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.

Staying Small Town by Paty Jager

20170311_100646 (400x225)

As I was contemplating the next Shandra Higheagle Mystery, I thought I needed to take her out of Huckleberry and away from the reservation to not have critics saying there are too many murders in the ski resort or on the reservation.

Then there was a timely blog post at Mystery Readers.org about small town cops, which had me thinking about my small town amateur sleuth.

While we all know small towns have a lower rate of murders, the small town atmosphere is what makes placing a mystery there so enticing. My character, Shandra Higheagle knows many of the local people. Her conversations are much like that of Miss Marple in the Agatha Christie books. She doesn’t wander about in an apparent aimless way asking questions like Miss Marple, but she does use the knowledge of the people in Huckleberry or the Reservation to learn the information that helps her, along with her dreams, unravel the murders.

From the blog post on small town murders, it seemed readers are willing to put up with an unusual amount of people being knocked off in a small area if you give proper reasons for the murders and give them a good test to their detective skills.

After reading the post, I moved the next book back to Huckleberry and the crime and suspects came to me like a barrage of hungry dogs. (No offense, Sheba). Putting my story back in the town I knew, with people I knew, and using one of the scenarios I’d already set up in previous books, I couldn’t wait to get started on this book.

The only thing eluding me now is the title. All the other books in the series, I had the title before I started writing. But this one is still waiting to come to me. I’m thinking Fatal Fall, because the body is found at the bottom of the stairs, and the word fall could work into the premise of the story. But I could also use Fatal Tale, as the dead person is telling her memoirs to a ghost writer.  So who knows. It may end up something completely different. 😉

SH Mug Art

blog / websiteFacebook / Paty’s Posse / Goodreads / Twitter / Pinterest

 

Killing Time by Paty Jager

paty shadow (1)Eons ago when I wrote my  first mystery book it all started with guests on a talk show. Well, let me take a step back from there. I wrote that first murder mystery because there was someone in my life I wanted to see dead. Since I’m a law-abiding citizen, I used the power of words to kill my intended victim. 😉

It was having the demise of this person in mind as I watched the talk show that the premise of the story formed. The talk show had a woman and a man who were private detectives and they’d written a book, Be Your Own Detective. I listened to them talk about how they’d written a book that could help anyone be their own detective.

I haunted bookstores until I found the book. (This was way before you could order easily online). With the book in hand, I came up with a freelance photographer and divorced mother of two who gets a call from her ex that he is in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. The woman debated on whether to ignore her husband or make sure her children didn’t have the baggage of a criminal father. She watched a talk show and discovered the same book I did. 😉

With the book in hand she begins digging into the whereabouts of her husband when he supposedly killed a woman. (The person I wanted dead)  I used the information in the book on tailing, surveillance, paper trails and verbal seduction to come up with scenes and move the story along. The book had lots of great information in it. Some of it would still work to day and some that is dated.

I actually wrote two books with the same amateur sleuth. Some day, with lots of updating, they might become published. But as long as I can keep coming up with plausible deaths and mysteries for Shandra Higheagle to solve, I’ll be working on her stories.

higheagle-book-banner

Paty Jager is an award-winning author of 25+ novels and over a dozen novellas and short stories of murder mystery, western romance, and action adventure.  This is what Mysteries Etc says about her Shandra Higheagle mystery series: “Mystery, romance, small town, and Native American heritage combine to make a compelling read.”
All her work has Western or Native American elements in them along with hints of humor and engaging characters. Paty and her husband raise alfalfa hay in rural eastern Oregon. Riding horses and battling rattlesnakes, she not only writes the western lifestyle, she lives it.

blog / websiteFacebook / Paty’s Posse / Goodreads / Twitter / Pinterest

Save

How a series is like a spider plant

spider-plant

My writing process reminds me of a spider plantsprouting new plants which have potential to live and thrive if I cut them off the parent plant and pot them. But I have to choose how many little spiders I want to do that with, and how many I’d rather leave attached or simply trim off.

My last book, Ghost Sickness, took root from two stories I discarded. A scene that ended up being close to the end of it was originally the beginning of one of the rejected plots, while several key characters and settings came from the other. Maybe I should have entitled this post “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” because when I’m cutting, I store a lot of the cuts in a Scenes to Recycle file. It often ends up being the gentle way to kill my darlings, but it can also lead to creative recycling. Shaman’s Blues, my second book, hatched from a subplot in Soul Loss, which was originally going to be the second book and ended up being the fourth.

I’m well along in the first draft of the sixth book in my series, tentatively titled Medicine Buddha, and I can see that it’s going need trimming. I like the subplots better than the main plot. The antagonist doesn’t feel strong enough. My protagonist doesn’t have enough at stake. But I like the theme I’m working with and I love the settings. I’m also happy with reintroducing some characters from prior books, giving them important roles in this one.

This work in progress hatched like a baby spider plant from a second draft of Ghost Sickness. I cut scenes and subplots from it which are now the opening scenes of the main plot of book six. My protagonist, Mae Martin, attends a workshop on energy healing and medical intuition. There she encounters a fellow student, Sierra, who makes claims about reincarnation and self-healing and causing one’s own illness because of karma. She also claims that Mae’s boyfriend is part of a special soul group with her and that Mae isn’t in it. When I dropped Sierra into the workshop scene, I had no idea she was going to be my main antagonist and I’m still not sure she is.

I don’t like to repeat myself. Since the crimes in my books aren’t murders, I have to think of new types of wrong-doing for each book. Sometimes the malfeasance is on a spiritual and ethical level; sometimes it’s a criminal act. I’m trying not to make Sierra an echo of Jill Betts, the neo-shamanism expert in Soul Loss, and I’m also aware that I can’t repeat the manipulations done by Charlie, the shady professor in The Calling, who misuses his knowledge of spirituality and alternative healing.

Maybe this antagonist will evolve, or be replaced as the real “bad guy” in the book by a person who’s in her shadow right now. Maybe she’ll end up being a victim of sorts. That was my original plan but my characters acted differently than I thought they would. Still, I think it would be interesting if Mae had to protect and help a strange, difficult person she dislikes. I don’t know yet. Maybe I’ll recycle that idea in the next book. It could work better there. First, I need to wrap up the current WIP. Then I’ll see which little spiders need to be trimmed and set aside for possible other books, and which will get to remain part of the big plant.spider_plant2

*****

The first book in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series, The Calling, is on sale for 99 cents through the end of December.callingebooknew

Lessons from Outside My Genre, or, How Reading History Informs Writing Mystery

My book-related gratitude this year is for my book club. One of many things I love about Amber in tree finalbeing in this club is the diversity of genres we explore. I’ll always read mysteries, but I need to go outside my genre. It challenges me to learn new information and do more critical thinking. Reading other genres also makes me a better writer.

For October’s read, we chose Ron Chernow’s extensive biography of George Washington, an 800-plus- page book. We had to postpone our discussion into November so we could finish it. Many times, we select a book that one or two members decide not to finish or that someone feels no need to have completed before we meet. This book was different. We all wanted to read every page before we talked about it. What makes this enormous volume so compelling? After all, we know the plot—the main character’s career, who he marries, who won the war, and of course, who won that first presidential election.washington_1772

I’ve tried to identify the features of this biography that could provide lessons for any story-teller and which make it a page-turner above and beyond the question that keeps a lot readers going in fiction—“how will it end?”

Friendships make great stories. It’s easy to think the strongest drama is in romantic love, but in some lives it isn’t. George and Martha Washington’s marriage was long, affectionate, stable and free of scandal. His friends provided more drama—not that he liked drama, but a reader does. Alexander Hamilton was a powerful, valuable and difficult friend, a needed ally but not an easy one. Lafayette was loyal and affectionate, almost like a son to Washington. The contrast between his emotional, open personality and the reserved Washington makes the reader care about both of them and understand their rapport. A story about friendships could be filled with enough variety that no romantic drama is needed: Friends who support the main character and friends who undermine or disappoint him; friends who fail in their struggles; friends who challenge and refine his character and ideas. Washington had all of these.

Enemies make great stories, too, of course, if they are well-developed characters. Washington’s colleagues who wanted to supplant him in the army provide some lively incidents. The way he let these ambitious fellow generals destroy themselves without his taking any action against them is amazing. He could foresee how his enemies might trip themselves up and then wait and let them do it. Once in a while, however, he failed to read character well. Benedict Arnold and his wife Peggy are fascinating, more so than any British general. Betrayed trust makes a more complex story than frank, constant opposition. (Historical fiction writers: There’s potential for a novel in Peggy Arnold.) Do you know if Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were Washington’s friends or enemies? Did he know? Read the book and find out. It gets complicated.

Unexpected characteristics are engaging: Imagine a president who hopes he’ll only be needed for two years and can then resign. (Obviously, he didn’t get his wish.) Washington described being elected in dismal terms. In a letter to his friend and trusted general Henry Knox, he said this of being elected president: “…movement to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of execution.” Martha dreaded being first lady, too, and felt like a prisoner in that role. The aversion this couple had to being famous and powerful is a trait that contrasts with our common expectations of people in politics.

Secondary characters can be compelling—and reveal a lot about the main character. Washington’s mixed feelings about slavery show in his relationships with his slaves, refusing to permanently separate married couples or to break up families. His personal attendant, William Lee, who went through the war with him, married a free black woman in Philadelphia and asked that she be brought to Virginia when Washington returned home. He didn’t like Lee’s wife and yet he did as Lee asked. (What a complicated life this couple must have had when she arrived. Lee is another figure would make an intriguing central character for a historical novel. My book club told me I have to write it. I think someone else should.) In many ways, Washington treated Lee like a valued employee, but he owned him. He showed solicitude about all of his slaves’ health and family relationships, but they still were slaves and he expected them to work as if they were being paid for the labor. The inconsistency in his behavior reveals what he felt inside. It took him his whole life, literally, to resolve his inner conflict about slavery.

Washington’s attitude toward women was positive. He found them better company than men socially. A dinner party was disappointing if it was lacking ladies. He admired female historians and poets, and never seemed to think them inferior to male writers, and he conversed with intellectual women like Elizabeth Powel as his equals. The idea that women might vote never came up, of course, no matter what political insights Mrs. Powel could give him. And, as a man of his times, he advised a headstrong niece that she should learn to submit her will more to her husband’s.

Family conflicts create empathy. Who would imagine that a great leader had a whiny, you-never-take-care-of-poor-me mother? Think of the Dwayne-and-Mom sketches on Prairie Home Companion and take them back to the 18th Century, and you have an idea what it was like for our first president to deal with Mary Washington.

Flaws and failures are important. If the main character doesn’t have pain and weakness, there’s no interest. No matter how strong someone is, that person has troubles—family, health, finances, all of the above—and sometimes makes major blunders. A character who can hold a reader’s attention usually has more virtues than flaws, but the balance can be close to fifty-fifty, if the flaws are traits readers can identify with and are paired with the opposite virtue, or are its shadow side. Washington tried to keep his temper but he couldn’t always. He tried to be honest, but he could tell a lie, even though he preferred not to. His respect and admiration for women was a virtue, but it was a blind spot that let Peggy Arnold get away. His generosity was a good trait, though he often spent money he couldn’t spare, being short of funds due to crop failures and because he shopped, redecorated and remodeled far more than he reasonably should have. This didn’t stop him from paying for the college education of various young relatives and other deserving young men, and entertaining every stranger who dropped by Mt. Vernon. It would be hard to like a character who only spent too much on his home décor, but when his extravagance is extended to paying tuition also, the reader’s feelings lean in his favor. Some of the provisions made in his will say even more about his character, but to reveal them would be a spoiler.

I opened the first page already knowing how the main character lived and died, but all of the features above kept me turning the pages.

Hope and Despair

thumb_IMG_1225_1024

Tomorrow is the birthday of the fourth book in the Adam Kaminski Mystery Series! What She Fears goes live tomorrow, August 16, and that’s both exciting and nerve-wracking.

Of course, I’m already hard at work on the next book. No rest for the weary, as they say. Book 5 (no title yet) is about hope. Maybe even about faith. It’s about music, art, and color.

IMG_4122

I struggled a lot with the opening scenes. I’m a planner, so I already had my character sketches and outline done before I started writing. I knew who I was writing about and what would happen in each scene. But something was missing.

I figured maybe I was distracted by the upcoming book launch. I’ve been doing a lot of promotion for the first book in the series (and it’s going very well — pick up your free copy of A Blind Eye here if you haven’t started the series yet!) so I decided I was just nervous about that. Distracted from writing.

NO DISTRACTIONS ALLOWED

Makes sense, right?

Distracted, I should add, is an understatement. A complete emotional mess might be more accurate. Will my readers like it? Will they love it? I think it’s my best book yet. But I admit to being a little biased.

DEFINITELY DISTRACTING

Some days I wake up full of hope, just knowing What She Fears will be a hit. Fans of Adam Kaminski will love it. Other days I wake up in despair. Everyone will hate it. No one will understand what the book is about or what it says.

Then — finally — it hit me. That had been my problem all along with book 5. Here I thought I was writing a book about hope. But I’d left out the despair.

How can you regain hope if you haven’t first experienced despair?

I love it when a story comes together. That one, elusive element that finally makes it all click. The glue that holds it all together. The book is about hope. The book is about despair. And like all good books, it’s about the journey.

The writing is coming along well now. I so enjoy the time I spend putting words to paper, watching my ideas come out into the open, seeing them take form. It’s enthralling and it’s invigorating.

I’ll share more about the next book in future posts, as time permits. For now, I remain hopeful about the launch of What She Fears. Take a look for yourself and let me know what you think! What-She-Fears-Web-Small

Learn more about me and my writing at janegorman.com. Sign up for my newsletter or follow me on Facebook or Twitter. My books are available at Amazon and a variety of other retailers.

 

Guest Blogger -D.J. Williams

I sat across from Michael Connelly’s agent and wondered how I ended up there. To say that Connelly was an influence in my pursuit to be a storyteller would be an understatement. Along with Grisham and Patterson, he is in the top three of my favorite authors. Connelly’s agent had read my first novel, The Disillusioned, or at least enough of it to request a meeting. I listened as he shared how they had built Connelly’s career culminating with finalizing the Amazon deal for Bosch. I shared with him a story idea that had been resonating for a few years and knew from his response that I had something unique.
When I left his office I knew that The Disillusioned was only the first novel in the Guardian series. But what was next? As I thought about my story idea and my conversation with Connelly’s agent, I had a moment of inspiration. To move the series ahead, a story from the 1920’s would become an underlying mystery revealed throughout the series. It wasn’t enough on it’s own. The challenge was to bridge the gap between these two eras. Eight months later I had a first draft of Waking Lazarus, an epic global adventure filled with riveting characters and page turning twists and turns. While I had written a first draft of Waking Lazarus in less than a year, it took months of rewriting and editing to cross the finish line.
I write in this genre because I love mysteries filled with suspense. I love the rush of diving into a scene and seeing what happens next. And I love writing stories that go beyond entertainment. As you’ll find in the first two novels of the Guardian series there are key themes of light versus darkness, religion versus faith, and power versus innocence that drives the characters forward. You’ll also find that there are strong female characters and colorful settings throughout to keep readers on edge.
One month ago, Waking Lazarus was released worldwide. Once again I’ve been humbled to capture the attention of industry veterans including Peter Anderson, Oscar Winner/Cinematographer, who has endorsed this latest adventure, “Waking Lazarus is a captivating visual story with a colorful narrative. Once I started reading, it was hard to put down.”
I will always remember those few hours being taught a master class in how to build a series that could potentially go the distance. Thank you Michael Connelly’s agent for imparting your words of wisdom!
Lazarus
Waking Lazarus
by D.J. Williams
Jake Harris’ life hasn’t turned out the way he planned. Battling his addictions, and the shattered pieces of his family, he is hired to ghostwrite a memoir. From the 1920’s story of a controversial evangelist, to the present day mystery of a former District Attorney, everything changes when his search for the truth leads to an atrocity hidden from history. With a past he can’t remember, he begins to discover that he is not the person he believed himself to be. Rather, he is a threat to a secret society that has remained in the shadows for nearly a century. Jake is drawn deep inside a world he never knew existed that brings him closer to his own extraordinary destiny.
 

guardiancomboad