Saturday, December 9, 2017

Christmas traditions

'Twas the night before Christmas
Christmas in my family has, or had, many traditional activities. Some have gone by the wayside as the family dwindled--there are only seven of us here, but we get together and eat and enjoy each other, and eat some more, and finally nap. Son John and sister Christy are the best cooks, but we all help.

So far, two of my characters like to cook, Claire in Cold Comfort and Madeleine in Prime Target. I prefer cooking in winter, and both of those books are set mostly in cold weather—Claire even owns a Christmas shop and bakes cookies.

The scents wafting from a busy kitchen bring back many memories. Baking, which started in November with fruitcakes and didn’t end until Christmas dinner, required help from everyone. My sister the artist makes pretty cookies. (It did take her several tries to get them looking good.)
Christy's Christmas Cookies

Mother used to make a range of candies and cakes and filled paper plates, which we tied up in red or green tissue paper with a bow. They filled the dining room table, and my sisters and I loved giving them out. I did it for many years, but now I’m doing well to make a few things for friends.

Christy's Lane Cake
My sister usually makes a Lane Cake. They're special and maybe made more in the south. Harper Lee mentions one in To Kill a Mockingbird, but this is not her recipe. Whatever, it's scrumptious and goes quickly.

My job is usually to set the table--less risky than some of my cooking. What are your Christmas traditions? Favorite foods?

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Showing Character

Do you like to see images of main characters, or do you prefer to let your imagination create the picture? I have ideas but love to see pictures. I collect them from various places to use for references, such as for Claire and Riley, the characters in Cold Comfort, for Madeleine in Prime Target, and for the others. I keep interesting faces to use in minor roles.
Claire, Cold Comfort

But mostly I want the description to let the reader see the person. There are many ways to show characterization. I try to keep descriptions visual whenever possible, but that doesn’t mean I give a driver’s license description.

Show rather than tell. Physical attributes are more than hair and eye color. You might show how the person walks—does he walk, swagger, amble, sidle, or slither into the room? Does he look directly at you when he talks or does his gaze slide away?

Riley, Cold Comfort
Show, don't tell. How the character looks can be shown through the effect on others. Instead of She was breathtakingly beautiful, you might say Joe and every other man present forgot to breathe when Angela entered the room. Instead of George was big and mean-looking, try something like Walking with George was like walking with a Doberman—one look and people made way in a hurry.

Clothing can show a great deal. Is the character neat and clean but wearing an obviously homemade dress? Does Dan have snagged threads and salsa stains on his Dior tie? And there's always the church organist with the red lace underwear. List all the physical characteristics on a separate page so you don't forget that on page twenty she had green eyes and on page two hundred you make them match the topaz necklace she's wearing. If she's only an inch shorter than another character, she'd better not be looking up at him unless she's sitting down. I often use pictures I cut from magazines or wherever and tape them to the wall by my desk.
A marvelous sleezy character

Mannerisms are good ways to make a character memorable, but use the mannerism sparingly. Don’t limit your character to a single action so that you repeat the same thing over and over.  Instead of having her twist a strand of hair around her finger until the reader wants to cut it off (either the finger or the hair—watch those pronouns), find ways to vary a nervous habit. Make a list of applicable verbs if she plays with her hair: chew, finger, pull, stroke, tuck, whatever. Or maybe she fiddled with her clothing, adjusted her glasses, pushed her hair back, picked at her nails.

You can also use physical surroundings, the character’s past, and his or her name to enhance the character’s personality. Someone told me that Margaret Mitchell started out calling her heroine Pansy. Thank goodness she changed her to Scarlett. How about Eudora Welty’s Stella Rondo? The name rolls off the tongue and stays with you. Faulkner’s Colonel Sartoris Snopes. It suits the character. A bitter prostitute named Tanya sounds more in character than one named Mary Jane. Give your character names a lot of thought and try to let them convey a sense of the person.

What are names you love? Hate? How do you name your own characters? 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

I blame Kerry Greenwood

For all these muffins I’ve been making. In addition to the charming Miss Fisher series, she writes the Corinna Chapman books, which, aside from some great characters and a wonderful flat and bakery, feature muffins.

Carrot Muffins
Corinna owns Earthly Delights, a wonderful bread bakery. Ms. Greenwood does an outstanding job of describing the aroma and taste of Jason’s muffins and even provides a recipe. Of course I made them. Several times, as it happens. And ate way more than I should have.

It all started with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a delightful TV series set in nineteen twenties Australia. The cast is even more delightful. I’ve fallen for all of them. The relationship between Miss Fisher and Detective Inspector Jack Robinson is one to be savored. There’s something to be learned there too—if I were an actor I’d be studying the way Nathan Page (Robinson) communicates with his eyes. (Is there a way to write that?)  Page also does voiceovers. Wow. I wish I could afford to have him read Prime Target. I'm sure he could get the accents right, and he has a great voice.
DI Jack Robinson (Nathan Page)
 Essie Davis has captured the essence of the confident, capable, and intrepid Phryne Fisher. (Her outfits are fabulous.) I could go on with Dot and Hugh—also perfectly cast—and the others, but it would just be more praise.
Miss Fisher (Essie Davis)
DI Robinson, Hugh Collins, Dot Williams, Miss Fisher
After watching a couple of TV seasons, I found the books. As you’d expect, there are differences, but the TV series stays true to the characters and the flavor of the books. At least Miss Fisher doesn’t bake bread and muffins. Thank you, Ms. Greenwood.

I recommend both series, but Miss Fisher has my heart. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

McClellanville, SC

Williamsburg Photo Ser Amantio di Nicolao

COLD COMFORT was a fun book to write. I pored over maps, websites, and real estate ads, looking for the right neighborhoods and houses for the characters. I wrote to friends who live in D.C. for information on the traffic, how to get around, and where typical people might live.
Mistletoe window

Then I spent a few days in Williamsburg, VA, and drove down to McClellanville, trying to absorb the details and imagine the scenes. My sister was with me and took notes--which were a joy to decipher later! We took lots of pictures and enjoyed ourselves, with many stops for fun. We discussed murder and how to dispose of bodies in soft voices in restaurants, but we still earned a few odd looks.

Now I’m dragging her and my husband to the mountains in nearby North Carolina to research another book, but I must admit it’s slow going. No matter how hard I try to ignore it, the news is a constant distraction.
North Carolina mountains

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Making the heart pound

In an action or dramatic scene, one in which the emotions are high and the reader is on the edge of the seat, the mood is tense, the writing tight. Define the emotional goal of the scene. Use all the senses, the coppery taste of blood, the cold sting of the rain, the smell of old fish. Limit the number of adjectives (descriptive words). Cut any that aren’t absolutely necessary. Find strong verbs and let them do the work. Avoid adverbs ( –ly words).
Make the main character (MC) want something badly, need it now. The reader must want the same outcome and want it now. Then deny them the desired outcome. It can be the discovery of a small puddle in the desert when he’s dying of thirst. Let it seep into the ground and disappear as he reaches for it. He can dig with his hands, ripping his fingernails, tearing his skin.
Or a woman is in labor and her car plunges over a bank. The baby starts to come. It’s night, there’s no moon, there’s no one around. She must save her baby and herself.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Or a man might be following his wife to see if his suspicions are true—who she’s meeting and why. What will happen to his child if he divorces her? All kinds of tense situations make up action scenes.
The pacing in an action scene is fast. There’s no room for background or description, which will slow the action. Save these things for slower scenes and when you want to give the reader a little time to catch her breath.
In action, every word must count. Vary the length of your sentences, using short, terse statements and fragments mixed with longer sentences. Keep paragraphs short. Eliminate “and” as much as possible. Don’t use words that dilute the meaning, such as “almost,” “seemed,” and “nearly.” Make it hard and fast; give it some punch.
Here’s a small piece of a tense scene from Time of Death:
Alex heard a whisper of air behind her. A hand grabbed the back of her shirt, jerked her to her feet.
“Move, girl.” The straw man pushed her forward toward the road, oblivious to the brush and vines in her path.
She jerked, tried to free herself, but he switched his grip to her arm, crushing it with steel strength. The man, Hunnicutt, wouldn’t let go no matter what she did. Save your strength. Wait for a chance.

The sentences are short, choppy. My goal was to have the reader share Alex's fear. There’s a small chance to catch your breath when she plans, then the action picks up again.
The Long Riders
Remember, any type of scene must advance the plot and develop the characters. It should show how people act during bad times or in difficult situations. Ask yourself how the scene shows action. It doesn't have to be physical action. The scene must have consequences. What happens as a result of this scene?

How do you write action scenes? What are the emotional goals?