Community-An Aspect of Setting or Character?

As we all know, setting is an essential element of story-telling. In fact, in Chris Roerden’s “Don’t Murder Your Mystery” she notes that “[w]e humans have a primal need to orient ourselves in our surroundings. Studies have shown that rats that are kept in entirely undifferentiated surroundings become psychotic in a matter of days.1 Unfortunately (for me and my readers), I am not as skilled with descriptions of setting as I would like to be.

My series, The Letty Whittaker 12 Step Mysteries, takes place in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin—a beautiful scenic town that was chosen in 1997 by Time magazine as one of America’s top ten small towns. It’s a pretty place. There are authors who would certainly do justice to its charm and unique north-midwestern style. I’d love to be able to bring a setting to life the way William Kent Krueger does for Minnesota’s Iron Range.2

However, one aspect of setting that I find comes more naturally to my writing style is that of community. When I was pondering what to write for this post, it occurred to me that much of my book is based on the communities that Letty is immersed in. All of us—unless we’re living in a remote Montana cabin proofreading our manifesto—are a part of some community, usually several—family, neighborhoods, work, church, friendship circles, special interest groups such as writers’ organizations, or political affiliations. The list is endless. Heck,  even blogs, if we are regular contributors or commentators, are a community.

There is an obvious connection between communities and settings. Setting descriptions are a way of orienting the reader to the character’s world. Unless the character is working in a vacuum, her communities are going to come into play when describing her life and the external surroundings.

For instance, Letty is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous—a fairly insular group—and one of the “hooks” in my series is to open the world of AA to the curious. In fact, each book is thematically structured on one or two of AA’s 12 Steps. I wanted readers who haven’t “sat around the tables” to feel what it’s like to walk into a (typically) shabby old building where everybody knows your deepest secrets and it feels as though you’ve just come home even though the coffee is atrocious and the person sitting next to you has disgusting B.O.3 I also wanted readers who have been to AA to say, “Yeah, that’s what it’s like.” Needless to say, AA is highly significant to my story. As Roerden points out, “In some fiction, setting plays a role as significant as that of a character.” It was in this context that I then considered community as a technique for developing character.

After all, the communities our characters belong to tell readers a great deal about them. Is your character a reluctant member, forced to participate in a community because it’s a necessary evil? Harry Bosch of Michael Connelly’s thriller series comes to mind. He’d much rather be on his own but the guy’s gotta make a living. Lee Child went even further with Jack Reacher. Or perhaps your character is a hearty enthusiast, someone whose personality makes him or her a “joiner”? Something like Claire O’Donohue’s Someday Quilts series where the quilters group solves murders in between stitches. Where our characters feel at home is highly descriptive and is as much a part of his or her personality as how he dresses or what sports she follows.

Another aspect of character development is the need to bring alive the characters and relationships within the community that our characters interact with. After all, a community is empty of meaning without people.4 As writers, we’ll have to examine how those personalities fit into the whole of the community, and what relationships with them says about the main characters. Communities provide oodles of secondary or tertiary characters that add depth and “flavor” to our story.

But there is a larger consideration than the individual members.

When we’re speaking about communities we aren’t referring merely to individuals—isolated and distinct—but to the unique entity that is born when its members identify with each other and decide to belong to the entity. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” to steal from Aristotle. We could argue “greater than,” but let’s not quibble. My point is that the whole is separate from its parts.

What’s amazing to me (and to community psychologists) 5 is that this “whole” can essentially become a new, distinct character. As such, a community has a personality, if you will, and therefore requires as much thought as any other character. Communities have certain norms, mores, belief systems, etc. that its members either adhere to or rebel against and that either invite or exclude non-members from entering. A community can put pressures on a character, can become an obstacle as in bureaucracies, the source of a threat, or, of course, a vast network of support and affection.

In my WIP,Letty has infiltrated an Armageddon-style cult in order to rescue a friend’s daughter who has disappeared in their midst. Part of what Letty is up against is the disconcerting reality of balancing the feelings she has for some of the individuals against her fears of them as members of a complex and potentially dangerous community.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the importance of community in their writing or reading.

1 I made that up.

2 Of course if I could do that it would negate the whole premise of this posting, wouldn’t it?

3 Well, maybe not with that much clarity.

4 Or sheep, if you’re Leonie Swan. Have you read “Three Bags Full”? Loved it!

Yes, there are such things. Why don’t you trust me?

Work-in-progress

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Find Your People

Recently, I glanced at some old journals and was surprised to see that I’d jotted down the basic premise of my first novel several times over the years. Clearly, I wanted to do it–I kept saying “write a novel about X.” So why did it take me fifteen years to begin?  I suspect it was because I didn’t have a creative writing community.

Sometimes, the most difficult thing about beginning a new project is feeling alone and/or uncertain about your efforts. If you are just starting to write novels seriously, you may not know about the wonderful opportunities out there for you: thanks to the magic of the interwebs, you can connect with people all over the world in a matter of minutes.

1. Find an organization devoted to your genre.  There are groups for mystery writers, romance writers, sci-fi writers, fantasy writers, children’s book writers, etc.  Just do internet searches to find what you are interested in. Check out their websites, get a sense of the vibe there, and join the ones that seem to fit your style.

(For mystery, I suggest Sisters in Crime and the subgroup, Guppies.  All kinds of benefits are associated with membership, including discussion groups, regular newsletters, online classes, critique opportunities, not to mention an instant community with the authors you are probably reading already!)

There are also general writer-based groups (not dependent on genre) online, of course.

Also check out the local groups in your area that offer activities. (For example, in Colorado, we have Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and Pikes Peak Writers, which have annual conferences as well as other events and classes.)

Here’s a useful list of writer associations.

2. Join NaNoWriMo. Once you sign up for that, you will begin to receive motivational emails and information on how to connect with the gazillion other people engaged in the business of writing.  And take the leap…give National Novel Writing Month and Camp NaNoWriMo a try.   You’ll be surprised at how exhilarating it is to be racing the clock with a whole tribe of writers doing the exact same thing.

3. Look for events to attend, both virtually and IRL. From one-day free workshops to week-long conferences, online seminars to ongoing critique groups, there are a wide range of things happening in the writerly world.  Attending them can give you a real boost in terms of knowledge, confidence, and community.

4. Follow authors you admire on Twitter or Facebook.  See what they reference in terms of resources–chances are, they’re plugged into some kind of community from which you might benefit.

5. Read blogs by writers, editors, agents, and publishers–and participate in the conversations.   (You are always welcome here, of course.  We love when people talk to us.)

6. Be like the illustrious Inklings and the Detection Club: start your own group (although it’s hard to imagine, they were earnest newbies too at some point).

No matter what, don’t be shy.  Jump in.  You’ll be amazed at how much a sense of community can motivate and sustain you.

(Writers, what else would you suggest?  How did you find Your People?)

The Beginning: Filling the Fridge

Hearing other writers talk about the craft is supremely interesting to me, mostly because I feel like I’m so bad at it.

Okay, maybe not bad, but when talking about my writing process, I usually clam up. And when pressed, I end up using post-game interview type of description, except rather than a basketball player saying “It just bounced in,” about a game-winning shot, my genius assessment of my writing is typically, “I just wrote it.”

So, when I hear things like the fantastic analogy Hank Phillippi Ryan shared during a speech at the Kansas City Public Library, I white-knuckle it until it becomes mine to share, too.

Hank, while giving a really excellent speech on her writing career, process and the industry in general, mentioned a bit of explanation for mystery and thriller writing that she gleaned from Lee Child, he of the Jack Reacher empire.

And it happened to be about beginnings, as how they relate to endings.

Basically, the analogy was this: Whether you are a pantser or a plotter, the first half of the novel is akin to filling the fridge with all sorts of ingredients. Then, for the second half of the novel, you make dinner.

You take all those ingredients—the red herrings, the coincidences, the unexplained bits, the evidence—and bring them together until they have combined into such a delicious concoction, it is a full and satisfying experience.

As a longtime food writer, I absolutely love this analogy.

I love going to the farmers’ market and our co-op, buying the prettiest and freshest ingredients, and working to make the best meal I can out of the sum of what I’ve purchased.

But what I love even more is looking at everything I’ve set up for myself during the first half of any of my manuscripts—the relationships, seeming non sequiturs, clues (big and small)—and piecing them together until every little ingredient has been used.

What’s your favorite ingredient to add to your fridge at the beginning of a project?

Interview: Kris Bock

Please welcome Kris Bock, author of novels for adults and children alike.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I’d wake up early, but not to an alarm, and make breakfast with my husband. (We have an excellent French toast recipe.) Then some kind of outdoor activity, like hiking or rock climbing, maybe with a couple of good friends. That builds up an excellecounterfeitsnt appetite, so we can stop for lunch on the way home. I’ll be pretty worn out then, so a quiet evening of reading or watching a movie with my husband would make a good end to the day. Maybe we’d wander outside to look at the stars. We live in a small town, so there aren’t many lights, and the high altitude means thin air so you can often see the band of the Milky Way. If there are shooting stars, even better!

Of course, a day where I don’t have to do anything but work on a novel is also perfect in its own way. Usually I have too many other jobs to only focus on fiction.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I almost always wear jeans in public (or shorts in hot weather), even someplace “dressier,” like a writing conference. I figure people think of me as the outdoorsy New Mexican, so it works. My favorite color is blue. I have several dragonfly or butterfly pendants, gifts from my husband. When I go to conferences, I wear blue tops and one of those pendants most days. I figure that you meet so many people, it can be hard to remember anyone, so maybe the color and jewelry will help as a memory trigger. Plus, if I get shy or nervous, having a gift from my sweetie helps.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
I can’t answer that question exactly, but I can tell you about experiences that inspired or influenced me. My family lived in Saudi Arabia when I was in grade school, and we visited a lot of other countries. I learned that not everyone lives, works, plays, and thinks like my family did. I think that gave me empathy, along with curiosity about other people and cultures.

I originally went to college to study photography. I learned that I didn’t want to be a visual artist, but I also learned a lot about creativity. Plus, I learned how to critique and how to take a critique, which are valuable skills for a writer. And finally, I wrote for the school paper, which got me interested in journalism.

I went back to school to study writing and publishing, but I was still focused on nonfiction. I took several creative writing classes, which I enjoyed, but I can’t say that one of them inspired me more than the others. After graduation, I started writing a novel mainly as something fun to do between temp jobs and looking for full-time work. Who knows, if I’d gotten a full-time job with a magazine earlier, I might never have written a novel!

Do you listen to music when you write?
I’ll put on music when I’m tidying my office, or cleaning house or exercising, but not while writing. It’s too distracting.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Mayan cocoa, spicy and exotic but still tasty and comforting. Counterfeits, like all my romantic suspense novels, is set in the Southwest, and we do like our chile (not to be confused with chili). Specifically, Counterfeits is set in the small town of Jemez Springs and the surrounding wilderness, and I hope it captures some of what makes New Mexico special. My books have tense action scenes, but you can count on a happy ending, too. I try to make my novels “comfort reads” with a little extra kick.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I’ve been at many writing retreats at a music camp near Jemez Springs, and that inspired the children’s art camp which the heroine inherits in my book. I hiked in the surrounding area and took photos and notes to capture the setting. The remote location provides for excellent action scenes and complications like limited cell phone service. I made it an art camp because I felt I could capture an artist’s persona after my time at Rhode Island School of Design.

I also wanted to write a linked trilogy, so the heroine’s two friends will feature in the next two books. So far my romantic suspense novels have been standalones, so it was fun and challenging developing a larger world for Counterfeits.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I think all writers write about characters who never give up – otherwise, you wouldn’t have a very long book. I also tend to write about the need to make your own choices and act on them. For example, my first published novel was a historical drama for children, The Well of Sacrifice (written as Chris Eboch). The heroine, a 12-year-old Mayan girl, fights the high priest who is trying to sacrifice anyone who stands in his way. She learns that she can’t count on the government, the gods, or her family to fix things – she must make her own choices and act on her beliefs.

In Counterfeits, Jenny’s dilemma is more personal. She’s been struggling to “make it” in the New York art world for a decade. When she inherits her grandmother’s art camp for children, she’s given the option of moving back to New Mexico to run the business with her two best friends and her love interest. But can she give up her dreams of fame and fortune? Which dreams fit her now?

I don’t consciously put those themes into every book, but when I look back, they’re often there. In What We Found, the heroine stumbles on a dead body in the woods. The man she’s with doesn’t want to tell anyone, to avoid police attention. Audra must decide where her loyalties lie, and when she chooses to tell the police, a lot of people aren’t happy. But she feels an obligation to the dead woman, and that choice leads her on a personal journey.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her to be the person she is today?
Jenny tends to make a decision and stick to it. While this determination can be a good thing, it also means she has trouble changing direction, even when she should. Her parents divorced when she was young, and her father then dropped in and out of her life, full of big dreams and plans that somehow never came to fruition. By dreaming big and working hard toward her dreams, Jenny may be both trying to please her father and trying to be different from him. She won’t be truly happy until she can separate his influence from her own desires.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
First, Georgia O’Keeffe, a painter who searched for inspiration and peace in New Mexico. Next, Milton Hershey – that may sound a bit odd, but I wrote a children’s book about him, so I know a lot about his life. He was very determined and kept trying despite repeated failures. Plus, like Jenny, his father was a dreamer who tended to screw up everything. And finally, Jo from Little Women. Kind of a loner, kind of a caretaker, she did what had to be done but it took her a while to find the right path for herself.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
The first of these write romantic suspense more than mystery, but I’d like to meet Mary Stewart, Barbara Michaels, and Nora Roberts. Dorothy Gilman, because the Mrs. Pollifax mysteries were among my first favorite “grown-up” books. Tony Hillerman, who I met several times through an author’s lunch group in Albuquerque – lovely man. And my friend Robert Kresge, author of historical mysteries, because he’s a nice guy and easy to talk to. There are plenty of writers whose books I admire, but I don’t know if I’d enjoy their company, and I wouldn’t want meeting them to interfere with my appreciation for their work.

What’s next for you?
I need to plot out the next book in the art theft series that started with Counterfeits. (The books will be linked, but Counterfeits can stand alone.) I’m also planning to publish a middle grade novel about a boy who meets mysterious strangers camping in the woods. These projects must fit in around the work that pays the bills – nonfiction educational books, articles, paid critiques, and workshops.

***

Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. Counterfeits starts a new series about art theft. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. Rattled follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. Read excerpts at http://www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page. Chris Eboch novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; and The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure. Learn more at http://www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page.

http://www.krisbock.com
https://www.amazon.com/author/krisbock

http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4735592.Kris_Bock
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kris-Bock-Author-Page/174350342612332
https://twitter.com/kris_bock

Beginning — and beginning, and beginning

I suppose, like most authors, if you asked me “how long have you been writing?” I’d tell you I first put pen to paper in eighth grade. Because haven’t we all been writing since, oh, we were out of the cradle?

I wouldn’t be lying. I did first put pen to paper in eighth grade. And that was when I decided I was in love with the power of telling a story – a story that I created, that is. So in a sense, this is a beginning. The beginning of a pipe dream to one day be a published author.

But as I look back with an experienced, impartial eye, that was only the beginning of the dream. I knew very little about how to tell a story. Heck, I knew almost nothing! I only knew that I detested most of my schoolmates and this hobby of scribbling story lines (that were really very thinly veiled autobiography with a hefty dose of fantasy) was a good escape.

I carried that dream for, oh, fifteen years and did very little about it. After all, I had to grow up, go to college, get a “real” job, get married, have kids, yada, yada. You know, all those things we are “supposed to do.” But one night, I don’t know, somewhere around when my first child was born, I got a new beginning. I sat down and started to write a novel. A real novel, with a plot and everything. And characters. But I still didn’t know how to write, so after about ten chapters, I fizzled out.

And life intervened again. I had a second child. I got a new position at work. My kids went to school. My husband, then in the Army, shipped out for a 15-month deployment. The new job position didn’t turn out so well. Again, life interrupted the dream.

But, amazingly enough, I got a chance at a third beginning. I got fired. What to do? I had kids, a husband, a mortgage, a car payment, school tuition. I had to find a job, another day job, something. And then my husband said, “What about finishing that novel? How about taking the summer off and pursuing that dream?”

And that, my friends, was The Beginning (notice I capitalize that one). That was summer 2011. I took the summer off. I wrote the novel. I joined Sisters in Crime. I committed to learning about things like plot, and structure, and how to craft “real” characters – all that writerly stuff. I gave myself the opportunity to fall in love with the dream again. Except maybe this time, the dream could become reality.

In a way, it’s like starting a novel. My story starts here. No, wait – it starts here. Hold on, it really starts here.

The point is, sometimes what you think is the beginning, really isn’t. And that’s okay. Sometimes, you have to keep hammering away at it – the book, the dream, whatever – to find the real beginning. You’ll know the real beginning because it will be the one that pushes you forward and makes you keep on taking the next step in your journey.

I guess in that sense, 2013 was yet another beginning for me. It was the year I began to be a professional. I wrote every day. I revised, I took classes, I submitted. And — I got published (okay, the first publication credit was November 2012, but I’m sticking with 2013 as “the beginning of my professional fiction career”).

It took a long time to get to that beginning – longer than I care to think. But now, having begun, I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Because it was the right beginning. Any any writer can tell you, the right beginning is priceless.

So tell me – how many “beginnings” have you had?

The Power of a Makeover

One of my friends recently told me she felt she was in need of a makeover. She cut and colored her hair, sprung for the foundation for a new wardrobe, and even renovated her office. When she showed me a picture of herself post-changes, my reaction was, “you look completely different!” Which, I’m guessing, was the point.

My friend’s personal renovation got me thinking about our collective love of the makeover. Why is the concept of changing our appearance so attractive? Because when we change our appearance, we see something different in the mirror. We no longer see yesterday’s failures, but we can imagine tomorrow’s successes. For the briefest of moments, when we are literally faced with the shock of change, we are shaken out of our comfort zone into a world of possibilities.

Last year I left the company where I’ve worked for 17 years. A generous discount, a clothing allowance, and first choice of new sale items left me with the appropriate wardrobe for the job I was doing. But while leaving that career was an ending, it also represented the beginning of the rest of my life. Does that mean it’s time for me to makeover/renovate/shed my skin in order to embrace this new start? When I look in the mirror, I see the same person I saw 6 months ago. Is that who I am now?

Yes and no. Yes, I’m me. I’m the same person who loves the Go-Gos, owns all the Trixie Beldens, and is drawn to bright colors. But I’m not the person who was tied to the rules of a company anymore. If I wanted to, I could dye my hair blue, drink champagne with breakfast, and wear Moon Boots every day. But just because I can, does that mean I should?

So many of us are looking for our own new beginnings. Some of us are starting a new career. Some of us are retiring from one. Some of us are getting married/ divorced/ having children. Some of us are writing “Chapter One,” and some of us are writing “The End.” But wherever we are in life, we have a chance to look in the mirror and see the possibilities of the future.

And that is the power of a makeover.

Figuring out the Beginning in Your Novel

Sometimes as a writer, I don’t know the beginning of my novel until I’ve written the entire shebang.

That means that the first words I put down on paper are really only a place holder — a spot to put the thoughts in my head that will help me make my way to the novel’s true beginning.

My debut book is the perfect example of that.

My very first draft of my book, Blessed are the Dead, began with my character, Gabriella Giovanni, shopping at a colorful Bay Area Farmer’s Market, picking out basil and heirloom tomatoes and fresh bread so she could make a birthday dinner for her boyfriend that night.

She’s chatting with the local baker, practicing her Italian, when her cell phone rings. It’s her editor at the newspaper. There’s just been a murder-suicide and she needs to get on it, like, yesterday.

The next chapter shows Gabriella at this lovely Oakland Hills house overlooking a spectacular sunset falling on the San Francisco skyline below.  She’s eager for the story and is jostling with other reporters to get the scoop. Meanwhile, she’s had to call her boyfriend to cancel his birthday day. He’s ticked off.

Third chapter shows her running into the newsroom on deadline and scrambling to get the story when she hears something on the police scanner that changes her whole life.

So, where does my final version of my book (to be published this June by HarperCollins) start?

Chapter three. Right in the heart of the action.

The first chapter was easy to cut. It was a bit of a snore fest. I love to wander the local farmer’s market and pick out my dinner for that night. To me that environment is magical, but let’s face it, unless a car ploughs through the market striking bystanders and knocking out booths, that scene totally lacked any tension. There’s a bit of tension when the editor calls, but not much.

So, goodbye chapter one.

In my next version, I started with Gabriella trying to get the scoop on the murder-suicide. There’s more tension. My character has a goal, a want, a need, and an obstacle in her way. In addition, there is an added layer of tension because boyfriend is ticked off he’ll be eating his birthday dinner alone.

So, starting here was better — but still not right.

For fun, I decided to ditch this chapter completely. I didn’t know this until I was at the end of the novel. It wasn’t that the chapter was bad, it was just that by opening on that scene — the murder suicide — readers automatically expected it to be of importance in my novel. And it’s not.

So, good bye chapter two. Deleting this one was a bit more difficult than getting rid of the first chapter. I mean, I was really attached to that blazing sunset over the San Francisco Bay Area. Also, that meant I had to get rid of this great part where Giovanni’s badass photographer partner, Chris Lopez, climbed a pine tree to get a good shot.

But once I gave them the ax, I never looked back.

The novel starts at the beginning. Where it should start. It just took me a while to figure out where that was.