roast story, my main character, Bev, becomes determined to care for her husband, Charles, in their home, despite that her doctor recommends otherwise. If I had just had Bev decide to care for Charles at home by herself without showing her reasoning, some readers might have gotten aggravated with Bev (or with me), thinking that Bev is reacting unrealistically or stupidly. But I do show Bev's thoughts in the story:

"I was determined to care for Charles in our home for as long as I could. He was my husband. My love. I owed him that."


Four simple sentences, but suddenly Bev's actions make sense. They are believable because the reader can understand where Bev is coming from.

There are a number of other things that happen in the story that might be hard to believe if you didn't understand where the characters were coming from. That's true for most fiction, books and movies.

In Gone With The Wind (not sure why this particular movie came to mind, but here it is), when Scarlet helps Melanie give birth, it might seem unbelievable considering how selfish Scarlet is and how much it must bother her that Melanie is giving birth to Ashley's son, but she does help. And the reader/viewer buys Scarlet's actions because the reader/viewer understands that Scarlet is doing it for a selfish reason, to look good for Ashley, but also for some non-selfish reasons: despite her best intentions, Scarlet has come to care for Melanie and some small bit of conscience is trying to push its way to her surface.


In Casablanca, Rick hated Ilsa for leaving him in Paris. He didn't know why she did it. But once he learned her reasons, he could understand because he could empathize with her. And suddenly she wasn't two-dimensional to him or to the viewer. And that made the story all the more interesting.

So if you want to create characters that readers want to follow, characters that readers love, get to know your characters well and then imagine how each of them would react to the events of your story and then show those reactions. It's the reactions that bring the characters to life. It's the reactions that make them real.

Authors, have you had a book or story that particularly resonated with you or with readers because you created a character that felt particularly real? What was it? And what was it about the character that stood out?

And readers, have you read any books or stories that affected you especially and unexpectedly because the characters felt so true to life? What was one and why?

And finally, if you want to read more about Bev and Charles, you can buy Florida Happens in ebook or trade paperback. Here's a link to the Amazon version. And here's a little more about the story:

"The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" is about aging with dignity. Bev and Charles live in a retirement community near the Everglades. Their home looks out on a lake in which an alligator named Romeo lives. The couple has always loved watching Romeo. But now Charles has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and Romeo has become a source of stress. And these two don't need more stress. When Bev gets injured, she hires an aide to help care for combative Charles. But then items start to go missing, and Bev doesn't know who she can depend on. A friend suggests the aide isn't trustworthy, but Bev begins to wonder if the real person she can't trust is herself.

20 February 2018

Make Them Suffer--If You Can

by Barb Goffman

Authors in the mystery community are generally known for being nice folks. Helpful, welcoming, even pleasant. But when it comes to their work, successful writers are mean. They have to be.

An author who likes her characters too much might be inclined to make things easy for them. The sleuth quickly finds the killer. She's never in any real danger. In fact, there's no murder at all in the story or book. Just an attempted murder, but the sleuth's best friend pulls through just fine.

These scenarios may be all well and good in Happily Ever After Land. But in Crime Land, they result in a book without tension that's probably going to be way too short. That's why editors often tell mystery authors to make their characters suffer.

Yet that can be easier said than done. If you're basing a character on someone you don't like, then you might have a grand time writing every punch, broken bone, and funeral. But not every character can be based on an enemy. And sometimes characters seem to plead from the page, "Don't do that to me."

It's happened to me. I started writing a certain story a few weeks ago. I had a great first page, and then I got stuck. No matter how I tried to write the next several sentences, they didn't work right. I walked away from the computer. Sometimes I find a break can help a writing logjam. But not this time. In the end, I found I simply couldn't write the story I'd planned because, you see, that plan had included the death of a cat. And I just couldn't do it.
Don't do it!

The publication I was aiming the story for would have been fine with a story that included a dead animal. But I wasn't fine with it. And I knew my regular readers wouldn't like it either. Sure animals die in real life, and sometimes they die in fiction too. But those deaths should be key to the story. The Yearling wouldn't work if the deer didn't die. And Old Yeller needed the dog to die too.

I'm going to refer back to these very points if and when another story I've written involving animal jeopardy gets published. Sometimes that jeopardy is necessary for the story. And that's the key question: is it necessary? In the story I was writing about the cat it wasn't, and I knew it in my gut, even if I didn't know it in my head at first. That's why I couldn't bring myself to write the story as planned. Instead, with the help of a friend, I found another way to make the story work, one without any harm to animals.

It's not the first time something like that has happened to me. About six years ago I wrote a story called "Suffer the Little Children" (published in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even). This is the first story of mine involving a female sheriff name Ellen Wescott. She's smart and honest and way different than I'd planned. Originally she was supposed to be a corrupt man. But as I was thinking through the plot during my planning stage, I heard that male sheriff say in my head, "Don't make me do that. I don't want to do that." Spooky, right?

Sometimes characters
just have to be nice

While part of me immediately responded, "too bad,"--he had to suffer--another part of me knew that when characters talk back like that, it's because my subconscious knows what I'm planning isn't going to work. Either it won't work for the readers, as with the cat I couldn't kill. Or it won't work for the plot, as was the case with this sheriff story. So my corrupt male sheriff became an honorable female sheriff, and large parts of the plot changed. My female sheriff faced obstacles, but she was a good person. That was a compromise my gut could live with.

Readers, I'd love to hear about stories and books you've enjoyed that involved a plot event you didn't love, yet you accepted it because you knew it was important to the story. And writers, I'd love to hear about times you couldn't bring yourself to write something. What was it? And why?


26 June 2017

The Lie Detector

by Jan Grape

My Time magazine came yesterday. The man on the cover is Special Counsel and former FBI Director, Robert Mueller. Underneath his photo is the sub-title Someone's not telling the truth.

Wow. Can this man with his extensive education and background and work experience be able to sort out fiction from lies? Surely he can, but this is a new challenge for him. He's never had an investigation like this. But he does have plenty of money and a dream-team of legal eagles on his side. Personally, I think he will eventually cut through all the lies, deceits and cover-ups but it will take time.

As writers we are hoping to be as Lawrence Block (a belated happy birthday, Larry) titled his book, Telling Lies For Fun And Profit. We are liars of the first, second, third and last order. And, boy, do we have fun doing it.

Just a couple of things to remember. If we have a character who is a police officer and we interrogate people to find out who committed the crime, do we rely on the old stand-by like body language? Do we express that? How the suspect, slouched and seemed uninterested.

Does our amateur sleuth draw any conclusion from the person who will not look directly into the character's eyes. That is another basic "tell" of a liar.

Do we ask the right questions in order to catch the suspect in a lie? Of course, we do these things. And Class, be sure you set things up so that you either have an idea the suspect is lying. Or have your character acknowledge that he or she knows they need more proof.

Most parents have a built in bull-pucky meter in their head and know almost instinctively when their child is lying. If that's true then your character might even say or think that. It's doesn't guaranteed they know when a suspect is lying.

You know, as a writer you must make your story or book believable so be sure and check on the reality of your character either detecting a lie or missing it altogether. If your character misses it then be sure you set it up that way.

If all else fails, have your suspect take a lie detector test. I remember Very Special Agent Tony what's-his-name in the NCIS  TV series telling a suspect once that every time the man lied, his (meaning Tony's) ears would itch. Tony had proof of part and part he suspected, but scratched his ears at the right time and the suspect confessed. Makes me laugh every time I think about it. And I do know Tony's last name, I just am not sure of the spelling at the moment.

I realize most of you reading this are published writers. Most also have awards and honors for writing excellence. But gentle reminders of details are always welcome in my book. Just continue telling and detecting lies because that's what we do.

01 March 2017

Breaking into Showbiz

by Robert Lopresti


Usually I put a picture of myself at the top of this piece, figuring you should suffer in order to read my wisdom.  However, that is not me over there.  It is Charlie, who likes to sit on the desk between me and the screen.  He decided to co-author this piece, sort of.

Years ago  I saw an artwork by Robert Rauschenberg entitled ERASED de KOONING DRAWING, which was just what it sounded like.

And such is the case here, with me playing de Kooning and Charlie as Rauschenberg.  (You get to decide which is the bigger stretch.)

See, after I had poured hours of research into this piece and done most of the writing Charlie stuck his paw on my keyboard and erased it.  (Blogger is unforgiving about some things, as all of us SleuthSayers know.)    I put it back together as best I can.  When you go to Heaven perhaps St. Peter will let you read the Platonic ideal of this blog entry. Unless, of course, St. Charlie gets there first.


Today I am offering a quiz of a type I haven't seen before. I am going to give you a list of familiar characters from popular culture.  (You may not know all of them, but trust me, most will ring a bell.)  The question is: How did each of them start out?   The answer is, in one or more of the categories you see on the left.

Here is an example, not on the list below: Zorro originated in a short story by Johnston McCulley. See how easy?

One warning: Some of those categories on the left might get used more than once, or not at all.  Okay.  Go!

Rosie the Riveter.

Smokey Bear.

Harley Quinn.

Arthur Dent.

Topper.

Boba Fett.

Ma and Pa Kettle.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The Cisco Kid.

John Henry.

Dr. John H. Watson

Made up your mind?  Here are the answers.

http://groundedparents.com/2015/05/08/a-fond-farewell-to-rosie-the-riveter/
Grounded Parents page
Rosie the Riveter.  Song.  The iconic symbol of women in the World War II war effort originated in a song created by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb in 1942.   The image most associated with her during the war was an illustration by Norman Rockwell, cheekily based on Michaelangelo's portrait of Isaiah.  The illustration we associate with Rosie now ("We Can Do It!") was created by J. Howard Miller for Westinghouse factories, and didn't get its Rosie connection for decades.

Smokey Bear. Advertisement.  A lot of people think Smokey started with the black bear cub rescued after a fire in the Lincoln National Forest in 1950.  But the cub was named in honor of the Forest Service symbol who first appeared in ads in 1944.  By the way, the real-life bear lived to old age in the National Zoo and was so popular he had his own zip code (20252).

Harley Quinn. Television.  In the Batman universe Harley Quinn was a psychologist who tried to shrink the Joker.  She went nuts and wound up as his sometimes lover/sometimes enemy. She was the only character who made the jump from the animated TV series to the comic book.  Her portrayal by Margot Robbie was generally considered a highlight of the unloved movie Suicide Squad and is supposedly scheduled for another flick this year.

Arthur Dent.  Radio.  Poor confused Arthur Dent has wandered  throughout the universe (usually in a bathrobe) in a multitude of media but Douglas Adams' brilliant Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy started on the radio. It then became a series of wonderful novels, a clever TV show, and a dreadful movie.

Topper.  Novel. Cosmo Topper was the mild-mannered bank clerk who bought a car possessed by the ghosts of the Kirby's, a fun-loving, hard-drinking couple who dedicate their afterlives to making Topper's life more exciting, whether he wants excitement or not.  Before it became a movie and a TV series (with the wonderful Leo G. Carroll in the title role) Topper was a novel by Thorne Smith.  If Hollywood paid Smith fairly for all the ideas they cribbed from him, his descendants would be heating their mansions by burning thousand dollar bills, just to keep them from cluttering up the place up.

Boba Fett. Parade or Television.  Boba Fett, the iconic bounty hunter from the Star Wars movies, right?  A lot of people know that.  Some fans know he appeared earlier in the legendarily-despised Star Wars Holiday Special.  But two months earlier he marched, with Darth Vader, at the San Anselmo County Fair Parade.  Why?  Well, Lucasflm was headquartered at San Anselmo back then.  

Ma and Pa Kettle.  Real Life or Memoir or Novel.  You tell me.  In 1945 Betty MacDonald published The Egg and I, a comic memoir of life on a chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula.  Among the characters were the disreputable Kettle family, a lazy and not-too-bright couple with many children.  The movie version was a hit and the Kettles were so popular that they were spun off into a series of popular comedies.

Later the Bishop family, ex-neighbors of MacDonald, sued her, claiming that the Kettles were based on them and they had been libeled.  They settled out of court but when they sued the publisher MacDonald testified and swore she had made the whole thing up. Okay, she said the characters in the book were all composites, not based on real individuals. The jury believed her, or  maybe they didn't care for the plaintiffs, and found in her favor.  So: Memoir or Novel?

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Advertisement.  Robert L. May created the ninth reindeer for an ad for Montgomery Ward in 1939.  A decade later May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote the famous song, growing a number one hit for Gene Autry, and a permanent part of our holiday culture.

The Cisco Kid.  
Short StoryThe idea for this blog entry came when I read this piece in Dear Rich, a wonderful advice column about intellectual property issues.  Turns out the Cisco Kid originated in a story by O. Henry of all people.  In "The Caballero's Way," he was an American outlaw, and a nasty one at that.    By the second movie (1928) he was a Mexican good guy.

By the way, Dear Rich concludes that Cisco is in the public domain but his sidekick, Pancho, is still under copyright.

John Henry.  Real Life.  Most scholars seem to agree that the song (songs, really) about John Henry were based on an African-American prisoner working on a railroad tunnel after the Civil War.  (They have reasonable doubts about the steam drill contest, however.)  The problem is they disagree as to which tunnel was involved, with major candidates in Alabama, Virginia, and West Virginia.  I lean toward the Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, because I have read Steel Drivin' Man, by Scott Reynolds Nelson.  His choice was a resident in the state prison with the right name, although he was a slim young man from my home state of New Jersey. Nelson provides one convincing bit of evidence:  Some of the old versions of the ballad say that the hero was buried at the White House, which sounds like the craziest of fantasies.  However, see the postcard of the Virginia Penitentiary?  That white building in the middle was the work house and when they tore it down they found 300 skeletons in unmarked graves, just outside.  They realy did bury prisoners at the white house.

The ballad of John Henry became very popular during the left-leaning folk revival of the 1950s as a metaphor for the noble worker battling soulless automation, but the early songs about him written by and for African-Americans mostly had a different message: Don't let the bastards work you to death.  Tom Smothers spoke truer than he knew when he summed up the song as follows: "Dumb smart alec.  Thought he could beat a steel drill."

Dr. John H. Watson. Novel.  Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet. Didn't you know that?

17 September 2016

Namedropping

by John M. Floyd

Something I've always enjoyed, when reading novels and short stories, is finding things in the story that are familiar to me. Things like street names, restaurants, movies, quotes from movies, quirks of regional dialect, etc. When authors insert those into stories, it seems that it can establish an instant connection between writer and reader.

Because of that, I suppose it shouldn't have been surprising to me to find, after I'd published a number of stories, that readers sometimes approached me (usually friends, and often jokingly) with the suggestion that I should someday use them in a story. Or at least use their names.

You know, that's not a bad idea …

My reaction to that was Why not? We writers dream up names all the time for our characters; it would be easy to stick a real name in, now and then. Especially if you know that those folks already like what you write and would enjoy seeing themselves as a part of it.

I don't do it all the time, of course--most of my character names continue to come from the same place my plots do: my overactive and usually scary imagination. But when the situation's right and it fits the character and I can remember to do it, I try to plug in a familiar name.

Examples:

- Teresa Garver, an old friend and avid Woman's World reader who lives in Georgia, made an appearance a couple years ago as a high-school English teacher in one of my WW mini-mysteries.

- Chuck Thomas, one of my customers during my IBM days (and one of the smartest programmers I've ever known) showed up as one of three schoolkids who captured a python that had escaped from the zoo in a story called "Not One Word." It first appeared in the now-defunct Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine in 2002 and has been reprinted several times since.

- Charlotte Hudson, a former student in my writing classes, has been featured in two of my Woman's World mysteries. In one of them, she and her real-life husband Bill were farmers who owned a pond where the main character liked to fish.

- Cheryl Grubbs, a dear friend from my high school days, will be the deputy of Sheriff Ray Douglas in a story called "Trail's End," coming up soon in AHMM. She's also on hand in the next installment of that series, which I sent to AH a few months ago. Whether they decide to buy it is (pun intended) another story …

- Charles Heisley, an old Air Force buddy who lives in Honolulu (I visited him there once, back when I was globetrotting with IBM), became a Louisiana state cop in my story "The Blue Delta," which is included in the Bouchercon 2016 anthology Blood on the Bayou. (Note to all readers: Invite me to Hawaii and you get featured in any story you want.)

Sometimes the mention of a name can be oblique, and subtle. In honor of my friend and fellow Mississippi writer Larry Chavis, my lead characters in a Strand Magazine story a few years ago were passengers on the Chavis Island Ferry--in fact the whole story took place on that boat. And a lady in one of my many stories for Futures was Janet Bailey, a combination of the names of two of my writer friends, Janet Brown and Carole Bailey. I have also often used the last names of friends in stories, when those names were interesting and/or unusual: Denbroeder, Prestridge, Cash, Bishop, Wingo, Higa, Liggett, Valkenberg, Pennebaker, Zeller, Bassett, McClellan, Fenwick, Boatner, Fountain, Parrott, Stovall, Stegall, Blackledge, LaPinto, Tullos, Crowson, Burnside, Moon, Speed, Fetterman, Lindamood, etc.

Other writers, other approaches

All this is, of course, nothing new. Fiction writers use real names for fictional characters a lot, and it might be worth noting that Nelson DeMille--one of my all-time favorite authors--has taken that practice a step farther. In the Acknowledgments section of most of his novels, DeMille mentions those people who have made generous contributions to charities in return for his using their names as characters in the book.

My favorite memory of this kind of thing is of something my SleuthSayers colleague Rob Lopresti once did in "Shanks Commences," a story which appeared in (and on the cover of) the May 2012 issue of AHMM. At the time that Rob created that story, he and I were among seven writers who did weekly columns for the Criminal Brief mystery blog, and he chose to put all of us into the story. I still remember how much fun it was to read it--and how pleased I was to find that I didn't turn out to be the murderer. Rob talks about that story here.

How about you?

The obvious question is, have any of you tried using real people's names in your stories or novels, either as themselves or as characters? I know some writers are afraid that might backfire, but I think the chances are slim. As with statements about real places or real companies or real products, you'll get into trouble only if you say bad things about them, and if the mentioned characters are friends of yours, they'll almost certainly be pleased. If they're not pleased--well, maybe that's a good way to find out who your friends really are.

According to one of my writing buddies, part of the fun of being a fiction writer is being able to look at someone and say, "Be nice to me. If you're not I'll put you in a story and kill you off."

Fair warning …

25 June 2016

Damn Right, there's ME in my Characters!

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Several times a year we do these reading and signing events.  And people ask you a pile of questions about your books.  Most are repeat queries that you’ve heard a dozen times before.  So you get pretty good at answering them.

Lately, I was asked a question that I didn’t have a pat answer to.  In fact, it really made me think.

“Do you make up all your characters, or do you put some of yourself in them?”

I’d like to say that every character I write comes completely from my imagination.  For the most part, they do.  I can honestly say that I have never seen a real person who matches the physical description of any of my characters.  (Not that I would mind meeting Pete.  But I digress…)

Back to the question:  are there bits of myself in my protagonists? 

PROOF NO. 1 (others will follow in later posts)

“I am SO not a salad girl.”

Some people say this is one of the funniest lines in my screwball mob comedy, THE GODDAUGHTER.  It is spoken by Gina Galla, goddaughter to the mob boss in Hamilton, the industrial city in Canada near Buffalo, also known as The Hammer.  Gina is a curvy girl.  She says this line to her new guy Pete, as a kind of warning.   And then she proceeds to tell him she wants a steak, medium rare, with a baked potato and a side of mushrooms.

Apparently, that’s me.  So say my kids, spouse, and everyone else in the family.

Eat a meal of salad?  Are you kidding me?  When there is pasta, fresh panno and cannoli about?  (I’ve come to the conclusion that women who remain slim past the age of fifty must actually like salad.  Yes, it’s an astonishing fact.  For some people, eating raw green weeds is not a punishment. )

Not me.  I’m Italian, just like my protagonist.  We know our food.  Ever been to an Italian wedding?  First, you load up with appetizers and wine, or Campari with Orange Juice if you’re lucky.  When you are too stuffed to stand  up anymore (why did you wear three inch heals?  Honestly you do this every time…) you sit down, kerplunk.  Bring on the antipasto.  Meat, olives, marinated veggies, breadsticks, yum.  Melon with prosciutto.  Bread with olive oil/balsamic vinegar dip.  White wine.   

Then comes the pasta al olio.  Sublime.  Carbs are important fuel, right?  And I’m gonna need that fuel to get through the main course, because it’s going to be roast chicken, veal parmesan, osso buco, risotto, polenta, stuffed artichokes (yum), more bread, red wine.

Ever notice that salad is served after the main course in an Italian meal?  Good reason for that.  We aren’t stupid.  Hopefully, you will have no room left for it.

So yes, my protagonist Gina shares an important trait with me.  She likes meat, dammit.

So you can be a bunny and eat salad all you like.  Bunnies are cute and harmless.

But Gina and I are more like frontier wolves.   Try making us live on salad, and see how harmless we will be.

Which is what you might expect from a mob goddaughter from The Hammer.

Do you find bits of yourself sneaking into your fiction?  Tell us here, in the comments.

Melodie Campbell writes the award-winning Goddaughter mob comedy series, starting with The Goddaughter which happens to be on sale now for $2.50.  Buy it.  It's an offer you can't refuse. 
P.S.  My maiden name was 'Offer.'  No joke.  Although I've heard a few in my time.

22 February 2016

Too Many Cooks...er,Uh...Characters

by Jan Grape

I love to read good books with characters I can care about, root for or at last give them a chance to grow on me enough to keep turning pages and finish the book. Sometimes I think an author gets carried away or else so many characters keep talking that he has to write them all down before they quit talking and he doesn't know what to do.

There are many, many books that have characters that I like so much I'll keep buying that authors books forever. Even in hardback because I can't wait for the next installment. Lee Child's books starring Jack Reacher is one. Child starts off many times giving you a bit of background, a bit of scenery or immediately telling you the problem that Reacher is facing. You may read twenty or thirty pages with only three or four characters introduced. There might be two or three other names mentioned but they probably aren't going to be major...like a sheriff who picks up the walking Jack Reacher or Navy lieutenant who will escort Reacher to a private jet. Before long you've read the aforementioned twenty or so pages and you are right there into the story and know what is going on.

I looked at a half a dozen books on my shelf and discovered that was more or less exactly what Harlan Coben, Sara Paretsky, Michael Collins, Marcia Muller, James Lee Burke and Bill Pronzini do. In the first twenty or thirty pages they will introduce their main character and perhaps two or four other characters that may have something major to contribute to the story. They may even mention three or four other characters who probably only have a walk-in part but are necessary.

Recently, I read a book by an author I admire very much but had not read in years. Everything was fine in the first twenty-five or thirty pages but suddenly a new scene opened up with two new characters. Okay, I guess these two were necessary. Turned out they were what I might call minor/major characters.

They showed up every so often and were important to the story but before I could turn around twice another major/minor showed up and then three more major/minor folks and this happened in the first fifty pages. And the real major character was lost in the shuffle in my opinion.

Honestly, it seemed to me as if the major character should be the one introducing in these other characters and not handling them all out at once. I more or less got so lost that I lost interest in the book. It took me weeks to finish it. And in between I read three other books.

No, I can't say I enjoyed that book as much and I doubt I'll ever purchase another by that particular author. The author did connect all the dots at the end but I mostly didn't care one way or the other. I may be the only one who feels this way but I don't think so. After thinking about it this week, I remembered when we owned our bookstore there were a few customers who complained about too many characters dumped on you immediately. I don't mind if you wind up with 79 characters but please don't dump them on me in the first forty or so pages. I confuse easily.

Which in turn led to my title...too many cooks spoil...er...uh too many characters spoil the book.

Let me know what you think. See you on down the road.

10 January 2016

Shout at the Devil

© DreamsTime
© DreamsTime
by Leigh Lundin

I’ve been wrestling with a story. I know the plot, I know where I want it to go. But the characters are fighting back and they’re dirty combatants.

The first draft– too funny. Humor is difficult to craft, tricky to get right. Here I’m striving to craft a serious mystery, one with a dark twist ending, and it comes out… amusing, comical. Funny doesn’t work with dark, deathly endings.

If you don’t believe me, check out Shout at the Devil, Wilbur Smith’s novel or Peter Hunt’s movie. Setting: German East Africa. British aristocrat Roger Moore falls in love with Barbara Parkins, daughter of hard-drinking, hard-fighting poacher Lee Marvin. Those two bear a daughter. They enjoy tweaking the noses of the humorless and relentless Germans colonizing Tanganyika. Fun and games. Very droll, slapstick. Then World War I breaks out and the wicked German commander sinks their dhow, burns their house, and his nasty Schutztruppen kills Moore’s and Parkins’ daughter– Lee Marvin’s granddaughter.

Within a page, the story jettisons its humor and turns 270°. The light comedy: gone. In its place: death, destruction, misery, heartbreak, revenge.

No! No! It’s like digging into a lovely dessert and there, under the chantilly lies sauerkraut. Give me cabbage or give me cake, but not both at once, please.

Back to the writing board. Literally from scratch, I start again. The characters behave seriously at first. A woman wronged is designated my protagonist, kind of an anti-heroine. But then a guy steps in and, if you know men, they can’t resist heroically saving a damsel in distress– it’s coded in their DNA. But now it’s interfering with the plot where my anti-heroine is supposed to find her own resolution. Just like a guy, huh?

And then two characters decide to fall in love. That’s a tribulation because guys with their defective DNA can’t get hints. Despite her best efforts at subtlety and suggestions, the lad can’t decide if she’s interested in him or it’s strictly business. He’s petrified she might think sexual harassment, ruining a friendship and career.

While I haven’t started from zero again, I’m negotiating with my characters, wanting my anti-heroine to get through the plot. I’m willing to put the aforementioned relationship on the table and let the oversexed pair have their way with one another, but so far the greedy sods want everything their own way. They’re pretty certain they’ll win.

© Booker Prize

28 November 2015

I’m Not My Protagonist! Oh, wait a minute…

by Melodie Campbell

My college Crafting a Novel students often hear me say, “You can’t make every character sound like yourself.” And it’s true. Most beginning novelists (at least the ones in my class) write themselves into their books. The star of the book – the protagonist - sounds and looks an awful lot like the writer himself. Has the same likes, dislikes, and insecurities. But is of course, more heroic.

In fact, we come slamming up against the famous saying, “Write what you know.”

And some know themselves pretty well. (Others, not at all, but I digress…)

A protagonist who is a barely veiled, idealist version of yourself? We’ll allow you that for your first book. But if an author persists in writing the same protagonist over and over again, in every book and series they write, things get pretty stale.

So that prompted me to look at my own series to see what I had done. Ten books in now, I held my breath.

The Character I wish I was

I started the Land’s End Fantasy Trilogy when I was dearly in need of escape. My mother was dying. I remember looking at her hospital bedroom wall, and thinking, ‘if I could walk through that wall into another world right now, I would.’ That’s how the first of the series, Rowena Through the Wall, came about. I started writing it in the hospital.

Rowena isn’t me. She is the ‘me I wish I was,’ at least at that difficult time. I wrote the character I wanted to be. She’s prettier than me, more generous than I am, and in the end, more courageous. I was dealing with the issue of courage at that time. Courage to face what was coming and what was inevitable. I wonder how many readers of that series would nod their heads, hearing me say that now?

The ‘Me’ my Mother Wanted Me to Be

Next I grabbed A Purse to Die For off my shelves, a book I co-wrote with Cynthia St-Pierre. This book is in a different genre – it’s amateur detective, or classic mystery. The second book in the series, A Killer Necklace, has just come out.

The protagonist is a fashion diva – a television personality from the Weather Network. She’s drop-dead pretty, and always put together.

I am not. Spending more than ten minutes on my long hair is an impossible chore for me. You won’t find high heels in my closet. I like clothes, but am not a slave to fashion.

But my mother was. My mother was a fashion diva until the day she died. We’re pretty sure she was the longest subscriber to Vogue magazine, ever. Mom dressed me in designer clothes all my childhood. She was delighted when I did a little modeling as a young woman.

I never quite came up to her standard of fashionista though. “Put on some lipstick,” she would say.
“You look like a ghost!”

Looking at the series now, I can see that the main character is the ‘me my mother wanted me to be.’ It was, in a way, my tribute to her. Wish she could have been here when the first book was published.

The Closest I get to Me

So where am I in all my books? That’s easy.


I’m The Goddaughter. Sort of. In this wacky crime caper series, the protagonist is a mob goddaughter, who doesn’t want to be one.

I’m half Sicilian. I had a Sicilian godfather. I had to wait until certain people died in the family before I wrote this series.

In Gina Gallo, the ambivalence is there. ‘You’re supposed to love and support your family. But what if your family is this one?” Gina says this in every book of the series. Those words came directly from my mouth.

This book is meant to be laugh out loud funny. I let loose with my own wit, and shook off the inhibitions. Not that I’m very inhibited normally. But in The Goddaughter series, you get the real me peeking out. Not idealized. Not always upstanding. Sometimes just looking for a way out of a real mess, possibly of my own creation. But kind of fun to be with, I think.

So that brings us back to the beginning. One of the delightful things about being an author is allowing yourself to ‘become’ a character other than yourself, as you write. Fitting yourself into their skin, so to speak. As you write more, this becomes more fun, and more of a goal. I LOVE putting myself into the mind of a killer in a short story, if only for a little while. It’s a kick to ‘pretend’ to be someone else, by writing their story.

Let’s be honest: who needs drugs, if you’re an author? THIS is the ultimate escape.

Do you relish creating characters and living their lives through your fiction?

On Amazon

14 September 2015

Put The Words In The Right Order

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape
    He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck. His arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked between his enormous fingers. He was worth looking at. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated gray flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of colored feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn't really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

    His skin was pale and he needed a shave. He would always need a shave. He had curly black hair and heavy eyebrows that almost met over his thick nose. His ears were small and neat for a man of that size and his eyes had a shine close to tears that gray eyes often seem to have. He stood like a statue, and after a long time he smiled.
— excerpt from Raymond Chandler's second novel, Farewell My Lovely


Chandler - Farewell My Lovely
As I read this I couldn't help wondering, did Chandler actually see a huge man dressed this way? Or was it entirely from his imagination? Or a combination of real life and imagination? I always thought it a combination… surely he didn't see a real person, as huge as Moose Malloy dressed in this way, but after yesterday when I saw how a man was dressed exactly as he wanted to be. He obviously dresses like this routinely, as he seemed comfortable.

The man I saw was not big, standing probably five feet and eight inches, and from the rear looked somewhat slender until he turned around and I saw his beer belly. He was wearing a navy tank top tucked into a pair of overwashed faded blue denim farmer's overalls. The front part of the overalls had pockets for pen/pencils and I'm the sure what else the man deemed important might be stuffed inside. The overalls were rolled up to his calves, like he'd been river wading and on his feet were a pair of bright pink rubber flip'-flops. He had a silver toe ring on the second toe of his left foot and on the left ankle was a bright orange woven ankle bracelet and a wooden bead ankle bracelet. On his right ankle was another bracelet of woven material. On both wrists were bracelets, two on each side of beads and woven material.

On his head way grungy muddy-brown-rolled brim straw hat with a dark hat band. A couple of long feathers were stuck in back of the band which were knotted and had one green dice attached. Around his neck was an assortment of chains of silver or gold or woven material. He had a pair of sunglasses which he'd pushed down in order to look over them.

There's almost no way Chandler could imagine the way Moose Malloy looked or was dressed, however if you had perhaps seen some real person dressed or built this way, you could make up the rest. There's almost no way I could imagine the way the man I saw was dressed. You'd expect an editor to write you back saying this character is totally unbelievable. As I stood looking at him, I wanted to take his picture but dared not make someone angry. Yet I kept wondering, did he honestly think he looked good or okay? Maybe he was working on his Halloween costume? Had he been playing dress-up with some pre-school grandchildren and decided to make a quick trip to the store to buy something electronic for his mother? (NO, it wasn't Walmart although a picture of him would surely be voted into the Walmart you've got to be kidding, hallmark hall of fame.)

I'll admit that I love to people watch. It's great fum to sit someplace and see people and imagine them as characters in your next story or book. I've seen oddities many times. I've used a gesture I've seen someone make or the way they look. It does give you a chance to draw from those characteristics to make my characters look and act more realistic. I'm probably going to have a character looking like the man I saw eventually and I've decided he'll be an eccentric billionaire. But no one will suspect he's rich until he's dead.

Sometimes a story just writes itself, you just have to put the words in the right order.

07 October 2014

Stealing People

by Stephen Ross

Christopher Isherwood wrote, in his novel Goodbye to Berlin, "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking." I don't live in the world Isherwood inhabited (I'm not living in 1930s Germany, to start with), but I like the analogy and readily apply it to myself; with a slight modification: I am a vacuum cleaner, on full speed, actively inhaling all that is around me, quietly storing it away for future use... And what I find of most particular value in the dust bag are the people.

A question I get asked from time to time is: Where do you get your ideas? The question no one has yet asked me is: Where do you get your characters? It's a better question. Stories are about people doing things. A plot can't exist without someone in it doing something to someone else. And even if it's a story about a lone man climbing a mountain, it's still about at least one person doing something. A plot without characters is called a landscape painting.

I've written a few plot-driven stories in the past, and not surprisingly, none of them have ever sold.

For me, plot ideas often start out as abstract thoughts or singular slivers -- snippets of information; like this one: A MAN breaks into the company safe to steal the money inside, but instead of cash, he finds a $5 box of chocolates.

A snippet can be quite simple, and often quite plain and ordinary. What can set it on fire is when, as in the above example, the MAN becomes a character; when he moves from being a "placeholder" and comes to life with a back story, motivation, and physical traits. For example, the MAN becomes Jason Andrews: a 44-year old accountant with a drinking problem, grooming issues, and a gambling addiction. He owes $5000 to a loan shark who's promised to put a bullet in his good knee if he doesn't repay the loan by Friday (deadlines always make characters leap to life). Jason is desperate. He already walks with a cane, as his other kneecap was busted from a "prior financial incident".

With the beginnings of a fleshed-out character, the plot snippet has come to life, and the story could go anywhere. BUT (and I can't underline that enough times) wherever the story does go, it's primarily because the character of the character has led it there.

So, where did Jason Andrews come from...?

I made him up. From component parts.

  • An old man used to regularly catch my bus on Thursday evenings. He had a cane and a particular way of walking.
  • A friend in high school accidentally got shot in the leg, and reminded everyone regularly about how much it hurt.
  • A work colleague at my first job was a Colonel Blimp type. He had an exaggerated opinion of himself and talked a lot of self-important rubbish. He was also often on the phone talking to his bookie. Every call ended with him slamming down the phone.   
  • I have known many men with alcohol "problems". 

Jason Andrews came from people I know (or have known, have known in passing, or have maybe just seen once).

Three characters
Many books on writing suggest compiling lists when "building" your characters, e.g. age, height, eye color, occupation, IRS number, DOB, food preferences, favorite TV program, lucky number, and so on. I've never liked this idea; lists are just random surface information. I make up my characters as I go along, fine tuning each to fit the plot, mixing and matching traits and characteristics, part "borrowed" from real people, and part out of pure invention. I'm a bit like Dr. Frankenstein -- a leg here, a motivation there, a brain from over there. In short, I steal people, and everyone I know is a potential surgery candidate for my character laboratory.

People are fascinating. Some have the depth of an ocean, some are no deeper than a puddle. Some are Rubik's Cubes, some are about as complex as a paperclip.

One question I got asked once was: Do you ever put yourself in your stories (à la Mary Sue)? No. I like writing about things that I'm not. In fact, I try not to let my personal opinions, values, or beliefs drive any of my characters. I don't like didactic writing.

The hero of the book I'm working on is a Catholic priest. I'm neither a priest nor a Catholic -- if you ever see me near a church (of any faith), it's probably because I'm admiring the architecture.

By the way, if you ever want to experience Burke's idea of the sublime (intense awe), stand right in front of the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral), stare upwards, and then remind yourself that construction of this enormous and impossibly tall cathedral was begun about 350 years before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. In fact, so long ago, the first stone was laid in the same year the Aztecs kick-started their empire.

And also, by the way, thank you David Dean for your excellent recent piece: Adventures in Catholicism. It has been duly cut-and-pasted to my research folder.

So, where do you get your characters...?

Be seeing you.

08 July 2014

Friends & Influences

by Stephen Ross

In the late summer of 1988, I spent a week living inside a novel. I was staying with a friend (Albert), who himself was staying with a friend (Victoria), at a dilapidated farmhouse on the edge of a town that didn't seem to have anyone in it or even a name. There was a school house, closed for the summer (or maybe forever), and a general store that had a CLOSED sign in its door (also probably forever). The town was about forty minutes out of Hamilton, in a direction I couldn't tell you.

A long dirt track led up to the farmhouse through fields of corn, and Victoria's landlord, the farmer of said corn, who I never saw, apparently had a limp and only ever came to collect the rent after dark. Apparently, he'd turn up, like a character out of Dickens, clutching a lantern, his raincoat damp with the rain, even if it hadn't rained all week.

I was starting a screenplay (at that time of my life, I had wanted to be a screenwriter). Albert was writing a new play (he was a reasonably successful playwright), and Victoria was learning lines for two different upcoming productions (she was an actress). Victoria and Albert are not their real names. There was also a cat at the farmhouse, whose name I don't remember at all, and for the purposes of this telling, I'll call William Makepeace Thackeray.

Victoria and Albert were both ten years older than me; and Victoria probably a further ten on top of that. If a movie could have been made of that week, I would have cast George Sanders as Albert, Ida Lupino as Victoria, and in the part of "me" that confused-looking bystander who is always the last one to get the point and run when the foot of Godzilla slams down.


A condition of my staying over, as a guest of a guest, was to paint the living room -- in any color I liked. The farmer had left behind some leftover buckets of paint: beige and yellow. I painted the living room in a curious shade of sunshine. The front hallway, by contrast, had been painted (by Albert, a month earlier) entirely in black (walls, ceiling, and floor) and he'd trimmed it with a band of silver foil. It looked like the inside of a packet of cigarettes.

The days of that week were largely made up of writing; rehearsing, in the case of Victoria; and additionally in my case, an hour or two of painting. The evenings were given over to discussion and alcohol. Albert and Victoria were professional drinkers. I was (and still am) a mere amateur at that game. The paint fumes kept us out of the living room, and our nights were confined to the kitchen.

The kitchen was the heart of the house: a bare wood floor, off-white paint peeling off the ceiling, and a blue brick fireplace, which had been bricked up a decade earlier on account of the aged chimney being a fire risk. Irony in blue. Commanding the center of the room stood the kitchen table: a wide, worn, bare wooden artifact that had probably been in the farmhouse since it had been built (circa. 1920). It was the type of table on which you just knew a dead body had been laid out, many farmers' stubby fists had been slammed in anger, and more than one couple had made love. The kitchen was also William Makepeace Thackeray's bedroom.

Dinners were conducted like Pinter plays: non sequitur remarks and sullen pauses. Lots. Of. Pauses. With only the sound in-between of crickets in the twilight through the open window.

By the end of the first bottle, the three of us had largely returned to humanity and the conversation unfailingly moved onto the theatre. Ponderables, such as: What if Hamlet had been a decisive alpha-male? What if Martha and George had actually been happily married and really did have a son? What if Godot had turned up? And of course, memories of productions past (such as the murder mystery where the door jammed at the beginning of act two and the cast had to enter the cozy drawing room in London by coming out of the fireplace). I had my own share of those stories, having worked on and off in amateur and semi-professional theatre since I had been a kid (it was how I had come to know V and A).

On the third drunken night at the kitchen table, we got into a long discussion on narrative, and by about 3 a.m., we had drained six bottles of red and had distilled the discussion down to this: What is the most important thing in a story? Any story -- be it a play, a book, or a movie?

Moments of poetry was Victoria's response (an actor's perspective). And she backed up her claim with empirical evidence. An hour's worth of it.  

Structure was my answer. A couple of years earlier, I had embarked on a very long learning curve of story structure (I'm probably still on it) and structure at that time was foremost in my mind.

Get the hell out of my room was William Makepeace Thackeray's answer.

At around 4 a.m., Albert, who had been hitherto staring drunkenly at the bricks of the fireplace, slammed his fist down on the table. Having gotten our attention, he lit a cigarette (he already had one smoldering in the ashtray). In addition to playwright, Albert was a theatre director and, drunk or not, he knew exactly how to direct his audience.

"Characters," he said. "That's what's it all about. The characters are the only thing the audience or the reader cares about. It's the only thing they're interested in or that matters to them. They might recognize the odd passing moment of poetry, they might be peripherally aware if a plot has a solid structure, but what will stay in their minds long after the curtain closes, the end credits roll, or the book is closed, are the characters."

William Makepeace Thackeray mounted the table, strolled its length with bored indifference, examined a leftover slice of bread, and then dismounted.

Albert continued: "A story is viewed through the filter of its characters; it is only through them an audience experiences that story. It is a vicarious interaction."

I'm paraphrasing him from memory, of course, but the sentiments have long remained in my memory, to be revisited and re-examined at odd intervals. And honestly, it took me 20 years to fully appreciate what he meant. Movie director François Truffaut once said (again a paraphrase, because I don't remember exactly where I read it): What is behind the camera is not important; it's what is in front that is.

I lost contact with Albert and Victoria over the years. Albert was probably the closest I ever got to having a mentor. His knowledge slid off in chunks, and I followed him around for a while picking it up. Friends are curious things. Some stick around, some vanish. You can never tell. A great friend this year a year from now could be a distant memory. It's the friends that leave their mark, that induce changes to your sails and alter the course of your life that you never forget. Sadly, sometimes, they're not even aware they've done it.

Somebody asked Jean-Luc Godard why a character in one of his movies suddenly walks off and never makes a return appearance. He answered: Because life is like that.

Be seeing you!