Happy Thanksgiving!

To all of you who follow my blog, show patience with my musings, and read my fiction … Thank you!

I appreciate each of you so much. May you have a blessed Thanksgiving with your family, friends, and loved ones.

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A Charming Discovery

In past posts, I’ve moaned about how I’ve largely had to give up used books because so many of them are musty and aggravate my allergies. And yet … sometimes the thrill of discovery is impossible to resist.

After all, I was a reader long before I became a writer. The lure of reading remains strong, and I hope it always will be that way. From time to time, my heart overrides my head and I’m willing to sacrifice breathing for the chance to grab an especially intriguing tome.

Of course, I have some books still residing in my freezer, stories that I long to read but may never get a chance to explore. I have books banished to the garage, books I dragged home much the way I used to bring home stray kittens. Someone ought to love these books. Someone ought to read the magical tales their covers shelter. Someone ought not to forget them or their authors, who labored long by pen or primitive little typewriter to bring these stories to life.

And then, now and again, I stumble across a book collector’s special trove, as I did last weekend. I had never heard of the BUDDY series by Howard R. Garis, but apparently there are 20 titles published between the 1920s and the end of WWII, with a 21st book that came out after the war. Buddy is a cheerful boy that experiences many enthusiastic adventures. Here is a sampling of the titles:
BUDDY ON THE FARM
BUDDY AT RAINBOW LAKE
BUDDY AND HIS FLYING BALLOON
BUDDY AND THE SECRET CAVE
BUDDY IN DRAGON SWAMP

BUDDY books

I think these must be at a similar reading level to THE BOBBSEY TWINS series. Garis was also the author of such well-known children’s classics as UNCLE WIGGILY and THE CURLYTOPS.

I stumbled across the BUDDY books at an estate sale. They were being sold individually instead of as a set, so by the time I arrived and fell in love, six were already gone. The collector in me howls in frustration at the loss in value a broken set represents. The reader in me is delighted to have any of them.

Their dust covers and inside illustrations are charming, very much representative of an American era now gone. Notice how all the covers are identical except for the titles. Smart marketing for a small publishing house with an eye on the bottom line. Commission one cover painting and keep using it while also building brand recognition for the series.

I found one of the books particularly interesting. On the back of BUDDY AND THE VICTORY CLUB, copyrighted in 1943, is this statement from the publisher, Cupples and Leon Company:

BOOKS ARE A SYMBOL OF LIBERTY
Books have always been the priceless heritage of a free people. When a new volume has been added to our shelves, it simply means that democracy and all it stands for is still at work.

Take away our books, and we become slaves, unknown and unknowing.

They BURNED the books in that dark land of oppression and cast into the flames not only words of beauty and knowledge, but a symbol of liberty: Man’s right to read the books of his choice.

We must never let that happen here!

Buy War Bonds and Stamps now so that we and our children may continue to enjoy the blessings of freedom, now and forever.

So well expressed, and an important message to remember even today as America’s literacy rate slowly drops a little more each decade. Recent stories such as Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF remind us of how the Nazis sought to limit knowledge and suppress ideas through book burning. Ray Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451 conveys a similar warning in a futuristic scenario.

Last week, I was standing in the checkout line at Sam’s Club. A large dump at the end of the conveyer belt contained the most recent book in the DIARY OF A WIMPY KID series. A little boy of eight or ten years wanted that book so much he could barely stand it. I overheard him negotiating with his parents because the book cost $8 and he only had $6. They wouldn’t let him have the book. Something was mumbled about how he’d already chosen an item in the cart and that was that.

Now I’m sure the adults were trying to teach this kid economics, but when I see a boy this age–in the demographic most at risk for dropping out of reading–denied a book, I have a hard time not butting in. I can’t express how intensely I wanted to step forward and hand the kid the two dollars he wanted.

He trailed away, his head down in dejection. Five minutes later (this was a very slow-moving line), he came back with a new deal on the table. He offered to eliminate the bag of Cheetos that he’d evidently chosen earlier, and that would make up the difference in the cost of the book.

I was so impressed by this child. He wanted to read a book. He figured out a solution, a reasonable one, and he made a logical pitch for it. He was willing to sacrifice junk food for a BOOK.

Did he get it?

Nope. His parents rejected the deal and kept the Cheetos. Score a point for Team Ignorance & Stupidity! In a year or two, this boy won’t care anymore. His interest in reading will have waned and died from lack of support at home. He’ll be lost to video games, probably never to read again for the rest of his life. He’ll be lazy of mind, low of imagination, and ripe for believing biased media sound bytes.

Even if we don’t have Nazis burning books these days, another way to destroy the knowledge and freedom of thought that derive from reading is to trample the desire to read.

Granted, there’s nothing deep or profound about the WIMPY KID series. I doubt there’s much that’s deep or profound about the vintage BUDDY series either. But their value lies in that they’re fun and entertaining. And as you and I know, fun reading can lead to the willingness to tackle more challenging books and insightful ideas.

Alas!

I also found myself admiring Mr. Garis for the dedication he put in BUDDY AND THE VICTORY CLUB:

“To the boys and girls of the United States of America who, by their hard and unselfish work in collecting scrap, including tin cans, helped the United Nations to Victory.”

He knew his audience, and he respected these young readers enough to acknowledge their effort toward winning the war. Because, after all, everyone matters no matter how small, how young, or how humble.

Meanwhile, I plan to tackle the volume dated 1929 first. They aren’t musty–hurray!

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Atmospheric Pressure

In my previous post, I discussed how the appropriate atmosphere can enhance a story and connect readers emotionally to your story.

But mood has another purpose besides contributing to the setting, and that’s in making things harder for your characters.

The best, most effective use of atmosphere is when it’s laced through the story and contributes actively to the plot. A simple example can be drawn from almost any Dean Koontz thriller, where he will use weather to heighten difficulties for his protagonist. Often he will have his characters discussing the story problem or planning a difficult course of action fraught with potential risk while outside a colossal storm is raging. In a Koontz story, it’s never a mild patter of raindrops on the window glass. Instead, it’s nearly gale force, with the wind howling and gusting, torrents of rain pouring down so that visibility is poor, and lightning crashing violently. It makes readers worry about the characters more because solving their story problem is going to be severely hampered by the intense weather.

In the Koontz novel, SERVANTS OF TWILIGHT, the heroine, her child, and her friend are trying to flee the villains in a prolonged chase. They’re traveling on foot cross country in deep snow. The tall drifts and the cold take their toll physically on the protagonist, making readers worry more about whether she can survive and save her child’s life.

Beyond these simple applications of using weather as both a mood-setter and a physical hindrance, a far more subtle example of atmosphere used as pressure can be found in Agatha Christie’s superb novel, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

In this story, a group of ten individuals is tricked into spending the weekend on a remote, isolated island accessible only by boat. One by one, the guests are dropped off. They are surprised to find their host is absent. Other than a pair of servants to serve them dinner, they’re alone on the island, unable to leave until the boat returns. The house is a rambling, gloomy place full of awkward passages. The beach is bleak. There’s no phone service or TV, and even electricity is iffy at times, supplied by a generator. Dinner is so-so, and it’s not exactly a hospitable place. Then the guests–none of whom know each other–start to be murdered systematically, one by one. As their fear and mutual distrust grow, the atmosphere of this grim setting adds to the pressure. They’re trapped, with nowhere to go and nowhere to turn. And their desperation contributes to the dark, edgy mood even more.

When you’re creating ambiance, ask yourself if
1) it fits the genre of your story;

2) it’s in contrast to your protagonist’s expectations (for example, the guests in the Christie story arrive happy, expecting to have a fun weekend);

3) it can contribute toward making the story problem harder to solve.

Put it to work for you in crafting a stronger, more compelling story.

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Setting the Mood

Mood … atmosphere … ambiance. Whatever you call it, this aspect of writing fiction is yet another means of connecting with reader emotions.

And when you touch reader emotions, you bring your stories to life.

We instinctively understand this, whether as a writer or a reader. Hollywood relies on it via lighting, camera angles, set design, and soundtrack. When you attended your first childhood sleepover, and sat clustered around the person telling a ghost story in a dark room with a flashlight shining on her face, you were positioned into the mood for fright and shivers.

Edgar Allen Poe didn’t invent the atmospheric story, but he sure put it on the map and gave writers a blueprint for how it should be done: boldly and with gusto.

Or, to phrase this another way, if you’re going to be timid about establishing mood in your story, don’t bother.

All stories need it. Each genre draws on different word choices to accomplish it.

Horror and urban fantasy require descriptive passages filled with shadowy streets; unlit alleys; abandoned warehouses; gloomy parking garages; broken pavement; decrepit, empty buildings; the wind blowing pieces of trash against a rusting chain link fence; the creaking sway of an ancient tree on a moonless night.

Romance requires description of the charming cottage at the end of the lane; rose petals floating in a bathtub filled with perfumed salts and oils; the soft glow of candlelight; moonlit strolls on the beach; snowflakes drifting down gently during a sleigh ride in the Vermont countryside; crackling fires on the hearth; a ballroom filled with couples waltzing the night away.

Mysteries and crime stories stand on imagery drawn from secretive passages; mysterious messages and clues; the chalked outline of a body on the pavement; tawdry motel rooms; smoky bars; isolated villages; unfriendly people peering out past the safety chain on their doors; dark streets littered by homeless winos; drug dealers watching from doorways; the metallic tang of blood; cheap offices and PI paperwork; stakeouts and greasy fast food; the faded letter hidden in a trinket box; the pornography pictures taped beneath a drawer in a blackmailer’s bedroom; that sense of being trapped or watched.

Westerns require the openness of the old West; the sense of a lonely individual standing bravely against the wilderness; the small, primitive towns with dusty streets; the ring of spurs with every bootstep; the bawling of cattle; the dust and danger of a cattle drive; the heat and relentless sun; thirst alleviated by a few sips of tepid water in a canteen dangling from the saddlehorn; the smell of horses and leather.

Traditional fantasy relies heavily on pseudo-medieval tropes, including cold, drafty castles; almost impenetrable forests; pomp and pageantry; ale-houses; falconry and stag-hunting; herbs hanging to dry from the rafters; poisons lined in crude pottery flasks on shelves; bubbling cauldrons; alchemists muttering incantations over parchment inscribed with arcane symbols; swords, shields, and armor; the hot breath of a sleeping dragon.

Of course, those are the most obvious factors in these particular genres. In some cases, they’ve been worn thin by over-use, and yet readers still respond to such imagery. And writers temper the mood depending on whether a story is serious or comedic.

To spark the mood for readers, a writer has to feel it first. Have you ever tried creating a mood board? That’s a term used by interior decorators and designers, where they assemble a collage of fabric swatches and paint chips in selected colors, maybe a sample of wood stain, and a photo or sketch of a chair leg or room layout.

Writers can also benefit from creating mood boards. It can be as simple as drawing a map of a fantasy kingdom so you can remember where the mountains and river are. Romance writers have often clipped photos of models or magazine spreads of beautifully decorated rooms to represent their characters and/or the hero’s bachelor pad.

With today’s computer technology, you can pin the images you like into a virtual mood board. Even if you aren’t sure what to include–after all, how can you pin or clip images of ghosts, for example?–give it a try. Maybe a particular paint chip of dark purple makes you think of a brooding figure materializing over the heroine as she sleeps. Use it!

Your finished board may not look like much to anyone but yourself, but as long as it sparks your creativity in some way, that helps YOU. Which is the whole point of this exercise.

A few years ago, I wanted to write a series of books set in a small, invented community. With that in mind, I decided to “collect” pictures of old houses. So whenever I drove through a town, I’d detour into the historic district and snap photos of both stately and humble homes. My intention was to print them and glue them to posterboard, thereby making “streets” of houses. (This was before Pinterest, by the way.) I don’t know how many pictures of Victorians, 1920s Tudors, bungalows, and Spanish Revivals are on my camera’s memory cards.

Did I ever make the collage? Nope. But it didn’t matter. The concept of that project and the photos I shot were enough to keep my imagination cooking. I could see the town in my mind’s eye, and that’s what truly mattered.

For my fantasy novel THE PEARLS, I felt the hero-villain Shadrael’s armor and weaponry were an important aspect of his character design. His gear wasn’t conventional, so I spent an afternoon drawing war axes and daggers in a sketchpad. I’m no artist, but sketching helped me refine the details into something plausible. (For example, my initial idea would have beaned him between the eyes if he’d tried to use it!) As a result of having worked through the details, when I was writing I could describe the weapons with authority and authenticity.

You see, vagueness won’t carry you far in fiction.

Presently, I’m working on a story set in Greece. I’ve been there, and I remember the trip well. But my visit happened several years ago, and some details have faded in my mind. Last week, when I came across a Google image of a Greek island, it reinforced and jogged my memory. So helpful!

A story without mood is cake without icing. You can still enjoy it, but wouldn’t it be better with?

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New from Sean Dalton

After months and weeks of slog through proofreading to correct OCR errors, #3 in my old science fiction SPACEHAWKS series is finally going live on Kindle. BEYOND THE VOID deals with a nasty alien race set to invade Earth, kill all humans, and inhabit our planet’s oceans. Commander Kelly’s special operations team takes on the alien ship with its robot crew and alien masters in typical Hawks style.

If I may be allowed to display just a little pride, I’m particularly fond of this book’s new cover. Crossed fingers that SPACEHAWKS fans will like it, too.

Meanwhile, time to start proofing #4.

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Love and Smother

How long have you known your characters in your current writing project?

Did you create them recently? Or have they been your companions for a very long time?

Perhaps a character came to you in the long distance of your memory and inspired you to build a story for him or her. Since then, have you created an entire world for this character to inhabit? And if so, how long have you been living there? A few months? Or several years?

If you and this character have been cohabiting for YEARS, then it’s time to re-evaluate the situation by asking yourself some questions:

a) Why are you still writing about this same character?

If it’s because you’re writing a series, fine. Good for you.

If it’s because you’re still writing the countless draft of the same manuscript that you began in 1983, then it’s time to try something new.

b) What about this character fascinates you so much?

If the character is nuanced, multi-dimensional, complex, fascinating, and dynamic, fine. If you have such a character and your story is stuck, chances are you haven’t developed sufficient writing skills worthy of your creation.

However, if you’re clinging to this character from a psychological or emotional need only, then it’s time to date a new protagonist.

c) Is this character based on a real person?

If you’ve gleaned a few personality traits from various people you know and combined them into one invented individual, okay.

If you’ve based this character solely on one real person or someone that experienced the plot events you’re trying to write about, then you’re going to be hindered or inhibited from writing your story to its best dramatic potential.

d) When a writing coach gives you constructive criticism about changing this character, do you become defensive or angry?

If you’re acting like a mama bear defending her cub, that hostility is a sure indication that you’ve grown too attached to the character, and the character is now smothering your creativity. It’s possible to become rooted in stone, too rigid to accept change.

It can be hard to break up with a protagonist you’ve cherished too long. Perhaps this imaginary individual was part of your first experience with creative inspiration. Perhaps this imaginary individual led you to becoming a writer.

You don’t have to stop cherishing this character in order to move on. You aren’t going to be a failure because you’ve never satisfactorily written this character’s story. You aren’t betraying this character just because you create another one.

You aren’t killing the character or destroying the character in any way. But you shouldn’t let your fascination with him or her impede your progress or growth as a writer.

When we become too enamored of a character yet we can’t complete that person’s story, we become stalled in a creative corner. In such cases, we don’t always realize what’s happened. We aren’t always aware that we’ve constructed a protective shield over the character, a shield that prevents us from altering the character’s behavior or even the plot.

Such a situation becomes a quagmire, especially if the character is based on a real person. You’re unwilling to change the character because that wouldn’t be what she’s really like, and yet until or unless you do, the story will remain stuck.

Keep in mind that real life and fiction aren’t the same thing. Fiction is art. It can mirror reality. It can replicate reality. But it’s never identical to reality or a true duplication of it. Things that happen in the real world may seem completely unbelievable on the page.

Solutions:
1) Remember that you’re the author. You’re in charge. You can create or delete a character. The character never controls you.

2) Set the character and your stalled story aside. If you feel as though you’re abandoning it, think of this move as a temporary shift to a new idea.

3) Divide your weekly writing time equally between the old character and plot and the new ones. For example, work on old story Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and new story on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Gradually apportion more days to the new story.

4) Even if you don’t much care for a new protagonist, play fair and give this character a chance. Devise personality traits, a background, tags of appearance and behavior, goals, and true nature. If it feels awkward, reassure yourself that you’re conducting drill exercises.

Practicing and experimenting with “temporary” characters is a better way to hone your craft anyway. Your cherished character isn’t threatened, and you don’t have to feel defensive.

5) Create one new protagonist a week. Sooner or later, you’ll invent one that ignites a spark of interest inside you. Write a short story featuring that protagonist.

6) If you still like the protagonist after completing a short story, then ask yourself if you could expand that story into a novel.

You will be on your way toward new growth as a writer.

You won’t feel defensive and threatened.

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Meanwhile …

In a week of interruptions and work overload, my blog post is still in rough draft. Therefore, I wanted to share a post from Philip Athans’s blog about the misuse of certain words we often reach for to convey excitement and then end up achieving anything but that.

Enjoy!

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