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Creating suspense in fiction

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

How many books have you read where the plot seems to flatline? Maybe the characters get too chatty. Maybe the description of characters or setting reads more like an expository. Maybe the scenes themselves are mundane. Do you then yawn?

Those spell boredom for the readers. And I see it happening in novels that are supposed to be mysteries. A village scene, instead of creating some touch of menace or at least some suspense, reads more like a slice of village life. Not all authors can do the village scene as well as the late Agatha Christie did.

There are ways your novel can get a life readers will want to read about. And just to clarify. Suspense doesn’t only equal mysteries and thrillers. All fiction needs some suspense – and that includes romance novels with their relationships. In fact, the twists and turns of relationships in any novel are fodder for creating suspense. Characters are at the core.

Here a few tips to create suspense in fiction:

  1. Start your story with something to draw in your reader. If you must have your village scene, get inside your main character’s head and show her take on the scene. Perhaps she dreads the town council meeting, the gardening club meeting, the tea, etc. Why? Or something terrible happens at the beginning at that meeting. Here’s a quick example. Marion would never call Fairfax council meetings boring again.
  2. Dialogue is good – reveals and develops characters and their interactions, as well as moves the plot forward. Unless your characters get overly chatty and go on and on for pages about religion, politics and more mundane things. All three might be relevant to your story, but add some spice, some suspense. Maybe one of the characters chatting is not making sense, seems to be high on something. More to the point, have a character reveal something startling to move the plot forward. Or have the dialogue interrupted by something happening. Depending on your story’s genre, could be somebody unexpected bursting into the room and creating chaos.
  3. Character descriptions. Forget the long expository but blend it in with the storyline and reveal something or several somethings about the POV character and other characters in this scene. In Beyond Blood, PI Dana Bowman meets Det. Sgt. Donald Fielding for the first time when her house is broken into. I show it from Dana seeing Fielding from the feet up as he comes down the basement stairs. The two clash. Dialogue and action show this and builds suspense about what could happen later on with two strong personalities trying to solve crimes when they can’t even agree on what crime happened in Dana’s basement. You can also have characters make snide remarks about another character’s hair or clothes. That would tell you something about both characters. Some narrative is necessary, but don’t drone on.
  4. Same can be said for settings. Nothing is more boring than reading paragraph after paragraph describing the main street of a town or the town itself. You aren’t writing a travel piece: you’re writing a novel or short story. In my Beyond mystery novels, I don’t just describe the town of Thurston, Ontario (fictional town), but have Dana  or her twin PI Bast  actually drive down a street, Suspense could be someone following Dana or better still she thinks someone is following her and dodges all over town to ditch the person. Or there is a collision – accident or intentional? Or if one of the twins goes into a shop or restaurant, I work in the location and relevant characters inside. “Relevant” is the key word. .

Visualize what you want and then write it for the reader to get the picture Remember: show, not tell the reader.

These are just a few suggestion. I also suggest you read published books by authors in the genre you are writing – authors who know what they are doing to create suspense within the mundane. Sometimes the latter is the most frightening.

If you click on the Beyond Blood novel above it will take you to more information about my Beyond books.

Cheers.

Sharon

 

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Writing critique group comes through

Beyond the Tripping Point Cover 72dpiI have posted before about writing critique groups and how they can help us writers. But it never hurts to add more on the subject because we writers write in a vacuum of me, myself and I. So we often think in opposites – our short story, or essay, or novel is brilliant or our writing piece is awful. Sometimes we think with wisdom – we know something is just not working but we don’t know exactly what or if we do, we don’t know how to fix it. Enter a writing critique group.

As the organizer and facilitator of the East End Writers’ Group in Toronto, I don’t always bring a piece for critique to our almost monthly meetings There is only so much time for a limited number of authors to read and get their work critiqued, so  If I did bring something to each gathering, other members might think “oh, she runs the group, so she can do this.”  This isn’t true as I find we are all helping each other whether we bring in something or not. And we are polite as well as giving constructive criticism. Nobody should feel their work is really bad.Each of us has our own individual writing experience and knowledge which we can put into the critique – even if we don’t write in the genre of the writing work being critiqued.

So, last evening I brought in the first five pages of a humorous mystery short story for critique. And I learned a few things. One author who also writes short stories wanted to know the age of the two main characters. The ironic thing here (and I got it and mentioned it) is I am always suggesting he do the same in his stories. Somebody else misread the ages of these two characters and it was from what she read and also what wasn’t there for her to read. She asked me how old the two characters were and when I told her, she said they were much too young as women at that age nowadays would be more technical savvy. She said that one sounded like she was retired. After I explained that the “retired” one was currently unemployed and she was the one not technically smart, but the other one  was and that the latter was in the story, I realized that I needed to include some ages, fix the bugaboo I had in with the technological luddite, and mention she is currently unemployed. She should be early 50s and her friend 15 years younger. The latter would work, not only because she has an elderly mother who figures in the story, but my son is late 30s and is very tech savvy – in fact his work is with computers, software and architecture and the like. And he is my computer expert who helps me with my computers.

So you can see how a writer’s tunnel vision can work, or not work. I didn’t even consider including the characters’ ages. As one of the others said, and I paraphrase. You see in your mind how your story is going and presume everyone else knows as much as you do.

Wise words, and something for us writers to consider.

Do you belong to a writers’ critique group – in person or online? If so, how has the group helped you?

Cheers.

Sharon

And if you want a looksee at my collection of published short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point, just click on its icon at the top.

 

 

 

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Don’t Write the Same Old Same Old

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

When writing fiction, particularly mystery, thriller and suspense, don’t develop plots and characters that have been used before. Do readers really want another jaded police detective who is an alcoholic? How about yet another body found in a trunk?

Readers want to be surprised, entertained, and have something different. Those who like to try to figure out who done it and why like a challenge. If it is too easy, that won’t work.

Twists and turns in suspense, mystery and thriller novels work very well – provided they are different. And if you are writing a series, you need to write the unexpected even more so your readers don’t get too comfortable with your series characters. You want them to relate to the characters and develop a bond, but you have to shake them up with each book’s plot and characters.

Remember your characters need to be like real people – they can’t be stagnate. Throw them lots of curve balls and see how they act and react.

Some authors that are masters at this are Julia Spencer Fleming, Peter Robinson and Harlan Coben. The latter writes standalone mystery-suspense, while the former two write series mysteries. Spencer Fleming, for example throws a big curve with each book. Just as something seems to be sorted out between her two main characters – Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne –  right at the end of the novel, something happens that seems to come out of the blue.

But it is not really out of the blue – if you go back throughout the novel you will see events and what the characters are doing that make the unexpected logical. Some examples (without stating which novel) are when the priest and the cop finally get their relationship solidified, the priest who was previously in the armed forces and is now on reserve, is put on active duty outside the US. Right at the end of the book. Great hook to get the reader to read the next one in the series.

The reader knew Clare’s background here,so that wasn’t grabbed from the air. It was the timing.

And that’s what is important. Timing. In my Beyond novels, I build up the suspense with (among other things) a growing relationship between the main character PI Dana Bowman and Detective Sergeant Donald Fielding. Both are relationship shy – that isn’t too different. But how it evolves (or does it?) is different because of other things going on in the novel. The ending has a big twist.

This is the novel I’m still putting the finishing touches on for the publisher. So, I’m not going into more details. The previous and most recent one, Beyond Blood has a bit of a cliff hanger at the end – the premise here being, when a crime victim has been rescued, it may not all be rosy and comforting for them. In fact, it isn’t in real life.  I took that idea and left the reader wondering about a character’s dealing with after effects. The short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point has four stories featuring Dana Bowman and most of the rest of the Beyond gang. These stories take place the year after. And the current Beyond book is later that same year and the character is still suffering some after effects.

Unexpected events change people – how they live their lives afterwards.And that varies with each person. So, too, should your fiction.

Don’t be lazy and write the same old same old. Surprise your readers – but make it logical. That may sound like an oxymoron, but be creative.

And read what is already written to see what works, what surprises and what doesn’t. Read books by Julia Spencer Fleming, Peter Robinson and Harlan Coban, and yes my Beyond books too.

You can get more information about the Beyond books by clicking on the Beyond Blood icon at the top.

Cheers.

Sharon

 

 

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Writing fiction from anger

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection. Click on it for publisher's website

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

Do you get angry at the crap that happens in your life? Some stupid motorist running a red light nearly hitting you when you cross the street? You or a family member keep getting sick or suffer a serious injury? You get a lot of “junk” phone calls and/or emails? Some utility has messed up your bill? Your garbage isn’t being picked up but all your neighbours’ garbage is? And customer service for the latter two is rude and unhelpful. You get the picture. You feel a swirl of emotions and often anger is at the core. Maybe you even want to kill the person causing the problem – or making it worse.

Don’t do that.Instead  write about it. I don’t mean a play-by-play of your situation – but fictionalize it. One way to do this that can work very well is writing a noir satirical short story.

I do that all the time. Many of my stories in Beyond the Tripping Point are based on something bad that happened to me or someone else or something that really makes me see red, purple, and blue. Examples from BTTP include The Couch, For the Love of Wills, and No Breaks.

Currently I am writing a short story about something I have been (and still am) inundated with – telemarketers. Usually I ignore them or pick up the phone, get sarcastic and tell them off, then bang the phone down. But many of these telemarketing calls are also scams and are computer-generated, so you get a recording – which if you don’t pick up the phone will actually go to your voice mail.

So, I’m writing about telemarketers and two women’s revenge of one telemarketing company. But as I write mysteries, it is not that straight-forward. The characters are not me or anyone in particular in my life. However, I have used one tactic that I did in No Breaks – two female friends, but not the same two friends. And I make it humorous, quirky and yes sarcastic. Does the telemarketer get just desserts? I’m not telling – that will come out whenever the story gets published.

To get started on that you need to develop your quirky characters. One or both are victims of the problem and one is usually not so smart or sophisticated as the other. It works better to tell your story from the point of view of the victim who isn’t as savvy as the other one. And you need a villain or two – and if writing a mystery you need some red herring type of villains. Depending on your story you might need a police officer. In my telemarketing story I do have a police detective Larry Hutchinson, who made his first appearance in “For the Love of Wills” in Beyond the Tripping Point.

You also have to develop a plot – based on your characters and their situation.

As regular readers of this blog know from previous posts, I am a seat-of-your-pants plotter. I take my characters, my idea, figure out a few plot developments and then run with it. I let the characters (particularly the POV one) take over, along with what happened to me in real life – which is also in my mind.

I also keep focusing on how much fun I am having with the bad guys getting their come-uppance.

Of course, the plot isn’t that straightforward – like real life it gets messy and goes on tangents. But in the end if the baddies get their come-uppance, that is good. Because in real life that often doesn’t happen.

As an old boyfriend once said, “Life is not fair.”

That’s why we have fiction – to at least right some of these wrongs.

And as usual,if you click on the book cover at the top of this post, you can link to more info about it and Beyond Blood.

Cheers.

Sharon

 

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Working birthdays into your novels

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

Probably because today is my birthday it got me thinking about how to work in birthdays for your main fiction characters. Doing something different in the plot instead of just the character having a birthday party. Or in the case of the fraternal twin PIs Dana  Bowman and Bast Overture in the current Beyond mystery (which I’m still rewriting) who turn 40 in the book. I am avoiding the cliche throw a 40 surprise birthday party. I have also added in that their birthday is December 31 so we have New Year’s Eve as well. Double celebration here, but not just party- party – there are plot twists and revelations and I’ve put all this birthday/New Year’s Eve stuff at the end of the novel. And it is not only December 31, but December 31, 1999 so going into the new (then) 21st. century.  Bast is a computer geek so some of us will remember the big Y2K scare at that time. Yes, that’s involved but I’m not saying how.

What I am saying is there are ways to incorporate typical life happenings and events into your novel but be unique in your plot about it. Another example from this Beyond book is the pushing 40 syndrome, although in 2016 it might be “pushing 60” not 40. Remember my book set in late 1999. Yes, the twins have some anxiety about reaching the big 40, but it’s more than that as both have life intervening events that play a part in their angst. Especially Dana.

And I’m not saying what. Just a few tips to sum up how to incorporate normal life events into your fiction.

For specific holidays, have something different about them and I don ‘t meant just the location. Christmas is a big one. I jump from mid December to New Year’s Eve with just a sentence referencing Christmas in that chapter. While I love Christmas movies – olnd new – I think Christmas plots have been overdone, at least in film. “Different” is the key word here.

For characters birthdays, again, make it different and that can be done by tying it into the plot. Your character pushing 40, 50 or whatever, can help them decide to make a big change in their life – but what is the change? Depending on the genre, they might want to let their inner desires come to the surface and act on them. Use your imagination for what that can be.They might be so fed up with their life situation (which will be in your plot) they decide to disappear for good. Instead of telling your story from the other, main characters about after the character disappears, why not go with the disappearing character and what he or she is dealing with. Is it as he or she expected? Or different?

“Different” again is the key word here. You don’t want to write the same old, same old. So brainstorm. Let your mind wander. This often works best when you are doing something else. You know when you are trying to think of something (with me it is people’s names, a sure sign of getting old(er), don’t think about it and it will come to you.

Having said that, just the act of sitting at your computer and creating and getting in that well, creative – out-of-your-normal- world zone can also bring about some interesting and different plot ideas. Is your character directing this? Maybe. Sometimes I think Dana Bowman is in my head. She certainly thinks she is.

Happy and creative writing.

Cheers.

Sharon

And the  usual, click on the Beyond Blood graphic at the top to go to my author profile and books and where to purchase. Christmas is only 25 days away.

And I don’t have most of my Christmas decorations up. Too busy writing and editing.

 

 

 

 

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Writing a new short story finally

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

I am finally writing a new mystery short story. And I am amazed that I actually found time. Despite my good intentions to try to tame time, except for perhaps a couple of areas, it has not been working. Most of the blame is what I refer to as “outside crap.” Included in that is even more and new computer problems. I won’t go into the sad saga here now, except for the one that is connected to this author blog.

WordPress in its “infinite wisdom” has a Set Featured Image feature. Technically (pun intended) it should work for only the actual blog post you are writing for the image withing the actual post and is not the image (my headshot) that appears at the side outside all blog posts. That one stays. But if it the image is in a blog post and you set it as an “Update” you now have two photos the same side by side on your live post. If you delete one from the one post when you are in Edit Post for update mode, it deletes all the same image on all the posts that have it. Those with another image in the post seem to keep that image.

What were the WordPress designers thinking?

For the ongoing computer crap problems, you will have to check my personal blog, for future postings on it. Meantime, my son the computer techie will be helping me remotely to resolve some of these computer issues later today.

As for the time management plan – the actual writing is getting in there, although not as much time each day as planned and hoped for. I have cut back my email time to 20 minutes a day (using a timer), except for family. All email replies and even new ones with promised information are being prioritized according to content date. So, something happening the end of the month doesn’t get priority over something happening today. I use a timer. So I can write. We writers are driven to write.

Someday I’ll write a noir satire mystery on computer problems and time management, but not in this new story. The story does take something from the news (no, not Trump’s election to the US presidency) but something else that has already been satirized on satire websites. So, I’m not doing satire here. I’m taking the news item and going on a “what if such and such happened? What if the character was like such-and-such?.

And so the story goes. But I’m not writing a fiction based on fact, something writers have to clarify when they are writing; Just because I’m writing fiction doesn’t mean I don’t need to do research. Besides the news stories, I have to research the laws connected to their content, medical issues connected to content, police procedure and most important develop my characters. I have two – a new one and the Toronto Police Service Homicide detective Larry Hutchison from “Missing in Action,” one of my short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point (Blue Denim Press, 2012),  Both stories take place in the same time period – NOW. I have wanted to put Detective Hutchinson in more stories, so this is my first go at that. .

I am also trying something new for me. Telling the short story from two different viewpoints – the new character and Hutchinson to develop the cat and mouse suspense.

It is interesting. I have to follow the fiction rules – one character’s point of view per scene with extra line space and/or asterisks in between scenes.

In some future posts I’ll go some more into the ins and outs using two characters points of view in short stories.

For now, it’s back to writing the actual short story…I hope. There better not be any more computer problems.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

And for this post, the Beyond Blood icon a the top does take you to Beyond Blood at Amazon.

 

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Connecting with your fiction characters

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

The other night I had a dream about one of my main Beyond characters – the other fraternal twin, Bast Overture. I was in my house waiting for him to arrive here – not just in my head, but physically. Of course, as in most dreams of this type, I woke up before Bast arrived.

I’m not sure why I even dreamed about this as my mind lately has been overcrowded with computer and house repair problems. The former is all this Windows update nonsense with the changes in how and its slow checking for the actual updates and even downloading and installing them. Enough said about that. Perhaps Bast was there to remind me to get back to rewriting the third Beyond book this week. I haven’t done anything in it this week so far – not just for computer issues to deal with but also client work and this latter is fine with me.

But the weird thing about the dream is Bast is not the Beyond character I identify with – but his fraternal twin, Dana Bowman. No, Dana is not based on me, but as some of you know she is the one I channel (or the other way around if Dana has her way). She is the one I dress up as and “become” in comedy skits. Not Bast. Bast would be a little difficult for me to do unless I grew a beard (red in colour, too) and stood on stilts. Bast is 6 feet 3 inches tall to my 5 feet 1 inch.

And next Thursday, October 27 I will be again doing a Dana skit – this time with another novelist – Shane Joseph. We have a scenario where Dana and Shane’s main character, George Walton, from his latest novel In the Shadow of the Conquistador. Our novels occur in the same time frame mostly – the late 1990s, but that’s where similarities may end. Shane’s novel is literary and mine is mystery genre. But our characters can be pain in the you-know-what. Dana is an opinionated private investigator who likes to stick her nose in other people’s business and George is a philandering world traveller. But they do have something in common, at least Dana thinks so…until she meets up with George.

If you want to see and hear what happens, if you live in the Toronto, Canada area, check it out. We are part of the monthly Urban Folk Art Salon October 27 at the Mount Pleasant Library.

Also part of this two-hour salon are folksinger Brian Gladstone, poet Merle Amodeo, Ariel Balevi, Isaak Bonk, Ann Marie Boudreau and Mary Mllne with host poet/violinist Tom Gannon Hamilton.

The location, time, etc. details are:

Location:

Mount Pleasant Library

599 Mount Pleasant Rd. (between Davisville Rd. and Eglinton Ave. E.)

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

More info: 416-393-7737

Time and Date: 6.00 p.m. to 8.00 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016

Free.

Below are photos of Dana Bowman and Shane Joseph. Sorry, I don’t have one of George Walton.

And click on the Beyond Blood icon at the top for more info about the book.

Cheers.

Sharon

Dana Bowman

Dana Bowman

Shane Joseph

Shane Joseph

 

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