Monday, July 9, 2012

Make Them Care

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My guest this week is Maggie Toussaint, author of Death, Island Style,  Murder in the Buff, Muddy Waters, and other mystery, suspense, and romance novels.
A tree falls in the woods. Do you care? Perhaps, but what if there was a nest of an endangered birds in the top? Do you care now?
That might be enough to reel some readers in, but the biggest grab of all is to put people in the mix. If people are in harm’s way, readers are drawn into the story. They have to know what happens next.
When the stakes are higher, the story matters. It carries weight and resonance, especially if it’s well done.
So, let’s make the stakes higher for that tree falling in the woods. What if the tree fell across an access road, and that road was the only way for a mountaintop community to reach medical care, and a pregnant woman is in labor?
Jayne Ann Krentz used this scenario in her 1993 release Hidden Talents. I mention this nearly 20-year-old book because that story and those characters still resonate with me, all these many years later.
There’s a reason we love reading books by bestselling authors. They know how to raise the stakes and make us care.
To make a short detour into craft, raising the stakes means layering the characters with strengths and weaknesses. Story events keep pushing the characters into areas where their strengths and weaknesses come into play.
It sometimes means having characters lose control.
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Take my character Molly Darter for instance. She had it all – good job, great husband, adorable kid, the respect of the community, a house she loved, an obedient dog – and in a single Judas kiss, her world crumbled.
She kicks her cheating husband out, works on a story about the nudist colony for her newspaper boss, even though she wants nothing to do with naked people. She races home to meet her son’s school bus and there’s her husband, mad because his key no longer fits in the door.
Do you care what happens next? Can you predict what Molly will do when she’s been pushed to her limits? Here’s a snip of Murder in the Buff to whet your interest:
…A familiar red pickup in the driveway gleamed in the dappled sunlight around the oak-shaded house. Hadley’s truck. I thought of all the times the sight of his truck had brought me pleasure, of how we’d sneak away to snatch some together time.
Little did I know he’d been sneaking around other places as well. He wasn’t worming his way back into my life. No way, no how. I’d rather starve and go to the poor house before I allowed him one ounce of sympathy.
A tide of anger came over me, washing away logic and common sense. I wanted to hurt him as much as he’d hurt me. He loved that freshly waxed truck more than life itself. I gunned my Suburban and rammed his truck. Glass broke. Metal crunched. I rocketed forward against my seatbelt restraint…
Molly valued staying in control above all else, and now she’s out of control. Even though she’s done something terrible, now she has to deal with the aftermath.
Does a particular character from a favorite book still resonate with you? Share it with me and you’ll automatically be entered in a drawing for an electronic download of Murder in the Buff, my campy cozy mystery.
Happy July everyone!
Maggie Toussaint


Formerly a scientist and currently a freelance reporter, Southern author Maggie Toussaint loves to mix murder and romance in her fiction. With nine published books to her credit, her latest release is Death, Island Style. Toussaint is an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime. Visit her at


laura thomas said...

Enjoyed the post. I like books where the story is character driven. Recently, while reading Wormwood, I actually cried. I was so inviolved in the scene. It takes a lot to make me cry and for a book to do it is amazing. When a book makes me feel a range of different emotions I will then read every book that author writes.

Donnell said...

Maggie, you write the best craft articles. You alwasy have something relevant to say, e.g. I care about what you have to say. You and Jayne Anne Krentz. :)))

I could mention characters that resonate with me, but I'll use my husband because he's more of a nonfiction reader and the other day he was talking about a series put out by Dana Fuller Ross and he said the name Whip Holt. I was shocked that my DH had paid that much attention.

Good luck with Murder in the Buff.

Fiona said...

What a vivid description of the car running into the truck!
Una Tiers

Maggie Toussaint said...

Here I am! I accidentally spent too much time weeding this morning. I meant to pull a weed here or there but the dollar weed was so long I could actually make a bouquet of them. One weed led to another, until the heat drove me in.

Thank you, Ellis for hosting me today. I'm delighted to be at The Unpredictable Muse. My muse is certainly unpredictable, though she doesn't like it when I talk trash about her.... Nice muse.

Maggie Toussaint said...

I'm delighted to see comments as well. Laura, Donnell, and Fiona are entered into the drawing for a copy of Murder in the Buff.

Laura - I'm with you. Character-driven stories are the best. I also have been known to binge on an author's stories and then be mad when there are no more to read. I always want my favs to write faster!

Hi Donnell, You say the kindest things. And you know what? I love it when my husband "gets" books. He's a nonfiction reader like your husband. Maybe we can all get together the next time I come out to the Springs.

Fiona/Una, I have to say this is one scene that did not come from personal experience, though I have to say that I lived out my fantasy by having her ram the back of his truck. I can't think of how many times I'm been furious and had to bite my tongue. Molly let me live vicariously through her exploits. This book is one that was born from the ashes of a sister's marriage. She was so very upset that I knew I had to capture that emotion and channel it into something fresh and new.

Y'all keep the comments coming!

Arwen said...

Terrific post, Maggie! I G+'d it.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Thanks, Arwen. Always good to see you!!!

Melissa said...

Ooo. Great post!

StephB said...

Maggie, I agree - add people into the mix and it ups the "anty" so to speak and gets readers emotionally involved. I loved Murder in the Buff. Molly's having a "bad" day (week?) and we're all drawn to find out how she's going to cope. She's a very relatable and down-to-earth heroine.


Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Melissa and Steph, Thanks for cruising by, ladies! And Steph thanks for being so nice to my Molly.

Mary Sutton said...

There are so many. But if you ask me what character I am passionately attached to and give me no time to think, I'd have to say Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series. He was so lovingly written, I'm sure he was Rowling's favorite as well.

Ellis Vidler said...

Maggie, I'm so glad you've posted here today. Good examples! I need to keep them in mind.

I love Professor Snape too, but I think it's Alan Rickman that did it for me. :-) He's so perfect!

Keena Kincaid said...

Hi, Maggie. I love your thoughts on craft almost as much as I love your books. Losing control of what we value most--our relationships, ourselves--is a must for any memorable character.

Years and years ago I read a story about a girl who gets sucked back in time to prehistoric days. The scene in that book that's stay with me is the heroine is terrified, confused and on the edge of a mental snap. The wise woman comes in and immediately makes everyone else leave, then she picks up a rock and says a word. She picks up a stick, says a word, and then touches her chest and says a word. It's a "me Tarzan, you Jane" moment but it's fundamental to the woman's characters. She is, above all else, practical.

Whew, that was long-winded.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hullo to Mary, Ellis, and Keena, So happy to have you all post comments.

Mary, Your choice is memorable for me as well. I'm glad you shared Severus Snape with us.

And Keena, thanks for your kind words about my writing. I love the example you cited about the girl who goes back in time. That basic communication is something we often take for granted.

Sue Perkins said...

Well that certainly made me want to find out what happened next. I could see the gleaming truck, the anger on her face and hear the engine revving. Very good way to describe the resonance. Loved it.

Polly said...

Will Trent from Karin Slaughter's series has that effect on me, maybe because he's such a basket case. An abused child, functionally illiterate because he's severely dyslexic, but brilliant because his handicap channels his thinking in an entirely different and original way. I cheer for him, feel sorry for him, and wind up in love with him. I'd love to write a character who has such an effect on a reader. Great post, Maggie.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

Upping the anty drives the story forward and sweeps the reader up into the action. I've read great books that made me wonder, how will they ever get out of this fix? I love it when that happens. When I plot out my own stories, I try to make the hurtles higher and higher. Sometimes I'm successful and sometimes I need to go back to the drawing board and rework the plot.
Wonderful and informative blog, Maggie.

Maggie Toussaint said...

And hello to Sue, Polly, and Sarah, so glad to have you ladies stop in for a visit!

Sue, I get the feeling that at some time you might have wanted to "get even" for hurt feelings like Molly did. That's the nice thing about fiction. We get to do that stuff without any reprisals, whiplash, or other complications.

Hi Polly - I can see how you would be drawn to a brilliant intellectual who was wrapped a little differently. Your characters are very much cut from the same mold. Your blind character Daniel has great resonance.

Hey Sarah, I'm delighted to see you here. It sounds like you've spent a lot of time thinking about this, which is great. Characters need to be challenged. And flawed. And endearing.

Okay. I'll shut up now on craft stuff.

Maggie Toussaint said...

My comment about the name I drew for my winner got eaten in cyberspace. Bad internet. Bad!

I randomly selected Sue Perkins as the winner. Way to go, Sue! I sent you an email through your website just now. Please contact me.

Thank you to everyone who commented and shared in the fun today. I'm so glad to have been a part of your day.

And thanks again to Ellis for hosting me here. I enjoyed hanging out at your place, Ellis.

Y'all can catch me most weeks over at my blog, where I blog about this, that, and the other. Have a great evening, everyone.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Congrats, Maggie, on the new novel. It's a winner!