LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS TELL THE STORY

Dialog: it’s the part of the story that makes the characters come alive on the page. When characters speak and how they speak create the atmosphere of the story.  Stories without dialog are told, not shown.

So, you, the writer, have to know your characters well enough so that when they speak, they sound like real people talking the way real people do.

What’s the purpose of dialogue, anyway. Is it to advance the story? Is it to reveal the characters? Is it just to break up the page?

I guess it’s all of those. Dialogue can be used to move the story along. But beware of the dialogue that is used to have one character tell another things that the second character already knows but that the reader doesn’t.

For example:

Smith said to Jones, “I’m glad you’re in on the Alpha Project, Jones. The Alpha Project is definitely the future of communication. You have the skills we need to capture the evil one.  I saw the way you managed that matter with the doctor, and I know you won’t have a problem with the evil one.. Our plan is to use you to scare him into letting himself be caught.”

It would certainly be much more interesting if we saw the way Jones managed the matter with the doctor and why he (or she) isn’t afraid of the evil one. In fact, all of what Smith said could be action, not dialogue. This kind of dialogue makes the reader yawn.

You need to be aware of who your characters are and how they talk. I’m not a fan of dialect and will usually bypass books where the characters obviously talk like people who live in Appalachia or Louisiana. I think the writer can convey the way the characters talk without resorting to dialect.  However, if you’re going to set a story in the deep South, for example, you may have to use some dialect. Just, for my sake, try to minimize it.

But you have to know your characters well enough so that they not only sound like real people but people who are different from one another. I have some difficulty with the male protagonist, Greg Lamont, in my Florida series. He’s a police detective and not a great talker, but I find myself having him talk more than he should.  He sometimes sounds like a woman, and I need to pare down his dialogue.

Andi Battaglia, Greg’s partner, talks more, probably because she’s female. She talks a lot when she’s nervous, kind of a character flaw. I need to keep that in mind when I’m writing.

There are differences of opinion among writers as to whether to use “he said,” or “she said,” to forget them entirely, or to always, or most of the time, indicate some action that identifies the speaker. I know I have read passages from writers, where there is not even a “he said” or “she said,” which means the reader must guess which of the characters said what. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes it’s not, and sometimes the reader has to go back to check who was last identified as the speaker and count down.

Using something that indicates how the words were spoken or using an action to go with the dialogue is a good way to get the reader to follow. For example, “He said with a forced smile;” “She said as she picked up the cup of tea;” “He said, shifting in his chair.” But you can’t always do that, and sometimes I find myself so carried away with what the characters are saying that I don’t look at them as they’re talking.

You can reveal a lot of information about your characters simply by the way you have them speak.  I’m always learning new ways to use dialogue.  What are your thoughts about dialogue?

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Writing Would Be Perfect If…

by Janis Patterson

I mean it. Writing would be so perfect if it weren’t for the readers.

I know, that is a very incendiary statement, but it’s true. We’re asked to live up to readers’ expectations without being given much of a hint as to what those expectations are. Or what they’re going to be in six months or a year, after some big unexpected blockbuster shows up and turns everything we thought we knew into a fruit salad.

Have you ever noticed how so many of those big unexpected blockbusters are usually done by people who have never published a book before? Without the need to cater to a pre-conceived notion of what readers (and publishers!) want, they write what they want. But I’ll bet there are many many more who write what they want and never get by the second reader at an agent’s or publisher’s office. It’s the one that gets through that messes everything up for us working professional mid-list writers. We’ve finally (we think!) worked out the reading habits of our demographic and adjusted our plotting/writing accordingly and some of us make a fairly decent living doing that.

Then – boom! Some off the wall writer hands in a new style of book and suddenly that’s what everyone is wanting. I’ll bet all those writers who hit the jackpot aren’t trying to make a living off their writing, that they have jobs to pay their rent and bills, but they don’t mind messing things up for the rest of us. Humph!

It has become a bad joke in the writing industry that publishers are eagerly seeking something like [insert name of current bestseller here] – something just the same, but different. I have known writers who start to growl menacingly when told this and publishers don’t seem to understand that such a statement is not really good corporate communication.

Sadly, though, it isn’t just publishers and agents. I have talked to readers about this phenomenon and am astonished at how easily the little darlings are led – of course, they are the same people who rush to buy a detergent that screams “NEW” and “DIFFERENT” when the only things new and different about the product are that the boxes are smaller and the price higher.

I have talked to readers (in both romance and mystery, as I write both) who are upset with the new fashion of genre bending. I recall one most decisive woman who hated the idea, saying “When I read a story I want this to happen, and then this, and then this.” She was not happy when I asked if she were so rigid in her reading desires why didn’t she just read the same book over and over again and save herself some money.

Her reply was fit for neither print nor pixels.

I guess you really can’t please everyone. Sigh.

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Walk the Walk by Paty Jager

paty shadow (1)The whole reason I picked an amateur sleuth was to avoid having to be too technical with cop speak and legalese.

I’m working on Book 8, Fatal Fall, in the Shandra Higheagle Mystery series. Shandra has the flu and her boyfriend, Weippe County Detective Ryan Greer, has had more time in this book than in previous ones. I didn’t think this would be a problem. Usually Shandra is sleuthing, and Ryan is backing her up with his credentials. This book, he’s doing the investigating, and I find myself having to look up cop jargon and legal words.

My poor son-in-law who is in law enforcement has had more emails than he probably likes from his mother-in-law lately. 😉 I’ve also googled, and I remembered seeing a couple of blot posts on the crimescene yahoo group about cop speak.

I had a suspect who had been arrested before. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to say on felonies or misdemeanors. I googled and found a wonderful dictionary of legal terms that helped me out.

Misdemeanor

A lesser crime punishable by a fine and/or county jail time for up to one year. Misdemeanors are distinguished from felonies which can be punished by a state prison term. They are tried in the lowest local court such as municipal, police or justice courts. Typical misdemeanors include: petty theft, disturbing the peace, simple assault and battery, drunk driving without injury to others, drunkenness in public, various traffic violations, public nuisances, and some crimes which can be charged either as a felony or misdemeanor depending on the circumstances and the discretion of the District Attorney. “High crimes and misdemeanors” referred to in the U. S. Constitution are felonies.

Felony

A serious crime, characterized under federal law and many state statutes as any offense punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year. Under the early Common Law, felonies were crimes involving moral turpitude, those which violated the moral standards of a community. Later, however, crimes that did not involve moral turpitude became included in the definition of a felony. Presently many state statutes list various classes of felonies with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the offense. Crimes classified as felonies include, among others, Treason, Arson, murder, rape, Robbery, Burglary, Manslaughter, and Kidnapping.

I needed to know about warrants- I asked my son-in-law and Wikipedia.

Search warrant is a court order that a magistrate, judge or Supreme Court official issues to authorize law enforcement officers to conduct a search of a person, location, or vehicle for evidence of a crime and to confiscate any evidence they find.  Typically, a search warrant is required for searches police conduct in the course of a criminal investigation.

Since I am in the cop’s point of view so much, I needed to use words that I wouldn’t use for Shandra. This is where I remembered seeing, and I had thought I’d bookmarked, blogs that Lee Lofland had posted on the Crimescene and Sisters in Crime yahoo loops. I posted to the crimescene loop, and he sent me the URLs to the blog posts. Here they are for your viewing and perhaps writing pleasure.

http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/cop-speak-wtf-did-he-say/

http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/?s=cop+slang

All of this information will help to make my character, Detective Ryan Greer, sound as if he and I know what we’re talking about.

Have you ever come across a book where the character said or did something that didn’t jive with what you knew of their profession?

Paty

SH Mug Art

 

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Worldviews of mysteries

By Sally Carpenter

What does that mystery say about its author and readers? All mysteries are written with a particular worldview; that is, the story takes place in a certain type of setting with characters of a certain ilk. If the setting or people were change, the story could not occur.

Some people only read or write in a certain subgenre of mystery. Some prefer the darker forays into the sinister side the human soul and others prefer the lighter side of life.

Here’s my take on the worldviews of the various types of mysteries:

Noir: The name comes from the French word for “night.” Appropriately enough, the setting is dark, sinister, foreboding. Much of the story takes place at night or in the dark. In the movie “Murder, My Sweet,” for example, I can’t recall a single scene set in daylight.

The characters are likewise dark, with secrets to hide. The people are often greedy, cold, calculating, violent and they lie.

The mood is bleak and unforgiving. The settings are often back alleys, rundown neighborhoods, lonely roads where evil lurks.

The characters doomed to destruction, headed down a one-way road of no return that that can only no happy ending. The main characters often fail to get what they want.

Women are sexy, sly, and generally up to no good. The female fatale leads the hero astray. Often the hero will commit murder in order to get the female fatale.

The two best examples are “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

Hard-boiled: The hero/sleuth is generally a private investigator. This world is cynical, violent. This has some similarities with noir in that it also uses dark setting and the characters are likewise rather scuzzy.

The PI must solve the crime because the police are corrupt and can’t be trusted. The cops hate the PI and look for ways to bring him down.

The stories are set in large, crime-ridden cities with a closed circle of suspects.

The PI often works with slimy underworld characters to get the information and help he needs.

These stories are violent, with plenty of fights and shootings. Language is often course and profane.

Sex is physical and rough with no connection to love. The PI sleeps around and shows no commitment to any of his lovers. Sex can also be a weapon or a way for the PI to get information or someone to do an errand for him.

Soft boiled: A softer edge to hard-boiled. Still dark, but not as rough. These stories sometimes have female sleuths.

The violence is often more psychological more than physical. Instead of fistfights, the author probes the darker emotions and memories of the characters.

Police Procedural: More factual, a realistic look at how the police solve the crime. These stories often use graphic violence, hard language and sex.

Along with the solving the crime, the detective is also fighting inner demons. He/she has past issues to resolve. The crime affects the hero personally—perhaps it reminds the detective of a past cold case or the hero knows someone involved.

The detective is human and subject to error. The reader sees the hero work through his/her shortcomings to solve the crime.

Traditional: Often an amateur sleuth but sometimes a PI or detective is involved. The best examples are Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes/Arthur Conan Doyle.

The emphasis is on solving the puzzle/crime. The reader sees little of the detective’s past or personality beyond what is required to catch the criminal. Characters are often stereotypes. The plot overshadows character development.

An amateur sleuth/PI is used because the police fail, are not interested in the crime, or come to the wrong conclusions. This worldview says that authority is not always trustworthy or reliable.

Caper: These stories are often humorous and the hero is sometimes a bumbler. The hero/antihero is a criminal; the reader roots for the bad guy.

The criminals set out to commit a crime, often to steal something, not for their own personal gain but to return stolen property or to help someone else. Other bad guys or the police get in their way. This worldview says sometimes the “bad guys” are the good ones.

The goal of the story is: will they get away with it? Examples are “Ocean’s Eleven” and “The Hot Rock.”

Cozy: A favorite for those who like their murders gentle and fun.

The setting is often small town but generally an intimate and closed community. The suspects know each other and are often pillars in the community; how could the mayor be a killer?

The sleuth is always an amateur, generally a female. The sleuth often becomes involved because of a personal connection to the victim or a suspect.

These stories contain no graphic violence, sex or language. There are few action scenes and little gunplay.

Solving the crime is often through emotional, logical deduction than in forensic procedure or multiple clues.

The emphasis is on character, not the crime. Some cozies spend more time discussing the lives of the characters than in working the crime. The hero often has colorful family members that he/she deals with. Romance may be involved.

The murder takes place off page with a minimal amount of gore. The victim is generally a jerk that nobody likes, someone who won’t be missed and “deserved it.” That way, the reader has little sympathy for the victim.

Since the victim is despicable, the point of the story is not so much to solve the crime but to restore order to the community. The murder had disrupted the daily routine and happiness of the residents. Once the crime is solved, the characters can return to their lives as usual.

The goal of the cozy is to leave the reader with a warm, content feeling that justice has been served, loose ends have been tied up, and life is once more back in order.

What is your favorite type of mystery and why?

 

 

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The Birth of a New Book

Unresolved is number 13 in the Rocky Bluff P.D. series, a book that I feared would never become a reality.

The publisher of the series suffered a serious illness, one she is recovering from now, but the publishing company has been put on hold for the time being. I continued writing Unresolved even though I wasn’t sure what might happen. I’m compelled to finish what I start, especially when it comes to a book I’m writing.

One of the publisher’s former writers offered to publish through his new publisher those books that were in the queue with the option that the author could return to the former publisher when and if possible. When I finished Unresolved and had it edited, I contacted this author and asked if he’d be interested in my book.

He said, “Yes,” and things have moved along quickly since then.

Today, I’m going to share the  cover and the blurb.Unresolved

#13 in the Rocky Bluff P.D. series, Unresolved Blurb:

Rocky Bluff P.D. is underpaid and understaffed and when two dead bodies turn up, the department is stretched to the limit. The mayor is the first body discovered, the second an older woman whose death is caused in a bizarre manner. Because no one liked the mayor, including his estranged wife and the members of the city council, the suspects are many, but each one has an alibi.

What this means, of course, is that I’ve had to speed up promotion plans. My first thought was a blog tour and I reached out to folks who have blogs and asked to be a guest. The tour will start on April 23rd.

I already have some in-person events scheduled–and whether or not I’ll do a special book  launch I haven’t decided.

In the meantime, I’m writing another Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery.

This has been a busy, but exciting time.

Marilyn Meredith who is also known as F. M. Meredith

 

 

 

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The Storms of Fortune

The laws of fiction aren’t the laws of life. Luck is a deciding factor in many aspects of our lives. Some people are born with better cards, born into the one percent. Some people are dealt such a stunningly bad hand I can only reel vicariously at the things that strike them and think, no, this much can’t happen to one person. One of my students has had so many illnesses, physical and emotional, and so many concussions, it doesn’t seem possible that she could have one more stroke of bad luck—and then one hits her.

Many years ago, I did quite a dance with bad luck and good luck, though none of my misfortunes were anywhere near as bad as hers. I was living in the Jamestown area outside of Williamsburg, Virginia, a low-lying area of wetlands near the James River. It was wonderful place for walking and running, and the townhouse I rented had a beautiful wildflower garden my landlady had put in. And then I got new neighbors. Bad luck. Their younger children were undisciplined and inconsiderate, so noisy I felt they were in my apartment all the time. My neighbor on the other side who had kids the same age agreed—those little boys were terrors. She didn’t want her children to play with them. When the wild boys finally settled down at night, their teenaged sister entertained other teens in the neighborhood on the front lawn. Every night. I had to leave if I wanted to reclaim my peace of mind, so I found a quiet place out in the country, further inland on the other side of Williamsburg. Moving was inconvenient and expensive, but it was just my chance misfortune that I had to do it.

Within a month, two hurricanes struck almost back to back. The place I had been driven out of near Jamestown was flooded up to the second story. In retrospect, I had good luck to get bad neighbors. But the people who didn’t move, who might have tried to work with the homeowners’ association about the noise—they had bad luck. And none of them had earned it. Even the loud family couldn’t summon two hurricanes. This story would not work as fiction.

Overcoming adversity is the essence of a strong story in fiction, but bad luck isn’t the primary obstacle and good luck isn’t the source of success. The protagonist is in pursuit of a goal and her obstacles are organic to that pursuit. Her actions, not her luck, determine her success or failure, while the actions of antagonist, also a willful actor, create setbacks and conflicts. Readers don’t like to see chance events determine the plot. It feels as though the author cheated if she turns the plot around an unearned blessing or random disaster.

If I want to work luck into fiction, I need to give it context, such as a shamanic culture’s prediction that if you refuse your calling as a seer or healer, bad luck will follow you until you accept the call. (As the title suggests, this is a theme in the first Mae Martin mystery, The Calling.) Another way to work with good or bad fortune is to set it as prior history. A character in Shaman’s Blues describes himself as a “trauma magnet.” Some of his bad luck, he invited by recklessness; some it was a bad roll of the dice. But this enters the story as a pre-existing condition—quite literally, since it’s set in 2010 and he’s uninsured and uninsurable. That’s his background. What happens in the plot depends on his choices, given his circumstances at the point at which the story begins.

I recently read a powerful novel, Peter Heller’s The Painter, in which nature is almost a character. The protagonist, through a series of emotionally driven decisions, ends up being pursued on back country roads by someone who seems determined to kill him. The author develops everything that builds up to this chase, so there are no events that feel like luck. We know the lead character has a good truck for rough-track driving; he camps and fishes throughout the book and the truck is ever-present in the story. He’s in an unfamiliar stretch of mountains and woods but in a region he knows well. And the weather has been threatening. The flash flood he encounters is random luck, but he put himself in the situation, and it’s the decision he makes in reaction to it that determines which kind of luck it is, and what kind of man he is, too.

That’s the satisfaction of fiction. The catharsis, the resolution. It can make us feel that even luck itself is within the grasp of our limited human strength.

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What’s in a Name?

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I had the great pleasure of attending a presentation by Elizabeth George at a New England Crime Bake conference a few years back. Ms. George is one of my favorite authors — not just one of my favorite mystery writers, but one of my all time favorite writers. Crime Bake is one of those wonderful small conferences attended by a wide variety of mystery writers, designed to teach, discuss and celebrate writing and reading mysteries. Together, it was an idyllic combination.

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At her presentation, Ms. George drew from her book, Write Away, to share a few choice ideas and approaches that helped her strengthen her writing. I had of course already read her book, but it was fun to see which ideas she highlighted, to see what she considered the most important to share with a group of mystery writers and readers in a short amount of time.

She touched on a few topics, one of which was the importance of names. She’d struggled with a character in one of her books, she told us, until she realized she’d given the character the wrong name! Once the name was corrected, the character’s personality, strengths and weaknesses all fell into place. A name has meaning.

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I’ve been thinking about her presentation a lot recently, because I’ve been struggling with the name of one of my characters in my work in progress. Oddly, it’s not that I have a character without a name. It’s that I have a name without a character. The theme of my book is redemption and hope, and I believe I have a character named Saul. Or perhaps Paul. My Christian upbringing is exposing itself, but whenever I think of a person making a life changing decision and seeking redemption, I think of Saint Paul (also known as Saul) as he had his epiphany on the road to Damascus.

But I just can’t get the name to fit. Maybe I’m wrong about which character is seeking redemption. Perhaps I don’t have a character named Saul or Paul at all, he’s simply hiding behind the scenes directing things. I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out yet.

I’m reminded of Paty Jager’s post here on Ladies of Mystery last week about moving her story back to the town in which it belongs. Once the story is brought home, it all falls into place. It’s the same with getting the right name.

Unfortunately, I’m still waiting to meet my Saul.

Learn more about Jane Gorman at her website or visit her on Facebook, Twitter or Amazon.

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