Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The importance and influence of setting

Blue Ridge

I’ve been thinking about setting because I’m working on two stories in quite different environments. One is in Mexico and the other the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mountain setting is near me and I can easily go there. Mexico, especially the jungle in Chiapas, is much more difficult. I spent some time in Toluca and loved it, but I never got to Chiapas. It’s requiring a lot of research.

Setting, or place, has several functions in a story. The simplest is that it provides background for your characters if you use something well known or that has a character of its own. “He’s from the Bronx.” “She’s from Savannah.” These statements give an initial impression of the character based on our ideas of these places. You may go on to add detail or provide more specific information, but the reader still has certain expectations. We don’t expect the character from the Bronx to be slow-talking and laid back, and we’d be surprised to find the Savannah character edgy and in-your-face; if this were the case, you’d have to explain why.

On the road to Tenango
Setting also provides a backdrop and color for your story. Streets, buildings, restaurants, or some wild, rugged terrain—it all depends on your story and what you want to happen. Most people write what they know or have a good chance of finding out. I wouldn’t set a book in Alaska because I doubt if I could get enough of a feeling for it from books and movies or the Internet, but I could set one in Atlanta or most towns in the South. Even Texas, in the last few years, has taken on a more “cowboy” character and would be harder to write about in depth.

These days, if you chose a place you’re not familiar with, you can easily find pictures and information about restaurants, streets, businesses, and places of interest on the Internet. But be sure you’re correct. If you can find someone who’s spent time there, try to interview them or have them review your story for accuracy. They may be able to add some details you wouldn’t otherwise find, such as smells, sounds, whether it’s windy or the air is visibly polluted.
Threatening storm over TeoTenango

Setting also affects the characters’ attitudes and expectations. If they live in a small town with a strong religious community, it might influence their actions in certain situations, or it could provide part of the conflict. Think what kind of setting would add to your story. What could enrich it?

I have my work cut out for me, but I love both places, so it's fun.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

First in the McGuire Women Psychic books

   Rita Nelson opened the door for them. “Come in. I told them you were coming.” She gestured toward the darkened room behind her. An older woman with short gray hair pointed a remote control at a softly murmuring television set, and the orange-skinned characters faded away.
   The man, slumped in a worn brown recliner, continued to stare at the screen. His hands were folded across his stomach; light from an overhead fixture glinted off his scalp through his thin strands of hair.
   “This is Kate McGuire.” John said as he stepped into the room. He bent down in front of the woman, taking her hands in his. “Hello, Mrs. Nelson. May I ask you a few questions? I don't want to open old wounds, but something has happened, and I need your help.”
   Kate followed him in and, at Rita's nod, slipped into a stuffed chair on the other side of the silent man.
   The woman held tightly to John's hands. “I know you don't mean no harm, son, but there’s not no more we can tell. Harlan here don't talk to nobody nowadays, and Rita don't know nothing.”
   “I'd like to try again though,” he said, sitting on the sofa beside her without letting go of her hands.      “Do you know about the girl who was just found in Lake Jocassee?”
   “Heard it on the TV,” Harlan said, still staring at the screen.
   “It's possible that the same person who … took Charlene from you, is responsible for her.” He tried to avoid using the words they hated, words that pierced the heart. He caught Kate's eye and saw that she understood.

   “Is this one rich? Maybe the police'll try a little harder this time,” Harlan answered, turning to John.    “They didn't find nothing, just quit, when we lost our girl.”

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Misplaced Modifiers

Something I read recently brought modifier placement to mind. A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes another word, phrase, or clause. Modifiers should be placed as close as possible to the word modified. Misplaced modifiers, those that are improperly separated from the noun they modify, change the meaning.
Copyright : Andrey Kiselev
I had a bag of apples from our tree in the freezer, so I made a pie. I would hope the tree is outside and not in the freezer, as this says.

She poured a hot cup of coffee. Hot modifies cup, not coffee.

For sale: three used girl’s bicycles. Used modifies girl, so this means the girl is used but the bicycles, which are for sale, could be any age or condition. However, this is such a common mistake that few would notice. It should be three girl's used bicycles. 

Only one had a flat tire, meaning the other two bicycles had good tires. Moving the word only changes the meaning entirely: One had only a flat tire, meaning it had no other tires.

I loaded the bicycle into the van with the flat tire. The van has a flat tire.

Something to think about. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Through the character's eyes

Unless you use your author voice as a narrator in your story, general wisdom says the narrative should be written in the voice and through the eyes of the viewpoint character. The reasoning behind this is first to avoid confusion for the reader. The character doing the thinking should always be clear. Second, using a single POV per scene should make the reader’s experience stronger and help generate stronger feelings for the character. 
Point of view gives us insight into the character. Narrative should show us the world through the character’s eyes and experience. Avoid showing things that character wouldn’t know or notice. A child wouldn’t walk into a living room and describe the red silk upholstery on the Louis XIV settee. A man who’s lived his life at sea is unlikely to rattle off the names of the plants in someone’s garden, and if he does, the reader needs an explanation: Sam, still getting used to being on land again, paused to study the lush garden. He recognized azaleas and bluebells, favorites in his mother’s yard, but most were nameless. Colors rose and fell, red to pink to white and back again, much as the swells of the sea. Okay, not great writing, but it shows how Sam sees the garden and how it relates to his experience.
But if I wanted to show Sam being familiar with the plants and landscape features, I’d give him some background to explain it. Maybe he kept a worn book on gardening in his cabin on the ship and dreamed of solid ground and an English cottage garden. Or his mother owned a nursery and he remembered helping her plant similar flowers.
There are many ways to do it; just keep in mind who the beholder is and how the scene will look through the character’s eyes. What will be important or stand out? Tie the scene to the character.
Can you think of any examples where the narrative didn’t fit the character describing it? Do you do it? I have to go back and check, and often I have to make changes. I find I was the beholder, not the character.

As Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

POV and Dialogue with Billy and Redge

Here's something I was thinking about that's often a problem--scenes with no clear point of view or image of what's happening.
Consider the following conversations between Billy and Redge. Which is easier to picture or gives you a visual image of the two brothers and what they’re feeling?
“I got to tell you something, Billy,” said Redge.
“I killed Mooney,” he said with a nod.
“You did?” Billy asked with a look of awe. (This implies it's Redge's POV)
“Yep,” Redge said.
 Well, you know who’s speaking, but what are they feeling? What’s the mood of the scene? Liven it up and give a visual image by adding some beats, or actions.
Redge searched the bar for any listeners. He spat a plug of tobacco, then lowered his voice and pulled his brother close. “I got to tell you something, Billy.” (Redge’s POV and sets the scene in a location)
“What?” Billy, catching a whiff of Redge’s breath, jerked away. (Shift to Billy’s POV) OR
“What?” Billy wrinkled his nose and blinked, turning his head away. (Still in Redge’s POV because this is what Redge sees)
“I killed Mooney.” He puffed up his chest and stood straighter. (Shows that he’s proud of what he did)
“You did?” Billy’s eyes bulged.  

“Yep.” Grinning, Redge rocked on his heels and pulled a gun from his pocket.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Haunting Refrain, Audible.com
This is an excerpt from Haunting Refrain, suspense with a little romance and a touch of paranormal. 

 Martin looked sick. “Do you have any feeling about the person strangling her? Was it someone she knows?”
“A man, I think. I couldn't see, but I have an impression of size and strength that suggests a man. That's all.” She looked up at him. “Please tell me what this is about.”
“Only one more question. Could you tell what time of day it was?”
“What does that matter?” she asked. “It was dark. Night. Now whose is it?”
He took a deep breath and held out the card. “The sweatband belongs to Kelly Landrum.”
Kate reached for the card, wondering where she’d heard the name. “Kelly Landrum? Who's—”
“She's the girl who's missing!” Venice cried, catching the cup as it slipped from Kate's hands. She took a quick sip and choked.
Kate snatched the card, needing to see it for herself. She read the name. Kelly Landrum. A spot like a teardrop blurred the blue ink. An omen? Please, don’t let it be true.
“Yes, she's the student who's been missing for four days.” Martin kept his gaze on Kate's drawn face. “Her picture is on every newspaper and television screen in South Carolina. Someone found her car here on the campus. The police have been all over the place since then. We should call them, Kate.”
“No! I haven't seen anything that could help them, and I'm not touching that thing again.” Kate retreated into the chair, pulled her knees up under her chin, and wrapped her skirt around her legs, holding herself tightly. If she didn’t, she might fall apart—the image was so strong, so immediate. She touched her throat. And if it was true . . .

"Quirky, engaging characters .... Both Venice and Kate are charmers!" -- Romantic Times 
"The interaction between Kate and her friend, Venice, is priceless." A. McGraw
"...this first novel [is] a good choice for readers who like a bit of the paranormal in their mysteries." -- Library Journal

Saturday, October 3, 2015

What makes memorable characters?

Jack Nicholson, always memorable
Why do some stories touch us so much that we return to them and the characters again and again? Why do the characters come back to visit our dreams many times?
Maybe part of it is the way each character’s story resolves itself—not necessarily happily but in a just and satisfying way. Sometimes the resolution isn’t what we expect, but if it seems to fit, if it’s what the character has earned, we’re pleased.
In my favorite books and movies, the characters grew. Each one developed in some way that made us cheer. Not all the characters were likable, but they were interesting and each elicited an emotional response. We cared. 
The point is that we should try to do the same thing in our stories. But how?
A book that never lost its appeal
We need to give each of our main characters some weakness or undeveloped trait and then impose conflict and circumstances that force the character to react. From those reactions, the characters should learn, gain confidence, and move along their path. This doesn’t have to be a positive path, but if it’s your protagonist, he or she will probably then need to overcome the negative aspects—unlikely in a short story because it takes time to show so much change.
Placing the story in a foreign or culturally different setting imposes change and provides opportunities for the character to react according to her personality and outlook. “Foreign” could be anything different from the norm. An egocentric, in-charge character might become a patient in a hospital. A timid, indecisive soul could find himself in charge of a group of children in a hostile environment. Those are extreme examples, but forced change is a good way to do it. 

In Cold Comfort, Claire is an ordinary woman who becomes a killer’s target, forcing her to move outside—way outside—her comfort zone. Riley, because of a personal failure, hates working with women, but a debt of honor forces him to help Claire.

There are many ways to do these things, limited only by our imagination. Do you consciously think about making your character grow? How did you do it? What vehicles or devices have you used?