Tag Archives: Edgar Allen Poe

Creating

In our quest to be better writers, dedicated writers, and productive writers, we can sometimes forget that not only do we have to feed the muse but we should also take care to refresh our imagination.

From time to time, it’s helpful to move away from the keyboard and indulge in other types of creativity. Some writers craft mixed-media collages. Others play music. Still others garden or design landscapes. We all have hobbies and activities that give us joy and rejuvenation. The question then becomes, have we brushed those fun, creative pastimes aside? Are we too busy to be creative?

For the past five years, I have been in a whirlwind of responsibilities, work, writing, and errands. At times the whirl is so intense that I feel overwhelmed and overburdened. Neither of those feelings is conducive to writing. A crowded, over-scheduled mind is one that never finds time to process, invert, or synthesize–and without that mental process writing quickly stalls.

Therefore, as much as possible, I am trying to fend off the stress by resurrecting old hobbies and making time for them. Because somewhere along the way, the responsibilities have swarmed me like Bermuda-grass runners overtaking a flowerbed, and restorative hobbies have been crowded out by the weeds of life.

For example, a decade ago, I took up the hobby of quilting–or at least quilt-piecing. I found that when I came home from my day job, I could sew a few bits of fabric together while supper cooked, and my pent-up stress melted away. Two decades ago, I alleviated stress by tending my rose garden. Just walking among the fragrant bushes with pruners in hand, deadheading the plants of their spent blooms, was incredibly restorative. And long before I purchased a house and had a yard for roses, I took up needlework. Before that, I collected rocks gleaned from the New Mexico desert. And before that, I tended horses that I thought I couldn’t live without.

Well, my beloved horse from my teen years has long gone to his rest. I no longer have access to my beloved corner of the desert and must content myself with the rocks I found so long ago. In recent years, vision problems have made needlework more challenging. The horrid rose virus, my mold allergy, and a doctor’s ban against digging holes have pretty much ended my rose garden. I am down to a few scraggly specimens that do not inspire. And when I moved to my present home, I lost my sewing space and put all my piecing projects away.

Small wonder the weeds crept in and took over.

But writers are not like other people. We cannot trudge along in the drudgery of errands and mundane chores of everyday life without relief. We are not made that way. Mopping the floor becomes an outlet for the imagination to plot how our beleaguered heroine will escape the wizard’s citadel. We burn dinner and run four-way-stop intersections while we’re mulling over which viewpoint to use next. And if too many interruptions thwart us from working on our stories, we grow sour and bitter.

And yet, we cannot spend all our time writing either. Writing the well dry without replenishing it is dangerous to creative productivity.

So this summer, to fuel my writing and fend off the weeds, I have taken up a new activity in painting. Choosing a new color is tremendously exciting. Burnt Umber versus Amsterdam Green. Greek Blue versus Raindrop. The names alone conjure up old Venetian houses, mysterious shadows, and all sorts of dreamscapes.  I have become like an eight-year-old stalled in front of a candy display, unable sometimes to choose because it’s all so tempting. Besides color, there are the tools:  who knew buying a new brush could open a door to so many brush shapes and specialties? Rounded bristles, pointed, narrow, wide, taklon, nylon, natural boar, etc. How many can I have, please, please, please?

But I am no minimalist. In my worldview, more is more. One hobby is not enough.

As a result, today I happened to be driving near a large quilt fabric store on a different errand altogether. Although the weeds’ voices were saying, “No, no, no; you don’t have time; you’ll spend money you shouldn’t,” my hungry imagination rebelled. It was shouting, “Go for it! Let’s play!”

I told the weeds to shut up, and I pulled into the parking lot. Inside the store, I found visual delight in all directions. Colors, patterns, fine cottons plus woolens to make little projects like pumpkins and squirrel-shaped pin cushions, quilts hanging from the ceiling, cute displays, adorable baby toys, small projects and large, wonders on all sides.

The weeds whispered, “You can only look for twenty minutes tops. Hurry! Then you must leave.” I ignored them and roamed from one display to the next. The potential to create, to choose and mix, to even contemplate sampling this feast was beyond delicious. Best of all, the checkout line was long and slow.

Clutching a quilt-themed birthday card for a friend, I got in line. But as I stood waiting, I spotted yet another feature I had to explore–and touch. Out of line I dropped, to wander here and there. I picked up another item that stayed in my hand. Back in line, only to notice something else I’d passed by. More wandering. More thinking. More temptations reaching out, calling my name on all sides.

Should I make another flannel throw like the one I sewed for my mother several years ago? What about these darling baby fabrics? Do I know anyone expecting a child? No, perhaps not. Oh, here are the Halloween designs, and do I like the Edgar Allen Poe quotes swirling around skulls and ravens better than the gray little ghosts that are almost mid-century abstracts? But here are the Christmas bolts of soft, dreamy colors, or trendy gray and red patterns, or traditional reds and greens. Look! That woman is buying yards and yards of buffalo-check red and black while chattering about her Harley-loving nephew. But wait … I’ve found the Civil War-era reproduction fabrics–all so Victorian from their deep jewel tones to the pale shirtings for contrast. And hurray! Here are the 1930s and 1940s retro fabrics in bright pastels and cheerful little prints that I love so much. Can I resist the tiny Scotties wearing Santa hats–available in either a green background colorway or a red one? No I cannot resist, and thus find myself requesting yardage for a project that doesn’t exist. I’ll figure something out for it, I assure myself. See the dinosaur toy! Isn’t it precious? Didn’t I just walk past a bolt of orange in a tiny rectangular print that could imply scales? Would a dinosaur look cuter in orange fabric or green? Did dinosaurs have scales? Probably not, but don’t I have a dragon-toy pattern stashed somewhere? Forget dragons; focus on dinosaurs right now. Oh, phooey, the store is out of the dinosaur pattern. Get back in the checkout line and stay there.

Eventually it came my turn at checkout. As I was handing over my credit card, a weed sprouted–all nasty and spiky, covered in burrs, and stinky with disapproval. “What’s wrong with you? When will you have time to make these projects? You don’t even have a corner to set up your sewing machine. Why are you doing this?”

But my imagination was happy and shining from all the eye candy. It sliced off the weed, and I contentedly brought my purchases home.

Today’s feast was more than worth the expense. As for time, could I afford to spend over an hour in that store? No I couldn’t.

Do I begrudge it? Certainly not. My writing will be better tomorrow because of having played with fabric today, and that is priceless.

Whether I sew anything from this outing doesn’t matter. My imagination has dined well on joy.

 

 

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Building Urban Fantasy — Part III

When it comes to plotting an urban fantasy story, keep in mind that you need more than just a weirdly cool setting and a character waving around sparkles of hocus-pocus.

Urban fantasy has roots that reach into both horror and film noir. Let’s deal with them separately:

Make It Criminal

Noir means dark and gritty, with shades of gray in the protagonist and shades of gray in the villain. Everyone has a dark past or has made mistakes or has weaknesses. No one is all good or all bad. If you’re still not clear about what noir is, then read the mysteries of Walter Mosley or Raymond Chandler. Watch some of the great film noir classics to get a feel for the flavoring your story needs. I recommend one of the best noir movies ever made–DOUBLE INDEMNITY from 1944. Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, the film is based on a James M. Cain novel of the same title. It features an insurance agent seduced by a beautiful woman into helping her murder her husband so she can collect on a life insurance indemnity clause.

In crime plots, if the villain’s identity is known from the beginning and the plot is focused on stopping this individual from continuing evil deeds, then we call this type of story a thriller. And thrillers require lots of action and danger; in other words, chills and thrills.

On the other hand, if the identity of the villain is hidden and if the protagonist is trying to determine the identity of whoever is behind the crimes, then the story is a mystery. That means investigating the situation through the protagonist asking a lot of questions, checking information, thinking, reasoning, and deducing. Mysteries have less dramatized violence than thrillers. Crimes still happen, but off-stage.

Urban fantasies generally feature crime plots. Which is why you need to understand how mysteries and thrillers work if you’re going to write this type of fantasy. The chief difference will be found in the presence of magic and the occult. But there will be criminal activity. There will be a force of evil seeking to gain from those crimes. There will be victims–some deserving of disaster, others innocent. There will be someone determined to end the crimes and save the day, even if it’s only to personally survive.

Whether you shape the story as a mystery or a thriller–and choosing which approach you’ll take will help you determine the events you’ll include–there’s a third option if you feel adventurous. And that is to combine mystery and thriller elements together. Generally in a combo plot, the mystery investigation will come first until the villain is identified in the book’s center. Then the pace will pick up with exciting chases and thrilling fight scenes filling the second half of the story.

 

Bring on the Horror

Besides the crime-centered plot, urban fantasy needs to deliver the atmosphere and mood of horror. To do this, it can feature the following elements drawn from the horror genre:

Shock–This will come through surprises, threats, and/or plot twists.

Atmosphere–There should be a dark, brooding tone, which can be achieved through the setting details and coded language. Can we say Edgar Allen Poe?

Coded language–This means special vocabulary chosen to reflect the desired imagery. It is sometimes known in erudite circles as diction.

Most genres have their own coding, and such language will be familiar to their fans.

Here’s an example of description employing coded language:

Drake flitted from shadow to shadow along the deserted alley. Out in the street, most of the lights had been shot out long ago, leaving vast pools of night undisturbed. Spiky weeds grew through cracked, broken sidewalks. Rusted hulks of abandoned cars–wheels long since stolen–rotted where they’d been left. The air smelled lightly of sulfur.

Do you see how every adjective has been chosen to stick with a dominant image? Do you see how this description is laden with atmosphere and mood?

Is this passage subtle? Nope. Coded language isn’t supposed to be. Just ask Mr. Poe.

Danger–This element should pervade the story. It keeps the tension high and the outcome of the story less certain.

A sense of danger is established if threats to the protagonist or other characters are real. Victims are attacked, injured, and possibly killed. The protagonist is also in harm’s way. If the supernatural villain stays hidden, then its minions are actively attacking the protagonist or those the protagonist cares about.

Gore and violence–These go along with danger and real threats like tomatoes and basil, but generally in urban fantasy they are presented only as an aftermath to violence not shown.

Because urban fantasy isn’t as intense as horror, the gore will usually be presented obliquely through how a victim is found and what’s been done to it. The actual violence isn’t dramatized through scene action while it’s occurring.

In Jim Butcher’s novel, Storm Front, protagonist wizard Harry Dresden is called in by human homicide detectives as a consultant. Two victims have been found in a hotel room, apparently killed by supernatural means. Their chests have been cracked open and their hearts removed.

As a crime scene, it’s dreadful and shocking, but because readers do not see the crime committed in moment-by-moment story action, it is less horrifying than it might otherwise be.

What’s at Stake

The final aspect of urban fantasy that I want to address in this series of posts has to do with the scale of the stories.

In traditional, high, epic fantasy, the whole world may be at risk. Vast armies are often pitted against each other. It is Good (capital letters) versus Evil (capital letters). If the side of Good should fail or be vanquished, DOOM will encompass the world and all will be lost forevermore.

However, in urban fantasy, the scale of the story situation is smaller. A few people are endangered, but not everyone. We have a mostly good (lowercase letters) protagonist versus a pretty bad (lowercase letters) villain.

In other words, the protagonist–perhaps with a few companions or allies–is trying to stop the supernatural menace. If the protagonist should fail, he or she will probably die or be enslaved, but the entire world as we know it won’t end. It’ll just be a bit worse than before.

Lesser stakes than traditional fantasy doesn’t mean a lesser story. After all, the life-or-death struggle of a lone hero against the Houston vampire queen means a tremendous amount to that hero. And readers bonded with that protagonist will care deeply and intensely about what happens.

 

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Searching for Diction

It’s that spooky time of year, the week leading up to Halloween when my neighbors drape cobwebs across their doorways and front yards sprout headstones, pumpkins, and life-size zombies. Even this morning, the classical music station on my car radio treated me to Saint Saens’s Danse Macabre, an anecdote about how some people at the turn of the twentieth century believed composer/musician Paganini had struck a deal with the devil in order to play so well, and very eerie scrapings on a violin intended to depict the dancing of La Strega.

So, given the slanting golden days of late October with the wind whipping falling leaves and shoppers rushing to load up on candy in preparation for All Hallows’ Eve, I’m joining in the spirit of things by writing a post devoted to diction and the imagery it can create.

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines diction as “choice of words especially with regard to correctness, clearness, or effectiveness.

And a much simpler way of defining it is just “word choice.”

Can that make much difference in writing? You bet! Words are our sculptor’s tool, our chisel, our brush, our paint. We manipulate reader imaginations through the various words we use as descriptors. We can make a setting dull and uninteresting or vivid and appealing. We can evoke reader sympathy for characters or influence readers to dislike them intensely. By utilizing vocabulary with precise intent, we can add another layer of entertainment value to the stories we create.

Let’s look at some examples:

The large, red dog trotted along the sidewalk. He seemed to know where he was going. He ignored all the pedestrians he passed. At Sixth and Elm, he crossed the street, evading the oncoming cars. A cop noticed him, but by then he’d vanished into an alleyway.

Are you enthralled?

No?

I’m not surprised. The diction of this example is flat, dull, ordinary, and without imagery. It lacks the specialized (or coded) language that would fit it into a particular genre, and it is not focused into any sort of dominant, lasting impression.

Let’s shift and tweak this a bit so it fits instead into the romance category:

The magnificent Irish Red Setter trotted along the sidewalk as though leading a parade of pedestrians. With his coat gleaming like a copper penny in the sunshine, he disdained all the passersby and ignored every attempt to catch his attention or touch him. So regally did he move that the crowd parted ahead of him, and even at the normally busy intersection of Sixth and Elm the cars halted to let him pass. By the time a cop saw him, the setter was disappearing into an alleyway with a jaunty wave of his plumed tail.

More adjectives? Yes. More adverbs? Yes. Longer? Definitely. The dog is moving down the sidewalk, but now we have a specific breed, plus visual cues from similes, and a focus on the animal’s beauty and regal bearing.

What about putting our pooch into a mystery?

No doubt about it, the mutt was a stray. I watched him scurry down Broad Avenue, searching from doorway to doorway for the little bowls of kibble that softies among the shopkeepers left there. Good way to attract rats and roaches, if you ask me. But the dog knew the drill and was ready to mooch for what he could find. A couple of guys in suits called to him. One even tried to grab the dog’s collar. It was just a piece of dirty rope tied around his neck, the snapped end dangling where he’d made his break for freedom. But he dodged the attempt to catch him with an outraged yelp and shot across the intersection of Sixth and Elm. Cars honked and squealed brakes to avoid hitting the mangy fleabag.  On the corner a cop put in a call, probably to the dog catcher. Yeah, like the pound could arrive in time to catch anything. Muttsie meanwhile was already ducking out of sight in the nearest dark alley.

Yes, I used “shot” deliberately as a verb and “snapped” as an adjective. I gave the street a name because mysteries focus on specific details. I used a first-person narrator and viewpoint in the detective tradition. Other terms selected as appropriate for this genre include “stray,” “mooch,” “rats,” “roaches,” “drill,” “break for freedom,” “dirty rope,” etc.

And urban fantasy?

In the thickening twilight, nightfall spread across the broken pavement. Dead weeds had pushed up through the cracks in the cement and died there, their desiccated corpses casting crooked little shadows in the streetlights’ amber glow. A lean hound, as black as the cloak of death, moved between shadow and light, seen and unseen, its pads silent upon a sidewalk littered with glints of broken glass and the occasional crumpled soda can or food wrapper. Only a few people remained out. They hurried, clutching their coat collars, and dodged to let the hound pass unhindered. No one reached out to the animal. No one called to it. For it wore the heavy black chain of its master, and to meet its glowing red eyes was to look through the gates of Hell.

Here, I’ve chosen harsh descriptors, making the weeds into dried-up corpses, crumbling the sidewalk, and littering it with trash and broken glass. I’ve also set my stage with darkness and shadows, long the playground of danger. And, yes, this time I’ve given people the collars and the dog a chain–all on purpose.

As you can see in each of these examples, I’ve altered the dominant impression to create imagery and to establish a certain mood in my readers’ minds. I’ve chosen to emphasize very different details, or created them to fit the atmosphere I want. Essentially the same action is occurring–although in the fantasy I dispensed with traffic and alleys. But each sample points to a very different plot and story world.

Tone, mood, atmosphere, weather, and setting. Beyond the writer tools of plot and characters, adopt the strategy of making diction also work for you. Edgar Allen Poe employed it in the nineteenth century, and yet this device is by no means out-dated. You can use it to frighten or enchant readers, charm them, alarm them, or even make them laugh out loud.

 

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Moody and Broody

Here on the prairie, spring weather has been wild and crazy–much as usual. Fierce winds have buffeted us day and night lately. Last night, the wind blew around the corners of my house and tossed the newly leafed shrubbery and trees. Something–probably the iron structure supporting the bird feeder that’s slowly listing to one side like the leaning tower of Pisa–was creaking outdoors. The jolly string of wooden Easter eggs on my front door clacked steadily against the glass storm door. Night noises all around, never dying away for the stillness of sleep and tranquility. Things going bump in the night.

At one point I looked out the back door, and saw a full moon halfway above a thick bank of clouds to the east. It was an odd sight, very eerie, and seeing the moon like that immediately sparked inspiration. My imagination danced. What if? What if?

So … do you consider mood and atmosphere when you write fiction? When you’re devising your setting, do you incorporate ambiance?

In making setting vivid to readers, the atmosphere is important. After all, it’s hard to maintain a tense, suspenseful tone if you’re describing bright pastel colors and teddy bears and the cheerful sounds of children’s laughter.

You shade reader perception through the tone you adopt and maintain. You affect reader emotions, and stir reader imagination, through the diction of your story. What is diction? The words you choose to use. It’s all about vocabulary and making it work for you.

Consider the following words that have similar meanings but different connotations:

dim ………………………………..gloomy

large ………………………………cavernous

teeth ………………………………fangs

reddish …………………………..bloody

pointed leaves …………………spiky leaves

shy …………………………………withdrawn

Or these:

dim ……………………………….candlelit

large ……………………………..spacious

teeth …………………………….gleaming smile

reddish …………………………vermillion

pointed leaves ……………….palm fronds

shy ………………………………hesitant

Shading your diction or word choice to fit your story setting and its genre is also known as writing in coded language. Readers of certain genres expect writers to employ a vocabulary that suits the genre. Such word choices in turn connote more to avid readers of that genre than they might otherwise to a more casual audience.

Accordingly, romance readers expect settings to be described in ways that evoke the physical senses, are attractive or possibly glamorous, and convey a romantic atmosphere.

Thriller/mystery/horror readers expect settings to hold a sense of danger and to be edgy. Therefore, a poorly lit room might seem romantic in one genre but a dangerous trap in another.

Fantasy readers expect settings to be magical, unusual, exotic, and surprising.

Writers who take the time to enhance their stories with coded imagery–to set the mood appropriate to their plot, location, situation, and scene–add considerably to the overall effect. Consider the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. They ooze dank despair. Consider the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling which enchant and charm on every page. Consider the romantic story The Wedding Dress by Virginia Ellis, in which three sisters distract themselves from the bleak economic hardships immediately following the Civil War by hand-sewing a wedding dress, hoping with every button and every stitch that once the gown is completed a bridegroom will appear for at least one of them.

Now of course, there are some writers who want to play against type. They want to contrast the bright, cheery nursery with a grim crime scene down the hall in the master bedroom. They want to show an empty crib, a dropped teddy bear, and the bloody handprints on the wall going down the stairs. Such writers aren’t ignoring atmosphere or coded language. They are instead making it work for them in a different way, to surprise and stress readers deliberately. Such contrasts create atmosphere effectively.

Whether you set up straightforward mood or go for a contrast, be aware of your setting and make it work harder for your story’s success.

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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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Writing with Flair

Commercial genre fiction is not for the timid, or the mousey, or the quiet, retiring individual.

As a writer, you can be any or all of those things in real life, but when you put your fingertips on the keyboard, you should channel whatever inner flamboyance and verve you possess. Feed it right into your characters.

Your characters need to leap off the page. They need to be sharp, vivid, bold, exaggerated, and unpredictable.

“But I’m not any of those things,” you may be protesting. “That’s not who I am. How do I identify with that kind of artificial, clownish character?”

Ah … perhaps the key word here is “artificial.”

When did it become the norm to believe our characters are anything BUT artificial constructions?

The so-called “realistic” character is too often an excuse to hide behind when we lack the nerve to write anything that’s flamboyant.

When I sit down to read fiction, I don’t want characters that are modeled closely on real life. Real life is boring, mundane, filled with endless banal tasks, the drudgery of chores, and meaningless small talk. I chat with my next-door neighbors maybe twice a year while picking up the newspaper or rolling out the garbage Polycart. The topic is never earth-shattering: the new recycle pickup schedule, or can I recommend a plumber … that sort of thing. Not the stuff of fiction!

When I was a child, one of my favorite cartoon characters was Snaggletooth. He was some kind of cat or tiger–which is probably why I gravitated to him–and his main distinguishing tag was when he would stand on one foot, poised in the direction he was about to run, and he would announce grandly: “Exit stage left!” or “Exit stage right!”

For all I know, that cartoon may have taught me right from left. I don’t remember anything else about the character except those vivid departures. Yet, despite the murky mush of childhood memories, Snaggletooth has never been forgotten.

How does one of your characters enter the story? How does she exit a scene? What does she do while she’s stage centered on the page, involved in the story’s action?

Is she making ANY impression on readers?

If not, why not?

One of my favorite old-movie actresses is Bette Davis. You may or may not have seen any of her films, but you’ve probably heard of her.

Even in her earliest films, when she was just a studio player and miscast in little roles of flighty society girls, she carried a presence with her. She knew how to walk, how to carry herself, how to move about so that she held the audience’s eye. That’s stagecraft, and she learned her acting from the stage before she ever went to Hollywood.

All actors of that era were trained to do that. They weren’t trying to be natural or realistic. They were driving the story action forward and doing their best to make you remember them.

One of my favorite film entrances of a character is in the William Wyler film, THE LETTER, based on a short story by Somerset Maugham. The audience is shown the moonlight shining down on a peaceful rubber plantation. All is quiet. The workers are sleeping in hammocks under thatched sheds. Then a pistol shot rings out. A man bursts from the bungalow and staggers down the porch steps. Bette Davis follows him.

She’s wearing an evening gown. She holds a pistol in one hand. Her arm is extended and rigid. She fires into his back. And fires again, emptying the revolver into his dying body. As she shoots, she descends a porch step, then another, until she’s standing over him.

The camera zooms in on her face. She’s intent, cold-blooded, lethal. There’s no hesitation in her, no fear, no regret. She knows exactly what she’s just done, and it was precisely what she intended to do. She has shot this man down the way I might destroy a rabid dog.

Then, as the plantation workers wake up and run toward her in alarm, the predator in Bette vanishes. She pulls on a mask of teary weakness and begins to lie about what just happened and why.

But the audience has seen the truth and can settle in to watch what she does next in trying to trick the police and the prosecutors.

“Realistic?” Not at all. Vivid and effective? You bet!

A vivid character doesn’t have to possess superhuman powers in order to compel reader attention.

Just ask Mr. Dickens. He created some of the most memorable characters still in print, and they have been in print a mighty long time.

Is Ebeneezer Scrooge “realistic” or drawn closely from real life?

No!

He’s such an exaggeration of miserly behavior that his name has been absorbed into the English language as a label for a tight-fisted, grouchy individual who values money over human kindness.

Was Edgar Allen Poe trying to share the mundane, everyday details of ordinary human existence in his stories?

No!

Instead, we have a madman creeping through a possessed house in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Would Sherlock Holmes continue to fascinate us were he more ordinary?

No!

This man has extraordinary powers of observation. He keeps his pipe tobacco in a Persian slipper on the mantel. From time to time, he celebrates his patriotism for his queen by firing bullets into the wall in the shape of her initials.

[If I want to be realistic about Holmes, I would be thinking about his landlady and asking myself why didn’t she throw him out. But who cares about realism? We LOVE Holmes just as he is, flaws, quirks, peculiarities, and all.]

Even the current book du jour–THE BOOK THIEF–which is pretty darn mainstream and literary–has vivid characters. Death is its narrator and the book features a little girl who is struggling to learn to read while stealing books ordered burned by the Nazis. A realistic character wouldn’t be defying a Nazi edict. She would be staying home, helping with the laundry, and doing exactly as she was told.

Characters have to be exaggerated in order to ignite readers’ imaginations.

Whether it’s a little boy who mysteriously eludes destruction by the evil Voldemort, or the three musketeers cheerfully taking on Cardinal Richelieu’s guards despite being outnumbered, or Eliza Bennett refusing to dance with the handsome and fantastically wealthy Mr. Darcy … these characters capture us and enchant us because they are boldly drawn and anything but realistic.

The desire to avoid the bold, seemingly unnatural character is understandable. It’s also fatal to a story’s success.

Quiet nonentities go flat on the page. They scan as B-O-R-I-N-G. They’re too careful, too shy, too prudent to move the story forward. This type would be the hobbit that stays home, unlike Bilbo Baggins.

I happen to be an introvert. Over the years, I have forced myself to be able to mingle in a crowd, to socialize, to lecture, and to interact, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. At the end of such occasions, I’m usually drained. My first instinct, whenever I’m invited to any public function, is to refuse the invitation.

Beyond that, in real life, I avoid confrontations. I don’t like to get into arguments. I don’t like to witness conflict of any kind. Ugly or angry behavior stresses me.

That’s my real nature.

But when I write, I recognize that my characters are NOT me. They cannot live or survive in their story world if they are shy, avoid social interaction, or elude conflict.

Their functions and responsibilities as fictional characters are far different from mine because I am a real person in a real world.

The character must not be built or evaluated on a real-world model.

The character must instead fit a fictional model and do what the story requires of him.

Stories–particularly genre fiction–are not realistic. They are entertainment, and they are structured in certain ways to fulfill that function.

That’s why fictional characters need to be exaggerated into creatures that are weird or wild or zany or colorful or predatory or just more darned courageous than anyone else.

They aren’t–and never will be–real.

They’re not–and shouldn’t be–intended to be real.

Make them as bold as you can, and as vivid as you dare.

And then push them a little farther out there … way past your comfort zone.

Just ask Janet Evanovich, who creates old ladies who carry Glocks strapped to their walkers and monkeys that escape research laboratories wearing little hats made from aluminum foil.

Silly? You bet.

And she laughs all the way to the bank.

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SPARKLE: Punch Up Those Sentences

Remember the comedy film, THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN? Billy Crystal played a man with writer’s block. Over and over, he struggled with the opening line of his manuscript: The night was … He couldn’t think of the perfect adjective to complete his sentence, and he remained compulsively stuck there.

Funny? You bet!

Good writing? Absolutely not.

We’ve all been taught somewhere along the way to avoid as many passive sentences as possible in our copy. Passive means using the weak “to be” verb and its variations. Yet we all reach for it anyway because it’s easy.

(Whoops! I just used it.)

I admit to using “was” too often when I write, just as I eat too much chocolate and indulge in Lay’s potato chips (real, not the wussy baked) from time to time.

But just like eating junk food, the overindulgence of passive sentences leads to flab. Even worse, the weak “was” construction cries out for the usage of adjectives and adverbs. They weaken sentences, too. Just ask Mark Twain, who claimed that whenever he found an adjective, he killed it.

The night was soft. The air was fragrant. The dog was big and red. It was sniffing at the base of the pretty flowers. Jack thought maybe the dog was after something that shouldn’t be buried there. He decided he would walk gently and quietly over to it. He didn’t want to frighten the dog or call attention to the spot.

Whew!

This paragraph is like an overripe apple which looks okay until you bite it and discover the rot beneath that pretty, red-blushed skin.

Let’s smash the “to be” verbs from Jack’s paragraph.

The night … soft. The air … fragrant. The dog … big and red. It … sniffing at the base of the pretty flowers. Jack thought maybe the dog … after something that … buried there. He decided he … walk gently and quietly over to it. He … not want to frighten the dog or call attention to the spot.

Now the paragraph looks dumb despite its promising situation. (Ever since Alfred Hitchcock released the film REAR WINDOW, the prospect of something buried in a flowerbed makes us blissfully uneasy.)

What we need is some oomph. This poor paragraph is too plain. Why not amp up the qualifiers?

The night air felt balmy, sultry. The air smelled lush and moist with the heady fragrance of jasmine vine mingled with gardenias. A vast, hairy dog–burnished like mahogany wood veneer–kept sniffing at the base of exotic, tropical flowers. Jack surmised the dog was investigating something buried there. He paused, debating whether to investigate, too. Then he sauntered toward the animal, not wanting to frighten it away.

Imagine a student handing me this paragraph. Imagine me slapping my forehead. Better yet, let’s imagine me giving this muck-maker a head slap instead.

Overdoing the qualifiers doesn’t create sparkling prose.

“But of course it does!” Bewildered Bart cries. “I’ve made it vivid. I’ve given it life! And I only used ‘was’ once.”

Ever hear of the phrase “purple prose?” It means overdone, and if you want examples of it, read a few passages penned by the Victorian novelist Bulwer-Lytton, a hot-selling writer of the 19th century.

Nope. Let’s back away from Bewildered Bart’s draft and try again. This time, we’ll remove the adverbs and adjectives, no matter how vivid and lively Bewildered Bart has made them.

The night … The air … The dog … It … sniffing at the base of … flowers. Jack thought maybe the dog … after something that … buried there. He decided he … walk … over to it. He … not want to frighten the dog or call attention to the spot.

This is looking as hopeless as patching a punky wood windowsill with a bottle of carpenter’s glue. Not much remains.

Solution? We gotta rewrite the sentences.

Soft air brushed Jack’s cheek as he peered through the shadows. He saw a dog–maybe an Irish setter–sniffing along the flowerbed at the Wilkins house. The animal’s intensity spiked Jack’s curiosity. He turned in that direction, his movement unhurried to avoid frightening the dog or calling attention to himself.

See the difference? Cutting the qualifiers forces us to select active verbs. Nouns become more specific. Specificity creates plausibility. This paragraph doesn’t serve up prize-winning prose, but at least we can focus better on the actual story event. If a reader decides her curiosity equals Jack’s, she’ll turn the page. If she tosses the story aside, it’s because of the premise and not flabby writing.

“But you left out the gardenias!” Bewildered Bart might say. “You cut the jasmine vine, and I wanted that imagery there. Imagine the moonlight shining on those white blooms, like tiny stars in the night.”

If we write about body parts buried in the flowerbed, we don’t need romantic imagery. Match your sentence tone to the subject matter. Edgar Allen Poe sure did, and he’s still in print. Just sayin’.

To reiterate, vary sentences in type and length, use strong voice, rely on specific nouns and precise verbs, avoid qualifiers, and match your topic’s tone. Imagery then becomes vivid, not because we’ve plied an excess of details the way a toddler paints herself with mommy’s lipstick, but because our sentences are clear and easy to read.

George Orwell said that good writing should be “like a pane of glass.” The sentences should fade from a reader’s consciousness, so that only the story is seen.

That, folks, is sparkle.

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