TIP # 8 – GET ANOTHER OPINION OR TWO
You’ve written your story. You’ve edited and edited it. You like the characters. The setting makes you feel as though you’re there. The plot keeps you turning the pages to see what happens next. You love the story.
But wait! Of course you love it. You’ve lived with these characters for weeks, months, even years. They’re like your children. Perfect. Now you need to get another opinion or two. And I don’t mean your husband, wife, children, sisters, brothers. Chances are they will tell you it’s the best story they’ve ever read. They have to live with you. You need someone who can look at your manuscript with an objective eye, see where there are plot holes, where you’ve repeated yourself, or left out a key ingredient. Where do you find such people?
CRITIQUE GROUPS: The members in the group I belong to say nice things about the manuscript, which is encouraging. They also point out things I’ve overlooked, places that need additional explaining, characters that need developing better, and scenes that contradict other scenes or just don’t make sense. If you live in an area like mine, isolated, with few writers around, Online groups are ideal. You can post your stories or chapters any time and see what they need to make them publishable in these competative days. Face-to0-face groups would be wonderful, if there happen to be some in your area. Check with your local SCBWI, if you’re a member for groups.
You may also know other writers, willing to read your manuscript. The main point is to let other eyes see your work before you send it off. You’ll be glad you did.
TIP # 7 – SETTING (Historical)
Your characters don’t live in a vacuum. They live somewhere. Your story idea might take place in the past. If so, you’ll want your setting to be as authentic as possible. We’ll talk about historical settings today. Next week, we’ll look at contemporary and then fantasy settings.
For an historical fiction story, you’ll likely need to do research. There are many ways to discover what life was like in earlier days. Use primary sources, such as diaries, letters, journals, interviews, first. For my Civil War novel, Caves, Cannons, and Crinolines, I visited Vicksburg, MS, and toured the historic homes, drove through the battlefield, explored the museum with its artifacts from the time period. I bought diaries, newspaper articles, and books written by the people who lived in Vicksburg during the siege, or by their descendants who related stories handed down to them. I talked to the curator of the museum and also to a little old woman whose grandparents survived the war. I watched videos of the battle, the hardships not only the army went through, but also the families.
Obviously, it isn’t always possible to travel to the site of your story. Your local library probably has a genealogy department and a historical department, as well as microfilm of old newlpapers. If not, they can usually get what you need through inter-library loan. My library had a great time ordering magazine articles for me for a biography I wrote. They enjoyed reading the information.
Check online museums. Military parks have books and maps you can order. The Internet is a great source of information, but be careful that you use primary sources whenever possible. Go to University Web sites and government sites. Be sure to note their sources and keep a copy in case you have to verify your information.
Talk to people who lived in the state or country, if possible. Phone them or meet them in person. Read books written in that particular time period to get the flavor of their language. Words today did not always mean what they did in the past. How did the people dress? What were their houses like? How did they cook?
Put the reader back in the time of your setting. They’ll relate to the characters and love your story.
TIP # 6 – DIALOGUE
Your characters talk. Yes, they do, in fiction. Even if your characters are the furry kind or have scales or wings, they usually have something to say. Kids like to read dialogue. They like to “hear” the characters talk to each other, the way they talk to their friends. So how can we as writers write dialogue that sounds natural?
First, we can listen to what people around us say. Have you ever really listened to a conversation between kids or teens or adults? Try it. Pay attention to the tone of a person’s voice. Is the voice whiney or pleasant to hear? Is the voice soft or screechy, firm or wishy-washy?
Second, what words does a character use? Age, of course, will make a difference in vocabulary. Also, education will determine a character’s choice of words. Boys who like sports would use a lot of sports’ terms. Where a person lives will influence her choice of words. Be careful, though, to avoid slang or language that might confuse the reader.
Third, does the character speak slowly, as if considering the meaning of every word. Or does she ramble on and on, running her words together in a rush to make her statement?
Dialogue tells us so much about the characters and also helps to move the story along.
Now if you’re writing nonfiction, you may not have dialogue. Then again, you may, if you use quotes from the person whose story you’re telling. The words you quote show the reader what kind of person your subject is.
So talk away, characters. Next time, we’ll look at the story problem. No problem, no story.
See you then.
TIP # 5 – DEVELOPING “REAL-LIFE” CHARACTERS
Computer troubles, allergy problems, and adjusting to DH’s health treatments have delayed my next tip. But hey, maybe they’ve helped me show how to develop “real-life” characters. In other words, the characters in your stories should have problems they have to deal with, too. If not, they won’t seem real to the reader. So how do we create three-dimensional people?
There is no right or wrong way, as long as your characters come to life on the page. Here are some things I do at times.
1. Make a character sketch for each of my characters. On a sheet of paper I list a description: eye color, hair color, size, etc. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes forget which character has blue eyes and which has green. It’s easier to look at a sheet telling this than having to skim through typed pages to find the answer.
I also describe how each character talks, favorite sayings they use, how they dress, habits, and stuff like that. In the beginning I may not know all of these things about every character, even my main character, so I add to this sketch as I learn more about my characters.
It’s also good to list what they love and what they hate. What their goals are and their attitudes about things like books, music, animals, etc. What are their positive traits, their negative? How do they grow during the course of the story?
People don’t exist in a vacuum, so you need to know a little about the main character and other major characters’ families. We are, to a degree, the product of our parents, for good or bad. How does the main character feel about her mom, her father, her siblings, if any? Who are her friends? What is her background? Does she have a lot of friends, or is she a loner? Again, I add to the character sketch as my main character reveals her personality to me.
2. Another thing I like to do is to interview my characters. I start with asking their name then go on to discuss their goals, their problems, their friends, and whatever comes to mind. It’s surprising what a character will tell me. Of course, as the story goes along, the character may change, and that’s good, because he’s becoming real. People change constantly.
3. With my current work-in-progress, I’m attempting something new. I’m having my protagonist and the three major characters keep journals, telling about their feelings, their actions, their fears, and their joys. I’m behind on this part of my writing, like I am on most things lately. But hopefully, when I catch up, or when they catch up on their journals, they’ll be telling me where each of them are going in the story.
So basically I’m saying our characters must have good points, but not be perfect. They must have faults, too, like “real” people. We must see their actions, whether we approve of what they do or not. We must hear their voices, whether we like what they say or not. We must be a part of their thoughts and inner turmoil, because they may have some of the same problems we do. Then we, the readers, will root for the characters, especially the protagonist who we can relate to, to succeed in reaching his/her goal or solving his/her problem.
What questions do you have about your characters? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to answer. Do you have a specific topic you’d like for me to discuss? If not, I’ll be back next week with Tip #6.
TIP # 4 – CHARACTERS
Where do you get your characters?
Sometimes a little voice whispers in my ear and tells me about his/her life. I usually ask him questions. For example, a boy once told me he lived in a doghouse. I asked him why, and we discussed his situation. Pretty soon I wrote his story, publication date TBA.
So listen to the voices in your head. They may be your next story.
I also discover my characters when reading a newspaper article or a magazine. As the old saying goes: “Life is stranger than fiction.” Sometimes it’s true. Look at the weird things real people do. A manuscript that I’m shopping around now started from a newspaper article about a young couple who found the son the mother had given up for adoption when he was born. I love happy endings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your story has to end the same way as the article ends. Use your own judgment. The story I wrote has a sort of happy ending.
So pay close attention to what’s happening in the world around you.
And what better place to find characters for your children’s stories than your own family: children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, students, neighbors, kids on the playground. (Of course, you can’t be a stalker, but you can observe the way kids play and interact with each other, the way they talk and dress.) Mix them up: take characteristics of one child and combine them with actions of another child and their attitudes and behavior patterns and develop a one-of-a-kind kid that young readers will love.
So pattern some of your characters after people you know. Be careful, though, to make them unique so your friends won’t recognize themselves.
These are just a few tips on where you can find characters to populate your stories. Where do you find your characters? We’d like to know.
The next tip will be on developing your characters so they seem like real people.
TIP # 3 – IDEAS
Some writers’ heads swim with ideas. They never run out, but have an abundance of stories or nonfiction articles to write. Other writers think everything’s been written. What’s left? They want something original, something that’s not been done before. Well, there may be no new plots or are there? Some books I’ve read are new to me. This doesn’t mean the idea is new, just that I haven’t read it before. You can take any idea and make it your own. Your voice, the way you tell the story, will make it unique. So where do you find these marvelous ideas?
Look around you. Your family is a treasure, their stories just waiting to be told. The funny things your cat does. Your loyal puppy. Your kids. Oh, my. Whether they’re toddlers or teens or somewhere in between, follow them through their day and you’ll have enough material for at least one book, perhaps more. Your kids’ friends. The skunk that visits your patio every night. The horse you raised from a foal. Your grandkids.
The weather. Have you survived a tornado, hurricane, earthquake, or fire?
For kids, there’s always the school situation. Popular kids, shy kids, awkward kids, and on and on. What is their school life like? How do they deal with it? Each child will face the same situation in a different way, depending on his/her personality. Boy/girl relationships, friendships.
Look at some of the popular movies today. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, High School Musical. What are the young people dealing with in these stories?
Historical (one of my favorites). What time period intrigues you? Check to see what other books are out set in this period then find your story. Research the facts to be sure they’re accurate. Then put your character in that setting. Research the language of the day, the clothing, the food they ate, the way they traveled, and anything to add a touch of authenticity to your book.
Basically, ideas are everywhere. Read the newspapers for interesting events in peoples’ lives. Read magazines. Go to places where kids/teens are and watch their interaction with each other, listen to them talk. What are they interested in? How do they dress?
Do you have other thoughts? Leave a comment, and I’ll get back to you.
Next time, we’ll look at our characters.
TIP # 2 WHAT TO WRITE
You’ve read and read, everything from picture books to chapter books, middle grade to young adult, fiction and nonfiction. Now you need to decide what type of book interests you most. That will probably be the kind you want to write. True, many writers do great in several genres and ages. Others prefer to stay with one type. If you aren’t sure at first, try different kinds.
If you simply adore picture books, the story, the artwork, then that may be what you choose to write. Maybe you like the more complicated plots of a story for teens. Then try writing for the young adult market. It may take awhile to discover what you enjoy writing the most. Or perhaps you’ll do good at all of them.
Writing is an individual activity. It’s yours and yours alone. So think about this until your’re ready to jot down ideas you might have. See where they take you. Are they ideas babies would like. Would toddlers find your puppy story fun? Would the early learner enjoy finding a bird nest in a most unusual place?
Next week, we’ll talk about ideas. Until then, keep reading and start thinking.
TIP # 1 READ.
First, remember that writing a story or article is a highly individual process. What works for me, may not work for you. But we all have some things in common: we love to write or we wouldn’t be doing it. We want to write the best stories and articles we can. We want our readers to enjoy our writing and take something from it that they may need in life. That said, here’s my first tip.
Ok! Ok! I hear you saying I know, I know. Everyone tells me to read. It’s true though. Read not only the genre you write in, but other types of stories and nonfiction too. Read for fun. Read to explore the different ways various writers put their stories together. How do they develop their characters? The setting? The plot? Why do you look forward to a particular author’s next book and the next?
Then look at your work-in-progress. Do you care about the main character? Or are you ho-hum about whether she succeeds or fails in reaching her goals? If you don’t care, the reader won’t care. Later, we’ll be looking at character development, settings, and grab-you-by-the-throat plots.
For now, READ.
Your comments and thoughts are welcome. After all, we’re in this together. We learn from each other.
May all your dreams come true.