Understanding Your Characters

Part of what makes a great story is great characters. Any reader can tell you that. Writers talk about developing characters, fleshing them out, giving them back story, making them flawed and relatable. These are all vital steps in creating great a character.

But once the character is created, I find I have yet one more hurdle that I have to jump: I have to understand my characters.

A young couple in Galway contemplate the evening

But you created them, you might say with surprise. You wrote their background, you devised their likes and dislikes, fears and dreams. What’s left to understand?

Lots.

Characters run the show. They get away from you, the writer, taking their own story in directions you hadn’t anticipated. Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous. Yet it happens to all writers.

In my current work in progress, I realized after finishing the second draft that I had the wrong killer. A different character was standing in the wings looking guiltily around, trying not to make eye contact with me. Ah-hah, I thought. That’s the real killer!

Trying to pull a fast one on me, I might add.

In several of my books I have another problem of understanding with some of my characters: I write characters who are not native English speakers.

My mother and grandmother in Warsaw

As we all know, language affects not just the way we talk but even the way we think. Writing a foreign character (foreign to me, that is) means not only understanding their native tongue enough to be able to replicate their thoughts, but also understanding the way they frame their thoughts in the first place.

A Pole, an American and an Irishman walk into a bar…. They’re all thinking a little differently and it’s my job to understand those differences.

A woman examines a grave in Warsaw. What might she be thinking?

I’m not complaining. I love that job! I spend time improving my language skills. (By the way, for anyone interested in learning French, I recommend the lessons by Paul Noble. They’re very good!). Extra bonus, it helps when I travel the world and meet new people. So it’s a good problem to have. And one that I hope I have succeeded in overcoming.

But you tell me. If you’ve read any of my books, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my foreign characters and how well I’ve captured their differences.

Learn more about Jane Gorman and the Adam Kaminski mystery series at janegorman.com.

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Brainstorming another Series by Paty Jager

Besides loving thinking up ways to kill people and how to fool readers about who did it, I love coming up with a new series and characters.

That’s where I’m at now. I have three more Shandra Higheagle Mystery books to write and I’ll introduce the two main characters of my next mystery series in that third book.  I’ll keep writing the Shandra books, but plan to bring out another series in 2019 that will be written this coming year.

 

The main character of the next series will be a male Nez Perce Fish and Game warden.

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Wallowa Lake

He’ll be working the area his ancestors once roamed during the summer and winter months. He’ll be a proficient tracker, asked to come help find people, and to train others. This will take him not only around the state but also to seminars, giving him an expanded area to help solve the murders.

To make this even more unique, he will spend time at a remote hunting lodge in the mountains where he works that is owned by a woman who he respects and is in love with but who he feels doesn’t deserve someone the likes of him.

She will be an independent woman who runs the hunting lodge and flies an airplane, which is one of the two ways to get to the lodge. The other is by horseback.

So far these are the only two characters I know and am still fleshing them out. There will be a superior of Hunter, that’s my name for the character right now but that could change. Still working on it. And there will be employees for the lodge.

spotted appaloosa horse in white and brown grazes on the green p

photo from depositphoto

I also need to come up with a name for Hunter’s horse. A sturdy Appaloosa/Quarter horse cross gelding. I’m also thinking about him having a dog. Perhaps part wolf or husky. Still working out these details.

I’ve been reading books by Craig Lesley. He has a male Nez Perce main character in his books. It is giving me the “feel” for how a man such as my character would think and talk.  I’m enjoying the books and the getting to know my character through his characters.

As I start working on this series, I’ll keep you updated on how it’s coming along and when you can find the books.

SH Mug Art

photo of Wallowa Lake by Paty Jager

 

 

 

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Guest Author – Carole Price

Murder never eauthorphoto copyntered my mind until I retired. I love puzzles of all kinds, but I favor a good mystery. As a teen, I listened to Inner Sanctum, Dragnet, and the Falcon on the radio. After retiring, I attended my first book signing, joined a critique group, and was on my way to thinking how I might murder someone (not literally). Opportunities come in the most unexpected ways. When our daughter moved to Ashland, Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, my husband and I attended many performances. It was a life-changing experience. I fell in love with the Bard and the theater, took behind-the-scene tours, and interviewed a stage manager from the festival. Later, after I returned home, I had a phone conversation with an artistic director from the festival and thought why not bring Shakespeare to Livermore wine country, create my own theater, and add a mystery. Then I remembered Livermore does have their own Shakespeare festival of three plays over one month, yet different from my two theaters. The outdoor stage at a world-class winery is a great way to take in the works of Shakespeare.

But first, before venturing into plotting a murder I needed to understand police procedures. So I signed up and graduated from the citizens’ police academy and became a volunteer with the Livermore Police Department. I went through their daunting clearance process¾fingerprinting, drug testing, and a polygraph test¾and passed or I would have been denied access to the police station. I remain an active volunteer and have many opportunities to work with the officers and enjoy their thought-provoking encounters and learning experiences. The officers have been generous with their time to answer my questions. They even bought a few of my books.

My series takes place in Livermore, California, where I live, with scenes inside the station’s interview rooms. Because my publisher had specific rules when using the name of a real town or city, I had to get permission from the police chief and the city attorney to use one of their interview rooms in my book as long as I didn’t say anything that would portray the police department or Livermore in a negative light. Living in Livermore wine country has offered me opportunities to interview winery staff members, take winery tours, and decide where to plot a murder. I chose to create two Shakespearean theaters and vineyard on top of a hill on the outskirts of town. A private tour of one of our many wineries is how I learned where empty wine bottles were shipped from and how they are packaged. This information was useful in my newest book, Vineyard Prey, which will be released October 21, 2017.

VINEYARD PREY BLURB

front cover 2Cait Pepper, owner of the Bening Estate, and navy SEAL Royal Tanner return to help friends who recently acquired a vineyard in Livermore, CA. Sadie, an Amish girl, and her husband Danny Lord are excited about their new adventure of owning their own vineyard until a couple agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency knock on their door with a warrant to search their property. When Danny bought the winery, he neglected to check the owners’ background.

Desperate to save her friends from danger and embarrassment, Cait is torn between where to focus her efforts to help—the Lords or the actors and her Shakespeare Festival. Cait uses her cop skills to solve the problem of finding drugs at the Lords’ vineyard while avoiding another tragedy that could put her Shakespeare Festival in peril.

About the Author

Carole Price is a Buckeye! Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, she attended The Ohio State University. She worked for a national laboratory in northern California before turning to writing mysteries. Carole fell in love with the Bard after attending plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. She graduated from the Citizens Police Academy and is an active police volunteer for the Livermore Police Department, a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. She actively promotes her books at conferences, literary groups, and many other venues. Carole and her husband reside in the San Francisco Bay Area in the middle of wine country.

Amazon

https://www.theladykillers.typepad.com/caroleprice

https://www.Facebook.com/caroleprice

https://www.carolepricemysteries.com

https://www.amazon.com/author/caroleprice

 

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What is “Real”?

by Janis Patterson

Writing is a time consuming occupation. Not only do we have to spend time plotting, thinking, and constructing our stories, we spend time putting them into a concrete form and then making them as polished a form as we possibly can. Then – if we want respectable sales – we must spend egregious amounts of time doing publicity and interacting with our readers.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, it ain’t.

It wouldn’t be easy even if life didn’t intrude. Writers have families and jobs and lives, to say nothing of accidents and incidents and attacks of the unexpected. There are writing gurus who say you must write every day for a certain amount of time. That’s great, if your life allows and that works for you. I’m certain that somewhere there is someone who does this, but I don’t know any.

So what do we do? My answer is, the best we can. It’s not only a matter of time management, it’s a matter of priorities. When your granddaughter is in a life-threatening accident your focus should not be on writing. When the laundry reaches Matterhorn proportions or your living room needs dusting, that is no excuse not to write. (Of course, The Husband says I take that last dictum much too much to heart, and lately he has started muttering about finding a sharecropper for the parlor.)

The question devolves down to : Are you a writer or a hobbyist? Assuming that there is nothing life-altering going on (dust does not count) you have to decide just how important writing is to you.

In my case, it’s very important. I am a professional novelist, and a few days ago finished my fifth book this year. Because of this job, I miss shopping expeditions and luncheons with girlfriends, theatre trips and even some family gatherings – as tempting as such frivols sound – and have to plan my books around the trips The Husband and I make. (And I have never journeyed anywhere in the last decade that a laptop or tablet did not go with me!)

I also have a life. While I am blessed not to have to have a regular-in-an-office job, there are still lots of things that must be done. Groceries must be bought and eventually cooked. Pets must go to the vet. The car must be attended to. Extended family needs attention. The minutiae of living must go on, whether you work outside the home or not. My family is very important to me, as is my activism for animal welfare and conservative causes. The Husband’s happiness is always paramount in my priorities, and there is no way either he or I will ever give up our interest in and studies of Ancient Egypt and the Civil War. Health issues also raise their ugly heads from time to time.

But I am a writer, and after the really important things – family, beliefs, home – writing comes first, before nearly all social events, before frivols, before self-indulgences. Most self-indulgences. Some of my friends become insulted when I cannot go to lunch or take the afternoon off to go shopping, though they would never have such a reaction if I worked a 9-to-5 in an office. It’s disheartening to think that after all this time so many people still think that if you work from home you don’t have a ‘real’ job… Or that if you’re a self-employed writer, you still don’t have a ‘real’ job… Or that if you’re self-publishing and don’t have a big contract with a major publisher you really don’t have a ‘real’ job. After all, aren’t all self-published writers just wanna-bes or hobbyists who couldn’t get a ‘real’ publisher?

Yes, I have heard almost those exact words from people who are otherwise intelligent and sophisticated. Some of them I have given up trying to convince that I do have a ‘real’ job. Some truly do equate writing with lounging around, tossing off X number of words in a string, having them published immediately and then sitting back while unbelievable riches roll in.

Don’t we all wish!

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Meeting Peter Graves

by Sally Carpenter

Over the years I’ve met celebrities at book signings, concerts and appearances. Some stars have been quite charming; others apparently wanted me to go away. One particular appearance comes in mind regarding my WIP set in 1967.

In 1967 the entertainment world was spy crazy. Imitating the success of the new James Bond films came the spy parodies “Our Man Flint,” “In Like Flint,” “The Silencers” and “Murderer’s Row.” Television was chock-a-block spies with “The Man From UNCLE,” “The Girl From UNCLE,” “Get Smart,” “The Avengers” “The Wild, Wild West” (secret agents in the Old West) and “Mission: Impossible.”

As a kid I didn’t understand “MI” when it first aired, although I had a crush on Peter Graves. Years later when watching the shows in syndication I became a devout fan. In fact, my WIP works the “MI” show into the story as homage.

On a Friday in 2009, I glanced through the weekend entertainment section of the newspaper and saw that the next day Peter Graves was scheduled to receive an award at the Ojai Film Festival. The event would start with a screening of the film “Airplane!” with Graves in a hilarious comic performance, followed by comments from Graves and an audience Q&A.

Ojai was about an hour or so drive from my town and the festival was open to the public. Why not go, I thought. I thought up an interesting question for the Q&A and pulled out my book “The Mission: Impossible Dossier,” about the making of the TV show, for him to autograph.

Ojai is one of those places you can’t get there from here. To go by freeway meant dealing with heavy traffic, so I opted for the back roads route. What looked like an easy path on the map became navigating up and down steep hills with winding streets and hairpin turns. I was too busy watching the road to enjoy the rural scenery.

Ojai has basically one main street, so finding the location wasn’t difficult. The event would take place inside a drab school auditorium. Hardly the sort of dazzling venue fit for a star of Graves’ caliber. I stood in the long line, waiting for the doors to open. Some people were talking to the man ahead of me. I didn’t pay any attention to him.

Inside the auditorium I took a front row seat on the right hand side on the old-fashioned wooden bleacher-type chairs. The emcee said the festival’s custom was to ask the honoree to select their favorite piece of work to screen. Graves had picked “Airplane!” An interesting choice.

After the movie, Graves came out front along with Robert Hayes, another “Airplane!” star. Also joining them was the man who stood in line in front of me—Rossie Harris, who played Joey in the movie (the kid in the cockpit) and now all grown up. Now I wish I’d gotten his autograph.

Unfortunately, Graves was no longer the handsome leading man. He looked ill, was quite thin and used a cane for walking/standing. His voice quavered a little and at one point he seemed to forget what he was saying. But for the most part his mind was still sharp and his speech lucid.

When the Q&A started, I raised my hand. I mentioned that Peter smoked a lot of “MI.” Was that just for the character or did he smoke in real life? (Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and Greg Morris also smoked on the show).

Graves replied in a strong voice, quote, “I smoked for forty years and enjoyed every puff!” He went on to say he was forced to quit smoking after a skiing accident that resulted in his jaws being wired shut for several weeks. The doctor gave him a set of wire cutters so he could remove the wires in case he needed to throw up (TMI).

The program ended and the audience was leaving. Graves and his entourage headed for the exit. I was sitting between him and the door. I ran up to him and said, “May I have your autograph?”

He said, “I came empty handed,” meaning he had nothing to sign for me.

I held out the book and a pen. He seemed surprise. “Oh, you have the book!” I set the book on the stage (we were on the ground floor) so he’d had a firm surface for writing. He took the pen and signed the page I had opened. I thanked him and he left the building. I don’t know if he was annoyed at me—I was the only one in the crowd that had accosted him—but I was over the moon.

Graves died six months later.

What I’ve learned from meeting celebrities is to always be gracious to a fan. As a published author I haven’t had many opportunities to meet readers, and I’ll never be as famous as Graves, but when I’m “on stage” I strive to be pleasant and accommodating. Once at a writers convention a reader interrupted me while I was eating to sign my book. I was so thrilled that someone actually wanted my autograph that I didn’t mind at all.

But don’t bother me in the ladies’ room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Favorite First Lines

Favorite First Lines

 “I was trying to remember if I’d ever been blindfolded before.

I didn’t think I had been, but the cloth on my eyes felt vaguely familiar, almost nostalgic. I couldn’t imagine why. The only images I could connect with blindfolds were kidnappings.”                      J. Michael Orenduff, The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein

“Nearly thirteen thousand summers have passed since that splendid morning when the first human footprints appeared between these towering canyon walls. But in all the years since that singular event, not one good thing has happened here. This being the case, hardly anyone visits this remote and dreadful place—though the rare exception is worthy of mention.  Consider Jacob Gourd Rattle.”                     James D. Doss, The Witch’s Tongue

An effective opening says something that makes the reader sit up and pay attention. It’s not a warm-up, but the beginning of something. Something that sets the tone of the book and makes the reader curious or empathic or otherwise immediately engaged. Usually—though not always—it leads into the event that triggers the main plot.

I like the two I quoted above because both give the reader a strong sense of the voice and mood of the book. In the Orenduff example, the narrator reveals his personality, his sense of humor, and his ability to stay cool in bizarre situations. And of course, it raises the question: Why is he blindfolded? The reader is caught up right away, and I think it would hook newcomers to the series who are not yet acquainted with pot thief Hubie Schuze. They don’t need to know his name yet, or what he looks like, or that he’s in Albuquerque. That can come later, once they are pulled into the events.

The example from Doss sets a different tone. His omniscient narrator sees a big-picture view, hinting at something supernatural or evil, and yet doing so with a touch of humor. You can almost hear some Southwestern old-timer spinning a spooky tall tale. The lines create a sense of mystery about the canyon itself and the events—none of them good—that have happened there. And of course, the reader has to wonder who is Jacob Gourd Rattle is and what he’s doing in this cursed or haunted place.

Peter Heller’s novel, The Painter, begins with an equally powerful but entirely different type of hook.

“I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea. As a child, you imagine your life sometimes, how it will be. I never thought I would be a painter. That I might make a world and walk into it and forget myself. That art would be something I would not have any way of not doing.”

This is backstory and introspection, a risky way to start a book, and one that seldom works. So why is it effective here? For me, it’s the juxtaposition of the startling first line with the narrator’s other unexpected life turns. Art and fatherhood suggest peace, nurturing, and creativity; shooting someone clashes with that image. Then, his compulsion to paint and his ability to vanish into his work suggest he is a passionate man who has things he’d like to forget. The interiority of this passage lets the reader know that this book will be as much about the protagonist’s inner arc as about the dark suspense that drives the plot.

I began Soul Loss, the fourth Mae Martin mystery, this way:

“The full moon was the only glitch in the plan. Too much visibility against the desert and the lake. He’d have to wait ’til he was sure the other campers were sleeping.

“Jamie stared down the slope from his tent to the shore. Depression grabbed him like a weighted net. He’d felt lighter after making the decision, but now the delay dragged him back down.”

Newcomers to the series may wonder who he is and why he’s on the verge of some desperate act. Readers who have been following the series know him and his history, and I meant to alarm them, to make them want to reach into the story and stop him.

Though I’m satisfied with my own first lines, I’m inspired to aim for even stronger ones in the future.  I have an opening line I love in book seven (as yet untitled and unfinished). I’ll have to move it from the beginning of chapter three to the beginning of the book, rearranging the chapters, but it might be worth the work.

What are your favorite openings and why?

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Mind Games and Murder

by Janis Patterson

I wonder if all mystery writers are irretrievably warped?

I spent last week at the Novelists’ Inc. (NINC) conference in St. Pete Beach, Florida. It was held at the luxurious TradeWinds resort, a place of which dreams are made. The weather was good – a little rain, a lot of wind, but mostly warm and sunny. The resort amenities are incredible – this is our fourth time here and I still haven’t been able to do all the ‘resorty’ things I want to, such as going down the big slide and doing the paddle boats on the carefully maintained artificial creek or sing at karaoke night. (I’m not lazy – it’s just the conference is so intense and it’s so wonderful to be able just to sit and talk with other writers.)

The resort is perfection, and the staff works hard to keep it that way. (And I’m positive none of my dire imaginings have ever happened there in reality – it is a lovely place in every sense of the word.) I mean, even the brick walks are swept several times a day to keep the beach sand off. Everywhere you look there are staff members in their trademark blue and yellow Hawaiian style shirts going around making things perfect, just like little elves. The restaurants and bars are great and to get up early in the morning and watch from our balcony as the day is born to the music of the surf is heavenly.

So why are my thoughts swamped with murder and mayhem? You’d think I would just be enjoying the conference and my friends and the beauty, but no – so  far I’ve hatched a bunch of plots that involve poisoning, stabbing, international intrigue and smuggling, all located in this consciously perfect setting.

Violence and crime are terrible no matter where they occur, but it seems they are worse in places of such beauty and perfection, and therefore more alluring to the mystery writer. The vast number of employees, each in their yellow and blue Hawaiian shirts, are an invitation to a villainous outsider outsider to use the uniform as camouflage. After all, with the exception of our chambermaid, I don’t think I’ve seen the same employee twice.

Am I the only one who looks at the minutiae of life through such a murderous lens? In an arboretum full of beautiful plants I am drawn to the poisonous ones. In an art museum I find myself thinking not of the beautiful paintings, but of what a wonderful place it would be to hide a body. A shopping mall? Just too full of murderous opportunities to list.

People often ask me where I get my ideas – or, worse, offer to sell me theirs. Getting the ideas is not the problem; most of the creative people I know have many more than they can ever use. The problem is deciding which idea to use – and it takes a bunch that fit together seamlessly to make a good book. The bad part is that you can only fit so many widely different murders into one book!

Worst of all, when you are surrounded by such beauty and comfort and perfection the urge to indulge in a little villainous mayhem is far too much to resist. I think I’ve decided on smuggling… or maybe jealousy… or perhaps a disputed inheritance… as the inciting incident. Check with me next  year and we’ll see how the story turned out!

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