CHARACTER ARC

The main character in any story needs to transform in some way or the story doesn’t go anywhere. If the main character remains the same throughout, there isn’t any story.

The narrative tells the story of how the main character grows or changes. But the character may not develop or change but remain even more intensely the same, that is, recommitted to the way he or she is at the beginning of the story. This is harder to write than a story in which there is clear character growth or change.

In a clear character arc, the narrative is the story of the change to the main character. Ths may happen through experience, the learning of new skills or simply through the passage of time. The character starts out in one way, and throughout the story, he grows and changes. The narrative arc of the story is that of the main character’s growth, however it is accomplished.]

But in some stories, there seems to be no change in the character, no character arc. The main character remains who he or she was at the beginning throughout the story. But, when you read the story carefully, you see that there is character movement. The character does not perceptibly change, but becomes even more steadfastly what he was at the outset.

A class I was in read a novella by Cynthia Ozick called THE SHAWL It’s the heartbreaking story of a woman in a concentration camp who has only the shawl which held her now-dead baby and its smell as a memory. The class members, as I remember, argued with the teacher that there was no discernable character arc in the novella, that she had not changed from beginning to end, and that this was a flaw, but as we talked, we saw that the essence of the story was the protagonist’s steadfast memory of her child and her commitment to that memory.

My novel PSYCHIC DAMAGE is a story of growth and change. In that story, Eva Stuart, addicted to allowing advice from psychics to guide her life and unable or unwilling to make decisions on her own, learns to be strong and independent, to make decisions and even to rescue her partner when he is kidnapped. Her character arc is clear.

This is more difficult to do in a series because the changes are often incremental and not as striking as they would be in a standalone novel. Still, within each story in a series, the protagonist, who doesn’t start out being perfect, gains new knowledge and becomes more adept at what he or she does.

For example, in the first book in my Florida series, A REASON TO KILL, the protagonist, Andi Battaglia, new on her job as a detective, learns through her work on the case to question suspects, evaluate informations for its truth or falsity and determine the solution to the murder. In the second book in the series, SO MANY REASONS TO DIE, Andi defies her supervisior in the hunt for the murderer, ending up suspended from duty but solving the murder.

How do those of you who write series create the incremental changes that contribute to the growth of your character? Do you find it difficult to do and do you plan those changes ahead or do they occur as the novel progresses?

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Modus Operandi by Paty Jager

canstock keyhole knife graphicModus Operandi: Noun – is someone’s habits of working, particularly in the context of business or criminal investigations, but also more generally. It is a Latin phrase, approximately translated as method or mode of operation.

This is where I’m at in the stage of writing my next Shandra Higheagle mystery. I have the victim, but I’m figuring out why and who would want the victim dead.  And so I turned to one of the books that helps me with my mysteries. Modus Operandi: a writers guide to how criminals work by Mauro V. Corvasce and Joseph R. Paglino.

Here is what I’m looking at: The chapter on homicide and the reasons a person might kill.

Passion Killing – This takes place usually without much forethought or planning. it could be an argument gets out of control and one of the two people concerned gets caught up in rage and uses whatever weapon is close at hand.  These are usually domestic assault, homicide-suicide, or a disgruntled employee.

Premeditated Domestic Killing  – This could be one spouse killing another for insurance money or other financial gain.  It is also known as profit murder.  Or because of threats of divorce or personal disclosures. They usually act like the grieving spouse  even though they have the murder planned out and prearranged scenarios to cover up their involvement.

The cover-up murder – In the perpetrator’s mind, they may feel justified in killing people to cover up other acts of crime and violence.

Sex Offenders – Some sex offenders will kill at the conclusion of the sexual assault or even to obtain their sexual gratification.

There are also serial killers, contract killing, and ritualistic cults. These last three reasons won’t work for the story I’m building.  The sex offender won’t work either.

In my mind the murder has to be one of passion. Because the murder is happening at a small event- a bridal shower. The victim is a friend of the bride-to-be. Someone she grew up with. So the scenario for when and where the murder happens is at a remote place with all women. Which would lead one to believe that the killer should be one of the women… but I want to put a twist on the story.  It will be a crime of passion, but maybe, just maybe, there is someone lurking in the woods….

This is the best part of writing a blog post. It lets me air out my thoughts and have the real story flood in!

Thanks for helping me!

SH Mug Art

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Confession of a Homophone-Phobe

by Janis Patterson

How would you act if you read in a story how a character discovered a grizzly site? Well… how you feel might depend on the situation in the book – and the writer’s command of the English language. A grizzly site is a location where there are large and usually cranky bears. A grisly sight means you are seeing something that is horrible or disgusting. These are called homophones – words that are spelled differently and have different meanings but sound the same.

A few more are brooch/broach, new/knew, great/grate, heir/hair, steak/stake, cash/cache, packed/pact, hear/here, and the two great triads cent/scent/sent and there/their/they’re. These sound-alikes are all over the place; there are lists of such linguistic traps on the internet, many with over 500 entries.

So why the differences? Who knows? English is a powerful but mysterious language with many oddities, and I personally believe these oddities are what makes English great – and when improperly used most definitely grate on one’s sensibilities.

And if one does know English well, grate they do. A misused homophone can yank an intelligent reader right out of the story, which is a horror for good writers. Say you’re reading a romance and the two lovers have a joyous role in the hay. Are they acting? (No, I’m not going down the rabbit-hole of are they faking it…) Is it some form of summer put-on-a-play-in-the-barn theatre? Worse, if the characters are back in the house eating a role it gives me visions of two sitting people at a kitchen table gnawing on play scripts, which as we all know have very little nutritional value.

Another example: in a dark and tortured tale of mean streets and meaner crimes the burnt-out alcoholic police detective stumbles into an alley and finds a grizzly murder. What? Immediately my first thought is how in the world did a large Northern bear find his way into such an urban setting? Sometime it takes a full page before I can become immersed in the story again. And sometimes that never happens, because from then on I have difficulty trusting the writer.

Good writing is easy to read and gently leads the reader into a world that is not their own. Good writing keeps them there for the duration of the story. Good writing is a window into a story, and anything that yanks a reader out of that story is bad. Misuse of homophones is more than bad – it is insulting and a sign of sloppy craftsmanship. Yes, this is one of my pet peeves. Why write a story and expect people to read it if you aren’t going to do it well? Should anyone even try to write a story if they disrespect their readers so much that they don’t care if they are jerked out of it by such egregious misuse of common words?

You would think that learning to use the English language properly is one of the first steps to becoming a writer. I really don’t understand how anyone dares call themselves a writer if they don’t bother to do so.

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Trixie Beldon and me

By Sally Carpenter

I don’t remember how old I was at the time, but one Christmas my parents gave me the first two Trixie Beldon books, “Secret of the Mansion” and “The Red Trailer Mystery.” Since then I’ve gone on the acquire the first 15 books of the series, all in the original (and cheaply made) Whitman hardcover editions.

I liked Trixie because, at the time, she was much like me. Thirteen-year-old Trixie lived on the family farm in Sleepyside-on-Hudson in upstate New York. My parents didn’t have a farm, but we lived in the country on a big plot of land, with fruit trees in the backyard and cows grazing in the field next door.

Trixie had two older brothers who teased her a lot; so did I. One of Trixie’s brothers was 11 months older; one of my brothers was a little more than a year older than me.

The Beldon family had a pet dog; I had a cat that we took in as a kitten from the barn cat of the neighbor across the road.

Trixie wasn’t good in math; arithmetic was never my strong subject either. Trix has to do household chores and help with the farm work, which she often grumbled about. I had to dry dishes and pick up the fallen fruit outside with the same enthusiasm. For a brief time I mowed the lawn but couldn’t push the X*%$#@ lawnmower up the hill.

Trixie’s best friend was Honey Wheeler, a rich girl who moved into the Manor House down the road from the Beldon farm. I didn’t have a best friend who lived nearby, but I pretended that Honey lived in the house atop the hill east of my home.

Trixie had short curly blonde hair. As a kid I had short curly brown hair, which has since grown out to long curly brown and gray hair.

Like my favorite sleuth, I didn’t think I was pretty. We share many of the same insecurities. I didn’t go sleuthing on mysteries, but I loved reading about Trixie’s travels and adventures.

I belonged to Girl Scouts, 4-H and the church youth group. Trixie made her own club, The Bob-Whites (they used the bob-white whistle to alert other club members), comprised of her brothers and friends. The BWs main purpose was to do good deeds for others and raise money for charitable causes.

The Beldons were comfortable but not rich. Trix had to earn her allowance. The Bob-Whites had to raise the monies they needed for their service projects and clubhouse repairs. My parents likewise watched their pennies.

Unfortunately, Trixie never achieved the fame of that other girl sleuth, oh, what’s her name. Trixie only last 39 books; no new stories are being written. Nancy Drew has gone on to well over twice that number as well as spin-offs and new variations of the character, with more new books each year.

I always wanted to see a Trixie Beldon movie, but one never came to pass. Just as well. If a studio tackled Trix today, they’d update her, give her a cell phone and MP3 player, have her talk about her personality issues with a school counselor, and make the Bob-Whites hang out at a mall instead of meeting in their homemade club house.

When I got older I read a number of Nancy Drews and, with apologizes to all of you Drew fans, the character never appealed to me in the same way as Trix.

I admire Nancy’s smarts, perseverance and bravery. But she never seemed real. In the early books Nancy was 16 years old but she didn’t attend school. Later she aged up to 18 and a high school graduate, but she never mentioned her school days. She didn’t attend college, hold a job (yet had unlimited funds to spend) or even help out around the house.

Nancy had no life outside of sleuthing. She didn’t belong to any clubs or sororities She had two best friends, Bess and George, but their personalities are not developed beyond “chubby” and “tomboy.” Nancy had a dad and a housekeeper, who mainly stay in the background.

The Drew books focused on solving the crime; the Beldon novels were more interested in the characters and their lives/interactions.

Trixie has a full range of friends, family and townspeople, all with distinct personalities. Her friends have interesting backgrounds. Naturally, school plays a big part in Trixie’s life, although in many of the books she’s either on a school vacation or traveling out of state.

Trixie’s biggest drawback is that she’s too young to drive. Her mobility is limited to where she can walk, ride a bike or ride a horse. She must rely on her oldest brother or another adult to drive her. So most of her sleuthing is limited to her town or family vacations. Nancy Drew has her own roadster and drives with abandon, seemingly without having ever put more gas in the car.

The Hardy Boys have them all beat. Frank and Joe not only drive but even ride motorcycles, pilot motorboats, and fly airplanes. No doubt they could man a space ship if the need arose.

Regardless of preference, all of these “juvenile” mysteries serve a good purpose: to encourage children to read and to present young characters that overcome obstacles, use their brains, and solve puzzles. Many fans of Trixie and Nancy grew up to pen mysteries of their own.

While I tip my hat to Nancy Drew, my heart belongs to the girl sleuth who struggles with her math homework.

 

 

 

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WHAT PERSON?

 

How do you decide who’s going to tell the story? Often older fiction—works written before the twentieth century—uses the omniscient voice: the narrator tells the events, introduces the characters, recounts dialogue and all the details, but the narrator is not a character in the story. This narrator seems dated now, although it’s certainly still used.

One of the most famous opening lines of a novel is an example of this voice:

“All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own               fashion.”                                                                       ANNA KARENIN by Leo Tolstoy.

We are in the hands of a narrator who looks on from outside, telling us the story but not involved.

The most common narrative voice in contemporary fiction is that of limited omniscience. The third-person voice is often associated with a character in the story who can only know the thoughts of some characters and may not know what happened when he or she is not present. Often that narrative voice switches from one character to another, so the reader can be filled in on what the main character has no way of knowing.

Probably the second most commonly used narrative voice is first person singular, usually the point of view of the main character. This works well for the unreliable narrator, someone who wants to keep the reader in the dark.

Second person isn’t used very often, but there are a few. I read BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY by Jay McInerney, a popular novel in the eighties, and found the second person voice annoying. And of course, the reason was that the character was annoying. I kept wanting to shake him or knock him over the head.

First person plural, the narrative “we”, also isn’t often used. It works for groups of people telling a story. I read THE LADIES AUXILIARY by Tova Mirvis years ago. It’s narrated by a group of Jewish women in a southern city, an unnamed Atlanta. The voice worked well as the group narrated and judged the behavior of the protagonist.

My preference in reading—and in writing—is the third person narrator. My Florida series mysteries are written in third person, the voice of Detective Andi Battaglia, but there are occasional switches to other third person narrators. This is the most comfortable narrative voice for me. It gives me the freedom to tell the story from Andi’s point of view, but to include incidents that Andi wouldn’t have any way of knowing.

My standalone mystery, PSYCHIC DAMAGE, is also written in third person, but in that book, everything is seen from the point of view of Eva Stuart and told in her voice.

I find first person singular useful for writing mysteries in the voice of an unreliable narrator who tells only what the narrator wants the reader to know. This has the effect of giving the reader a possibly distorted or untrue version of the actions.

What about other writers? Do you write in first or third? Or do you experiment with second person? I’ve never tried that myself. I’d like to read your comments.

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I’m a Day Late

This is unusual for me, I’m usually early for everything. But I’m not good with WordPress and have as yet not been able to post something ahead of time and have it appear when it’s supposed to.

July has been a busy month for me. My next Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery is done, been edited, I’ve gone over the proofs and sent them back, and seen the cover. It should be ready next month. Don’t have a date yet.

I attended the Public Safety Writers Association annual conference. It’s always in Las Vegas in July–but most folks never leave the hotel. It’s a small conference and my favorite. The majority of attendees are or were in some sort of law enforcement or public safety field (FBI, police, military, fire ER, dispatcher, etc.) who all write both fiction and non-fiction. A handful of mystery writers come and we sit in on the panels about writing, publishing, and promotion and gather lots of wonderful information about crime, criminals, gun fights, etc. It’s a great way to do research and have fun.

I’ve started writing my next Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery and have a theme and title already. Now the trick is to find the time to work on it.

I’ve given three library presentations and have one more this month.

And my life has been full with family events too.

I’ll try hard to be on time next month and I’ll have information about my new book to share.

Marilyn

Me at the Fresno library–Wm. Saroyan room.

 

 

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The Body (Not the Dead Body) in Mystery Fiction

 

 Though body is the central element of all experience, it’s easy to take it for granted until it fails in some way. The flesh and bone and nerve that makes up a human are resilient and yet also shockingly vulnerable. Having spent my academic career in the field of Health and Exercise Science, of course I’ve paid considerable attention this subject, but I also think about it as a reader and as a writer. What place do illness, aging, and injury have in the books we read for entertainment?

It depends on how lightly we want to be entertained. In Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series, Wallander’s poor diet, lack of sleep, and high levels of stress have cumulative effects throughout the series. His struggles to regulate his habits and to cope with his declining health are portrayed with affecting intimacy and realism. Meanwhile, the protagonists in humorous cozies often have junk-food habits and hate to exercise,  yet they remain healthy and attractive and able to escape from danger with adequate agility, experiencing no worse negative consequences than five or ten pounds they would like to lose. The same common health behaviors can be written as tragic flaws or comic flaws, depending where the book fits in the genre spectrum.

Injuries are common in mysteries, from bullet wounds to twisted ankles to head injuries. In recent years, the latter have been handled with more accuracy as we better understand concussions. The person investigating the mystery is now less likely to get knocked on the head and push through with nothing but a lump and a headache. Recovery is slower than it was once thought to be, and new awareness of the cumulative effects of repeated concussions, from depression to dementia and other problems, may keep writers from giving their lead characters too many blows on the head.

The sleep deprivation that protagonists sometimes endure in mysteries ought to make their reaction time slower, their short-term memories less reliable, their emotions harder to control, and their attention span fragmented. Adrenaline will help in an emergency, but not for an entire day. I’ve seen this portrayed realistically in some books and inaccurately in others. Science has shown that no one can actually train herself to function without adequate sleep, though this may be one of the hardest health misconceptions to correct, perhaps because tired people (like drunks) overestimate how well they are doing.  To some extent, we  can learn to handle the stress of fatigue and recognize how it affects us, but we can’t sustain normal cognitive and physical functioning.

Some health conditions and injuries are random—the roll of the genetic dice, the roll of a car off the road—but in fiction, out-of-the-blue disasters can seem contrived. A character’s health challenges can play a role, though, and a great variety of physical conditions have a place in a realistic representation of the world.

In M.L. Eaton’s When the Clocks Stopped, the first book in her Mysterious Marsh series, the lead character Hazel, an attorney, is pregnant and gives birth, and in the next book she’s nursing her baby. These natural aspects of her life add depth to the stories and complexity to her crime-solving efforts. In Anne Hillerman’s latest mystery, Song of the Lion, retired Navajo Police lieutenant Joe Leaphorn lives with the effects of both aging and serious injury and finds meaning, purpose, and dignity within his limitations, helping a former colleague to solve a case. Still the deep, complex character he was when Tony Hillerman introduced him twenty-one books ago, Leaphorn has gone through life changes, and so have readers who have been with the series since the beginning.

I intentionally started the Mae Martin series with my protagonist in her late twenties, so I would have decades of her life to explore, with all the changes those years will bring— emotional, professional and physical—for her and the people close to her.

As a reader, do you notice or think about characters’ health? As a writer, how to do you handle it?

*****

Book one in my series, The Calling, is on sale for 99 cents through this weekend on all e-book retail sites.

The Calling

The first Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

Obeying her mother’s warning, Mae Martin-Ridley has spent years hiding her gift of “the sight.” When concern for a missing hunter compels her to use it again, her peaceful life in a small Southern town begins to fall apart. New friends push her to explore her unusual talents, but as she does, she discovers the shadow side of her visions—access to secrets she could regret uncovering.

Gift or curse? When an extraordinary ability intrudes on an ordinary life, nothing can be the same again.

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

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