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Tag Archives: Fiction Plot and Characters

Avoid the tourist approach describing story settings

So, you are sticking with you Point of View writing your short story or novel. The story is from one person’s point of view or perhaps two or three. You have each chapter, and scenes from chapters in only one character’s point of view – no POV change until you are in another chapter or scene. Then you hit some geography.

Maybe it is a particular town or city you character is in or maybe even the inside of a house. Suddenly it is reading as if a another “person” has shown up – somebody called the narrator. But you aren’t using the narrator as a separate person. Your main character or characters are doing all the narration.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example. Your main character is a young woman, aged 30, named Caroline. She is returning to her home town after many years away and is driving into the town. Let’s call it Whistletown. And the author is starting the chapter like this.

Whistletown has a population of 22,500. The entrance to the town is on Highway 55, which winds its way into the downtown. Main St. has a grocery store, drugstore, cleaners, bookstore, Lulu’s Diner, a couple of gas stations and the obligatory MacDonalds.

Whoa! What’s happening here? Where is Caroline? Has the area’s tourist bureau suddenly taken over?

There is a fix for this and you can keep in your description of the town. The key is to put your character in it.

Has the population increased since Caroline was there last? Why did she leave? When was she there last and why is she suddenly returning? How does she feel about that as she comes into Whistletown? And how does she drive in? Is she hesitant about returning home? Or does she just speed into the town? What has changed on Main Street and what is the same?

Here’s a possibility for the rewrite of the chapter beginning.

As she drew nearer to Whistletown, Caroline slowed down. Not because of the traffic; there wasn’t much here on Highway 55, just an SUV far enough ahead of her that she couldn’t see its license plate. The other way, nothing. Wait a minute. A big Wal-Mart delivery truck was speeding out of town. Don’t tell me Wal-Mart had come to Whistletown? Things must be expanding. A honk sounded behind her and she realized she had almost come to a stop. She sped up, but apparently not enough for the car tailgating her as it passed her and continued on at race driver pace.

Sheesh.

Now she was passing the sign reading “Welcome to Whistletown, Ontario’s home of the Blue Danube Orchestra. Population 22,500.” That was a big jump. It had been only 6,000 when she had hurried out of town, hell-bent in getting away from Josh, after he had broken their engagement to marry Janie, her younger sister. Now Janie was dead and she suddenly regretted their 10-year silence. At least Mom had kept in touch occasionally, by letter and email and the odd brief phone call. She wondered if Mom had forwarded her emails to Janie.

She was now at Main Street and slowed down a bit, forcing herself to look at her surroundings. Lulu’s Diner where she and Josh had spent hours just hanging out, drinking sodas, was still there. And darn if it didn’t look the same. Murphy’s Hardware Store, Samuel’s Grocery Store, Hamlin’s Pharmacy were still there, the hardware store looking a little shabby. But Hamlin’s was now part of the PharmaSave chain and where was the cleaners and…what was that up ahead?Was that a MacDonald’s. Well, that was obligatory these days, she supposed.

She continued driving through Main Street until she had passed the downtown core. Suddenly she had to know if there was a Wal-Mart in town. There was – in an open mall up ahead. As she passed it she noticed a Canadian Tire, a No Frills Grocery Store, a Shoppers Drug Mart, a cleaners, although not the one she remembered from Main Street, and at the far end a huge Wal-Mart. 

As she turned onto Robinson Street for her mother’s home, she wondered what else had changed. She had the impression that her mother’s phone calls and emails hadn’t told her all.

 

That’s one example. We get the outline of the town, its changes, how the main character sees it all and how it affects her and how she feels about returning home after 10 years away.

How do you work “geography” into your fiction so it doesn’t read like a travel piece?

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Author of the Beyond mystery series. And yes, my main characters are right there for “geography” including Lilly, the main character in “Unfinished Business” (short story in Beyond the Tripping Point) who is returning with her daughter to her old neighbourhood in Toronto where something terrible happened when she was a child.

 

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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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Taming your main fiction character.

PI Dana Bowman, main character Beyond books.

She’s done it again. Private Investigator Dana Bowman has jumped out of Beyond Blood and Beyond Faith to run amok in the real world. Is she going too far? Has she taken over?

When your main fiction character takes over your story, what should you do? Scream? Kick her or him back into the manuscript? Go with the flow (or flood)? Or listen to what he or she is saying?

Often you get so deep into writing your short story, novella or novel  that it seems like the story is getting away from you.  You are sitting there writing away in a creative fog or focus (take  your pick) and suddenly  it dawns on you. Hey, just who is writing the story?

First, take a deep breath. A character getting involved in their story  is not always a bad thing. It is a sure sign that your character is alive and you are deeply connected to his life. You know better how he operates because he is telling you this – or so it seems. That can be a good thing. Maybe your story was getting dull with something missing. Then it was as if your character jumped in to save the story? Your character is also telling you who he is and how he acts and speaks..

But what if the character is way off base? Not necessarily adding on to what you envisioned as the latter can be a big help. But what if the character has turned so unrecognizable that he just doesn’t seem to be himself?

Sometimes this character reveal develops your character in ways that makes the plot work better. It is as if you are getting insides from deep down. But….

If your character really seems to have gone off the rails and it is not because he  is drunk, on drugs or hasa psychological condition…then you need to stop and take stock.

Sop writing and sit back. Go over your character descriptions and what you have written in your story so far and remind yourself where you as a writer want to go with this character, with this story and with the two connected.

Ask yourself:

Are your character’s actions and diaogue things he would do and say in character – even when he is angry; even when he is sad? For example, if your character has a habit of swearing when upset, and suddenly is throwing plates,. you .need to step back and think. Was the situation something that would push your character over the edge? And how would he react when pushed over the edge? This latter would tie in with his traits. For example. if big on justice and the law, and somebody in his life has crossed the line – maybe beat up his spouse – would you main character beat up the wife-beater? Is that how hat character would exact justice? Maybe, if you have made this character the type of person who when pushed too far takes the law into his own hands. Or maybe not.

Sometimes you might just need to sit down and have a conversation with your character and ask “Just what were you thinking when you…?

And yes, I do carry on conversations with Dana bowman. But she still leaps out of the Beyond books and does her thing – which consists of mostly dissing me, her author. And she even says she wrote Beyond Faith.

Now tthat’s when you start worrying about your character taking over.

If you want to see Dana Bowman in action, she opens all my Crime Beat Confidential TV shows on thatchannel.com and here is a link. This is the third episode where Dana actually returns later in the show to do some of the interviewing of our guest, a real life private investigator. At least it gets Dana off my back…momentarily.

Now if Dana would just use some of that energy to take care of the crap in my life – you know cleaning the house, doing the dishes.

But she won’t. I didn’t create her that way. She doesn’t  even cook. It’s her fraternal twin PI Bast Overture who cooks.

Maybe i should rethink Dana and have her take cooking lessons in the next Beyond book. Yeah right. the books are murder mysteries so Dana is liable to poison someone with her cooking..

Cheers.

Sharon

 

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When the muse strikes write?

My Muse?

My muse has been busy this week. Early in the morning, she appears in the last dream  before I wake and she appears with answers, suggestions to the story I’m rewriting.I don’t actually see her or hear her. It is more a short scene showing the story scenario I have been struggling with, and leaving me waking up with an answer of what to write. You see, the more I rewrote the story, the  more I questioned something in the plot. Most of the questioning was under the “does it make sense?” category or the “have I got the police procedure right?’

It is a mystery at a crime scene and there is some police procedure there. But the main character is a civilian who wants answers and is determined to get them. because of who the victim is. So police procedure has to be correct, but it is seen from somebody not really familiar with it. And my character is a fat eccentric senior So the story is not just a mystery, but it has humor, satire.

I did my research and have explicit info from a police sergeant who is involved in investigating homicides. So I’ve been going over what he emailed me to fact check with what I’ve written. And that necessitated some changes and a follow-up email concerning the large binders police now use for interviews of all things. And he caught something else I had in the question wording – where witnesses and suspects are taken for more questioning.

So, like I said before, every time I made a change, another necessary one would pop up.

This story has a submission deadline of a week from now and a maximum word count. So those factor in with writing time and story changes.

So I’ve been lucky with my active Muse. And sitting down at my computer every day and rewriting. And resenting time I have to do other things.

It is only now that I have figured out how my Muse is working. Each day and each evening I mull over what needs to be changed to work in my story and it gets pushed into my unconscious when I get distracted. And I do get distracted a lot – problems coming at me to solve, health issues, other writing and editing stuff, phone calls, computer problems, errands, etc. When I finally get to bed and get some sleep  I have to go through several sleep cycles first and several unremembered dreams to get to the point when my Muse can get through. And she has and I am grateful for that and also for her timing – last dream before I get up.

Now if my Muse would only help me solve all the other annoying problems I have to deal with.

Any day I would much rather do something creative – like write or take photos or in the summer garden then deal with what I call negative problems shoved at me from what I call outside. I can create enough chaos without any help from others.

So, the lesson learned is – when the Muse strikes, WRITE!

How does your Muse work? Do you have a Muse? Do you listen to your Muse?

Cheers.

Sharon A Crawford

riter/Editor/Writing Instructor

Author of the Beyond mystery novel series.

 

 

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Muskie and Murder engages audience

Michael and Sharon – Muskie and Murder presentation June 27. Shane Joseph photo.

Muskie and Murder with Michael Robert Dyet (Muskie) and me, Sharon A. Crawford (Murder) made its debut presentation last evening at S. Walter Stewart Library. It was my East End Writers’ Group’s second event for 2018. Although I was disappointed in the small number of people who attended (probably to inaccurate weather forecasts for torrential rain) those of us there were really engaged in the presentation. I’m not talking just Michael and I and our guest speaker, Shane Joseph (editor at Blue Denim Press – our publisher), but the whole audience of writers and readers.

There was a continual conversation going on among all of us and I think we learned a lot. I know I did.

Using four different set-ups, we were all looking at what Michael so aptly titled The War between Literary Fiction and Mystery Fiction. We discussed questions dealing with plot and characters in both and not only discovered there is both in both types of fiction, but we found out we all read more than one or the other. Margaret Atwood (she of Alias Grace and The Handmaidens Tale) and Stephen King (Pet Cemetery,The Shining, The Outsider) entered the conversation – at least their names and writings did. So did memoirs – another “M” area of writing. Perhaps we should add Memoir to future presentations?

Then Shane asked Michael and I questions on plot and characters and then he asked us how often do we write and do we write regularly.

Not as often or regularly as we would like. The other stuff of life (Michael’s day job, my teaching writing and editing, the garden, and house problems ), all took up necessary time. But there are a lot of other things in our lives that can be pruned or purged and some of what is still there can be manouvered somewhat.

Michael and I read parts from our books based on a theme (not telling what – we want to use it at more presentations).

And then it was skit time. Michael played Norah Watson from “Slipstream”, the novella in Hunting Muskie and I played PI Dana Bowman (although Dana might argue about the latter as she thinks she wrote Beyond Faith and is a separate person. Hmm.) Norah had reluctantly hired Dana to find a missing family member, but Norah and Dana are like oil and water.

You can imagine how that went. If not you’ll have to catch a Muskie and Murder presentation in the fall.

PI Dana Bowman and Norah Watson. Shane Joseph photo.

Meantime, this whole presentation, particularly what the writers and readers in the audience said, has inspired me to get back on my creative writing track. Not just writing book promo blurbs and the like, but my own M and M – Mystery and Memoir. I remembered that I used to always write at least two afternoons a week – Friday was sacrosanct for my creative writing, with Wednesday afternoon another one.

Earlier this year I started the fourth Beyond mystery book, started another rewrite of a black noir mystery short story, and returned to my memoir writing – both the book and some shorter pieces for possible magazine publication.

And anyone who dares interfere with my writing time, let’s just say it could mean “murder”.

Well, between the book covers.

Do you write regularly?

How do you do it?

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

The Mystery half of Muskie and Murder.

Michael and Sharon with Muskie and Murder. Shane Joseph photo.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

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Getting story ideas from your neighborhood

The latest Beyond mystery. Click on it for more info

In the last post I talked about getting story ideas from your garden. But here’s another story source – your neighborhood. Maybe the house down the street is a marijuana grow -op ( there was one kitty-corner across the street from me a few years ago. Unfortunately I was out when the police raid went down.). Maybe there are always loud arguments from the house next door. Maybe…

Well, never the maybes here. This morning a couple of legal surveyors knocked on my door to let  me know that they would be doing a survey of the next door neighbor’s house – on the other side of my driveway – just to let me know they were there and what they were doing. The wouldn’t tell me why, said they don’t know and aren’t told. Yeah, right. When I found them on my verandah taking pictures of my property i called them on it and they said they need to get the properties next door for boundaries as the underground metal stakes weren’t found.

Oh! Oh!  Even though they said they were probably removed (these houses go back to 1949 and 1950), it got me thinking – what if the underground metal stakes are under my driveway? What if they have to dig up that part of my driveway. What if somewhere the property line is wrong and part of my property is really theirs? And what are they going to do? Build a fence around their property? Sell their house? Or add an addition? Because they have three kids and they are all getting older, and the boy’s room is tiny, I’m guessing it’s an upper addition. Except for selling their house, most larger renovations including fences, require a permit and before that a property survey. If they are building an addition, does the city give  notice to  us living near in case I want to object? I don’t know about Toronto, but when I lived in Aurora, they did when the neighbors wanted to do so. because it would invade our privacy (on higher ground than our house), my then ex-husband and I formally objected. They couldn’t build an addition, so they build a swimming pool and held noisy parties late into the night. Some of us called the police.

You can see where this real life occurrence can give you story ideas? What if the surveyors were actually casing the joint to do a robbery? What if they are actually who they say they are and the boundaries are wrong. What about the change starting a neighbors’ feud – which could lead to murder? What if…?

What is going on in your neighborhood? Does your neighborhood have a neighborhood gossip? Most do. Ours does and I’m going to talk to her, although I suspect in this case I know more. Stay tuned to what is happening in your neighborhood and your neighbors. You may just get an idea for your next story. Just don’t forget to fictionalize it – use the real situation as a kick-off point for your story and create if from there.

And for those in the Toronto, Ontario, Canada area, I’m one of several authors reading at an event for the alumni of workshops and/or courses taught by well know southern Ontario writing instructor and editor Brian Henry this Sunday afternoon. Specifics are:

Author Readings at The Wallace Gastropub

Sunday, June 10, 2018

12 noon – 4 p.m.

Location:

The Wallace Gastropub

1954 Yonge St, Toronto (Just north of Davisville)

Sharon A. Crawford reads from Beyond Faith as she joins other alumni of Brian Henry’s writing classes to showcase their writing creations. More info here.

Cheers.

Sharon A, Crawford’

Author of the Beyond mystery series

 

 

 

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Getting ideas from your garden

Scene from my garden

Many of us writers are also gardeners. I’m not sure why. Both are creative although not in the same vein. One we create with words and the other we create with colour, design and more practically for food to eat. Writing is more in the head and gardening requires a lot of physical exercise. So maybe the two provide balanced living.

For example, when something about a story I’m writing hits a stalling point, I go out in the garden. Often I end up pulling weeds. Like the bad things in life irritating me, which I want gone, I want the weeds gone. And sometimes when someone or some entity (read big utility company and the like) has messed up something in my life, I give the weeds names as I yank them out and pitch them in the yard waste bin. And yes, when I’m done in the garden I often have an idea how to deal with the problem person or entity.

And I often get a story idea – like the short story I’m writing and rewriting about telemarketers.

So, let’s see how something in the garden can bring about a story idea. Let’s take something common in people’s gardens – wildlife trespassing and doing damage. In particular raccoons getting into the garbage and creating a mess. I used that idea as part of the plot in my first Beyond novel Beyond Blood. I had someone doing a series of break and enters one summer also leaving a dead raccoon at some of the places. There was a reason for it and not to punish raccoons for causing damage. You’ll have to read Beyond Blood to find out what.

But raccoons or any other animal doing garden damage can conjure up several story ideas: a rash of garbage and recycling bins being knocked over in a neighborhood on collection days. Raccoons? Or something else. Maybe a red herring for something really bad going on. Perhaps someone in the neighborhood wants to sell their property to a developer and his or her neighbors don’t want to. Or vice versa Maybe a developer wants to tear down some old houses to put up condos. So someone (depending on your story’s angle) might be imitating raccoon actions to make the area no longer livable for the residents and so they will want to sell, but not get caught.

Or back to the weeds for another story idea. Whose name are you using when you pull a weed and why? What’s the problem the person is causing? Take it from there but fictionalize it.  Like I did with the telemarketer story. I wrote it somewhat tongue in cheek but it is a murder mystery (well, that is what I write). I decided to take a crack at telemarketers and created a fictitious telemarketing firm and had a gardener and a non-gardener who are friends go after that company. And that’s all I’ll say.

And from that, you can see your story characters don’t all have to be gardeners. In my Beyond series, neither PI Dana Bowman or her fraternal twin PI Bast Overture are gardeners, but gardens and gardening appear in two of the short stories featuring them in Beyond the Tripping Point. In “Road Raging”, the twins traipse through a garden gone dormant in the fall – they are after a road rager. In “Digging Up The Dirt” inside a garden centre  something poisonous in it is featured.

Want more ideas? Watch the old BBC series Rosemary and Thyme which has two gardeners who are hired to fix large estate gardens in England and always run into murder. One of the two women gardeners is a former police detective. Sometimes PBS runs reruns but it is also available ion You Tube.

Or if you want something currently running on TV on one of the specialty channels – try Midsummer Murders – often takes place in a large beautiful English country garden although murders are investigated by police, not gardeners.

Take a look at the photo from my garden at the beginning of this post. Does it give you an idea for a story?

Cheers.

Sharon A, Crawford

Author of the Beyond mystery series. Latest Beyond Faith. Here is one of the other Beyond books mentioned in the post above. Click on it for more info about it and the other two Beyond books.

 

 

 

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