To tell a compelling story…

Archive for the ‘Process’ Category

You know those t-shirts you can get online with the cutesy slogans, like “Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel” and “I hear imaginary people” or this one, my personal favorite, “Kicking adverbs and takin’ names”? I was exploring Cafe Press today and found this one: “Oh, this is SO going in my next novel” and BOOM!

Inspiration.

Sure, all these T-shirt and coffee mug slogans are fun because there’s some truth in them. Maybe they coax a little chuckle out of us. But this one… oh, this one just grabbed me by the heart and squeezed. What writer HASN’T looked to real life and *clears throat* adapted certain moments to further a plot or play 20 Rhetorical Questions?

What’s funny about this is I didn’t realize how often I do this, how deeply the habit is ingrained in me, until I saw the damn T-shirt. My first conscious recollection of using a real world situation in one of my stories goes back several years, when I was teaching software use. I worked with the world’s most obnoxious consultant. Arrogant. Disrespectful. I so despised this man, I made him a character and then killed him in a novel I never did finish.

But more often, it’s a half-conscious activity, something I do to pass the time while running errands, or waiting on lines. Here are some examples of where my mind goes.

Um. Consider yourselves warned:

A Tattoo on a Throat

While shopping at a Kohl’s department store, saw a college-aged girl with a tattoo on her throat, not her neck, but her throat – the part that’s horizontal when you hold your head level. I couldn’t quite make out the design, but that didn’t interest me. What interested me was why she placed it there. Why not a tramp stamp? Why not put a tattoo on the ankle? What, specifically, about the throat held so much meaning for her, she needed to forever mark it? I live on eastern Long Island and residents here are anxiously following breaking news as police unearthed eight bodies from a desolate stretch of beach. The suspected serial killer is now being called The Long Island Ripper. With the latest news on my mind and then seeing this tattoo on a young girl, my mind spun a back story for her. She was the one who got away. He chased her. He slashed her. But she refused to just lie down and die and fought back. Got away. She got a tattoo of a four-leaf clover to cover the scar his blade left, but also to remind herself how lucky she was.

I have no idea what the true story is. I suppose I could have asked her, but where’s the fun in that?

The Day Job – always a source of amusement

Working in a cubicle environment is kind of like marriage…  except without the benefits. Colleagues sit within ten feet of each other, subjected to whatever we are each enduring at the moment – a bad case of bronchitis, last night’s White Castle belly bombs, dubious taste in music we listen to sans headphones, and of course, our voices. Nothing makes me more homicidal than being forced to listen to a conference call THAT I DID NOT NEED TO.

On the plus side, shamelessly eavesdropping on coworkers’ conversations should keep my back story coffers quite full. Last week, one colleague went home to discover his wife bought a dog without telling him. That got me thinking about a hero who might be a total type A personality, a real workaholic, whose high profile job required so many late nights, his poor wife bought a dog, named it after him, and cuddled up with the dog at night, crying in frustration as the perfect life she’d envisioned with Mr. Type A evaporates.

Another coworker was telling me about an argument she’d had with her husband. He’d picked the children up from school and didn’t notice they had no coats. Monday morning comes and in the rush to get out the door on time, tempers flared when coats could not be found. That’s when the kids mentioned they’d left them in class. My coworker asked, “What kind of father does not notice his kids are coatless in the middle of March?”

This story led me down a whole meandering path. I started imagining a single dad, one trying to do the best he can, but so overwhelmed by the burden, he overlooks the details. I thought of a scene in which his little boy tries to make him breakfast. There are Cheerios and puddles of milk all over the floor. This dad has to be at work by 8, drop Junior off at day care but that doesn’t open until 7:30 and now he has to mop up enough cereal to feed a small country. He doesn’t notice the light go out in the little guy’s eyes… at least, not right away. When he does, he calls in sick and the two watch cartoons and build a tent out of blankets.

There are so many stories out there. What real-life situation is going in your next novel?

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This weekend, I had the incredible privilege of meeting author Eloisa James at my local RWA chapter meeting. As she spoke, my mind wandered – not in an Oh-not-another-boring-meeting way- but in a synapses-firing-at-warp-speed way. Eloisa admits she is a pantser not a plotter but likes to truly know her characters before she starts a story. Listening to her as well as the members sitting near me reminded me of a blog post (forgive me, I can’t remember whose) where we’d discussed ways to know your characters. I’d posted a comment about one technique I use to get to know my characters: I take them shopping.

Shopping tells you a lot about a person. Does your hero favor designer labels over knock-offs or simply doesn’t care if his clothes come from Armani or Costco? Does your heroine scour the clearance racks or spend outside her budget on whims? How do they manage long lines and crowded parking lots? Are they rude to store employees?

My two teenage sons would prefer to peel the skin off their bodies with a butter knife than go shopping with me. They’re content with any pair of jeans as long as they’re not Rap brands. (Since I twitch and shake when I see a guy with droopy-drawer jeans on, this makes me very happy.) They don’t care much for status labels, either. In many ways, this makes my life easy but since I frequently have to shop alone and return stuff later, it can also be inconvenient.

I jotted down all the ideas I had:

Put him on stage

Is your character comfortable in the spotlight or would he prefer to borrow the butter knife from my sons? Perhaps it’s not a stage but a business presentation. Does your heroine avoid public speaking, practice in front of a mirror for days, or just wing her presentation? Maybe it’s a swanky cocktail party. Does your hero hold up the walls or mingle? Does he work the room or is he busy plotting his early exit? Maybe it’s a speech at school for your YA characters. Gah!

Send them to therapy

What are the deep, dark secrets that haunt your characters? You know, the things that would come up in therapy, like parents that never understood her or expected too much. Did he witness a crime when he was a toddler that still causes flashbacks? Does she have any phobias like Triskaidekaphobia?

Work these into your plot.

Run the numbers

During a break in Eloisa’s speech, one of our members suggested numerology. Take your character’s name and visit a website like this. It may interest you to know that my full name, Patricia Ann Blount, totals 73 and that my soul urge number is 3. Here’s what the site has to say about that:

Word skills may be your thing; speaking, writing, (Hello!) acting, singing. In a positive sense, the 3 energy is friendly, outgoing and always very social.

Most of it is true for me, except the singing part. Dogs howl when I sing. Ears bleed. It’s …not pretty. Use numerology or astrology to gather traits for your characters. You could even use the meanings of names to guide you. I did this in SEND when my MC had to change his name. He chose Daniel because it means God is my judge.

Suffer the bureaucracy

How would your hero fare in line at your local motor vehicles department? What about navigating one of those automated phone systems that have him pressing 1 incessantly? Even the most patient people I know are frustrated by these experiences.

Load up the straws

Ever have a week or month where things go horribly, insanely awry? Not just a bad day, but a continuous string of bad, unexpected and bizarre things? Brakes go one fire on one car just as your spouse takes the other car for the day. Imagine the last time you experienced a period of extended bad luck and put your characters in the same situation. What’s the melt down like? My melt downs involve tears and chocolate. My husband’s involve colorful language and flying objects and credit card bills to replace the things that broke as he flung them across a room. My mother’s were rants accompanied by slamming doors.

Give them the flu

If you have children, think about how they behave when they’re sick. My sons only wanted to be held when they were little. All day. By me and nobody else. Now that they’re teens, they just stay in bed and sleep. There’s a commercial currently on TV that pokes fun at the “man cold” but my point is, you never really know someone until you have to care for them when they’re sick.

Live together

You know the old adage you never know someone until you have to live with them? Imagine your MCs as room mates. Does he leave the toilet seat up and toothpaste globs in the sink? Does she hang panties and bras on the shower rod and spend all her spare money on tabloids? Perhaps she NEVER eats at the table, but only in front of the TV? Does she get up early or stay up late? Does he hog the covers in bed? Can he operate the lawn mower or does he hire someone to keep the grass mowed?

Take a peek inside the bathroom. Does she keep her cosmetics and feminine products scattered on every available surface or hide them neatly away? Is his toe fungus cream sitting on the toilet tank lid?

Armed with a list of traits and characteristics, look for places where conflict can be introduced. Perhaps you’ve discovered your MC is like my sons – he ABHORS shopping, but falls for a woman who is a buyer for a major designer, or owns an antique shop. Or, make the conflict internal – the character who hates to shop must now do so regularly for an ill parent.

Use Eloisa’s Character Bible suggestion to keep it all straight. And then, get to work.


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Hi! Welcome to my blog. I’m Patty.

I'm a writer represented by Denise Little, The Ethan Ellenberg Agency. I love to tell stories, to boast about my sons, to indulge in a serious chocolate obsession. (I often combine these passions.)

During the day, I write software user guides, but at night, I let my hair down... and write whatever I want. (I know. You expected something else. Sorry.) I'm currently working on a YA story about sexting gone horribly bad called SEND. I use this blog to explore my passions.

Contact me at pattyblount3 at gmail dot com.

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