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Using bad life events in your writing

Pi Dana Bowman holds Beyond novels

When I was a journalist, often something happening in my life triggered a story idea. Not necessarily something personal in my life; it could have been something in my neighbourhood or  someone I knew or had just met. A big one was when I went through a few years of suffering from debilitating migraines. That one generated several stories published in several newspapers. The stories weren’t about me, but about migraines, headaches, and dealing with pain, including a story on the migraine sufferer who started The Migraine Foundation.

Fast forward to several years later when I am writing the Beyond mystery series. I made one of my re-occurring main characters, Detective Sergeant Donald Fielding a migraine sufferer, who was the main character in a short story “The Headache Murders ” (Wordscape 5 Anthology, 1999 MTB Press), and also a main regular character in the first novel in the Beyond Series – Beyond Blood. It is the novel where my main character PI Dana Bowman meets Fielding when there is a weird Break and Enter at her house. Then her son is kidnapped and a murder is committed. You guessed it – Fielding comes down with a migraine and Dana, being Dana, tries to help Fielding in her in-your-face way. Here I use some of the tricks of the migraine suffering “trade”.

For me it was at a party at my house when I got a migraine. The stress of the party, coupled with dealing with a boarder co-organizing the party (and getting on my nerves). One of my friends sat me down in the kitchen, asked for a brown paper bag and told me to hold it over my nose and mouth and blow into it. as I recall, it didn’t completely get rid of the migraine.

But I thought it would work in Beyond Blood for Fielding and Dana to connect as they had started off getting on each other’s nerves (and continued and still continue to do so). I decided to put it in a bedroom scene – no, not what you are thinking. Dana and her fraternal twin PI Bast Overture are bunking overnight  in spare bedrooms at their next door neighbours’ house, because the twins’ house is a crime scene and they have to get out for now. The next morning Fielding bangs on Dana’s bedroom door to question her further and brings her a change of clothes that Constable Nivens (female cop) had gathered. Dana was still in her dress-up clothes from the reception opening for her and her brother’s Attic Investigative Agency the previous evening. Some of the conversation goes like this:

Thanks.” I grabbed the bag. “You look like hell. No sleep?””

“Just a migraine. I get them all the time. It’ll pass.”

“Migraine. Here come in and sit down on….” A quick look around the room showed an ironing board piled high with clothes standing beside a chest of drawers. A basket of clothing sat in the only chair.:..the bed.”

“No, it’s okay.”

“No, it isn’t. Migraines are awful. My mother used to get them, but thankfully I don’t. She used to blow in a a paper bag, to get rid of the pain, I mean. Maybe there’s one here.” I started rummaging in the dresser drawers.”

Ms. B…B…Bowman, it’s all right.”

“Here we are.” I shook a scarf from a Fashion Shoppe bag and shoved the bag at Fielding. He ignored it. “Put it over your face and blow.”

He stared at me, for once speechless, took a deep breath and sputtered.

“Take the damn bag and blow. And go and sit down. I don’t want to have to deal with a cop passing out in a bedroom.”

A little colour hit his face for a second. He staggered over to the bed, plunked down on the edge, leaned over and blew. (From Beyond Blood, copyright 2014,  Sharon A. Crawford, published 2014, Blue Denim Press)

You can see how this pans out – and based on personal experience as mentioned previously. And there is something else different about Fielding from your usual police officer characters.

He stutters. Also from my life, but not me – a classmate from grade school. Not to be disrespectful to my classmate, but it triggered another different character trait to use.

So, the take-away idea is: what can you take from your life to use in your short story or novel? Something a little different than falling down drunk or an argument – although those could be used with a twist.

One piece of advice for writers is to write about what you know. I prefer to use that as the bare basis and go from there. You may also find (particularly in non-fiction where you write fact, not fiction), you will become involved in a lot of research, including interviewing several sources. And in fiction, you may also need to go beyond your own experience as I had to in Beyond Faith when Dana is pushed down onto the cement and suffers a concussion.

And not I did not fall down on the cement or get someone to push me – although I have tripped over weeds and plants in my garden, and fallen down a few stairs – but those are for other stories.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

The former migraine sufferer – real life

 

 

 

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Using Humour in Fiction

Mysteries, thrillers and horror fiction can be very grim. Some authors (including me) add a little humour to lighten the load a little. But there are a few things to consider if you want to use humour in your fiction. (Note: I’m using the Canadian spelling of  “humour” because I am Canadian).

First, a big  no-no:

Don’t have your character or characters crack a lot of jokes. This isn’t stand-up comedy or a comedy TV series. There could be one exception to this – if a trait of one of your characters is to tell jokes – bad or otherwise and it fits in with the plot and this character’s interaction with other characters. But use it sparingly or not at all. It is not the best technique.

Some techniques that can work:

Your main character is a klutz. Picture a klutzy private investigator or cop or? This can bring up several scenarios that can lighten your story. It can also provide some problems for your character in their investigation. For example, your PI is snooping outside a house where nobody is home at the moment. Or maybe he or she gets into the house to look around. Instead of the family dog barking at them or charging at them, why not have the kluzy PI trip over a sleeping cat and fall down a few stairs – or how about a whole menagerie of animals – maybe he or she collides with a snake that has gotten loose from its cage? And the PI is terrified of snakes.

Or give your PI or cop, what we call a character tag and use that to create some humour as the character does what he or shee normally do. In my Beyond books, Detective Sergeant Donald Fielding stutters – not with work-related things, but with personal things that make him nervous – such as his attraction to PI Dana Bowman. He also suffers from migraines. In one scene in Beyond Blood, Fielding knocks on the door of the bedroom Dana had to sleep in overnight – not at her place as a murder and kidnapping took place there and her home is a crime scene,so Dana and her fraternal twin PI  Bast Overture are staying at a neighbour’s next door. Here’s a short excerpt from Beyond Blood with the encounter the next morning between Dana and Fielding.

Beyond Book No. 2

The pounding came from the bedroom door.

“M … M … Ms. Bowman,” Fielding said from outside the door.

Couldn’t the man give me a little privacy? I pushed the covers off and realized I was in a strange bed and still wore my party dress. Red for blood. Red. Cut it out, Dana.

“What the hell do you want, Fielding?”

“Are you d … d … decent?”

“What?” I scratched my head and yawned.

“Ms. Bowman. I need to talk to you.”

“So talk.”

“I h … h … have a ch … ch … change of clothes for you.”

“What?” I leaped out of bed, ran to the door and pulled it open.

Fielding leaned against the wall. His face resembled whitewash and red rivers flowed through his eyes. He held a plastic bag, which he slid over my way.

“Your ch … ch … change of clothes. C … Constable Nivens collected them.”

“Thanks.” I grabbed the bag. “You look like hell. No sleep?”

“Just a migraine. I get them all the time. It’ll pass.”

“Migraine. Here, come in and sit down on …” A quick glanced around the room showed an ironing board piled high with clothes standing beside a chest of drawers. A basket of clothing sat in the room’s only chair. “… on the bed.”

“No, it’s okay.”

“No, it isn’t. Migraines are awful. My mother used to get them, but thankfully I don’t. She used to blow in a paper bag, to get rid of the pain, I mean. Maybe there’s one here.” I started rummaging in the dresser drawers.

“Ms. B … B … Bowman. It’s all right.”

“Here we are.” I shook a scarf from a Fashion Shoppe bag and shoved the bag at Fielding. He ignored it. “Put it over your face and blow.”

He stared at me, for once speechless, took a deep breath and sputtered.

“Take the damn bag and blow. And go and sit down. I don’t want to have to deal with a cop passing out in a bedroom.”

A little colour hit his face for a second. He staggered over to the bed, plunked down on the edge, leaned over and blew. I moved towards the doorway, stopped and swung around.

“Look, Fielding, I’m sorry. Guess we’re all a little edgy.” I sat on the bed beside him and touched his forehead. He flinched and pulled away. “Sorry. Do you want a glass of water?”

“W … w … wait. It’s the kid. I m … m … mean your son. I have a daughter.”

“I know. You told me earlier.”

“Well, I want you to know, Ms. Bowman.”

“Dana.”

“D … Dana, that I’ll do my best to get your son back safe and sound.”

“I know that, Fielding.”

“Don.”

“What?”

“M … my name is Don.”

“Okay, Don. Anyway, you have two private detectives in the house to help you out.”

“Now, listen here, Ms. Bowman. You let the police handle this. Your job is to answer your cell phone if it rings, so we know what the kidnappers want. Nothing else.” He pointed his forefinger under my nose. (Copyright Sharon A. Crawford, From Beyond Blood, Blue Denim Press, 2014).

As you can see,  there is enough for the reader to visualize – especially a burly cop blowing into a brown bag.  hey are in close quarters and both characters are uncomfortable. But it is only a moment before the two characters return to “business”. But what else does the encounter tell you about the characters and the story?

In my short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point, some of my stories are noir and satire, one in particular – The Body in the Trunk, which has an unusual take on two friends trying to move a body to… well, that would be giving it away. You have to read it to get it.

And that’s my last suggestion. Read published novels  containing humour in the genre you are writing in. Three authors who do it so well are:

Melodie Campbell with her Goddaughter  series. The Toronto Sun calls her “Canada’s Queen of Comedy”.

Steve Shrott (who also teaches humour writing) with his stand-alone mysteries. One features a dentist who is a part-time PI and another features an actor whose main roles have been dead bodies.

Janet Evanovitch and her  mysteries. Her bail bonds character, Stephanie Plum, is forever getting into scrapes, especially with the two fellows who like her.

See how these authors work their humour to fit their characters and their plots.

Happy reading, especially over the Christmas season.

Have a good holiday.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

 

 

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Getting back into novel-writing groove

It has been awhile since I have had time to actually work on my fourth Beyond mystery book.Earlier this year I got a good start and then as they say “life happens.” A lot of that life this year for me is a lot of problems coming my way – the annoying part being that 90% are caused by other people and/or organizations.

Heck, I can create enough chaos without any input from others, But they provide lots of fodder for future short stories and maybe even for my new mystery novel.

But not all the distractions were bad. I an still a writing instructor and editor so there was work there. And I also write memoir and that’s where the bulk of my creative writing has been taking place. The results are a short memoir piece about dealing with my father’s death from cancer when I was 16  which is to be published in an online university journal, to just about finishing the final rewrite of the full book-length memoir – at least until any interested publisher gets at it and edits it..But I like rewriting.

And of course, book promo for Beyond Faith – and that continues. Some via social media, some in person and some with my new TV show Crime Beat Confidential on thatchannel.com, Episode three coming up soon. But you can catch the first two either at thatchannel.com under “Shows” or by Googling “Crime Beat Confidential and Youtube” as thatchannel.com uploads all their shows on Youtube.

But this week I spent an afternoon back at Beyond Truth. Did some more plot and character development.I had forgotten how a writer can be so absorbed in creating a novel, a short story, etc. that the rest of the world can go to hell and you just don’t care. My world was the world of Beyond Truth and its characters and plot. And I still like the beginning Prologue I wrote earlier this year.  It was good to see I can still develop twisted plots – now I have to write them. I always do so with the premise that none of it is sealed in granite. If it doesn’t work out I can come up with something else. Or my main book character Private Investigator Dana Bowman can. And that woman sometimes gives me grief. She thinks she wrote Beyond Faith so I think for Beyond Truth she and I will have to collaborate or there will be no peace.

But I’m getting the byline on the book.

To do all this, I have to write more often. To do this I have to get rid of some distractions and prioritize others. For one thing I’m back to setting a timer for when I do daily email (and finally finished in the time allotted today). And I am pickier about what I reply to and when. I am deleting more. I am saying “no” to more requests for stealing my time and not just those coming in via email.. Now that winter is here, I hope to spend more time indoors as I’m not a winter sport or any winter activity fan, although I do walk in winter.  I will also attend less events when the weather is terrible.

As for those problems that won’t go away. I try to pick one to deal with each day.

So, as of next week, I plan to spend more than just one half day a week working on Beyond Truth and will more than pencil it in to my calendar.. I have to. My police consultant stopped me at a mutual author’s book launch last month and asked me why I haven’t emailed him with more research questions. He may get inundated shortly.

How do you find time to write your novel, short stories or whatever you write?

Comments, please. I can learn from others’ experiences.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Author of the Beyond mystery series. Most recent book, (Click on the book)

 

 

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Creating Credible Fiction Characters

Dana Bowman from the Beyond mystery series

Creating characters that resonate with your readers, characters that are three dimensional – in other words credible characters – is not always easy. But it can lead you down interesting and unexpected pathways and forge a bond between author and character. Sometimes that bond means the character thinks he or she is writing the story.

That’s what happened with the main character in my Beyond mystery series – PI Dana Bowman. Maybe it’s because as part of my book promo she comes to life when I dress up as her for presentations in libraries,cafes and the like.

I have to keep reminding Dana that is is my  name, not hers, on the book cover as the author.

And we really are not alike, so not the same person – as I keep telling Dana.

Here’s a  character comparison of us on my website

So how do you create credible characters? Do they suddenly appear in your head? Sometimes. Sometimes you get your plot first

Characters can come from real life, your imagination or by osmosis. Here are a few pointers

  1. If you create a character from real life, make sure you use the real person as only a kicking-off point – perhaps how they look, perhaps one distinctive characteristic and create from there.

  2. Don’t steal other authors’ characters – evenly loosely disguised as your so-called character.

  3. Personal experience and knowledge can help in creating and developing characters. but remember you are creating fictional characters for fiction, not writing a memoir.

  4. An oxymoron – fictional characters must come across as real characters, real people, so readers can connect to them.

  5. Once created, characters don’t remain static – they evolve; they change, even in just one short story, and more so in novels, especially series novels.

I have lots more info on this and will be teaching a workshop on Creating Compelling Characters this Sunday, November 5, from 2 p,m. to 4 p.m. with the Toronto Writers Circle at the Toronto Reference area. It is free and open to the writing public. Here is the library info about the group and location. If you live in the general area you might like to join us.

And here is my latest Beyond mystery book. Click on it for more info

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

 

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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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Developing fiction characters from observation

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

Here are a couple of excerpts from the Developing Characters and Dialogue in Fiction workshop I taught this past Tuesday.

If you want to get your dialogue bang on with your characters, here are some tips:

Listen, watch and read who and what are out there. That could be a TV series, a movie, a book, and in-person. A couple of TV series with excellent and diversified characters (each quirky in their own way) are NCIS:LA. Even if you are not an NCIS fan, the two sets of investigator partners are priceless – not only to watch for entertainment but to study as a fiction writer. Briefly.  the one set consists of Deeks who is actually an LA detective transferred to NCIS. He tends to run off at the mouth and fixates on weird things in life. His partner (professional and personal in the series) Kensey is so different – she is the slob in this duo and likes to pick on Deeks. The other duo, in a nutshell, Sam and Callen – Sam black and Callen is white but they are different in personalities and lifestyles. Sam has been married for many years to another agent, Michelle and they have two children including an adult son in the military. Callen is a minimalist in his life and has problems with committment.

I suggest checking out reruns of NCIS:LA as Kensey is in a coma from a severe injury for the next few episodes as the actress playing her is on maternity leave. But there are other interesting unique characters in the series including the unit’s second in command played by Linda Hunt.

Another series with quirky characters is the British Heartbeat. It ran from around 1992 to 2010 but repeats are shown on various TV stations or you can probably see it there or on alternative viewing. Heartbeat is set in the late 1960s in a fictitious small town in North Yorkshire, England. It focuses on small town policing operating from Ainsfield station at that time and is intertwined with some of the social issues then.  Not all the characters are cops, but all characters are so well developed and except for a core few, the characters do come and go over the years. My favourites are Mr, Greengrass who is an elderly con artist with the most disgusting dog you may have ever seen, and Oscar Blaketon who is the Sergeant in charge of the police station until he takes early retirement due to health issues. Then he becomes a postal clerk and then co-owner of  the pub which is also central to the series. Blaketon is an interferring know-it all and keeps that up even after he retires.

Another way to absorb characters is to listen. A writer I know wanted to find out how teenagers speak so she would go to where they hung out and listen without butting in. Getting the slang and other language peculiar to your characters often requires this up-front listening. I also like to listen in on loud cell phone conversations when travelling on public transit – although there is not as much of that now with people texting.

The idea is to observe and absorb but not steal characters from TV, film, books or real life. And if your character has disabilities, you might want to actually interview someone with the same disability and also try to live in their shoes, so to speak, for a bit of firsthand feelings. For example, life in a wheelchair is so much different and not just operating the wheelchair and getting through doors. The view is a bit different. Just a caution: if you are going to get the feel of being blind, it might be a good idea to have another person with you for safety’s sake.

As for me I had a six-day experience of being 85 percent deaf. It was terrifying going into a grocery store and trying to read people’s lips. The only thing I heard was two people yelling and it must have been quite loud for me to hear it.

It was only temporary – ear wax. Who what have thought that?

How do you create distinctive characters in your fiction?

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

And as usual, the Beyond Blood book icon at the top takes you to one of the places with my profile and books.

 

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Using fictional characters’ inner thoughts for character development

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

We’ve all read fiction where the characters come across as superficial. I’m not referring to their traits (and superficiality may well be one of them). Instead, I’m referring to characters that don’t evoke a strong reaction from the reader, characters that  don’t connect in some way to the reader, characters that leave the reader thinking “Who cares?”. Chances are fiction with characters that the reader can’t seem to get into means that the writer doesn’t really know their characters. The writer didn’t get inside each haracter s’ head.

Getting inside your protagonist’s or antagonist’s head is key to understanding them and bringing them to life to your readers. Here’s a short excerpt from my novel Beyond Blood to illustrate this.

Chapter Twelve:

David:

He had woken up to cold and darkness. Beechnut. Where was Beechnut? He was lying on his back and tried to sit up but his arms were stuck in front of him and his feet were stuck together. Shadows seemed to come at him.

“Mom … mee,” David said. “Mom … mee. Where are you? Mom … mee, I’m scared.”

No answer. Where was he? Where were Mommy and Uncle Bast? Where was Debbie? They’d been reading Alice in Wonderland. Then he had gotten hungry and run downstairs to the kitchen with Debbie after him. It was a game they always played. When he’d heard a noise in the basement he’d run down there and seen one of Mommy’s friends playing the game, so he’d chased after … and then … he couldn’t remember. His head hurt and he felt a little sick. He tried to move his hands again, but couldn’t. They were still stuck together.

Where was he? His toes hurt. His teeth hurt and he was so cold.

“Mom … mee. Mom … mee.” Now he was yelling.

A door burst open and something thudded in.

Oh no, a monster. Coming after him.

“Mom … mee. Mom … mee. I’m scared.”

He heard a click and a bright light blinded his eyes.

“Pipe down,” a voice shouted at him from above, or was it beside him?

“Who are you? I want my mommy. I want Beechnut.”

Instead he felt something heavy and sticky cover his mouth. The bright light clicked off and footsteps receded to the doorway, and then he heard a door slam.

In darkness and alone, David began to cry, his sobs muffled by the tape over his mouth.(From Beyond Blood, copyright Sharon A. Crawford, Blue Denim Press,2014).

It is probably obvious that David has been kidnapped and that he is a small child (he is six). Here the reader finds out how David feels about this from first discovering he is not at home and his Mommy is not around. The reader can feel for David, can feel his fear and despair.

Of course not all characters get kidnapped. Some fall in love; some are con artists, etc. The writer needs to convey all this to the reader and getting inside the character’s head is one way to do this.

There are other ways to develop characters. I will be teaching a workshop on Developing Characters and Dialogue in Fiction next Tuesday, Oct. 11 at the S. Walter Stewart library branch in Toronto, Canada. If you are in the area and want to attend, it is free. The library prefers you to register first (call 416-396-3975) , but you can just show up at 6.30 p.m. Workshop runs to 8 p.m. Here are the details about it.

Developing Characters and Dialogue in Fiction

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Learn how to show, not tell, to develop credible characters and make their dialogue sing. Uses excerpts from Beyond the Tripping Point and Beyond Blood by Sharon A. Crawford to illustrate. Writing exercises and some writing critique.

Facebook Event

Location:
S. Walter Stewart Library Branch (auditorium)
170 Memorial Park Ave.
(Coxwell Ave. and Mortimer Ave. area)
Toronto, Ontario

Time:
6.30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

And if you are interested in reading more about developing characters but can’t make the workshop (for obvious reasons such as you live in another part of the world), you can click on the Beyond Blood icon at the top and that will take you to my publisher’s website where you can see my profile and where my books are available online and elsewhere. I didn’t do the usual link to Amazon because they have the incorrect price for my mystery short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point. It is not $94.36. I have contacted Amazon about this error so hopefully it will be corrected shortly.

It would be nice to get that much from a book, but who will buy it at that price? Somebody with big fingers on little keys maybe entered the amount?

Cheers.

Sharon

 

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