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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Setting the setting for your fiction

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford’s mystery short story collection

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

— Marcel Proust

Some authors use fictitious settings for their novels and short stories; some use the real thing. I do both. Which works best when?

In the four linked short stories in my mystery collection Beyond the Tripping Point (Blue Denim Press, 2012), I do both. Toronto and Goderich (the latter in the story “Saving Grace”) are real, albeit set back in 1999. But for the main location where the fraternal twin PIs, Dana Bowman and Bast Overture live and work, I use a fictitious small city, Thurston, approximately 30 miles north of Toronto. Thurston is a combination of Aurora and Newmarket, two small cities just north of Toronto, and Guelph, Ontario.

Why did I use this combo for setting?

I chose a fictitious place for the stories here and in the prequel novel because:

  1. I wanted the combination for various features unique to each. Guelph (which I have visited in the past) is for the lake. But I lived in Aurora for 23 years to late 1998 so am familiar with a lot of what Aurora was like then. Newmarket is barely three miles up the highway from Aurora (now they are practically joined with urban sprawl and strip plazas so bad that if you want to meet someone at McDonald’s you have to specify which Mcdonald’s).  So here I was going on the familiar.
  2. Aurora nd Newmarket are part of York Region and the police force there is York Regional. I base the police force in the twins ‘stories on York Regional but call it Cooks Regional Force (and the region is obviously Cooks Region). I do this so I don’t have to be exact with police procedure in York Region in the late 1990s, but make sure any police procedure is the way it was in police departments during that time. I have a police consultant who is also a published mystery (police procedure) author as well as a working police constable. Some police equipment used then surprises me – such as wiretapping –big reel-to-reel tape machines that had to be turned on manually when recording, for example, calls from kidnappers. That made for some tricky sequences as how to set it up in my prequel novel. Toronto Police and the Ontario Provincial Police (as you can see in “Saving Grace”) are “themselves.” I didn’t want to create fiction to the ridiculous,
  3. Place names and street names. One of my mystery-novel-writing colleagues uses real streets in Toronto, but makes the numbers higher than the actual streets. I use a mixture of fact and fiction. For Thurston, Ontario, addresses are made-up. But, from my past living experience in Aurora/Newmarket, they resemble somewhat what is there – not the Mini-Mall though, and not The Attic Investigative Agency, which the twins operate from the attic level of their old house. That house is actually based on a number of houses I’ve seen or been in: the outside comes from an old three-story house, complete with balconies and turrets, I saw and photographed in downtown, London, Ontario. The inside of the twins’ house is based on a one a late aunt and uncle lived in (Toronto) when I was growing up, plus other houses I’ve seen the inside of doing interviews for stories as a journalist or house hunting. In other stories, I use real places but may not name them. For example, in “Missing in Action” I have a murder occur behind a real church (including the real location) but don’t name the church. In “Porcelain Doll” I use the real town of Hanover (among other real towns and cities) but don’t name the antique ahop there. And as a good part of “Porcelain Doll” is set on a train in the summer of 1965 I make darn sure I have the train layout, etc. accurate. It helps that I rode trains in Ontario and Michigan as a child during that time period and my late Dad worked as a timekeeper for one of the Canadian railways then. But I also did further research – online, from books on the Canadian railways, and files I photocopied from the Ontario Archives.

Why this mix of fact and fiction? I think to protect both the “real thing” and yes, myself. It also give me a bit of leeway when writing. The main thing is what are you comfortable using and will it work? How much research do you want to do (and there is always research as you can see from the above)? And if you are writing fiction based on fact you might want to change the location.

What do you do for settings in your fiction? Fact or fiction or a combination?

And if you click on my book cover above it takes you to my book on http://www.amazon.com

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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Making time for your writing

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford’s mystery short story collection

Many of us would like to spend more time writing our novel, short story, etc. But our hectic lives can get in the way. The only solution is to take stock of what we are doing and what is happening in our lives. What is necessary? What can wait? What can be scrapped?

I’ve reached that point again and am getting ruthless. Unlike some of you I don’t have children around the house – my son has been long grown up and left the nest. I don’t have a significant other – a partner. That has its downside when you consider all that must be done or at least organized – alone. In a nutshell, I’m juggling the house (regular housework and things that need repairing/replacing, snow shovelling, etc.), family and some friends (I’ll clarify the “some” shortly), what I call “self” (walking, gardening and reading – things I do for me), and my writing/editing/writing teaching. The latter is my business and maybe that is the key to getting at your writing. Under those four categories I prioritize daily.

However, stuff happens; sometimes you find yourself spending too much time on related (or not) things.

So what does a body and soul do to get writing regularly?

Here are a few pointers to get you thinking.

  1. The aforementioned treat your writing like a business, i.e., something that must be done.
  2. Divide what you do into categories. They don’t have to be the same as mine – whatever suits your situation.
  3. Prioritize – within categories and the categories themselves – this must be done on a weekly and daily basis.
  4. Use the three Ds to decide what to do with No. 3 – Delay, Delegate, Dump (or Delete). I use some of the suggestions by Alan Lakein in his book How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life (1989, available at www.amazon.com). My version is much earlier but he has lots of helpful ideas, including dividing your so-called “to do” list into A, B and C’s. A’s – obviously your top priority (i.e. writing) for what must be done, B’s for somewhat important but could wait before doing – you do these when the daily A’s are done. C’s – dump, delete. Here is where I put phone voice-mail messages from telemarketers and the like, even some friends (here it comes) – friends who appear suddenly out of the blue and wonder why I haven’t phoned them when it’s been years since I’ve heard from them – unless I want to reconnect. Have to be “ruthless” here. Maybe it will move up to a B.
  5. Juggling what’s left. For example in the writing/editing/writing teaching biz, I look at the overall picture, figure out what is most important and slot it into an A, what I have to do at some point into a B, and what I can dump into a C. And I do it by week and day. So this week’s (based on deadlines) priorities are: finish editing one client’s book manuscript, continue with the rewrite of my prequel mystery novel (including some research that has popped up as I write), my blog posts, some PR for my current short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point (fortunately I have a writing colleague friend who put my marketing plan into Excel and my end is to critique one of her short stories – when she finishes it). This brings up another idea.
  6. Instead of directly delegating – do a skills trade with someone – but make sure for both sides it is on each others’ priority list. For example I am not going to babysit for someone so they will clean my house because I don’t babysit.
  7. Try to set a specific time each day, five days a week, each weekend to write, and decide what you are going to write before you start.
  8. Don’t work on too many writing projects at a time. I have a friend who did that until she realized she had to rein in what she was writing.
  9. For those with families to look after, insist on certain times a day (depending on your circumstances) for you to have undisturbed time to write. Yes, I did this when my son was still at home, albeit in his teen years his rock band sometimes practiced in my basement while I wrote. Although I liked their music, I used ear plugs when writing. There was a trade off. The band members helped move appliances and other kitchen stuff when my kitchen needed painting. Your trade-off may be if you have kid-free and spouse-free time to write, you spend other time with them.
  10. Limit your social media, email, texting, online group participation, and phone calls. Turn off your email account notification (or close your email), turn your i-Phones, etc. to vibrate and let voice mail take over when you are writing. And don’t answer your door unless you are expecting someone. I don’t always follow the email and door ones. But you can bet if the someone at my door is soliciting they get short shrift from me. I’ve sent those water heater company sales people scrambling down the front steps – with words alone.

Happy and productive writing.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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Creating the actual story from real life ideas

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford’s mystery short story collection

In last week’s post I discussed how much of yourself goes into your fiction and listed overall guidelines, especially when the idea isn’t taken from your life. Today, I’m going to show how I gelled a plot idea with the main characters to write a story.

“The Couch,” the first story in my mystery story collection Beyond the Tripping Point, originated with something I kept reading in mystery novels that annoyed me. This was 11 years ago – “The Couch” was previously published in an anthology – but the idea is still relevant today. Too many fictional private investigators seemed to have a hard time making ends meet. I decided to turn that issue around – my PI, named C.U. Fly, called “C.U.”, would be raking in the money from too many clients and was burnt out. C.U. first tried conventional means to downsize and when that didn’t work, C.U. turned to an unusual take on crime. I also used the axiom of “crime doesn’t pay” as my underlying theme. C.U. was 25, so the good fortune wasn’t from many years of work. I threw in one more main “character” an old horsehair couch – that idea came from a horsehair couch that sat in the living room of my late grandfather’s farmhouse. Of course, Grandpa’s couch didn’t have adventures like the fictional old horsehair.

Here’s the beginning of “The Couch.”

I blamed the whole business on that old blue couch. An heirloom on my mother’s side, it was stuffed with horsehair. She’d given it to me when I opened this office. “Old Horsehair” settled in permanently until the bitter crackling end.

How else could I explain my actions? I had no choice. Some days I spent 20 hours in the office. No partner took the load off my shoulders. Only that damn three-seater couch, which sucked in my clients like a magnet. I had repeat clients related to repeat clients.

Or was Ms Everglades to blame?

The story’s theme is set up with the first sentence. The main character’s name and profession aren’t revealed until a few paragraphs down and are done in two ways: first, the PI’s name and a reference to the profession in Ms Everglades’ dialogue.; second, the profession is revealed in a short backstory in Fly’s mind to show how the situation started. How the state-of-affairs progresses is shown in a parade of clients – via dialogue, action and C.U’s inner thoughts. The point of view stays with Fly.

Here’s another excerpt with one of these quirky clients.

Take Guido “Ratty” Rattali, a self-professed blackmailer. Ratty hired me to dig up dirt on well-heeled people. Then he threatened them with their dirt, collected the payoff and limped into my office. He heaved his Blue Jays cap onto the floor, shoved his greasy locks behind his ears and pushed his grimy beige trench coat off his shoulders and down over his ass. Then he dived face-down onto the couch. His sobs alternated with sneezes as his nose rubbed into Old Horsehair.

“I’m only the poor son of a poor greengrocer, achoo, excuse-a-me,” he said.

When his sinuses were completely blocked, he jumped up, tripping on his trench coat, and handed me a wad of cash for my fee—less his take, no doubt. (both excerpts copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford,  from Beyond the Tripping Point, Blue Denim Press, 2012)

 

 You can also see how Old Horsehair fits in. And Ratty is an example of the type of clientele, although he is more bent than some of the others. I also add a dog who chews into Old Horsehair and a furnace repair man who comes in to check the furnace downstairs – all necessary developments that foreshadow and lead to the credibility of what Fly eventually decides to do.

Does it work? You’ll have to read the story to find out.

From the above, we can learn the following:

  1. Use a combination of what annoys, scares, or concerns you with perhaps one other item from your life (I used the complaining poor PI’s from fiction and the horsehair couch from my past.)
  2. Use your imagination for your characters – you don’t want a replica or yourself or someone you know – but you can “steal” a few characteristics here (I used imagination only).
  3. Devise a plot for your characters that is not run-of-the mill. (I turned the situation around, using the “what if?” approach.
  4. Lighten it up with humour – it can balance some of the nastiness in the story (It helped with the presentation of a quirky story with quirky characters).
  5. Make sure your story follows its theme (mine was “crime doesn’t pay) but do it in an original way (sorry, not telling here).
  6. Use “show the reader” features – dialogue, action, inner thoughts but some narrative is okay.
  7. Let your readers be surprised by the unexpected – but make it credible.

The first part of No. 7 occurred in a well, unexpected way. Tuesday evening I did a reading presentation from Beyond the Tripping Point entitled “Where do characters come from?” at the Runnymede Branch of the Toronto Public Library. When introducing me, the head librarian mentioned that her husband had been reading the stories and then looked at my photo on the back cover and said, “I can’t believe that sweet-faced woman wrote those stories.”

It’s the same photo of me as at the top of this blog page. The stories in BTTP contain murder, sexual assault, missing persons, kidnapping, revenge, suicide, vehicular mishaps, etc. You be the judge.

Cheers.

Sharon. A. Crawford

 

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Putting yourself into your fiction

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford’s mystery short story collection

The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.

–          André Gide

If you write horror stories does that mean you have to run around with a chain saw chopping up people? If you write mysteries with serial killers does that mean you have to be a serial killer? What about romance writers? Children’s authors? How much of who you are factors in with what you write?

I’ve wondered about that lately because many of my short stories and the prequel novel are on the dark side – both in content and the humour sometimes used to tell them. But my stories also go to the other side of the creativity fence – I use emotions such as hope, love, gratitude, joy, generosity, empathy, even happiness (usually at the story’s end). In other words I make my characters human, characters who often have to overcome great odds to get some sort of hold back on their life and the lives of their family and friends.

For example, in my short story “Unfinished Business” from Beyond the Tripping Point (Blue Denim Press, 2012), the main character Lilly, has something traumatic happens when she is 12 years old. The consequences force her to run away from home at 15 and her life becomes one of too many men and never staying in one place for long. During that time she gives birth to a daughter, Trish, and her motherly instincts kick in, especially when Trish turns 12 and wants to see where Mom was born. The journey back holds bad memories for Lilly and when they arrive at her old home and the cause of the trauma shows up, mistaking Trish for Lilly, Lilly changes. She has to save her daughter from the same fate she had, and in doing so, she can get rid of the albatross she’s carried around on her shoulder, and change her life and her attitude. Besides the dark side of what happened to Lilly (and for the record, did not happen to me), the story shows hope and the indomitable spirit living somewhere in most humans. Lilly just needed strong motivation and mother love was it.

So, if you aren’t a serial killer or a sex fiend, how do you write about these areas and others you haven’t lived through yourself?

  1. Read, read, read on the topic. For serial killers, I’m reading Peter Vronsky’s book Serial Killers and I admit I watch Criminal Minds on TV. I do find the latter is more inventive in their serial killers and motives than some of those in real life. I say “some” because as the saying goes “truth is often stranger than fiction.”
  2. Other Research – interview experts. I’m not saying interview a serial killer but perhaps a profiler or a police officer familiar with catching serial killers.
  3. Put yourself (mentally and emotionally, not actually) in the mind of your character. How would they react to such and such? What is their story? Their background?
  4. Go inside yourself and draw out what is there that you can use? For example, did your parents die suddenly from, say a car crash, when you were a child? Did your father desert the family? Were you bullied in school? Did you grow up in poverty or do you live in poverty now?  Do you have a disability that affects your life? Do you have an affinity for certain people or types of people? For me, it’s the underdog – the one who has a lot of bad going on in their life. In other words, someone who has to overcome much and has a hard time doing so. Will he or she do so? That is what you have to figure out in your story.

The bottom line is this: what you write encompasses you, your life, your feelings – but it doesn’t mean you have to be a serial killer or even a mom. For the record, I am a mom, although my son is now in his mid-thirties; I was a single parent but had lots of parenting help from my ex; I was bullied as a child; my dad died after a long bout with cancer when I was 16; I suffered from depression some 30 years ago, and poverty is no stranger to me. But I don’t wield a chain saw – too heavy to hold and I’ve tried – but to trim trees and shrubs.

How much of you is in your fiction?

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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