Characters and Writer Becoming Acquainted

I love watching Downton Abbey.  Have you seen it? Peerage and simple folk are mixed up together in a grand English home during the turn of the 20th century.  We’ve touched on the Titanic tragedy, World War I, and the flu pandemic of 1918.  The costumes and mannerisms have been a glittering array of lifestyle. I wait impatiently each week for the next installation of this wonderful soap opera.

Downton Abbey Screen Shot

Thank you to Masterpiece Theatre for this screen shot of characters from “Downton Abbey”

But more than the setting and historical events, I tune in to watch the characters.  These are wonderful, full-rounded people you can’t help but care about as they face life’s challenges and triumphs.

From a writer’s perspective, I am in awe of creating novel-length fiction on a weekly basis, and hope one day my Writer’s Digest will carry an interview with Julian Fellowes, the man who writes the Downton Abbey story.  I hope they will ask him how he came up with Bates, Mrs. Patmore, and of course the Crawley family making up the Earldom of Grantham.

I’m also wondering how precisely to make such characters feel so real as people.  You may recall that I’m in the process of writing a short story currently.  Each day I struggle to jot down even a line or two of what might happen next.  But again, I need to get into the heads of my characters, develop a sensitivity for them and make them believable on the page.

I have entire books on the subject of character development.  Most writing books will have at least a chapter on the subject.  So here are my two cents worth on the subject:

START WITH A SPARK OF AN IDEA

There is no sense in trying to sit down to a blank page or computer screen and say to yourself, “Right. Today I will create a character. Now what?” Instead, be in the constant mode of collecting ideas.  I have a spiral called “Collections” for just such a purpose.  Someone or something will glom onto my consciousness, and I try to pop it into my spiral.  More often than not, I miss the opportunity, but when I’m paying attention this is a wonderful tool. And although most of the collecting I do will result in a fun journal and not a story, it is the thinking about people, the learning to observe, that creates the ability to develop new characters.

For my current story, I met a young woman at a cocktail party at Christmas time.  She told me about her work and how there are ghosts at it.  The story was captivating.  I hope it will be half as good when I get it down on paper.

PROFILE YOUR CHARACTER

Not every character will need in-depth profiling, but the more you can do within the constraints of time and energy, the better your story will become.  Profiling starts with a list of questions you ask yourself about your character.  Again, books and lectures are full of these questions.  It is not a step in the writing process to skip.  I usually take at least an hour to answer the questions that I have developed for my own use in building characters. Here are some of my current favorite questions:

  • Can you describe your character’s physical attributes (and don’t forget scars, birthmarks, tattoos and other police-type of notes)?
  • What is your character most proud of? (Talk about instant back story!)
  • What makes this person special enough to be a main character in this story?

On Saturday I was at a talk given by Anne Randolph on the art of making your life facts into story.  She gave me a great new thought: Have the character tell you something about themselves few others know.

INTERVIEW YOUR CHARACTER

Yep. Here’s where we go off the logic track into the world of magic.  Or more precisely, your subconscious.  We live in an age of political correctness, but in interviewing a character, your own prejudices, worries, thoughts of pride surface, and they seem to do so with every interesting character you develop.  Let your thoughts wander, your vision be far off.  Just keep your pen/pencil moving.

I do tend to do these “interviews” by hand, because with typing, I tend to want to correct as I go, and everyone’s personality feels the same under my fingers.  When I write by hand, I’m often surprised to see that even my handwriting changes with the character I’m developing. Okay. It’s weird, but it works–for me.

SAVE THE NOTES

I used to write in unsorted spirals, on scraps of paper, and in multiple environments.  Needless to say, I feel I have lost entire novels by not being organized.  Not sure what made me anchor myself to a single spiral per project, but this really works for me.  It is one central collection center that helps move my writing along.  I try to use David Fryxell’s notion of numbering pages, and then recording contents with page numbers for later reference.  This has helped keep me on track several times when my wandering brain simply wants to go out to play.

ATTACH YOUR CHARACTER TO YOUR PLOT

This is a very hard part for me.  Without a theme or plot question, my characters begin to break apart and float away.  I don’t have to have a fully developed plot to create characters (heck, that would be forcing square pegs into round holes most the time), but I do need to remind myself that I’m exploring a subject–say ghosts–in every part of my writing on this project.  That one small anchor helps me avoid writing superfluous verbiage, and keeps the story moving along.

Now it’s your turn.  How do you develop characters in your writing?  Who are the people that stick in your head upon first meeting?  Can you combine the inner person of several friends into one character?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Old Dog, New Training?

Where did your sleek body go?  When did you grow that grey hair on your chin?  How come you don’t run around with such enthusiasm anymore?

Prophet, Summer 2013

You can hardly see the gray around Prophet’s chin.

Recently, my good guy and I have come to the conclusion that Prophet may not be the pup he once was.  At seven and one half, he’s slowed down. And this new lethargy can’t be attributed to overdoing it at the dog park. He’s always been good about not bugging us while we work, but now Prophet seems to be more content to be near us while in a prone position.  More and more he’s procrastinating about jumping up into the car for a ride.  This got to be so often that we considered buying a new car with a lower backend entry.  When that didn’t work out, we bought a new liner for the back of the car and a new ramp for Proph to walk up in a stately fashion.

The result? Prophet has more often than not decided to jump up into the back without the ramp.  He still grabs the occasional toy to have me chase him round the house.  Maybe it’s not the dog who’s getting old. Hmm.

Thank goodness spring is just around the corner.  It’s time for both Prophet and me to develop a new attitude. Yes.  Time to put a new spring in our steps.

But can you truly teach an old dog new tricks?  I hope so.  Thing is, what to teach my good boy? I’ve gone through the dog training books again, and honestly the “tricks” like sit, stay, and come, no matter how we nuance them for people, basically boil down to sit, stay, come. Been there, done that. Roll over at this point in Proph’s life, and with his added weight (still on steroids every few days), just seems cruel.  I mean I’m not even thinking about learning to stretch enough to aspire toward splits any more.  And don’t even go to the somersault thing. I’m lucky to be able to stand on one leg. Just keep asking myself, why stand on one leg when I have two perfectly fine ones to use.  If I were meant to stand on one leg, wouldn’t I have been made a flamingo?

And I’ve read how people train their dogs to help with household chores.  Maybe Proph could get involved with that. One woman has her dog give her clothes pins as she hangs the laundry.  No, not sure I want Proph to help me shuffle clean clothes from the washer to the drier. It would be nice if I could show him a recipe and have him make dinner for us all.  But if we did that, then I suspect I’d be the one having a bowl of kibble, while Prophet and my guy would share the grilled steak.

Maybe this spring I’ll train Proph to be better at the front door.  That’s been a tricky wicket for us for some time. For a while he would stay while I opened the door, but that’s consistent only when there’s no new person on the other side. Challenge with this is that the “trick” requires two to three people for the training–one to be with the dog and encourage the targeted behavior, one to open and answer the door while ignoring the dog, and one to be the visitor.  Have you suggestions about how a person can work on this by themselves?

Then again, maybe we’re not talking about Prophet here.  Dog training is more about training the pet parent than about forcing a dog to do new things.  Maybe my procrastination on this project comes not from Proph’s golden aging, but my own.

Think I’ll go have a bagel and walk Prophet at the park. Perhaps he’s too young for a new trick.  Don’t want to push him too hard while he’s still so young. After all, I know when I was seven, I wasn’t ready for a lot of young people tricks.  I was too busy walking the 15 miles to school, and outpacing the horse and buggy every time.

 

 

Pot Shots. . . And So We Begin

I have gone out and invested in a new spiral to keep notes for my next Daisy mystery–Pot Shots.  As you may know, I try to title my books with a symbol of the first victim and how they were killed.  Not sure if you knew that I tend to come up with a general topic to think about and the title of the book, even before I create my first new characters.

Right now, Colorado is enjoying the limelight that comes with being one of the first states in the union to legalize recreational pot.  It makes for a natural overarching topic to explore. And the legalization brings up all sorts of interesting challenges for citizens and law enforcement alike. I’m watching from the sidelines.

Pot Shots Notes

“The Game’s Afoot!”

Getting teased about the kind of research I need to do for this next story is a lot of fun too.  I mean after all, without proper research, how can I truly describe a Rocky Mountain High?  Could I write about someone who literally goes up in smoke? And playing with a cash-based business (banks are closely tied with federal government and can’t risk losing the FDIC connection) is just too much opportunity for trouble.

I don’t want to give away where exactly I’m going with the story, but for those who have read Faith on the Rocks, I’ll just let you know that I’m going to give Chip McPherson a mom who comes from California and has the most seductive brownie recipe you could imagine. Or is this too trite a thought? Hmm.

As for writing a novel, each author has his or her own style and process.  I’m trying to share mine with you in hopes that if you’re just starting your own novel-writing adventure, you might be able to take away some ideas for your work process.

Currently, I’m in the brainstorming phase.  This is the hardest, but most fun part of writing.  I have no plot yet, not even an opening scene.  I know very little about the topic of legalized marijuana, but am well aware of my personal biases on the topic.  So, here’s the plan …

  • February and March – research.  Jot down trivia about marijuana and the debate occurring across the country right now.  Visit a dispensary. Talk to people who I know use this drug. Get a feel for the topic and the type of characters I’ll want to experience the story.
  • March and April – put together a list of characters and a few murderous scenarios.  Unlike some other authors I’ve met, I need to know who killed whom and why before I even start a story.  Others like to write their tale, then go back and plant clues.  I like to plant clues along the way. It’s kind of like a game of hide-and-seek to me. Both writing styles work.
  • By May I want to have an outline complete.  Thanks to Scrivener, a large writing project toolkit, this should be easier than my 3×5 card system I’ve used in the past.  We’ll see.
  • June and for the next weeks and months beyond I’ll write the story out. It would be great to have a quicker first draft than in my other two efforts. It took from 2007 to 2012 to get Faith written, rewritten, and published.  I worked from 2012 through the end of 2013 to write Sliced Vegetarian, and I don’t know yet if it will be accepted for publication. My goal for Pot Shots is to be done by the end of 2014.  Did you know that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was researched in seven weeks and published the following year in a newspaper series?  If you have suggestions on how to be more productive in writing, I’d love to hear from you.
  • That’s it.  Simple–like chess.

If you have strong feelings about the marijuana debate, please do contact me.  Right now, my mind is a blank slate waiting for thoughts and feelings to form my opinion–and next story.