Thursday, April 30, 2009

Characters---How much information is too much?

This is never an easy question for writers who fall in love with their characters, who turn them into real people in character-driven novels. (Of course, in the plot-driven novel, the characters are sometimes little more than game pieces to be moved about at the author's whim.)

If you're writing the character-driven novel, the temptation will be to put in every single loving detail you've crafted. Before you do, though, ask yourself how important it is for your readers to know that the protagonist only uses peppermint-flavored toothpaste and won't abide spearmint, that he only shops on alternate Thursdays (unless it works into the plot), or that his aunt's second cousin twice removed is flying to Europe (unless the cousin is part of the plot).

The trick with writing, whether it be novels or short stories (but especially in short stories), is to know what to leave out. There's no easy way to know what is too much information, but here's a simple rule of thumb:
If it isn't moving the story forward, it can probably be cut.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Flora & Fauna in Your Novel or Story Setting

This may be something you take for granted, but if you are writing something set in a different area or historical period, the types of plants and animals in the area can add or detract from your story. You may think you know your setting inside and out, but even if you only refer to another area, you could easily mistake one type of animal or bird for another. (Unless this is a clue in a mystery, say, for example, a character supposedly from South America talking about the emus instead of the rheas and that giving the clue that they're not from there after all.) One Regency author I read a number of years ago gave herself away as an American by refering to a bluejay. England has jays, but they aren't blue.

One thing you can do is get bird & plant guides (from the library or used bookstore if you're strapped for cash). Don't automatically refer to something and think you're right about it. (Remember that scene in "Mary Poppins," where the "robin" is an American Robin, not an English one?!)

If your book has an historical setting, make certain that the birds & animals you put into your book were there at that time. Migration patterns and habitats change. Species become extinct. Checking your facts can keep you from making a blunder that will have readers either laughing or grinding their teeth.

Make your research fun. Challenge yourself. You'll be glad you did!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Orient Yourself

That handy-dandy, seldom-used-any-more phrase comes from the days when maps had East at the top instead of North. To make sure you were headed in the right direction, you turned east, holding the map, until things lined up. The sport of orienteering, lining things up and finding your way with only a map & compass, takes its name from that time, as well.

What does that have to do with writing, you ask? Well, take this scenario: You've written a book. The hero is driving south on Main Street, and suddenly, coming out from behind a cloud, the sun gets in his eyes, setting directly in front of him. Ummmm... Oops.

Maybe nothing this extreme has ever happened to you, but if you'll take the time to make a map of your book's main location, it won't ever have to! It doesn't have to be anything fancy, or rival the ones on the internet or in atlases. A few simple lines can keep you from having your character go out the door of the department store on First Street, having gone in the same door on Seventh Avenue.

I just "drew" a map of a town I've called Fictionville, using MS Paint. You don't need a computer program, although you could use a mapping program or a drawing program. Sometimes the simplest is the best. Try a pencil & paper, and just give yourself a rough idea where all the buildings in your setting are located. Here's my sample:
Though barely legible, at least it will give you an idea. It doesn't have to be much. No one ever has to see it except you (unless you decide some day to include a map in your books, the way many authors of fictional towns have done, and have it sketched again, either by you or a professional artist). It'll keep you from mentioning the apartments between First & Second Avenue, when they're between Second and Third, or from visiting the library on Fiction Street when it's on Main.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

World Building

When we got one of our older computers (longer ago than I care to remember!), it came with a fun program called "Sim Town." Using this game program, I could build little towns with schools, fire stations, police departments, roads, houses, shops, parks, and all kinds of neat things. I miss having it to play with.

However, as writers, we can invent as many towns and cities as we like. For my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) book of 2007, I revisited a small town I'd invented for a script back a while and never forgotten. Set in the southeast corner of Arizona, not too far from Benson, Tombstone, etc., it's in an area where we have spent a lot of time, so I was already familiar with the topography, climate, flora & fauna.

So, if you write, what do you do when you're inventing a town? Do you write about something that could fit into the area where you live, or into a place where you've taken lots of vacations? Do you put it someplace impossibly romantic, like Ruritania or Lissenberg, fictional European countries?

Over the next few blog posts, I'm going to recount a little of what I've been doing to help me create continuity, so that when I write more than one book set in the area (I'm already writing another one), I won't make any serious mistakes, like giving the heroine's best friend black hair when she's a blonde, putting the diner across the street from the gas station when it's closer to the hardware store and marshal's office, or forgetting which direction from the main part of town you have to go to reach the school and the airstrip. Hope you enjoy!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Questions for Readers

If you consider yourself a reader, what sort of books do you like to read? What makes you, the reader, satisfied with a book. Here's a little questionnaire to help writers write better, just for you!
  • Do you read literary fiction, genre fiction, or both?
  • If you read genre fiction, do you read just one genre or more than one?
  • What are your favorite genres?
  • What do you like and/or dislike in a fictional Hero?
  • What do you like and/or dislike in a fictional heroine?
  • Are there any plots you especially like in a book? Why?
  • Are there any plots you especially dislike in a book? Why?
  • What makes you first pick up a book?
  • What makes you put a book down without finishing it?
Please feel free to post your answers. I'll look forward to hearing from you!