Tag: fiction

Research ~ A Necessary Evil

Research ~ A Necessary Evil

Allison stepped onto the patio, enjoying the coolness of the desert southwest evening. Saguaro cacti were silhouetted against the sunset, and a roadrunner darted behind an agave plant. A cactus wren perched nearby. Allison walked further into the yard and stopped to stand beneath a giant magnolia tree…

Okay, I won’t say research is evil, but it hasn’t always been my favorite thing to do. When I first began writing fiction, I didn’t want to be bothered with research. All I wanted to do was to get the story out of my head and onto the computer screen.

“Write what you know.” I heard these words repeated over and over by several seasoned writers.

So I began with something that was comfortable to me. I loosely based the setting of my first novel on my hometown. However, the subject matter required research on my part to make part of the story believable.

My second novel, currently in draft state, necessitated me spending time on the Internet, looking for information about arsonists. (Suffice to say if someone looked at my browser history, and didn’t know I was a writer, they might want to report me to the nearest law enforcement agency.)

It’s easy to slip into a comfort zone. Therefore, the “write what you know” advice only goes so far. If an author continues to use the same setting or story line, readers will quickly become bored with their work and move on. Even though we might write in the same (or similar) genre, we want to generate stories that continue to please our readers and entice new ones.

Hence the need for research. We want our fiction to be believable. So what’s wrong with my opening paragraph?

Saguaro cacti, agave plants, roadrunners, and cactus wrens all fit within the scene. However, magnolia trees do not grow in the desert southwest. A simple mistake like that can cause readers to lose interest and damage our credibility as writers. Worse yet, they could leave a bad review, and we all know too many one and two-star reviews can make or break a book.

How do we go about gathering information? Fortunately, we live in an age where we have instant access to almost anything we want to know. Google and Bing can be a writer’s best friend.

A word of caution—just because something is on the Internet, doesn’t make it true. It’s best to check several sources and/or websites. Wikipedia, while popular, isn’t always the most accurate source because anyone can post anything.

In addition to the Internet, talk with experts. Law enforcement officers, physicians and nurses, fire investigators, military personnel, etc. Most times people are willing to answer specific questions you might have. When meeting with these people, go prepared. Have a list of specific questions so as not to waste their time or yours.

Travel to locations where you want to set your stories. Look around, observe, talk with locals, get a feel of the area, and make copious notes.

I’ve come a long way in regards to conducting research since I started writing fiction. In fact, I’ve probably spent more time gathering information for a current short story than I did with both novels.

The reason? It’s a setting and a story line that is totally beyond my scope of knowledge. Hopefully, my research has paid off. On a recent vacation, while touring a former aircraft carrier turned museum, my husband was impressed that I was able to identify two types of aircraft without looking at signs. I admit that I’ve learned a lot of interesting things from doing this project.

What about you? As a writer, do you enjoy research? What are some of your favorite methods?

 

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Villains Add Depth To Your Story

Villains Add Depth To Your Story

All good stories have conflict. Something to keep you interested. What provides conflict? A well written villain. Someone who makes you root for the hero.

As you write your novel, if you simply concentrate on your hero/heroine, you are leaving out what makes your story great. Conflict. Something or someone for the good guy to defeat. A well written villainous plot will give your hero depth and keep your reader interested. Without a good villainess what would the heroine have to do?

Before you start writing consider what the villain will be doing. He must have a reason for his actions. He cannot be bad because you want him to be bad. Give him a reason. Something the reader can identify with. Make him easy to hate. Better yet, make him someone the reader sympathizes with. Someone the reader will pull for. Inherently, villains are not all bad. Each of them believes in what they are doing and has a reason for doing it And they each have some redeemable quality. A well written villain will give meaning and focus to the hero providing direction for him to grow as a person.

As a writer, how can you know what your hero is doing if you don’t know what your villain is doing. You cannot have one without the other. Make your villain multi-dimensional. Create some logical reason why he does what he does, then give him some redeeming quality that your reader can relate to or identify with. Characters are more believable if they appear to be real. Even good people have some bad in them. Villains and heroes both have strengths and weaknesses. If you create a perfect character with no flaws your story will be flat, unbelievable, and one dimensional.

Your villain will have backstory just like your hero. What made your villain what he is today? Now, weave that backstory into your novel and show where your villain has crossed that imaginary line. The point where he no long thinks about what he will do, but acts on it. This is the point where the stakes are at their highest. Create that tension the reader craves and keep the villain’s agenda clear.

A villain doesn’t necessarily need to be evil. Perhaps a series of events puts him in a position he doesn’t want to be in and now is forced to do something he doesn’t want. Heroes and villains have strong convictions that are in opposition to each other.

Great stories have memorable villains/villainesses.
Without Voldermort what purpose would Harry Potter have?
And one of my favorites—The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz.

Are you a fan of the hero or do you root for the villain? Do you have a favorite villain/villainess? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

Can You Judge a Book by Its Cover?

Can You Judge a Book by Its Cover?

Years after I first read Where are The Children, I purchased a hardback classic edition copy.

Okay, confession time. As much as I love my Kindle and the opportunity to carry an entire library in my purse, I often miss making visits to a brick and mortar bookstore. There is something to be said about perusing the aisles filled with dozens of books.

And way back before the days of Internet shopping, online reviews, and social media, readers often had to rely on word of mouth when selecting books. Reading the back cover or the first page of a book was a factor for me before deciding if I wanted to check out a book from the library or make a purchase. Especially if the author was unfamiliar. But before I opened the book, before I turned it over to read the back, I first looked at the front. If I found the cover to be appealing, then I would move to the next step.

I’m a big fan of mystery and suspense novels. I still recall the first time I saw a book by the now famous author, Mary Higgins Clark. I was at a bookstore (in the fiction section, no less) when I saw the spine of Where Are The Children. The title got my interest, so I pulled a copy from the shelf and looked at the cover. I saw a house located beside a body of water. Tall brown grass indicated to me the story likely took place in the autumn.  But the thing that intrigued me most was the single red mitten in the foreground.

After reading the back cover, which further piqued my interest, I walked to the register, bought the book, took it home and began to read. Years later, I’ve read dozens of Mary’s books and have to say she is probably the author who most inspired me to write mystery and suspense stories.

And it all began with a book cover.

A few years ago, a friend of mine loaned me a book that was written (and self-published) by someone she knew. I kept it around the house for a few weeks, but I never opened it to look inside. Why? The cover looked amateurish. The back was plain white. No author information. No blurb. Nothing. I can’t even remember the title of the book or what was on the front, but I do know it was no more appealing that the back side. The content may have been high-quality writing and an interesting topic, but the writer lost me by not having a good cover.

To be honest, I have read (or attempted to read) some books in which I liked the covers but not the story itself. No matter how pleasing a cover looks, if your content isn’t good, readers won’t continue to purchase your books. But having a professionally designed cover is a must. It’s worth spending a few dollars to hire someone who is an expert at what they are doing. In the long run, you’ll be glad you did.

 

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10 Ways to Improve Your Fiction Writing

10 Ways to Improve Your Fiction Writing

Top 10 Tips for Improving Your FictionLooking for a down and dirty list for story writing improvement? Look no further.

Here the top ten ways to hone your fiction writing skills:

10. Dissect novels you enjoy.
Look through your favorite novels by other authors for techniques and tricks to improve your characterization, settings, plot, pacing, dialogue, and exposition.

9. Keep your eyes peeled for sources of stories.
Watch people in public settings, take note of funny family events, analyze television shows and films, consider news stories. Ideas are everywhere.

8. Conflict is key.
Don’t let your characters have it too easy for too long. Conflict makes fiction interesting.

7. Hone your characters’ voices.
Don’t let all of them sound the same. Every person thinks and feels things differently in real life. Characters are no different.

6. Follow a three-act structure.
There’s a reason that formula is so prevalent in plays, film, and fiction. It works. The hook and rising action take up the first quarter. The three conflicts and responses take up the second two quarters. And the last quarter deals with the climax and resolution.

5. Work with a theme.
Whether you outline or not (and I’m an advocate for outlining), a theme will help you focus your message.

4. Symbolism increases the potency of your message.
Imagery and symbols can add continuity to your message and strengthen it.

3. Start with a strong hook.
After your cover and your back cover copy, your opening is what will determine if people buy/finish reading your story. Don’t start with scenery descriptions or back story. Start where the story really begins—with change to the status quo.

2. Use secondary characters to your advantage.
Secondary characters can provide necessary comedic relief and help advance plot. They also add a complexity, richness, and authenticity to your storyworld.

1. Vary your sentence structure.
Short, choppy sentences indicate high-action and tension. Long, descriptive sentence denote exposition and a break in the action. Both are necessary. Besides, the variety makes for more interesting reading in addition to indicating the pace.


So, there you have it. The top ten things to keep in mind when you write fiction.

And for every point I wrote up there, I bet you can think of ten of your own that I didn’t include. Why not share some of your tips in the comments below?

Jenga—Tangled

Jenga—Tangled

Pamela Foster wears many hats, and whether she wants to claim “writer” as one of them, she not only wears it, she wears it with panache. Through personal experience, humor, and tough love, Pamela will discuss ways to move past the things that hold writers back in these series of posts titled, “Jenga—Knocking Over Writers’ Blocks.”

I used to be a writer.

Life manifested as prose in my head, danced across a page the moment I opened a computer screen. Stories sprouted and leafed out and became living things. Ten books written in eight years. Six published, contracts for two more that are already written. Historical fiction, personal essays, humor, travel, contemporary fiction. When asked about writer’s block, I fluttered my fingers to shoo away the very idea, insisted there was no such disease.

So, what happened to change all that?

YarnMy writer’s block is a knotted ball of brightly colored yarn. Untangling individual lengths requires patience, wisdom, and more energy than I can muster. I suspect it’s time to toss the knotted mess and begin again. From the beginning. But, as anyone who has ever started a ball of yarn knows, it’s the beginning, the center, that is squishy and soft and unorganized. One has to keep winding, not worry about imperfection, in order to create a ball from a wadded mess of yarn.

This blog post is my attempt to do just that. To begin again. To once again see myself as a writer.

Life gets in the way of our dreams. That’s a fact. If this were not true, we’d all fulfill our promise, stroll easily in whatever land we envision. You should know I wrote that last sentence after deleting a very long list of excuses for what has grown up between me and my writing. Even now, I struggle not to type an abbreviated, oh-so-very succinct and essential list of all the challenges of the last fourteen months, those experiences which fog my mind, cloud my vision, numb my creativity. We all have excuses for turning aside from our hopes.

A few years ago, at one conference or another, I had the good fortune to be included on a panel with a half-dozen authors who shared their expertise with a group of newer writers. An earnest young woman in the audience stood up and asked each panelist to name his or her favorite book on writing. She hugged her arms around herself and promised to read every single recommended book before beginning her novel.

She got the usual suspects that day. Shrunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Dillard’s The Writing Life, King’s On Writing. I was the last person to answer and, I admit, everyone else had taken all the books on writing I could think of off the top of my head. But, even had I been first, I’d have given the same answer.

“Stop reading about HOW to write. Sit your butt in front of the computer and write. Write badly or well. Write. Write until you stumble upon that flash of creativity that leads to finding your voice and then keep writing.”

“Oh.” She raised her palms toward me. “But, right now I’m busy with . . .”

“Stop making excuses,” I told her. “Write. Just. Write.”

In my previous life, when I spoke as a writer, I used to go around the room at the beginning of my presentation and make people introduce themselves with the writer’s equivalent of the AA confession. So, since I am beginning again, starting from the messy middle of the ball of yarn, and striving to follow my own advice, please, let me introduce myself.

“Hello. I’m Pamela Foster and I am a writer.”

Creating the Perfect Protagonist

Creating the Perfect Protagonist

Stephen King on CharactersHe’s tall, dark, handsome, rich, smart, sophisticated, kind, philanthropic, loves his family and kids and animals, owns a rescue dog, is former military and yet still cares for the environment.

Are you sick to your stomach yet? Because I’m more than a little nauseated. If this guy really exists, only a small part of me wants my daughter to marry him. Mostly I just want to find dirt on him, because really, no one is that perfect. He’s hiding something. Or he’s going to make me feel bad about myself until the day I die.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret for writing fiction.

Be prepared for a four-letter word here. It’s one you hear so often in fiction, but I have to use it.

Think about your hook.

You’ve heard it a million times. The opening of your novel is so important. You only have a small window to get to that quintessential moment where you’ve hooked the reader.

  • Begin in the middle of the action (in media res) and you could confuse the reader. What’s happening? Who are these people? Why should I care?
  • Begin with too much setup, too much backstory, and you risk boring the reader with too much history, losing them before they’ve become engrossed.
  • But if you begin just before the hook, you have just enough time for us to see who the protagonist is in his regular life before a big change happens. That way, we can like him or feel sympathy for him or fear for him when the inciting incident occurs.

So it all comes down to establishing a character in his regular life just before the thing that changes everything. We need a reason to like this person. And the reason can’t be because he’s perfect. If he’s Mr. Tall-Dark-Handsome-Etc. that I described in the opening, it’s time to sit down and revise this character… unless that’s just a facade he projects to the world. If he has some hidden emotional scars and secret flaws that we’re going to learn about, then great. But if he’s really that vanilla, then, sorry. No. Prince Charming was already written centuries ago. Don’t plagiarize. Create someone new.

Stephen King says: I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.

The great writers create characters we can relate to, characters we sympathize with, characters we like and root for. Only once we’ve bonded with them will the writer turn their worlds upside down. But we’ll be hooked from that first word, because that character isn’t perfect.

He’s just perfectly suited for the world the writer has created.

The Power of Deep POV

The Power of Deep POV

Point of ViewPeople often speak about point of view in fiction. Omniscient, first, second, and third. We’ll talk about each briefly, then get into the meat of the matter.

Omniscient Point of View

This POV has fallen out of favor with the modern reader. Think “God” when you think of this POV. This is the voice that knows everything—every character’s thought. Every motive, every action. All the evidence, all the results. It kind of takes all the fun out of reading the story. There are benefits to it, sure, but more often than not, writers use it because it lets them be lazy. It’s a lot easier to switch to Larry’s POV to show he’s injured at the bottom of the Grand Canyon than to have Kathy figure it out from her kitchen in Hoboken.

First Person POV

This is the “I” point of view. The story is told from one person—me. This narrator can be reliable or not, that’s up to the author. But the pronouns are always first person. Be careful not to overuse them. While many people will argue that this is the easiest form of fiction to write (because this is how we naturally think), it’s also the easiest to abuse. These pronouns pop up like weeds because we can’t always easily substitute proper nouns in their place.

Second Person POV

This is the “you” point of view, most often seen in instruction manuals. These days, video games and adventure books use it. It doesn’t lend its form easily to traditional fiction, but it has been adapted by some of the masters in powerful ways—Tolstoy, Atwood, Faulkner, Camus, Hawthorne, McInerney, Calvino… the list is longer than you would think. This is a difficult form to pull off, but one worth exploring as a fun and challenging exercise.

Third Person POV

This is the “him/her/them” or the “he/she/they” point of view. There are two sub-types of this POV:

Third Person Limited

This is where you follow only one character throughout the story. You can only know/see/think/feel/experience the storyworld through that character.

Third Person Multiple

This is where you follow more than one character throughout the story. It is best to limit yourself to maybe two main characters (say a male and female romantic couple) or in a mystery or thriller or horror, perhaps no more than five people, just a core group. If your cast gets too big, it can get difficult for you as the author to make their voices all different. You also don’t want to make it difficult for your readers to keep track of all the characters.


Okay, you’ve chosen your point of view. You’ve outlined your plot, created your character bible. You know what you want to say and you’re ready to say it. Now what?

Time to write. Right? Right.

It doesn’t matter what point of view you’ve chosen, what matters is how deep you get into it.

The whole benefit to deep POV is that the author becomes the character, and consequently, the reader becomes the character. In order to do that, the ubiquitous “show, don’t tell” comes into play.

Let’s look at the following examples. (Please note, these examples will be simple for effect.)

First Person POV

Original:

I felt my heart race.

Revised:

My heart raced.

Third Person POV

Original:

She felt her heart race.

Revised:

Her heart raced.

The point of these simple sentences is to show you the difference a few simple words can make. In the originals, the use of the word “felt” lends a distance to the sentences. It brings the reader out of the head of the character, keeps them from experiencing the storyworld first-hand. Instead of the reader’s heart racing right along with the character, the reader is pushed out of the story and told that the character’s heart raced. The character doesn’t even get to experience it real-time.

In the revised sentences, the removal of the barrier word brings the reader back into the story. Now we’re showing, not telling, so we’re experiencing everything in the moment. The storyworld is opened to the reader. There is no more disconnect, no more separation between reader and character.

So you see, deep POV can make all the difference between a reader feeling like she’s being told a story and feeling like she’s living your story. Take the time to gouge out those extra fluff words that are doing nothing but creating barriers, and you’ll be crafting a tighter, stronger piece of fiction.

 

 

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