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.

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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.

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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.

In the Dark: About Titles, Writing and Eclipses

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I usually develop the titles to my books somewhere in the early stages of writing. I know the theme, I know the murder weapon and motive, and I know the red herrings that will be swimming through the story. The title usually comes from one of those. This time around, I find myself in the dark.

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My current work in progress takes place on a cruise ship traveling from New York to Bermuda. Our hero, Philadelphia detective Adam Kaminski, must figure out who poisoned the Claypoole family patriarch—and how—before the ship docks and all the witnesses (and suspects) hit the open seas. But first he has to convince himself that he still has what it takes to catch a murderer.

I really want to title the book, Through a Glass Darkly. It’s part of a verse from the bible, 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” I love the poetry of the words and also the theme it implies—being in the dark but eventually finding your way to the light. After all, isn’t that what happens in most mysteries?

It didn’t take much polling of friends and readers to realize my working title wasn’t a hit. Too many people didn’t get the reference. And my books are not religious in any way, shape or form, so I really don’t want to give the wrong impression.

That led me to working title number two, Voices Carry. It fits with one of the elements of the story. It’s short, kind of catchy. It would work as a title. But I just kept thinking about the darkness.

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Today is an appropriate day to think about darkness, obviously. I’m not on the path of the total eclipse, sadly, but I was able to see a partial eclipse. I loved watching not only the eclipse itself, but also its effect on the shadows on the ground around me. They became visibly crisper, cleaner. I’m a huge fan of shadows, so for me that was one of the highlights.

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Light and dark, shadows and sun. I need a title that captures it all. Being in the dark, then seeing clearly.

Right now, I’m on working title number three, A Pale Reflection. I’m toying with changing that to A Dark Reflection.

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At some point soon, I need to make a decision! I’m still hoping the right title with come to me, focused like an eclipse-sharpened shadow. Or perhaps a sign from above, like the blotting out of the sun.

If any of you have any suggestions, I’m open to ideas! Let me know what you think!

For more information about Jane Gorman’s books, visit janegorman.com or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

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What Makes a Book Great?

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I just finished the seventh book in a seven book mystery series. I picked up the first because I loved the cover. Also because it had a good blurb and some good reviews and it was set in a little town in France that appealed to me, but mostly because it had a beautiful, tantalizing cover.

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I like to think this cover is just as captivating!

I bought the second book as soon as I’d finished the first, and kept going that way straight through book seven. As an author, I have to ask myself, why did I find this series so compelling?

There were several ways in which the writer didn’t follow the “rules” that writers are so often warned about.

She bounced around between points-of-view. For every book you read, there is one— or two or three or more—point-of-view characters. That’s the character through whose eyes you get the story. In a cozy, which this series was, that’s typically the amateur sleuth—the little old lady or librarian or divorcee or pet shop owner or knitting club president who can’t help but get involved and who solves the crime in the end.

Writer are always warned not to bounce around between points-of-view, and if you must have more than one point-of-view character, then change points of view between scenes, not within a scene. That’s how I do it when I write. Each of my stories is told partly from the point of view of Adam Kaminski, the hero, and also partly through the eyes of another important character. And sometimes through the eyes of the killer.

But this series jumped from one person to another to another to another all within the same scene. The writer used a striking combination of the omniscient point of view (when the reader hears all the thoughts of all the characters) and a second person point of view.

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It broke the rules and it was wonderful!

Other aspects of these stories could have irritated other readers. There were some editing errors. Not little typos, but pretty major issues such as a character not speaking French in one scene then speaking French in another (I actually thought that was a clue and it proved the character was lying about himself, but it turned out just to be an error!).

So why did I love these books so much?

The characters. The juicy, crazy, emotional, fascinating, sometimes twisted, sometimes bizarre characters that populate the little town in which the stories take place.

Though I should clarify, the town itself was one of those characters. A beautifully crafted and gorgeously described town in the south of France.

Focus groups and marketing studies are clearly important, but not something I can do within my budget. Instead, I base a lot of my decisions about my books on what I like or don’t like. And this series proved a few things I kind of already knew.

I will choose a book by its cover. And I will keep reading a book because of its characters.

What do you look for in the books that keep you reading?

Learn more about the Adam Kaminski mystery series by Jane Gorman at janegorman.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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The Complications of Family

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As I write this post, I have to admit I’m not entirely focused on writing. I’m thinking more about my plans later today to head out to visit my Dad. Because today is Father’s Day, at least here in the U.S. Not that I need a reason to see my Dad, but sometimes it helps to have some extra motivation. It’s far too easy to let time slip by between visits.

I’m lucky. I have a loving family who live not far from me. Of course, for some people close proximity to family can be a curse as much as a blessing. Families are complicated.

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The complications of family underlie one of the running subplots in the Adam Kaminski mystery series. In the first book in the series, A Blind Eye, Adam learns something he didn’t previously know about his great-grandfather. Not a close family member, to be sure. But to Adam, the history of his family is the history of himself. As a former history teacher, Adam knows just how important the past is in framing the future.

With each book in the series, Adam learns a little bit more about his great-grandfather’s life. Tiny pieces of information that could easily be misunderstood or put into the wrong place in the puzzle.

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I’m enjoying figuring out this family puzzle as I write it. Of course, I do know the big picture. I knew that before I wrote the first book. But the details that come to light with each installation of the story sometimes surprise me, too!

For a mystery writer, family complications are a fertile source. Families can mean acceptance, love and joy, but they can also mean competition, jealousy, old grudges or catastrophic loss. And sometimes they mean all of those things at the same time.

In the Adam Kaminski mystery series, I get to explore not only the history of Adam’s family, but also his relationships to his mother, his father, his sister, his more distant relatives. Each relationship comes with its own story. Its own tensions.

In the fifth book, which I’m currently writing, I get to zoom in on Adam’s sister, Julia. She’s been a bit player in some of the books already, but now she’s getting a leading role. And it’s so much fun to figure her out!

If you haven’t had a chance to meet Adam Kaminski and his family yet, now’s a great time. I’m partnering up with a group of other mystery writers to do a free giveaway. Here’s the link to the page, where you can download free copies of A Blind Eye, along with 20 other mysteries and thrillers. Check it out!

Adam-Kaminski-Mystery-SeriesLearn more about Jane Gorman at her website, or follow her on Bookbub, Facebook and Instagram.

Did You Like It?

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If you follow many authors on social media or through their newsletters, then you’ve probably seen a request for readers to post reviews. These days, for whatever reason, reviews are king!

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It’s not a new concept. Even before the internet (remember that time?), I valued getting opinions from friends or family about books, movies, new exhibitions, whatever form of entertainment I might be considering. Who wouldn’t want to know if an experience would be worth the time and money you put into it?

These days, those reviews tend to come from anonymous strangers. The concept is the same, the implementation is quite different.

Does it matter if you’re taking the advice of a stranger as opposed to someone you know? Yes, I believe it does.

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I had an uplifting conversation yesterday with someone who is a fan of my books. She told me how much she enjoyed the level of detail I included — just enough to paint a picture, to draw her into the story. She related on a personal level to my characters and couldn’t wait to find out what happened to them in future books. You won’t be surprised to hear, I enjoyed getting her comments!

But I couldn’t help but remember, even as she spoke, that just that day I’d noticed a negative review posted to one of my books on Amazon. The reviewer found the characters to be flat. The level of description slowed the story down. Hmph.

Two different readers. The same details. Two completely different reviews. Reading, like so many other things, is subjective. What works for one reader will fail for another.

There’s not much we as writers can do about that. We write the books we want to read. We write the books we think readers will enjoy. Then we sit back and take the lumps with the praise.

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None of which changes that fact that reviews are — still — king. A growing number of marketing opportunities are limited to books with X number of reviews or a certain rating level. So we writers keep asking our readers to post reviews! Share your thoughts! One sentence or a few paragraphs! Good or bad, every review helps!

Then we step back, grit our teeth, and get ready to take our lumps.

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To learn more about Jane Gorman and the Adam Kaminski mystery series — and to leave a review — visit her website at JaneGorman.com, her Amazon page or follow her on Goodreads, Facebook , Instagram and Bookbub.

A Blind Eye, the first book in the Adam Kaminski mystery series, is now on sale for 99 cents.

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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The Little Things

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A good book draws the reader in, makes her forget her own worries, the to-do list waiting on the fridge, the snow outside that needs shoveling (at this time of year, anyway!). How do the best authors achieve this? There are many ways, but certainly one is getting the little details right.

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If a reader has previously visited the town in which a book takes place — let’s say, Philadelphia — having the hero run up Broad Street and take a right onto Fourth would pull him right out of the story (for those not familiar with Philly, those streets don’t intersect). If a reader knows a little bit about history, having the murder happen in a historical location that gets its history wrong would be a buzz kill.

There are many resources available to mystery writers today, and I love to take advantage of as many as I can. As a member of the Sisters in Crime, as well as two local chapters (one in my area, the other online), I have access to online courses, in-person lectures, lists of helpful books, and of course experts themselves available to answer questions. I’ve listened to coroners, successful authors, and community workers share their stories. I’ve taken classes on crime scene investigation and firearms.

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Did you know there’s an email list just on forensics and crime scene investigations? It’s such fun! I can be checking my email — laughing at a joke from a friend, deleting unwanted ads for home loans and bodily enhancements — when I come across a detailed analysis of the decomposition rate of a dead body in a cold lake. Cool!

Sometimes my membership in these groups keeps me a little too busy, taking me away from my writing, particularly the group for which I serve as a board member. But it’s all worth it. It’s thanks to these groups that I have access to such fabulous information. And I know that when writing, sometimes the most important part can be the little things.

Learn more about Jane Gorman at janegorman.com, sign up for new release alerts at Bookbub, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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