Friday, April 19, 2019

Ideas, Where Do Writers Find Them?

 Story Steps

For those of you toying with the idea of writing, I thought I’d share some of the steps I take before and during the time I’m writing a story. I had a page titled Story Steps on an earlier version of my website, but dropped it when I started blogging. This will be the new improved and expanded version of Story Steps that I hope will provide you with some ideas to use when you write.

A popular question writers field from non writers is “Where do you get your ideas?”


If you’re like me, your world is bursting with ideas. An overheard comment by a stranger, something you see during the drive to work, an article in the newspaper, an snippet of historical fact from a book, a family crisis.

Bam! You have the germ of an idea? Notice I used the word germ.

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, germ is an initial stage from which something may develop, i.e. the germ of a brilliant idea.

Basically, we’re looking at a starting point, but what do you do with that germ?

Well, writers have an annoying habit of asking, "what if" – what if that empty plastic bag by the side of the road contains a dead body? What if I lost my job? What if the enemy has a code no one can break?


What if?


"What if" is a magical phrase that ignites a writer's imagination. Let me show you how it works for me.

Many years ago the girl friend of a neighbor’s son ended up pregnant. They were both young and wild and doing stuff they shouldn’t. Not exactly parent material. But the young man’s older sister, now she was married and in a stable situation. And unable to have children.

For the good of the child, the young unmarried couple asked the older married couple to adopt their child.

This situation became the germ of an idea for a book that blossomed into Feather’s Last Dance. Of course this germ needed lots of work because an idea needs to be big enough to keep readers (as well as the writer) interested for the duration of the novel.

Instead of a wild young boy, I thought what if the heroine is the rebellious teen who seduces the very nice boy next door?

What if she gets pregnant? What if she doesn’t want to ruin his life? What if she has the baby without his knowledge. What if she gives the baby to her sister who just happens to be married to the hero’s brother?

Talk about complicating matters.

On the sad side, I had to remove their siblings in order to put the biological parents together. Now they're six years older and the hero is a conservative banker who doesn’t believe the wild heroine is a suitable guardian. Probably because he discovers her fan dancing at a night club.

Now there can be a custody battle for the boy. If the hero is willing to go to court for custody of the boy he believes to be his nephew, what will he do when he discovers that boy is his son?

This is where I "found" the idea for a story that would hopefully grow into a novel.  Stay tuned for the next step in how I create stories.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Importance of the Written Word

I love to write. I have always loved to write. I wrote my first short story when I was in second grade. My ability to write well has helped not only me, but also others. As a student, it helped me earn better grades–my essay on moiré patterns meant a passing grade in physics. An article I wrote about a Federal Aviation Administration award for mechanics provided the impetus for two Alabama gentlemen to receive it. A personal essay published in the local newspaper gifted a wonderful woman with a day set aside in her honor by the mayor.

It has also prompted my readers to ask if I’d write another book about a character because they want to continue reading about him or her. While writing hasn’t made me rich and famous, it’s brought me a lot of joy.

The ability to communicate through writing is not going away. Right now, most of you communicate continuously via text messaging, but the truth is from the time you get up in the morning until you turn off your cell phone at night, you’re surrounded by the written word. Why? Because somebody had to write the ads you hear or read, the scripts for the movies and TV shows you watch, and the lyrics of the songs you listen to. Think about it. Someone wrote the text on the cereal box you opened this morning for breakfast.

There are few career paths that don’t involve some type of writing. Just to get a job usually requires a resumé. This written representation of who you are and your skill sets can mean the difference between an interview and a rejection. Many jobs require writing. Web designers not only design attractive websites, they also have to write content. Police officer, insurance adjuster, teacher, medical professional, civil servant– being able to communicate through writing is an important skill for them. Even mechanics have to write up what they did after they repair a vehicle.

Writing doesn’t necessarily mean writing a novel. It can take many forms.

One popular method of writing is journaling. People journal for many reasons–for fun, to manage stress, to solve problems, or to record personal thoughts and experiences.

To be honest, I’m not into journaling, but I think that’s because I’ve always written fiction stories and essays. My writing helps me manage stress, solve problems, and record personal thoughts and experiences. These may be developed in a humorous essay or become a scene in a story. In my recent release, Butterfly Bride, the heroine tries to gorge herself on chocolate bonbons. When she takes a big bite of the first one, she discovers there’s half a worm in the remaining piece of candy.

Ugh! 

This didn’t happen to me, but it did to my mother many years ago. She had helped herself to some of the candy in a Valentine box my boyfriend gave me. Imagine her distress when she discovered half a worm in the a piece of chocolate left in her hand! She also faced a dilemma: admit she’d been eating my candy or stay quiet and let me eat a worm. I’m happy to say, she came clean and I tossed the box of candy.

A pretty box on which a writer had listed the types of chocolate included, the ingredients (not including the worm), a Valentine’s Day quote, the name of the company who made the candy, and the weight of the candy.

Monday, February 4, 2019

What My Dogs Taught Me About Story Characters, Part 2

In the previous blog, I discussed the profound effect childhood experiences had upon our two dogs. To recap, Toffy was locked in a small room as a puppy, probably smacked for minor puppy indiscretions, and fearful of stern male voices. Bandit, on the other hand, had no idea anyone abandoned him. He was cosseted and loved from puppyhood. He saw life through a completely different lens than Toffy.
Toffy

Remember, internal conflict should be based on the character’s past and how he or she deals with life. Although not all types of fiction require emphasis on internal conflict, it behooves a writer, especially a writer of romance or character driven stories to create characters with strong internal conflict.
Bandit


For example, the romance in a story needs internal conflict, but the character’s internal conflict exists with or without the romance. In other words, Toffy will always be frightened of small rooms whether or not she has loving owners. Unless something bad happens to Bandit (and no, it didn’t), he will always be trusting of humans.

In a romance, the hero triggers a confrontation with these inner demons for the heroine, and/or vice versa. For the romance to succeed, the character needs to grow and change into someone who has learned a lesson that frees him or her to love.

Now I’m not suggesting you overload your characters with crippling psychological baggage, but you do need to search their lives for major events that have shaped them into the persons they are when your story begins. These character-forming moments should be the linchpin of their motivation throughout your story.

Let’s look at my recently released novel, Butterfly Bride. The germ of this story came from a passage I read in Lawrence Stone’s book, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500 - 1800. He describes a typical arranged marriage between two young people. The groom was not complimentary of his bride and soon left for a tour of Europe that took him away for several years. Upon his return, he failed to recognize his own wife at the theater.

Stone doesn’t delve into the situation any deeper, but the wheres and whys of this situation gave me a plot with many possibilities for external conflict. It didn’t give me any internal conflict so I dug into the lives of the heroine and hero to discover their internal conflicts. What would they be like at the beginning of the story? How would they change by the end so that they could fall in love with each other?

In other words, what psychological baggage do they have when the story starts and what psychological baggage do they have when the story ends?

Hope, the heroine, lacks self-esteem and self-confidence because she is less attractive, overweight, and stammers while her sister is a confident beauty. Her marriage aspirations are few. She sees herself married to a nice, probably older, gentleman.

Kit’s parents divorced, something almost impossible to do in Regency England. The scandal sent his mother to Scotland and his father into a spiral of drinking and gambling. Poverty has dogged Kit throughout his youth, but he hides behind arrogance and pride.

When his father loses a wager, Kit honors it even though it means marriage to a young woman he’s never met. Hope’s father offers him a future: marry Hope and leave immediately for Canada and learn about the shipping business. Kit accepts his soon-to-be father-in-law’s offer of financial help.

He’s gone for seven years and returns to discover his child bride has blossomed into a lovely woman—who has filed a petition to annul their marriage. I don’t want to give away all of the story, but this is a romance with a “happily ever after” ending. Hope and Kit resolve their internal conflicts and grow into being capable of loving themselves and each other.

If Butterfly Bride were a literary novel, the ending might not be as happy for our protagonists. What if, like Toffy, Kit could not shake off his past. What if he were unable to come out from behind arrogance and pride to love Hope?


This is why I prefer romance.


Sunday, December 23, 2018

What My Dogs Taught Me About Story Characters, Part 1

Once upon a time we had two dogs. Their names were Toffy and Bandit. 

We adopted Toffy from the animal shelter. A note pinned to her kennel door said: “thrown over the fence at Thanksgiving” and based on that note, she became Toffy.

She was only a year old, but that first year of her life scarred her in numerous ways. Within a few weeks, we knew she had been locked for hours in a small room, she had been severely punished for going potty in the house, and she had belonged to a man. I’d never known of a dog chewing her toenails, yet she did for several months after we adopted her.
We owned Toffy for 15 years, but all the love in the world could not eradicate her early experiences. She would not enter a small room with a door. In fact, she’d forego a treat rather than enter the laundry room where the dog biscuits were kept. 
Walks must have been the highlight of her day before we adopted her, because she went nuts at the sight of a leash. Although we walked her almost everyday and she had a big yard and the house to wander when not walking, her shrieking when we put on her collar and leash alerted the whole neighborhood. I’m sure few found that endearing at 5:30 in the morning.

As for the assumption she belonged to a man, her reaction to my husband supplied that answer. The first time he disciplined her in a stern voice, she became a trembling wreck. Since she didn’t react as strongly to my stern voice, we decided her first owner was a man. Needless to say, my husband never used a stern voice with her. 
Toffy’s only child status was changed within a year by the introduction into our family of a puppy someone left beside a four-lane highway. Bandit was six weeks old when my husband rescued him. 

Bandit never knew anyone threw him away. And no one locked him alone in a bathroom for endless hours, no one denied him the opportunity to go outside when he was being housebroken, and he benefited from the “no stern voice” rule by never having anyone speak sternly to him. Plus, he had baskets of toys to play with, doting parents, and a reluctant new sister.
Sixty-five pounds later, we owned an affectionate, good natured hound dog who believed everyone loved him and he could do no wrong. If you insisted he did something wrong, he’d press his ears back against his head and look guilty for a nanosecond. Then, he came over for the hug he deserved and he forgave you for scolding him.  
As you can see, Toffy and Bandit experienced two different childhoods. And by now, you’re probably wondering what my dogs taught me about story characters. Well, it has to do with psychological baggage. 
What is psychological baggage? It is the sum of all the events that occur during a person’s life. Each of us drags our own version of this baggage through life and it shapes how we act and react. Early life events are often the most significant and have the most profound effect on us. For example, it only took Toffy’s previous owner a matter of months to alter her life forever. Therefore, it behooves us to search our character’s childhood (birth to adolescence) and find their psychological baggage. One of the rewards of finding psychological baggage is the discovery of internal conflict which leads to character growth. 
Internal conflict is the Holy Grail of romance novels and since I write mostly romance, I’ve spent most of my fiction writing career seeking it. I’m not alone in this search. My résumé includes judging almost 50 novel writing contests. Since each contest involved multiple entries, I’ve read a lot of manuscripts by aspiring writers. They were not all romances, although many of them were. It soon became obvious to me that other writers often have problems building solid internal conflict for story characters. 
While many contest entries display a real talent for intriguing external plots, all too often the internal conflict is superficial and easily resolved. A story heavy on external plot with little internal conflict works well in some genres, but not in character driven stories. And even stories heavy on external plot do better if the hero and/or heroine have depth.

It behooves all writers to learn how to build strong internal conflict. Memorable characters have internal conflict. Taking the time to examine our characters’ psychological baggage offers us the chance to do that.

We’ll look at how to incorporate a characters’s psychological baggage into your story in the next blog.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

In the Beginning, Again

In my previous post, I discussed finding the right place to begin a story. I discovered I had more to share about beginnings, so I’m writing another blog. Beginning, Part 2, if you will.

As a writing contest judge, I often read stories that start at the wrong point in the story. Naturally, aspiring writers believe that by the time they have shined their story up to put into a contest, they have found the perfect beginning.

Not always.

Beginnings are often difficult to find, but they are crucial.
DarkandStormyNight
Their job is to hook the reader and sometimes a writer forgets to do that. Yes, Alice got up that morning and fixed herself a cup of coffee, ate a bagel with cream cheese, showered, washed and dried her hair, brushed her teeth, got dressed in her favorite navy blue dress, ad nauseam.

After an aspring writer works his or her way through Alice’s morning rituals, he or she often adds something along the lines: “As she left her apartment, little did she know her life was about to change.”

What!? If her life’s about to change, START with the change!

A writer not only needs to hook the reader with an intriguing beginning, but the writer also needs to lure the reader into reading more.

I’m not saying a writer doesn’t need to know Alice’s back story. How she goes about getting ready for work can tell the writer a lot about Alice. It can also tell the reader a lot about her. But the writer has to convince the reader to stick around to learn more about Alice.

This means the reader has to be captivated by Alice from the first paragraph. It’s the difference between boring back story and back story that that adds zest and flavor to the story. Being able to tell the difference and use it when you write is part of learning to write well.

A writer has to learn how to weave elements into a story in such a way as to capture the reader’s interest. It isn’t necessary to know the right place to begin a story when you first start writing it so don’t let it bog you down. Just keep writing. Remember the early stages of writing is the creative stage. You want to let ideas flow. Your inner critic must be turned off.

If you struggle with the perfect beginning, don’t let it keep you from writing your story. Instead, write an easy opening that gets the project started knowing you can come back later once you have a firmer grip on the story. Your first sentence can be something like:

This story is about Alice dealing with the aftermath of a car accident.

There, the opening sentence is out of the way. You’re free to write your story, secure in the knowledge you have an opening and that it isn’t written in stone. When that perfect opening hits you, just paste it into Chapter One.

I try to keep my beginnings as strong as possible because my goal is to grab the reader’s attention and invite her or him into my story world. This version of the opening to Stealing Destiny was in place when it won Best-of-Show in the Authorlink Contest awarded at a Harriette Austin Writers’ Conference.

The Yankee dropped out of the sky, landing in front of Billie and Destiny with a graceful thump. The tree limb over the trail snapped upward, relieved of the man's weight. Destiny shied backward, startled by the moving oak limb as well as the blue clad apparition.

I don’t think this is a bad opening, but I did revise it and the book won a contract with this beginning:

A gunshot cracked the summer morning air. Startled, Destiny shied backward with a frightened whinny. Billie hugged the horse’s neck, her body tensed for the searing pain of a bullet. In a shower of leaves, a Yankee swaddled in an oak branch dropped out of the sky to land in front of her and Destiny.

Sometimes the beginning is easy, sometimes it’s hard. My advice is to write until you find it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

In the Beginning

I think we can agree that getting the right beginning to a story sometimes rates up there with going to the dentist. It’s something we know we need to do, but we dread getting it done. 

We worry that if we can’t find a great beginning for our story, it's doomed. So we flail around trying to
come up with the right beginning and presto! bingo! Suddenly we realize we not only don’t have a great beginning, we don’t have a great middle, or a great ending.

Let’s stop and take a deep breath.

While a great beginning is important, the fun part of writing is that creating the perfect beginning to your story doesn’t have to come first. You just need to find it before you write The End. Sometimes it appears in your head like a gift from the gods and sometimes you have to dig and dig and dig to find it.

This is why it’s important not to get hung up on finding the “perfect beginning” before you write anything else.

When I was writing Lady Runway (http://www.gingerhanson.com/bookshelf/ladyrunaway/), I started the story in half a dozen different places. In one early rendition, the heroine was in a mail coach, then I decided to take her off the coach and move her into the coaching inn. Next, I came at it from the hero’s point of view and wrote a series wartime diary excerpts. I also tried putting the hero at the coaching inn before the heroine arrived. 

None of these openings felt quite right. 

Lady Runaway is a historical romance and traditional publishers of romance want the hero and heroine to meet in the opening pages. I was trying to nail that requirement, but the story didn’t lend itself to a first chapter meeting. When I tried to hook them up too early, I ended up with way too many flashbacks later in the book.

If I didn’t want a story riddled with flashbacks, Riana and Dev would have to meet later than the opening scene. In fact, they don’t meet until Chapter Four.

Instead of meeting Dev in Chapter One, the story begins with Riana opening the door to her nemesis. The reader is with Riana as she deals with the villain and makes her escape. 

The version with all the flashbacks did not get a contract, but the version I decided worked best did. Nor do I remember one reader or reviewer who complained that the hero didn’t show up early enough. I believe I found the right opening for that particular story. My many opening scenes weren’t wasted, either, because they became useful back stories.  

With luck, you’ll always find the perfect beginning for your stories. If not at the beginning, keep writing, it’ll probably sneak up on you.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

3 Pet Writing Peeves

It’s impossible for us to attain perfection with every sentence we write, but we do need to check our work for as many errors as we can before putting it out in the world. I keep encountering certain things in books I read that drive me nuts. Here’s my favorite three.

The Case of the Missing Pants

As we set the reader in our story world, we need to describe characters. If you chose to describe a character’s outfit, please don’t stop mid-way through the description.

A server in a crisp white shirt, red vest, and red bow tie approached. 


As I read, I form a mental picture of a character. From this abbreviated description, I can’t help but wonder if the bottom half of his body is naked. And if so, why didn’t the other characters notice?

How about

A server dressed in a crisp white shirt, red vest with red bow tie, and gray pants approached.

While this isn’t the complete picture, his socks and shoes are missing, and maybe a watch–you get the picture. I haven’t described every detail, but there should be enough to keep a reader from wondering whether the server is wearing pants or not.

The Eyes Have It

For some reason, writers tend to send the eyes of story characters in many directions. Keep in mind a human’s eyes are pretty much stuck in one’s head. The only way eyes can perform some of the following antics is for them to physically leave the body. And yes, these are taken from books I have read.




Her eyes circled the room. 
He sent his eyes around the room. 
Her eyes flew to his face. 
His eyes drifted up from the floor.

Yikes. These are talented eyes if they can do all that. My advice is to use the word “gaze.” Rather like the ubiquitous “said” in dialogue, gaze doesn’t encourage a reader to picture eyes leaving sockets.

His gaze slid from her to the door behind her.

Works a lot better than

His eyes slid from her to the door behind her.

Think about what you write. Can you physically do what you’ve written? Or at least imagined yourself doing it? For example, I don’t have any problem picturing a character “rolling” his or her eyes because my daughter has mastered the technique. Her eyes never leave their sockets, but she clearly rolls them upward. Thus, I am comfortable using that description for a character.

Again, if your eyes can’t do something, a character’s eyes probably can’t do it either.

The Misplaced Possessive Apostrophe

I’m not sure why, but fewer and fewer people seem to understand how to use the possessive apostrophe. The average English speaker tends to use his or her, mine or yours, correctly, but the minute the possessive apostrophe jumps in, especially in an advertisement, things get wacky.

Take the following sentences for example:

Her parents’ house is large. 
Her parent’s house is large.

First of all, the house belongs to either her parents (at least two of them) or her parent (one person). Thus, if you’ve written that the heroine is pulling into the driveway leading to the house where both her parents live. You would write:

Her parents’ house is large.

Parents would be plural (indicating two people) and the apostrophe comes after the “s” to show possession. The parents own the house.

If the heroine’s parents are divorced or one is deceased, she would be pulling into the driveway leading to the house where one parent lives. You would write:

Her parent’s house is large.

This is singular possession. One parent owns the house. The apostrophe comes before the “s” and after the singular word parent.

Plunking the apostrophe before the “s” in plural words seems popular these days. You see it most often in advertisements, but it’s seeping into fiction.

DVD’s for sale. 
PC’s for sale.

Hmmm, written like this, the owner has only one DVD and one PC for sale. Oh, you had more than one? You have several boxes of DVDs and three PCs? Well, for goodness sakes, advertise them correctly.

DVDs for sale.
 PCs for sale.

I’m beginning to wonder if apostrophobia–the fear of misusing an apostrophe which then causes someone to misuse it–has gripped the world. If you have doubts about using a possessive apostrophe, check a grammar book (yes, you should own one) or check an online resource.

Perfection isn’t possible, but a good writer strives to keep clutter to a minimum. Remember, readers have imaginations, too. Once you get them comfortably ensconced in your story world, don’t let easily corrected distractions such as incomplete character descriptions, trick eyes, or grammar errors force the reader out of the story.