Friday, July 26, 2019

Building Story Characters Bit by Bit

Story Steps Four


Sierra showed up at our small local airport, a starving, flea and tick infested Beagle. No microchip, no tags, she became an immediate addition to the family. She was an anomaly in the Beagle family because she seldom barked. From all accounts, barking is a perennial Beagle issue.

She arrived with some additional baggage, she didn’t run to the door when we arrived home. This is a major dog duty and we resorted to bribing Sierra into acceptable dog-at-the-door behavior. We kept treats in the garage to reward her when we opened the door. My husband even came up with a “Sierra’s happy we’re home” dance.


Backstory


Naturally, I came up with a backstory to fit her behavior. If she’d been kenneled by her previous owner, she wouldn’t know how to greet anyone when they arrived home. How can you greet anyone when you’re locked in a kennel? Why would you bark at anything, if you’re locked away from the windows and doors?

Just as I build a backstory for my rescued pets, I build a backstory for my characters. When I first started writing, I followed the school of thought that mandated each character should have a complete biography prior to writing the story. I wrote pages and pages about each character, where they were born, where they went to school, who their best friends were, their favorite foods, their physical appearance, etc. You name it, I wrote it down. And then promptly, forgot all the information while I was writing the story.

Over the years, I realized I came to know my characters best when I lived with them and got to know them, just as I do with my pets. It’s impossible to know everything about anyone all at once. What we know about our friends, our siblings, our relatives, acquaintances, or our pets, we learn gradually. Sure, we get the physical stuff the first time we see them. We know how tall they are, the color of their eyes, their weight, whether not they have bad breath, wash their clothes, or dye their hair. We know their exterior, but we don’t know their interior.

Based on their exterior, we draw instant judgments because first impressions weigh heavily in our biological background. It’s what warns us whether we should run or stay. We all have stories about a poor first impression we’ve made on someone else. And stories of people mistaking something about us based on a first impression we created.

Writing Characters

I’m not dismissing the importance of a character’s backstory, but I found I learn more about a character while I’m writing the story, just as I learn about other people by spending time with them. I found I’m more interested in the characters’ hearts and souls, than what school they attended. And to learn about their hearts and souls, I have to write their story.

That’s not to say what school the character attended isn’t important, but maybe it isn’t germane to the particular story I’m writing. And if it is important, the character will let me know as I get to know him or her. Just if they will let me know that they are shy, or talkative, or scared of the dark.


Next month, we’ll continue to explore building story characters bit by bit.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Yet More Theme

Story Steps Three

As I was thinking about this next blog in my theme sequence, I realized I should probably define what theme is for the purposes of these blogs.

First, let’s look at what it’s not. It’s not the premise, it’s not the plot, and it’s not a situation. The theme pervades the story, it is the foundation upon which the other components of a story rest. It’s what the reader takes away from the story at the end.

Thus, it is often called “the take away” or “lesson learned.” It’s the message you’re trying to share with the reader. It’s your chance to express your opinions or core ideas on the meaning of life. If you look at it that way, you can see why theme is an important tool in your writing toolbox.

Theme can often be boiled down to one word such as:

revenge 
redemption 
truth 
honesty 
courage 
fear 
worthiness 
forgiveness 
acceptance 
commitment 
betrayal 
rebellion 
transformation 
quest

Transformation Theme

In my latest release, Butterfly Bride, transformation was the theme. My goal was to create a hero who would transform from a man of his time into a man of all time. Now I didn’t beat the reader over the head with my theme. Rather, I created an English aristocrat raised in 19th century England. He wasn’t really cruel, he just reflects the mores of his gender and the times.
As I delved deeper into the story, I realized “hope” had become a sub-theme. If he couldn’t change, he would lose Hope. Quite by accident I had named his wife Hope when I created the story idea. At some point, I realized I had a sub-theme that fitted well with transformation. Sub+theme equals a subordinate theme that expands or supports the theme. I felt hope in the future supported the theme of transformation.

Obviously, there is more to theme than this blog can cover. After all, people have written whole books about it. My goal is to remind you that thinking about theme early in the story writing process can help keep you on track as the story progresses.

Finding the Theme

In the previous post, I mentioned that if you have a theme when you start writing a story, you’ll save time during the revision process. You can write scenes that enhance the theme and take advantage of opportunities to intensify the message for the reader.

If you can’t pinpoint the theme before writing, be sure and look for it when you’ve finished your story. Once you determine your theme, re-read your story and find subtle ways to highlight it.

That said, it’s still better to discover a general theme for your story as early as possible. If you’re drawing a blank, try completing this simple sentence:

I want to write a story about _____________?

Acceptance? Betrayal? Honesty?

Fill in the blank and keep your answer in mind as you create your next story.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Oh No! Not Theme

Story Steps Two

The next step I take in writing a story is to search my idea for a theme. Yeah,  I know. Shudder. Shudder. The dreaded theme that we all hated having to know for literature class. I don’t know about you, but my idea of the theme seldom matched the theme the teacher chose. She or he always won though because their theme would be on the test, not mine. 

The whole experience made me skittish of themes. 


In the early days of my writing career, there was no Internet, few writers’ groups, and few writers’ conferences.  
Naturally, I jumped on the chance to attend a one day workshop featuring three writers in a nearby city. I’d written three novels but wasn’t having any luck finding a publisher. 
One of the instructors (the only female) threw out the word “theme” during her presentation. I mentally shuddered. What, does she think we’re in English class?

Although my first inclination was to tune her out, I was there to learn. 

I listened

She offered a whole new slant on theme. First of all, she shared its importance in storytelling. A light came on and I realized theme is one of the glues that hold a story together.

I still worried, though. How would I know a theme? Obviously, I couldn’t find a theme 
in all those short stories, poems, essays, and novels we had to read in school. At least, I couldn’t find the one blessed as THE THEME by some English teacher. 

The writer told us to look at our work–what we like to write about–because writers tend to revisit their favorite themes in their stories. 

It didn’t take me two seconds to realize I often write about second chances, especially in love. I did then and I still do. Sometimes my second chance involves characters who loved each other in the past (Feather’s Last Dance) and have reconnected after a separation. Or I write about characters who have loved and lost and had no intention of loving someone again (Billie in Stealing Destiny). Or maybe the characters have a second chance to explore a relationship cut off by circumstances beyond their control (Susannah’s Promise).

Ah ha! I pinpointed my favorite theme. 

Best of all, I knew it was correct because I was writing the stories.

Over the years I continued to study theme and the role it plays in stories. I believe if you know the general theme of your story from the beginning, writing the story becomes easier. Not every writer feels this way. If you prefer to write your story to discover the theme, then that’s how you write. 

For me, having a general grasp of the theme helps. 

Why?  

Because it gives me direction.

I like to compare story theme with building a house. When you decide to build a house, you spend hours pouring over house plans and driving through neighborhoods, searching for the house that has the “look” you want. Once you settle on what you’d like the house to “look” like, the other choices follow in a natural order. 

For example, suppose you want to build a two-story house with an English manor exterior. That choice is going to define certain aspects of whatever floor plan you choose. It’s also going to define what type of architectural elements will be found through out the house. The type of windows and doors that will “go” with the house. What type of furniture you put in the house. You’ll probably strive for the “look” of an English garden in the landscaping.

The house will have a theme: English manor. Once you make that decision, the English manor “theme” will influence every purchase you make. 

This applies to your story, too. The theme shapes the choices you make, the characters you choose to tell the story, as well as the plot points, the dialogue, the setting.....I could go on, but I think you get the picture.  

Thus, I believe if you know the theme of your story at the beginning, you save a lot of time. You won’t need to “discover” the theme at the end of the story and revise the story to enhance and reflect the theme. 


Stay tuned, there’s more theme to come in the next blog.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Ideas, Where Do Writers Find Them?

 Story Steps One

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.