Pamela is a portfolio manager at an educational assessment company by day, writer by night. Founder of Writers on Words (a discussion and critique group), Pamela enjoys spinning tales of murder and mayhem, with an occasional foray into the world of the paranormal.
I’m a bit under the weather, so today I’m sharing a few of my favorite things – this month’s favorite mystery, thriller/suspense, and paranormal series NOT written by current or former Mysteristas. Tell me yours in the comments!
Favorite Series – Mystery
J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts) – In Death
Agatha Christie – Miss Marple
Jana Deleon – Miss Fortune Mysteries
Carole Lawrence – Ian Hamilton Mysteries
Leighann Dobbs – Lady Katherine Regency Mysteries
Ellen Byron – Cajun Country Mysteries
Favorite Series – Thrillers/Suspense
Catherine Coulter – FBI Thrillers
Meg Gardiner – All of the them
Allison Brennan – Lucy Kincaid Novels
Kendra Elliot – Mercy Kilpatrick Series
Laurie R. King – Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes Series
Favorite Series – Paranormal Mystery/Romance
Patricia Briggs – Mercy Thompson Novels
Kristen Painter – Nocturne Falls
Lily Harper Hart – Ivy Morgan Mysteries, Harper Harlow Mysteries
Michelle M. Pillow/ Jana Deleon/ Kristen Painter/ Mandy M. Roth – Happily Everlasting Series
My favorite books are those that are part of a series. I adore the opportunity to get to know a character, following along as s/he grows and changes over the course of their adventures. In any story, the main character (or each core character) needs to be a fully formed, multi-faceted being in order to fully engage the reader. Readers are much more likely to invest in those characters that become almost real to them.
As they engage with the characters in the story, readers come to expect certain reactions, and may even become so bold (we hope) as to predict what the character might say or do or feel in response to a plot twist or challenge. The reader becomes a kind of participant as the story unfolds. But how do those wonderful characters come to exist? How does an author create a multi-dimensional, realistic, believable character?
It’s tempting to begin writing a story with the confidence (arrogance?!) that we know our characters because we created them, and therefore we don’t need to put any effort into getting to know them. But, this isn’t the case. In fact, without a thorough knowledge and understanding of the character, the detailed history and circumstances that surround him/her, it’s pretty difficult to write a character with believable reactions. A consistent voice, attitude, approach – all stay out of the author’s reach. Writing believable characters requires so much more than knowing the character’s physical description, occupation, or hobby.
How do we do that? By developing a character sketch! The character sketch captures in words as many of the facets of the character’s personality as possible, and allows the writer to maintain consistency of thought, behavior, and decision throughout the story. The level of detail may depend on the story (short, novel, series) and the author’s preference, and there are many kinds of character sketches, too. Here are a few different approaches:
Interview: The approach is simple – first, draft a list of questions that will elicit interesting information about the character(s). Next, visualize a morning show host (TV or radio, depending on my mood), sitting down with the character and performing the interview. With a critique partner, one person can ask the questions while the other focuses on developing the responses. Sometimes, unexpected things happen!
Eye Witness: This approach can’t stand alone, but it can be great for focusing on the visual/aural aspects of a character. For this one, imagine a law enforcement officer interviewing an eye-witness at the scene of an accident/incident/crime. Ask the witness the basic questions, such as eye/hair color, height/weight, clothing, voice, visual characteristics (such as tattoos, piercings, etc.), walking style, and so on. Taking this further, perform a “background check” on the character, accessing information that would be available to LEOs. Perhaps you’ll learn about the make/model of the character’s car, criminal and financial history, and so on. The good news is that you can bend the rules a lot in this imaginary setting! (No search warrant required.)
Biography: The approach here is a simple writing exercise; capture everything about your character, as though you’re writing a biography. Where did this character grow up? What’s the family make-up? Educational or work history? Influences on the character as a child, young person, adult? These can be as basic or as in-depth as you like.
When I’m working on a short story, my character sketches tend to be succinct, perhaps a page or less for the main character; I might not do one at all for the secondary characters. For a novel – especially if I’m considering a series – it’s helpful to invest more substantial effort in getting to know these characters. Some writers will write the equivalent of a short story for each of the core characters.
Regardless of length or approach, the goals are the same. Did you ever read a book, and you struggled to connect with the character or find him/her believable? It’s quite possible the writer simply didn’t know the character well enough to write the most complete, tightly woven, and engaging story that readers deserve. Writers want to know not only what their characters look and sound like, where they came from, and what they do, but how they think and feel. We want to know how this character is likely to react when we throw challenges their way.
By developing these details about our characters, we can write consistent, believable stories that draw the reader in and keep them engaged to the very last word.
Muses are rather like Great Pyrenees dogs: the more you try to bend them to your will, the more stubborn they become. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the missing muses. Great news! My muses are no longer missing. Instead, they’re being reticent. Or shy. Or. . .stubborn, and thus the comparison. The Great Pyrenees dog is bred to guard livestock. These dogs often live with their flocks or herds from puppy-hood onward, and they’re bred to think independently, to make decisions on how to protect their charges. These are the kind of dogs that, if you throw a tennis ball, they will give you a look that clearly says, “Why on earth would you throw that ball? Now someone has to go get it! Foolish human.” They will then lie down and wait for someone – a human – to get the ball. (For those unfamiliar with the breed – they look a bit like polar bears – click here for more info.)
Likewise, the more I tried to force some new ideas to appear, the higher my stress levels and frustration became, and the less present my muses became. They were not going to be forced into delivering great ideas, simply because I wanted them to do so. Clearly, a new approach was needed. Instead of writing, I read. In fact, you could say I binge-read short stories for the two weeks.
I’d forgotten how much I love reading short stories.
After the first week of reading, I noticed something delightful – I not only wanted to write, but was excited to write. Off I went to the closest Barnes and Noble, where I spent two glorious hours away from home and work and chores; after re-reading the story I’d been working on, it was obvious that it was long past time to write the protagonists’ back story. Hurray! I had a writing purpose, idea, and inspiration!
After an hour, I had a lovely character sketch drafted, and I’d learned some things about my character, Rachel. It was so much fun to dig into who she was and how she became the person I see. I’m anxious to do an interview with her next, which is a technique that author Gerry Boyle taught at a lovely conference called Maine Crime Wave a few years ago. Fantastic technique, and I don’t use it nearly often enough. (NOTE: If you haven’t read Gerry’s books, go – right now – and purchase or borrow one. I’ll wait. His books are that good!) With Rachel’s sketch fresh in my mind, I’m ready to jump back into the story, and begin layering in all sorts of delicious details.
Later, I went home and read more short stories. Now, ideas are buzzing around me like insects in a summer garden; whizzing and whirring and buzzing, my brain, like that garden, is full of wonderful energy again. The lesson, for me, is to remember that the writing comes from reading. If I don’t maintain a balance of reading great stories that inspire me as a writer, along with actual writing, I can get lost – and the Muses decide to play hide and seek. (My Great Pyrenees mix will watch, and wait for me to figure things out all over again.)
Lovely readers, where do you find inspiration – for writing or other creative pursuits?
Inspiration is an amazing thing. People will often attribute a great idea to this rather ambiguous, flexible concept. We attribute inspiration to a person, place, thing, or idea, and are content to leave it at that. The process is rather more complex and simple at the same time. We see or hear or feel something, and suddenly our synapses are firing and thoughts are tumbling and spinning, bumping into one another in some dark recess of the brain, and suddenly it happens: we are INSPIRED. Perhaps we throw our arms up in triumph, or perhaps we simply relax back in our chairs, grinning to ourselves; regardless, feeling inspired makes us feel successful, at least for a few moments.
But, when we are uninspired…things are not so pretty. Recently, I was joking with another Mysterista about how our muses had gone quiet. The silence deafening, the muses missing – and the writer (me) uninspired. This is different than writer’s block. While some will argue that there is no such thing, what we consider to be writer’s block is an inability to move from idea to text, or develop a solution to a problem (such as a plot hole), or to simply get started. It’s not usually a lack of ideas, but rather an inability or unwillingness to focus on the one thing that requires your attention. Writing is hard. Being critiqued is harder.
Lack of inspiration, however, is a different kettle of fish. I’ve been traveling lately, and away from home for three weekends in a row. My laundry is in baskets, my refrigerator is empty, and my mail is towering to a threatening height. As I sat down to write this blog last night (behind due to the aforementioned travel), I followed my usual process in my search for a great idea: re-read the past week’s entries and comments; skim Facebook writing-related pages; randomly Google search concepts and review the search results. The process has evolved over time, but I’ve found that following this process typically results in four or five ideas, and as I tinker, one of them begins to stand out as the topic that will become my blog post.
Not last night. Not this morning.
My muses are missing.
In both Greek, and later Roman, mythology, the Muses were nine goddesses who presided over the arts and literature (and the sciences, too). Daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, these women provided inspiration. They were water nymphs, which is just interesting all on its own. There are other legends and cultural beliefs that suggest there were only three muses, and of course there is much debate about the details. If we stick with our nine muses, one website expands: “There were nine Muses according to Hesiod, protecting a different art and being symbolised with a different item; Calliope (epic poetry – writing tablet), Clio (history – scroll), Euterpe (lyric poetry – aulos, a Greek flute), Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry – comic mask), Melpomene (tragedy – tragic mask), Terpsichore (dance – lyre), Erato (love poetry – cithara, a Greek type of lyre), Polyhymnia (sacred poetry – veil), and Urania (astronomy – globe and compass). On the other hand, Varro mentions that only three Muses exist: Melete (practice), Mneme (memory) and Aoide (song).”
Perhaps I need to be closer to water, and the water nymphs will visit? Regardless, I remain uninspired. I suspect that my brain is trying to tell me that I’m tired, and that I need to stop thinking for a bit, but I could be wrong.
So, readers – how shall we solve the Case of the Missing Muses? Do you have a favorite source of inspiration, a never-fail approach? I’d love to hear about it!
If all has gone according to plan – which, if you only knew what I know, you’d know that this is unlikely – I’m currently exploring the wonders of Disney’s Animal Kingdom as you read this post. In theory, my family already has enjoyed the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, and we’re at the last of the three parks we’ll be visiting during this trip.
I’m cautiously optimistic.
You see, that lovely storm from Tuesday? Yeah – it caused cancelled flights (for Wednesday), a mad dash of rescheduling flights, hotel, dinner reservations, fast passes, pet/house sitter, and…well, you get the idea. Mother Nature and I are not friends right now.
This will be the first time our family has visited Disney together, and my husband’s first time as an adult. While it’s not our typical vacation (we lean toward tropical locales with fantastic reefs for scuba diving and snorkeling, and lots of beach lounging and boat rides), we’re pretty excited. We’ve very deliberately limited our activities and time, in hopes of keeping the typical vacation stress to a minimum. The weather in Florida is looking sunny and warm, and what’s not to love about the Mouse?
In addition to the sights, sounds, shows, and crazy rides that magically combine (see what I did there? magic?) into a wonderful vacation experience, there are people. LOTS of people. And while I despise crowds (you’re wondering at my destination choice, right?), I also recognize that crowds, especially at a venue such as Disney, create a virtual smorgasbord of character potential.
People watching is one of my favorite hobbies, and where better to see the happy, sad, frustrated, annoyed, overwhelmed, and joyous than an amusement park? Especially THE amusement park? It will be hot, there are lines everywhere, lots of black asphalt and little shade or seating – it’s the opposite of those malls where they pipe in the scent of chocolate and the soothing lullaby of good classical music (or whatever music encourages spending). This is the perfect place to watch how folks behave when challenged by a variety of conditions. Which ones flush and sweat, and which ones look fresh? Who is snippy and rude, and who is kind to the children jostling in line? How does the overwhelmed parent with the cranky toddler fighting the stroller – and a nap – respond?
We all have our ideas on what responses to various situations look and sound like, but we imagine them through the filters of our own life experience. Opportunities like this force us to see without those filters, and perhaps see something new or different. While I’m excited to ride Space Mountain and explore the Haunted Mansion, I’m also eagerly anticipating the wealth of experiences and emotions I can capture as I observe my fellow park-goers.
Although sadly ignored, I have another blog out there, and the tagline is “Write. Read. Revise. Repeat.” The simplicity of the words combined with the staccato beats of the periods speaks to me, although I couldn’t tell you why. Perhaps the key is that these words are so simple, so direct when used this way, that its impossible to misunderstand what I have to do.
Yesterday was a read day. A dear friend and member of my writers’ group has begun splitting her time between New England and Florida. She was in town for a few weeks, and I was thrilled to see her in person last week during our critique session (we’ve been calling her so she can still join us, but it’s not really the same). This week we met for some writing time, just the two of us.
As much as writing is a solitary exercise, there’s something special about sharing that solitary exercise with a kindred spirit. I’m doing the writing on my own, and yet sharing my space with someone doing the same thing. I’ve found that joint writing time keeps me focused, as I don’t stray onto the internet, and I’m away from home so I’m not tempted to do those pesky chores instead of wrestle my plot into submission.
For me, the writing process includes the “read” and “revise” parts, so when I say we had a writing session, it can include those other activities. Today’s reading exercise provided a much needed confidence boost. While I try to plow forward and not let myself become sidelined by wordsmithing rather than finishing the story, sometimes I get distracted or stumped, and lose confidence in the tale I’m spinning. When I go back to the beginning and read what I’ve written, I can find myself pleasantly surprised, or at least reminded that yes, there’s a good story developing!
Of course, within the first twelve pages I captured at least fifteen notes: plot holes, missing details, or areas where I need to expand when I get to that revise state. For instance, I never explain or describe what the main character is wearing in the first chapter, nor do I capture the time of year. (Oops.) Is an armed alarm shown by a green light or a red? But, the reading step is most often energizing for me. I get excited about the story all over again, even when noting things that need to improve.
Sometimes, those notes turn into exciting side-topics to research, too. Today, I realized that I have a safe house with no discernible floor plan, and what I’ve described doesn’t make sense. While the actual floor plan won’t be in the book, as the writer, I need to be able visualize this space, well and clearly. Some rainy day I’ll be working with Mr. Google, finding just the right former gate/carriage house-turned-guest cottage for this story, and I’ll save the floor plans to my Pinterest site. (If you happen to live in one of these, let me know.)
I’m back to writing now. The good news is, I’ve fallen in love with this story all over again, and I can’t wait to write what happens next. Hopefully, someday, y’all will get to pick up your own copy of this story in a local bookstore to read!
In January, several of us discussed the concept of the bullet journaling, and giving it a try. I think I’m finally ready to begin the actual journal part. But I thought I’d share what I’ve done so far – you know, so it looks like I’ve made progress. Because I have. Sort of. I think.
The first step was to recognize that I’d lost all semblance of organization. Prior to the birth of my daughter, I was THAT person. The one that sent a card for every birthday and anniversary. The one who never forgot to RSVP. The one who had her calendar memorized, who threw showers and parties for all occasions. The one who shopped year round, and had holiday gifts handled by October (if not earlier). But then, I had a baby, just after building a house and losing my job. Life became. . .chaotic. After a few years of on-going life changes, my daughter got older, began school, and suddenly I was trying to organize me, as well as our whole family. It took me a few years to realize that I couldn’t do what I used to do, because my life was different (yes, it took years to realize why I couldn’t get it together, but I was perpetually tired – my kid STILL doesn’t sleep well, and she’s a teenager now).
I finally reached a place where I decided to talk greater control of the chaos, and having tripped over the bullet journal concept, decided to give it a try. I visited the official site and explored. Next, I meandered over to Pinterest and did a bit of surfing. There are some excellent pages, full of tips and tricks and lessons learned.
My favorite provided not only visual and textual guidance, but recommendations on products. (At this point, I would like to state: What’s not to love about an organizational approach that requires OFFICE SUPPLY shopping?!? “Select a journal,” the site says. One? I can only choose one?! ) I tried to exhibit a bit of self-control, and purchased the recommended product, which was a budget-friendly, basic journal. It has lined pages, a flexible cover, and is a handbag or briefcase-friendly size.
I love pens, doodling, and color-coding, so I did have to order some special pens. Back to my favorite bujo blog, and then to Amazon. Did you know, you can not only buy journals and pens, but also templates to help you make all those fancy designs shown on the bujo blogs? Post-it notes sized just for the most common bujo sizes?! Stickers? Good heavens.
My self-control dipped for a bit, but I managed to remember that I had a budget to follow. I purchased a reasonably priced set of pens, and a small set of templates. Nothing else! (Promise.)
The journal arrived quickly (thank you, two-day shipping). The pens and templates arrived not long after.
But then, then. . .I got stuck. Everything I read said I should expect to make mistakes, and might even want to consider using a practice journal until I figured out what I did and didn’t like. Much like a prefer to paint without taping, because taping is too much work, I wasn’t a fan of this idea of a practice journal. But, I also hate making mistakes. *sigh* I decided that the best thing to do was, of course, more research.
Before that, however, I stumbled into the local Barnes and Noble. In our local store, the beautiful, pretty, lovely journals are right near the front, nearly impossible to ignore. Yes, dear readers, I did it – I bought another journal. Actually, two. One is for work, I promise.
THEN I went home, and found some helpful videos by Carrie Christie on YouTube to help me actually get started. I’m ready to go, and as soon as I publish this post, I’ll crack open one of these journals, those shiny new pens, and drop some ink on the page.
*For those of you who are paying attention, there are indeed four journals pictured, even though I only wrote about three. Shh! I snuck one in somewhere.