Candid Camera

Many thanks to everyone who made website suggestions.  So helpful!

On April 9, 2010, Le wrote, I have an idea for a fiction novel, but the inspiration for the story is from my own life. Some of the characters I want to put in the story will be similar, but not exactly like people I know. Have you ever done this? Have you used people you know as inspiration, and if so, have they noticed they are similar to your characters? Were they happy about this, or offended?

I plan to change the characters quite a lot, so really it is a fictional character from my imagination with just some basic similarities, but those who know me really well might be able to guess who I got my inspiration from. This makes me a little nervous to tell the story.

Also if you use real events from your life as a springboard to write a piece of fiction, will a person think it is really autobiographical? I guess this might just be a possibility you have to accept if you write fiction. People will think what they will, but only the author knows the truth.

There is nothing wrong with writing from your own life and basing characters on people you know.  Real people are a great way to get complicated, interesting characters almost instantly.  Using them is a legitimate shortcut, and autobiographical fiction is no less an act of creation than making everything up is.

My friend Joan Abelove’s two young adult novels, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, are both autobiographical.  Go and Come Back is about the time she spent as an anthropologist in the Peruvian jungle, and every amazing event is true, including what follows washing the turtle at the end.  Saying It Out Loud is about Joan’s senior year in high school when her mother developed a malignant brain tumor.  Joan changed a few things, made up the dialogue, but essentially she recreated two slices of her past on the page.  Both books are for teenagers and older.

Years ago, I contributed a story to a collection about grandmothers.  I wrote about this in less detail in my post on artistic freedom on March 24th of this year.  (That post has bearing on this one, so you may want to go back to it.)  The collection, called In My Grandmother’s House, is out of print, but if you’re interested, you may be able to request it from your library or buy it used online.  Most of the pieces are reminiscences, and the contributors may be some of your favorite authors, like Beverly Cleary, Diane Stanley, and Jean Craighead George, and you may want to know about their forebears, who were almost all delightful, loving, cookie-baking grandmas.  Joan also has a story in the book.

My contribution is fictional.  I imagined an evening at the apartment of my grandmother and my two aunts.  This is my mother’s family.  I had only one grandmother since my father was orphaned when he was little.  The evening could have happened.  Grandma’s gambling loss really did, only I didn’t remember it.  My sister remembered and told me.  I disliked my grandmother and my aunts, who were all mean to my mother.  Before I started writing I asked my editor if she wanted granny hatred in the book, and she said that would be terrific!

My aunts and grandmother were dead by then, also my parents, but my mother’s brother was still alive, and I didn’t want to hurt him, so I called him and told him about the project.  He was horrified that I thought he might interfere with my creativity (he died last summer, a lovely man), and he told me a few more family stories that did not show Grandma in a favorable light.

I didn’t ask for permission from his children, who’d had a better relationship with our grandmother than I’d had.  If they objected, they could write their own stories.  I went ahead.  Writing the tale was surprisingly moving, especially bringing my parents back to life.  Details flooded in (with help from my sister on the olfactory side), and I recreated our family in the early 1960s.

No one has ever complained.

The grandma story is the only strictly autobiographical fiction I’ve written, but Dave in my historical novel Dave at Night is based on my father’s childhood, and the character of Solly in that book came from my friend Nedda, who was alive.  I didn’t talk to her about it until long after, because Solly may be the most positive character in any of my books.  I didn’t see how Nedda could be insulted, and she wasn’t.

This is not to say that I’ve never gotten into trouble.  I named a main character in one of my books after a family member.  My intention was to honor her, but she didn’t feel honored and didn’t tell me.  I found out years later from someone else.  I named the fairy Rani in the Disney Fairies series after my sister, who gave me permission, but then she wasn’t happy about some of the shenanigans her namesake got into.

If you are combining characteristics of real people – Marianne’s generosity with Barry’s habit of never covering his mouth when he yawns with Pam’s inability to apologize – you are on entirely safe ground.  Or suppose you rename your friend Vince, call him Samuel and turn him into a character, keeping everything about him the same except for the physical description.  Once you throw him into new situations, you are on safe ground.  As soon as he acts in circumstances that you’ve invented, he becomes your creation, Samuel, no longer Vince.  Vince wouldn’t do just what you have Samuel do; he certainly wouldn’t say exactly the words you give Samuel.

If you are afraid of hurting feelings, you can discuss what you’re planning with the people involved.  You won’t know their reactions until they react.  One person may be flattered, someone else insulted, and then you can decide what to do.  But if you’re changing this and that and moving events around, you don’t need to tell.  You can even deny.  Without too much wickedness you can say, “You think you’re like that?  Huh!  How fascinating!”

It isn’t hard to disguise people.  If you make Vince short when he’s tall, give him a talent for the accordion, and have him deathly allergic to peanuts, you are probably home free.

I once read descriptions of several personality types, and I found myself in each one.  It is likely that if you write your characters precisely as you experience their real-life counterparts, the actual people won’t recognize themselves.  The girl you know is beautiful may see herself as ugly, or she may not be aware of how smart she is.  The person who truly is a miserable human being will very probably not see himself in the villain unless you give the villain his first and last name.

Life is an author’s source.  Don’t hold back from dipping into the well.

Here are some prompts:

•    Write a memory as if it were a story.  Make up the missing bits.  Take yourself back to the moment with sensory details: what you see, hear, smell, touch.  Include the mood and your thoughts and feelings.

•    Extend the memory beyond what you recall into a fictionalized future or even a few versions of the future.

•    Think of a time when you were victimized, maybe teased or ganged up on.  Replace yourself with someone you know.  Write how that person would have handled the situation.  Make it into a story.  You can try this with more than one stand-in for you.

Addendum:  Five minutes after posting this I got worried.  If you are writing about a memory that involves a crime or something that would seriously damage a real person’s reputation, I think you do need to be careful, because you don’t want to be sued for libel.  In that case, change the circumstances and the real characters enough to make the people unrecognizable.

Your Way

Before I get to the post topic, I have a request.  Right now my only website is on the larger HarperCollins website.  There’s a link to it on this page, below on the right, called “Official Website,” which it is, and many thanks to Harper for creating it.  However, my husband and I are planning a separate, new site.  (I’ll continue the blog, although it may move and I’ll announce the change and you won’t get lost.)  So, I have some questions and I may have more as we progress:  Do you visit author websites?  If you do and when you do, what’s the reason?  What do you want in a site?  What would you want on my site?  (We don’t yet know what’s technically possible.)  What do you like in sites you’ve visited?  What do you dislike?  Have any sites left you feeling frustrated or disappointed or annoyed?  Why?  And if there’s anything else you’d like to tell me about author websites, please do.

On April 8, 2010, Jen wrote, How can you tell when your story is sounding too familiar, like from something you’ve already written, or something you’ve read. I don’t want to be stealing any ideas from anyone, but sometimes when I write, the story starts to sound much of a muchness to what I’m reading, or at least parts of what I’m writing. I don’t do this on purpose, but still it happens. Or I’ll use a similar plot twist that I thought was entertaining. I also enjoy suspense, and like to use that extremely in my writing. But I want my story to be fresh, and don’t want to bore the reader in the first chapter, because it’s a previously used idea. (Or because I’m taking too long to jump into the plot. Or I jump into the plot too fast!) I like the concept of parallel universes, or doors between different realms, but it’s been taken many times. How do we make an old idea still new and exciting? I don’t have a problem with coming up with ideas. I have many, many story ideas, but it’s just a few that sound unoriginal.
Last December 9th, I wrote a post about predictability, and I don’t want to repeat what I said then, so I suggest you take a look.

When I wrote Ella Enchanted, I kept worrying about a sequence of four words that I thought I might have lifted from a song.  Turned out I hadn’t.  My four words were different, but even if they had been the same it wouldn’t have mattered.  They were just four ordinary words.  None of them was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which might really have caused me trouble.  Sometimes we (I) worry too much.

Writing is imitating.  We imitate life and books and movies.  Being a good imitator is valuable for a writer, maybe essential.  Also when I was writing Ella Enchanted, I reread Jane Austen, and started sounding like her on the page, and my critique buddies asked me what was going on, and I had to deliberately quit.

Here’s a prompt:  Read ten pages of Jane Austen (or more if you can’t put her down).  Pay attention to how she structures her sentences.  Write or rewrite a page in your current story imitating her voice.

Or pick a different writer with a distinctive voice, maybe Mark Twain or Charlotte Bronte or James M. Barrie, and imitate him or her.  Try more than one if you’re up to it.  This is excellent practice, because it makes you a more flexible writer and more aware of word choice, sentence and paragraph shape and length, approaches to dialogue, and every other aspect of bringing a scene to life.

Before I started to write the first book in the Disney Fairies series, Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg, I reread Barrie’s Peter Pan.  My intention was to approximate his style in my book, but I couldn’t do it; he’s such a supple writer; however, I noticed that he used the expression “of course” a lot, so I threw in many repeats of “of course” and hoped they would convey the flavor.  I just looked at his book again a minute ago and noticed that he used semicolons frequently; hence this sentence and the one before it.

Imitation is not plagiarism.  You shouldn’t copy another writer’s exact words into your stories, at least not more than four of them!  Plagiarism is unethical.

Having said that, actual copying isn’t a bad exercise, as long as that’s all it is, an exercise.  When I wrote The Fairy’s Mistake, I had never written a chapter book before, and my editor sent me samples of other chapter books.  Before I started writing my own I typed out one of Paula Danziger’s Amber Brown books – every word! – to see how she did it.

Here’s another prompt::  Copy a page of a book you love.  Have you learned anything?

Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only the expression of an idea in words.  Still, we want to be original.  I recently read a book that, in one aspect only, reminded me of Holes by Louis Sachar.  I love Holes, and I liked this other book, but I wished the author had thought of something else in this single area, or had at least referred to Holes.  If the main character had said something like, My life was just like Stanley Yelnats’s, I would have been happy, because the similarity wouldn’t have seemed sneaky.

A book that does a masterful and open job of connecting to another book is this year’s Newbery winner, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, which builds on an earlier Newbery, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  Art builds on the art that went before.  We take the old and rework it into something new, and Rebecca Stead did this ingeniously.

(By the way, When You Reach Me is historical fiction that takes place in New York City in the 1970s when the city was much less safe than it is now.  I hope you’ll read the book if you haven’t already, but I don’t want you to get the wrong picture of present-day New York.)

If you’d like to take your main character into an alternate universe, you can.  But you want to create your own alternate universe and your own way into it and not remake Oz and a tornado.  How to do this?  One way is to start from scratch with questions:  Am I writing a funny story or a sad one or a total tragedy?  Am I writing a mystery?  A funny story, for example, will call for a different, goofier universe than a serious story.

What kind of characters inhabit this world?  Fairies?  Dragons?  Philosopher eagles?  A combo of different sorts of creatures?  People?

Who is your main character who enters as a visitor or an escapee?  Maybe she isn’t human.  She may be an animal or a plant that has somehow become ambulatory and able to think and communicate.  Or it’s a rock or a paper clip.  Anything can succeed if you make it succeed.

Is this a happy universe or a troubled one?  How does it connect to the world your traveler starts out from?  It may or may not connect, or you may find out as you write.

You all know that I rely on lists, so for this project I would write a bunch of lists.  I might list some of the aspects of the real world that I love and aspects I definitely do not love.  You can use this list to develop your world.  Long ago, I read a short story about an alien who adored earth because we have food and we eat.  In his home galaxy there was no such thing.  Your main character could enter a world without birds and any concept of flight, for example.

List basics: size, time, light, colors, sound, smell.  Write down how your world might express these basics.  In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, light moves slowly.  Remember, for your own creation, some – probably many – aspects of the new world should be what we’re used to or the reader will feel lost.

What problem or accident causes your character to leave?  If what she left behind was pretty good, she may just want to get back.  Before you decide, explore the possibilities.

What are the problems in the new place?  Make a list!

Write down possible means of entry into your invented world, other than a door or a wardrobe or a rabbit hole.  Maybe the way in could be connected to your main character’s character.  Suppose she’s great at math, and one day she walks into math class and none of the problems add up.  The teacher looks exactly like Mr. Mikan, except this Mr. Mikan has bushy eyebrows.  She’s in.  That simple.  I’d guess there are lots of ways to do this.

What might befall the main character once she enters?  Make a list.  There are many more possibilities than getting back home or saving the new world.  What else can you come up with?

I keep blathering on about lists because I think they’re a key to originality.  Lists free your mind to wander where you’ve never been before.  You write down seven ideas that seem boring, old, over-used, and then the eighth is a surprise, and the thirteenth is too.  Or you may have to write twenty options before you get to the fresh one.  Keep going.  And every so often glance back at the ideas you scorned to see if you might be able to breathe life into one or two of them.

There are prompts throughout this post.  I hope you try them and save them and have fun!

And, if you want to, please share your thoughts on author websites.  Thanks!

Plot or Character at the Helm

On April 7, 2010 EquusFerusCaballus, now known as Marmaladeland, wrote, Which is a more important element in a story: character development or plot? If you have good characters, should you go right ahead and bend a story to fit them, or wait until a better one comes along to click? If your plot is excellent, but the characters are as believable as purple unicorn turtles, should you write anyway?

Plot and character are as entwined as ivy on a trellis, and I can’t say which would be ivy and which trellis.  Or the chicken and the egg might be a better analogy.  It doesn’t matter which came first; you can’t have one without the other.  They’re equally important.

Marmaladeland, it is almost always a major no-no to force characters to behave a certain way because of plot.  I say almost because there are no absolutes in fiction writing.  Making a mean character suddenly nice, for instance, just for plot reasons is a good way to get those purple-unicorn-turtle characters.

I’ve probably said before that I’m more plot oriented than character driven.  I start with an idea and then invent characters who will fulfill the idea and go with it naturally.  But if you have characters who interest you and want to follow them, that’s fine too.  Legions of writers work this way, and I wouldn’t call their method bending the story in a bad way.

Suppose you have a main character, Sandra, fifteen years old, the most kindhearted person in the world.  It would wound her to hurt someone, even in the tiniest way, but she worries, with good reason, about being taken advantage of.  Let’s throw in also that she has trouble making decisions and she’s highly emotional, cries easily, laughs easily, angers easily and says things she regrets.

A little of her history: She’s new at Cloverleaf High School, pretty, wears the right clothes, is socially comfortable.  But at her last school her best friend betrayed her, took advantage of her kindness, and she isn’t over it.  What she wants most at the new school is a friend she feels close to and can trust.

Now let’s picture a boy, Drew, also fifteen, short for his age, who gets picked on by other kids, partly for his size and partly because he’s so serious.  He doesn’t fight back or laugh off the attacks, but he hates being ridiculed.  Let’s say he loves music and can play piano, guitar, and drums.

I’ll add one more character, Liza, fifteen too, who is over-friendly.  She flatters people and sometimes puts herself down by way of comparison, as in, “You’re brilliant.  I wish I had half your brains,” or “You have such a fashion sense.  I never know what to put together with what.”  An unrecognized part of Liza’s mind hates the people she flatters and hates herself for having to do it.

Now we have to imagine a situation.  It doesn’t have to be that much of a situation, because this is a character-driven story.  Suppose the three kids are in the drama club, and they’ve been cast in a one-act play together.  Sandra sees Liza as a possible friend, and she’s observed Drew being picked on and wants to help him.

Suppose Liza is the best actor of the three.  She could help the other two, but she can’t put herself forward this way.  Sandra and Drew are astute and find Liza condescending, even though she doesn’t mean to be.

Here’s the prompt:  Imagine a setting where your scene takes place.  Write the first rehearsal, keeping the characters true to themselves.  Continue the story if it interests you.  Don’t decide ahead of time that you do or don’t want Sandra and Liza to wind up as friends and one of them with Drew as a boyfriend, or any other outcome.  Don’t twist anybody to do anything.  If one or more of them changes in the course of the story, make clear how the change came about.

Now for a plot-driven story, the kind I do write.  The clearest example in my books is in my short comic novel, The Princess Test, which is based on “The Princess and the Pea.”  In that book I took the same approach as the one I wrote about last week.  I asked questions and found two major ones: Who could feel a pea through twenty mattresses?  And how is this a test of princessness?

The first question is the big character one. I don’t think anyone could really feel that pea, but there are probably many approaches to a solution.  For example, the princess could have long-distance hearing (this is fantasy) and have overheard the king and queen planning the test.  Or she could be a paranoid princess and tear her chamber apart, hunting for something amiss and finding the pea.

If you remember the story in detail, the successful princess doesn’t have to know she slept on a pea.  She has only to have a bad night’s sleep, so she can simply be an insomniac.  But I didn’t go that way.  I made her not a princess at all.  Lorelei is a supremely good-natured blacksmith’s daughter who’s highly sensitive and allergic to almost everything.  If the mattresses aren’t entirely made of swans’ feathers and the sheets aren’t silk with exactly the right thread count, she is certain to toss and turn till dawn.  And maybe the pea will add to her discomfort.

Then there was the lesser question of how to get her to the castle soaking wet in the middle of the night.  Ordinarily she wouldn’t be outside after dark and certainly not in the rain.  Lorelei’s mother died when Lorelei was fourteen, and the blacksmith had to hire a maid, Trudy, because Lorelei is useless around the cottage.  Trudy hates Lorelei for her general uselessness and plots to lose her in the forest.  Hence the late-night drenching.

Earlier, the prince has met Lorelei when he was out for a ride, and he’s fallen for her and she for him.  As for the king and queen, since this is a very silly tale, they get by just by being silly and adoring their son and wanting the best for him.

The point is, the characters behave according to their natures all the way through, because I’ve chosen those natures for the roles they have to play.  To take a deeper example, in Ella Enchanted, I  made Ella spunky so that she could have a shot at overcoming the curse of obedience.

Here are two plot-based prompts:

•    Three students discover (you make up how) that their popular middle school principal is embezzling part of their school’s state funding.  The money is supposed to be used to build a new library, and he has hired a construction company that will skimp on materials.  The building won’t be safe, but the company and the principal will split the money that will be saved.  Exposing the principal isn’t easy.  They’re just kids, and he’s been principal for fifteen years.  Who are the students?  What qualities do they have that make them able to succeed?  What qualities do they have that trip them up?  Write the story.

•    Going back to fairy tales, seems to me that the characters in “Rumplestiltskin” need work.  The father boasts that his daughter can spin straw into gold when she can’t.  The king says he’s going to marry her if she can, execute her if she can’t.  The daughter does little more than wring her hands.  Rumplestiltskin wants the child and then gives the queen an extra chance to keep him.  Who are these characters?  Explain why they behave as they do.  Flesh them out in a story without changing the outcome (unless you decide to).

I loved the discussion that followed the last post.  If you want to share thoughts, please do.  But first write, so you don’t lose the writing energy.  Have fun and save what you write!

Spinning Fairy Tales

Before I start, thanks to everybody who came to a tour event.  I was so happy to meet you!

On April 4, 2010, Guinevere Amoureaux wrote, I have a problem with revamping fairy tales.  I always ask myself “why” and “how come” but I never find anything.  Then, when I read a retold fairy tale, I say, “Oh yeah! Why didn’t I think of that?”  And then, when the book THE THIRTEENTH PRINCESS, a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” came out and I saw it at the library, I nearly boiled over. All day I was saying to myself, “Why didn’t I think about that?” I could have JUST asked, “WHY did the princesses dance every night?” Could you give me a bit of advice on this topic?
I’ve been fascinated by “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” too.  When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre I was really trying to tell the tale of the twelve, but I couldn’t get it.  After I read your question, I looked The Thirteenth Princess up online, although I confess I haven’t read it.  When the review said that there were twelve princesses because the king kept trying for a son, my reaction was exactly the same as yours: Why didn’t I think of that?

Let me go through my process with this story as an example.  Here’s the tale, lifted (legally) from this URL at Wikipediahttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve_Dancing_Princesses:

Twelve princesses slept in twelve beds in the same room; every night their doors were securely locked, but in the morning their shoes were found to be worn through as if they had been dancing all night.

The king, perplexed, promised his kingdom and a daughter to any man who could discover the princesses’ secret within three days and three nights, but those who failed within the set time limit would be put to death.

An old soldier returned from war came to the king’s call after several princes had failed in the endeavor to discover the princesses’ secret. Whilst traveling through a wood he came upon an old woman, who gave him an invisibility cloak and told him not to eat or drink anything given to him by one of the princesses who would come to him in the evening, and to pretend to be fast asleep after the princess left.

The soldier was well received at the palace just as the others had been and indeed, in the evening, the eldest princess came to his chamber and offered him a cup of wine. The soldier, remembering the old woman’s advice, threw it away secretly and began to snore very loudly as if asleep.

The princesses, sure that the soldier was asleep, dressed themselves in fine clothes and escaped from their room by a trap door in the floor. The soldier, seeing this, donned his invisibility cloak and followed them down. He trod on the gown of the youngest princess, whose cry to her sisters that all was not right was rebuffed by the eldest. The passageway led them to three groves of trees; the first having leaves of silver, the second of gold, and the third of diamonds. The soldier, wishing for a token, broke off a twig of each as evidence. They walked on until they came upon a great lake. Twelve boats with twelve princes in them were waiting. Each princess went into one, and the soldier stepped into the same boat as the youngest. The young prince in the boat rowed slowly, unaware that the soldier was causing the boat to be heavy. The youngest princess complained that the prince was not rowing fast enough, not knowing the soldier was in the boat. On the other side of the lake was a castle, into which all the princesses went and danced the night away.

The princesses danced until their shoes were worn through and they were obliged to leave. This strange adventure went on the second and third nights, and everything happened just as before, except that on the third night the soldier carried away a golden cup as a token of where he had been. When it came time for him to declare the princesses’ secret, he went before the king with the three branches and the golden cup, and told the king all he had seen. The princesses saw there was no use to deny the truth, and confessed. The soldier chose the eldest princess as his bride for he was not a very young man, and was made the king’s heir.
The version I know ends intriguingly by saying that a day was added to the princes’ enchantment for every night they danced with the princesses.

There are oodles of mysteries in this tale in addition to the puzzle about the quantity of princesses.  When I read it or any fairy tale, I question everything.  That’s what I’d like you to do right now.  Write a list of questions or mysteries, aspects of this story that seem unresolved.  Try to come up with at least eight.  My questions are below, but don’t look.  STOP READING AND WRITE.

I thought of continuing in a separate post, but that seemed untrusting.  Here are my questions:

1.    Why do the princesses share a bedroom in an enormous castle?

2.    Why is the king locking them in at night?

3.    Why aren’t evening entertainments held right there at the castle?

4.    If he cares so much about the dancing slippers, why doesn’t the king deprive his daughters of them at night and let them walk barefoot to the privy?

5.    Why does he kill the unsuccessful suitors?

6.    Why three days and nights for the trial rather than one or twenty-five or any other number?

7.    Generally, what’s up with this crazy king?

8.    Why does the old woman help the soldier?

9.    Who is she?

10.    What is she doing with a cloak of invisibility?

11.    Why are the princesses willing to let young men die rather than reveal the secret of their dancing slippers?

12.    Why do they dance with the princes?  How did it begin?

13.    Why three groves of trees, and why are their leaves made of precious metals and jewels?  (This is my favorite part of the story.)

14.    Is this enchanted world of the trees, the lake, and the castle underground?

15.    Why are the princes there?

16.    What does the soldier think of all this?

You may have come up with different questions than mine, maybe more, maybe fewer.  There’s no right or wrong number or right or wrong question.

So that’s my approach with fairy tales.  Questions jump out at me, and I make up answers.  I follow the answers to more questions and more answers, and eventually a story emerges.

When I attempted to turn “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” into a novel, I began by eliminating nine princesses, because three main characters seemed interesting and twelve impossible for me and the reader to keep straight.  Then I decided that the old woman was a sorcerer in disguise and that the king was consumed by grief for his dead wife, and I had an idea that the groves of trees somehow represented the seasons.  (I loved that idea.)

I got stuck in several places.  Even if the old woman was a sorcerer, I didn’t know why he/she wanted the princes discovered and why she chose the soldier, and I couldn’t figure out why they were enchanted and what their enchantment was.  At one point I decided that they might be specters, which seemed promising.

The obstacle I couldn’t get around was the princesses.  They seemed the obvious choices for heroines, but I hated them for allowing all those suitors to die.  Eventually I let the enchanted princes and the soldier go and lopped off one princess.  The sorcerer, who had been malevolent at the beginning, turned into kindly Rhys.

This wasn’t easy.  I was despairing when I couldn’t figure out the original, beloved fairy tale.  My story emerged slowly, and I no longer remember how I came to it.  The moral is, though, that the fairy tale is a jumping off point.  It doesn’t matter if you stick with it.  What’s important – the only important thing – is writing a story, which is bound to be your own, even if you hew closely to a known tale.  You’ll put something of yourself into it.

I’ve been thinking about “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” again.  I may have a new approach that will allow me to write it.  But if not and it veers off again and I get another different story, I’ll just throw up my hands and celebrate.

Here’s a prompt: The craziest fairy tale I know of is “Lovely Ilonka,” which you can find in Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book.  The Lang books (each named after a different color, and the series contains the well-known tales and many lesser-known ones) may be in your library, and they’ve all been digitized, so you can get them for free online.  Please don’t read the abridged version in Wikipedia, because you won’t see the full wackiness.  Read the fairy tale, ask yourself questions about it, develop your own interpretation, and see where you wind up.  Have fun, and save what you write!

Same old same old

These questions arose after my post of March 31, 2010 about creating layered characters.

Silver the Wanderer wrote, I think my problem is that my characters’ personalities seem too similar. I have a hard time making them seem distinct…

And Jen wrote, My problem is I have too many characters wandering about in my world, and I have difficulty in making them have different characteristics. I don’t know who I should remove from the story!

    I realize this is like two questions. How to determine who stays in the story, and how to make them all unique?

    I may need to bring in some of the lesser characters into my second book, but it’s frustrating now deciding which people contribute now and which should later…
And maybeawriter wrote, Right now, I’m having the same problem with my main character. I want her to be like me, so she can react to things the way I would, but she is very flat so far. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to see interesting characteristics in myself. Maybe I should make up new, different characteristics for her? Or magnify my own?
And F wrote, I just realized that I have a tendency to introduce characters as I need them, and then, when the scene is over, you don’t hear from them again. And I’m pretty sure that is NOT good. The problem is, I also need those characters. Have you ever had a problem like this? How do you step over it?
I’m putting the prompt at the beginning today.  Try this:  Write a description of five people you feel close to.  Start with what you think of first when you think of each of them.  Go on to looks, speech, gestures, what you like best, what you like least.  You can use the character questionnaire in Writing Magic to help you fill the people out.

Maybeawriter, write a description of yourself along with the others.  What do you consider your most salient (nice word!) characteristic?  Ask a friend what struck her about you when the two of you met for the first time.

Now write a description of the oddest person you know.  If you know more than one odd person, describe three of them.

When you’re finished, compare.  I suspect each description is unique.  What distinguishes one from another?  Can you use some of these qualities in your characters?  You can dismember the people you know for your fiction, put Charles’s walk with Myra’s habit of pinching the bridge of her nose and William’s annoying way of not listening to anything he doesn’t want to hear and give all three to a character who isn’t leaping out of the page.

In Ella Enchanted, my model for the hypocrisy in stepsister Hattie was one of my aunts (who had died by then).  A brilliant friend and my mother were the sources of Princess Sonora’s intelligence in Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep.  The character of Dave in Dave at Night was based on my father.  In fact, the whole book is a kind of homage to him.

How would the people you described react to the events in your story?  You can even ask them in real life.  But if the question is, What would you do if an intelligent unicorn offered to grind up her horn so that you could see into the future? you may have to translate the question into something just a little more humdrum, like, if you could see into the future, would you peek?  Or, what would you want to learn?

I’ve written on the blog about looking at portraits and photographs to help you describe people and looking at houses and landscapes to describe these things.  Reality infuses our ideas with complexity.  When we think of people’s speech, we may think of loud and soft, deep pitch or high.  But when we listen, we notice that one person’s voice is breathy, another swallows often, a third spaces each word so she sounds a tad robotic.

We form strong initial impressions when we meet someone, whether that person is actually a person or a character.  Most of the work in establishing a personality on the page comes at the beginning.  If you concentrate on (in initial writing or in revision) presenting a character vividly, the reader’s impression will be fixed, especially if you’re consistent – keep the character behaving according to your set-up and drop in occasional reminders.

Think about the elements of first impression.  You are meeting your aunt’s friend for the first time.  What do you notice?  Her appearance.  The frown lines, the smile lines, the hair that’s been dyed too many times or left to go gray or the blue streak in the front and the rest is gray.  The way she rocks back on her heels or lowers herself painfully into a chair.  What she wears.  Pearls with jeans or a dress down to her ankles and a silk shawl or a pleated skirt and a stained sweatshirt and high-top sneakers.  What she says.  Tells you how glad she is to meet you and then ignores you for the next half hour.  Says how pretty you are and how pretty your friend is and how pretty young people are.  Just smiles and says hi.

These are what we have to work with:  appearance, voice, speech, smell, actions and reactions, habits, and maybe more that I’m not thinking of this minute.  Have you made your characters different from one another in these regards?  Can you go back and do so?  Go into each of your scenes and see how you can make your characters stand out.  Don’t go overboard.  You don’t have to make Marco smell like a garbage dump or give Elaine a voice like a police siren.  Little particularities will do.

And not everyone needs a lot of attention.  A minor character can get just one characteristic.  We don’t want to overload the reader.

When it comes to your main character, her thoughts will also distinguish her, which I wrote about on March 31st.  Maybeawriter, if the point-of-view character is a lot like you and seems ordinary, that may not be bad.  I’ve felt exactly the same way about many of my first-person characters.  We often – not always – want the character who is telling the story to be sympathetic and understandable.  I think your impulse to have her react as you would is a good one.  When she reacts, she is likely to be believed by the reader.

Jen and F, I’m also having trouble figuring out which characters I need in the book I’m writing now.  I may have to write the whole thing to know, and you may too.  Some characters are obvious.  Of course we need them, they’re central to the plot.  But others?

I wouldn’t cut anybody until I was sure.  I often find unexpected uses for characters and subplots.  Writing, I believe and fervently hope, tends to self-correct.  When you’re finished, if you have characters who disappear for fifty pages and then reappear after the reader has forgotten who they are, you can either go back and annihilate them or find ways to remind the reader of their existence now and then.

Jen, I see no problem in introducing new characters in a second book, although I’m not sure if this answers your question.

F, I find that it’s okay to use characters in a single scene or in only a few scenes if they’re limited to a certain place.  In Fairest for example, the library keeper comes into the story only when heroine Aza is in the library.  He also makes a brief, inconsequential appearance at the end.  In Ella Enchanted, the forest elves stay in their forest.  Restricting to time works too.  A character’s  grandfather who lives three states away can appear only in flashbacks.  If the reader isn’t challenged to remember the character later, this works.

Have I said this before?  It bears repeating, and I may say it again.  In the blog I suggest approaches, and they sound simple or at least doable.  Then you return to your story and my completely clear suggestions dissolve into mush.  This is not your fault or mine.  Writing is awfully hard.  We try to light the way for one another.  If anyone would like to weigh in on this subject, please do.

A few people who’ve been reading the blog came to last night’s signing, and that was great.  Looking forward to meeting more of you!

Taboo?

Preamble:  Starting next Tuesday, I’M ON TOUR!!!  And I may be coming to a bookstore or library near you.  Here’s what’s happening–

Tuesday, June 22nd at 6:00 pm:  Kepler’s Books, Menlo Park, California.

Thursday, June 24th at 7:00 pm:  Mission Viejo Library, Mission Viejo, California.

Friday, June 25th at 3:00 pm:  La Jolla/Riford Library, La Jolla, California.

Saturday, June 26th at 1:00:  signing in Disney Gallery, Disneyland.

Sunday, June 27th at 2:00 pm:  signing in Brisa Courtyard, Disneyland.

Monday, June 28th at 7:00 pm:  Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Arizona.

Tuesday, June 29th at 7:00 pm:  The King’s English Bookstore, Salt Lake City, Utah.

If I’m not coming to your neighborhood, sorry!  I have little control over tour destinations, except I did suggest Salt Lake City because I’d never been there before on tour.

I’m going to try to post to the blog from the road, but it is conceivable that I’ll skip the next two weeks.  Now for the regular post:

On March 25th Loretta asked how much detail and gore to include in a fight scene.  She feared that parents wouldn’t want their children reading about graphic violence.

Along similar lines, on June 14th F wrote, What I mean to say is, say, do you think that it would be appropriate for the characters to curse in a given situation – I mean, this and that has just happened to them! But, the readers…they may dislike seeing the words actually in print. One can easily substitute writing the words with a ‘He let out a stream of carefully chosen curses’ or some such. We get to know the character’s angry. We don’t have to see the words.

But to satisfy “your internal reader,” the author chose to print the words, rather than allude to them, choosing to ignore the fact that it might be inappropriate for a few readers. :/

In other comments on my post about writing romance a few people thanked me for not including sex beyond kissing in my books.  And both F and Erin Edwards included links to several authors’ blog postings concerning the treatment of morality in their books.  I suggest you check them out.

Wow!  This is a complicated topic!  And no easy answers.

Taking gore first, since that was the earlier question, I don’t in general enjoy violent books or movies, but there’s violence in two of my books, Dave at Night and The Two Princesses of Bamarre.  In the latter, I’m explicit about killing monsters.  A few people die at the hands of the monsters, but I don’t go into their deaths in detail.  I’d guess readers rejoice when a monster bites the dust, except for the dragon Vollys, who’s sympathetic although evil.  In Dave at Night, the violence comes from a brutal orphanage superintendent.  No one dies, but Dave is beaten and another boy’s arm is broken.  I report the beating in detail.

The dead monsters in Two Princesses aren’t much mourned by the human characters, so their suffering isn’t much felt by readers, which is what I wanted.  The emotion in Two Princesses revolves around Meryl’s illness and her sister Addie’s quest to find a cure.  But in Dave at Night the other boys are upset and angry over the superintendent’s cruelty, and the reader shares their distress.  Both books are read by kids aged eight and up.  I think both are appropriate for the age group, although there are children, some older than eight, who are sensitive and whose parents would do well to keep the books from them, or who might put the books aside themselves when they see what’s up.

Glossing over detail that’s important to plot or characterization or mood, important to the world of the book, is flawed writing.  We want the reader to be affected by what we write, and detail engages him.  If someone the reader loves is hurt, the reader will care, but only if the reader experiences through detail the extent of the hurt.  Airbrushing it will only leave the reader confused.

Having said that, it’s always possible to overwrite, to pile up bleeding wounds and oozing organs until everything blends together and the reader stops caring – or starts laughing.  We need to cultivate judgment, which comes with practice and helpful criticism.

It’s funny.  I can write scenes that I would have trouble reading.  This is because I’m in control when I write.  It’s the difference between being the driver of a car and the passenger.  When I go through a yellow light, not that I ever do, it’s okay.  My reflexes are fast; I’ve looked around.  But when someone else is driving, boy, I wish he’d stopped.  I’m not making a point here, just remarking on the wonderful weirdness of writing.

As for offending readers or their parents, we are likely to offend someone no matter how cautious we may try to be.  Most recently I learned that someone was offended by the trial scene in Fairest.  And Writing Magic was banned from a school district in Illinois because I advised writers to make their characters suffer!  Can you imagine?

This is my segue into language and sex.  And here my approach is more nuanced.  I used the “N” word twice in the manuscript for Dave at Night.  The uses were natural for the situation.  My editor had no problem, and neither did an African-American friend.  But the head of library and school promotion at HarperCollins at the time pulled me back from the brink.  He said that I would set off a firestorm, and that I was using a hurtful word.  I took it out.  The word wasn’t essential to anything, and the book was just as good without it.  If it had been central, I don’t know what I would have done.

I’m a Jew, and the bad word for Jew is kike.  I’ve experienced anti-Semitism a few times, but that bad word was never spoken or suggested.  Racism and anti-Semitism don’t need a particular word to express themselves.

I adore language.  Every word has a place in my heart.  When we make a word or a phrase bad we ghettoize it and give it too much power.  I would like to live in a world in which all words are equal, where kike can’t hurt because we’re desensitized.  In that world kike would mean Jew and not filthy Jew.  The sex words that seem dirty would just be synonyms for the more scientific and acceptable terms.

As for actual swearing in dialogue versus having the narrator say that a character shouted a string of “carefully chosen curse words,” that depends on the kind of story you’re writing, the voice you’re telling it in, and the age of the audience.  But you don’t have to choose.  You can make the character scream.  If the character is tough and gritty, she can threaten someone.

Having said all this, I don’t think I’ve put profanity in any of my books.  My strongest influences when I write are the books I loved as a child.  There was no swearing in Heidi, and in Louisa May Alcott’s books, if I remember correctly, even an expression like fiddlesticks was beyond the pale.  I write back to those books.

Same goes for sexual exploration in books.  I am sure there are many young people – I was one – who are confused by the feelings their bodies are creating in them, who don’t know how to handle their early romantic attachments, and who are unable, for a hundred possible reasons, to talk frankly with the adults in their lives and even with their friends.  Many of these kids go to novels to see how situations play out, how believable characters play them out.

Moralizing books are likely to be transparent to readers and not carry much weight.  Rather than moralizing, I want books to be good, well-written, with complicated characters finding their way and making mistakes in complicated situations.  Let the reader observe these characters and ruminate on their decisions and the consequences that follow.  Let the reader find herself in the books and consider what choices she would make.

There is one other consideration, which wasn’t mentioned in any of the posts I read.  And that’s the market.  I want my books to be read, and I want to continue to earn my living as a writer.  My readers expect a certain kind of book from me.  If I change radically I’ll lose many of them.  I may pick up other readers along the line, but maybe not.  Of course, this cuts two ways.  The authors of more explicit books have also developed an audience, and that is a consideration for them too.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  You and I – all writers – are entitled to think of our livelihoods.

I’m done.  A long post on a difficult subject.  No prompt today.

Un-sappy Romance

On March 24, 2010, Marzo wrote, I’ve always wanted to try incorporating romance into my stories, but I’ve never really known how to write a romance well without it seeming, I don’t know, too sappy?  I don’t know if you’ve answered this in a different post, but do you have some tips for writing romance?
I’ve never written a book that was only a romance.  Most of mine are fantasy adventures with romance as one of the plot threads.

There must be many approaches to love and romance, and I hope other writers reading the blog will post theirs.

Even if you’ve never fallen in romantic love in real life, I’d guess you’ve fallen in like and in other sorts of love many times – with a new friend, a pet, a person you’ve known forever but have just come to appreciate.  How does it happen?  How did it happen to you?

Often it’s an accretion (if you don’t know the word, look it up!) of incidents and character traits that produces like and love.  Somebody says something that expresses exactly how you feel but have never been able to put into words, and you feel a deep connection.  This may be trite:  a smile that lights up a face can flip my heart.  Humor, as long as it’s not at someone’s expense, draws me in.  Maybe the smile is a tad sappy if all there is is a smile, but along with other details, the sappiness fades to unimportance.

Details count in writing love as in writing everything else.  The reader needs to know exactly what the heroine said that flew straight into the hero’s soul.  And the reader needs to be told enough about the hero to understand why he felt so touched.  For example, my late and much missed friend Nedda often told stories on herself and laughed uproariously.  I adored the stories and the loud belly laugh, but someone else might have been embarrassed by one or both.

When I want people to fall in love I think of them as jigsaw-puzzle pieces that need to fit together.  This bit of him has to satisfy that place in her that’s been starved, and vice versa.  Maybe I see it this way because of my parents, who remained in love for forty-nine years until my father’s death.  My mother finished college (at the age of sixteen); he didn’t complete high school.  He loved having a brilliant wife.  My father was smart, too, but very modest.  My mother loved my father’s innocence and sweetness.  She could be a wee bit tart.  He loved her complexity.  They argued sometimes, but fundamentally they filled the aspects of each other that needed filling.

So think about what your characters need and even crave.  In my Princess Tale, Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep, I echo my parents’ relationship.  Princess Sonora is the smartest person on earth by a factor of ten.  She’s eager to share her knowledge, but no one wants to listen.  Prince Christopher is curious about everything, and people tire of his endless questions.  They are made for each other.  In another Princess Tale, The Fairy’s Return, Robin makes up jokes for which he is scorned by his father and brothers.  Princess Lark thinks his jokes are hysterical.  Everyone treats her with kid gloves, which makes her feel stifled, but Robin doesn’t.  They are also primed for love.

Turning to pets:  Any domestic animal needs care and calls on us for protection.  Protectiveness is part of love, in my opinion, and a mutual part, too.  The boy isn’t the sole protector.  He’s watching out for her, and she’s got his back as well.  In Ella Enchanted, for example, Char arrives in time to keep Ella from being eaten, but she saves him and his knights by making the ogres docile.  A common enemy can help bring your characters together.

Pets again:  Puppies misbehave.  Our Baxter is nine, and he still misbehaves.  Animals can’t hide their feelings.  We know when they’re happy, frightened, stubborn, jealous.  We see them at their worst and love them anyway.  They’re naked literally (unless decked out in a vest or party hat) and figuratively.  Of course, they have no choice, but their freedom makes us free.  We tell our pets our secrets and let them see us cry and pound the pillow.  This kind of intimacy and acceptance is part of love.  In my novel, Fairest, Ijori is aware of Aza’s self-loathing and loves her anyway, and she forgives him and loves him even after he lets himself be convinced that she might be part ogre.  King Oscaro loves Queen Ivi, who is riddled with faults.  When we show characters fall in love despite their frailties, we create depth and move light years away from sappiness.

Another love and like-maker is admiration.  I usually – not always – respond in kind to being highly regarded.  I think better of the person who thinks well of me, and so can characters.  Being loved can be a turn-on.  In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland’s admiration sparks Henry Tilney’s love for her.

Fun can lead to love.  For this post, I looked at romantic moments in some of my books.  The heroes and heroines are having a terrific time together.  They thrive on being together.  Mutual admiration ricochets back and forth, and each feels at his and her best, wittiest, most interesting, handsomest-prettiest, most awake.

Underlying everything is the physical side of romance, the chemistry.  You can be subtle with this, too.  There is the heightened sense of being alive, which readers will recognize.  Pleasure in one another’s company has a physical aspect.  The two can simply stand near each other and feel the air shimmer between them.  Their eyes can meet.  Eye contact is powerful, can be hostile, can be romantic, especially if the gaze is soft.  In a romantic moment one character can notice his breathing become shallow, another can feel warm in a chilly room.  One or both can blush.  I just googled “signs of romantic attraction” and read that hair touching, licking lips (one’s own), dropping the gaze and then looking back, leaning toward the other person – all can be indicators that an author can use.

And you can make up your own.  For example, suppose Maryanne has a scar next to her right eye.  It’s tiny, but it embarrasses her.  When she’s attracted to a boy, she puts her hand on the spot to cover it.  Then she thinks that may look silly, so she takes her hand away and extends her face a little.  You, the writer, put her through this quick sequence a couple of times at a party to introduce it.  (You don’t want to overdo.)  Then, two days later, she sits next to a particular boy at a school play and does it.  The reader understands instantly what’s going on.

Or Jeff becomes clumsy in the presence of someone who interests him.  Stuart pulls his shoulders back and widens his stance.  Sharyn rises on tiptoe.

I heart making people fall in love!

Here are some prompts:

•    Working from the fairytale “Beauty and the Beast,” write an early scene between the two.  The Beast, although severely handicapped, wants to win Beauty over.  What does he do?  Contrive the scene so that he has at least a little success.

•    One half of a romantic relationship has hurt the feelings of the other.  Show the offender winning back the affections of his beloved.

•    It is the night of July 4th.  The graduating seniors of the town high school have collected to watch the fireworks.  Penny and Nick flirted for the last four years, but nothing came of it.  The next morning Penny will leave for an out-of-town summer with relatives, and in the fall she goes to a distant college.  She wants Nick to remember her forever as his lost opportunity.  (Maybe she’s a little annoyed at him for never making a move.)  What does she do?  Write the scene.  She may succeed or not.  Go with what happens.

Have fun and save what you write!

Change or stay just as you are

Big news:  My latest novel, the third in the Disney Fairies series, called Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, was released yesterday!!!!  I hope you’ll take a look at it.  The illustrations by David Christiana are gorgeous.  Hope you like the words and the pictures!

On March 18, 2010, Sage-in-Socks wrote, …Sometimes I find myself forcing a change in a character because I feel, to be a round, dynamic character he or she must change in some way by the end of the story. To what extent should a character change? Are subtle changes like a change of opinion also characteristic of dynamic characters? Or should a character by the end of the story be quite different from what he or she is like in the beginning? Are there any limits? I mean I wouldn’t want to /force/ a character to change or change her personality–I rather like their flaws.

From your description, Sage-in-Socks, it doesn’t sound wise to force change on a character.  Whatever growth comes about needs to arise from what the character does in a situation, what she thinks, feels, says.  It shouldn’t be a bitter – or sugary – pill she’s made to swallow.  Your character certainly shouldn’t do a one-eighty.  She still needs to be recognizably herself at the end.  And the changes can be small – yes, a change of opinion, maybe a new appreciation of poetry.

In Chapter 16 of Writing Magic I write about character change.  The chapter, called “Happily Ever After – Or Not,” is about endings, and in there I write that usually a character should change by a story’s finale.  Right at this particular moment, however, I’m not so sure.

Sometimes the reader absolutely does not want a character to change.  As a child, I gobbled up the books in the Cherry Ames series.  I did not want Cherry to switch even the color of her lipstick!  I loved her exactly as she was.

This is true of some series today, too, where the characters can be relied on to carry their foibles from book to book.  It’s absolutely true of comic strip characters.  Mysteries often fall into this category as well; the detective is the constant from story to story.  There are new crimes to solve, but the detective remains unaltered.  I hope to write more books following my mystery, A Tale of Two Castles.  My heroine Elodie will probably grow older and change, but I would like to keep the dragon Meenore essentially the same from book to book.

Ella’s character doesn’t vary much in the course of Ella Enchanted.  Because of her actions, her circumstances change, but she has much the same personality at the end of the book as she did when her mother got sick.  On the other hand, Addie, the heroine of The Two Princesses of Bamarre, is fundamentally altered as a result of her exploits, but I don’t think I did a better job with one heroine or the other.  Different stories have different effects on their characters.  And the degree of change may vary too.  In some stories a mere change of opinion will be exactly what’s needed.

Like so much else in writing, it depends.

Some rounded, dynamic, actual people – you know them – never change, some for the good, some for the bad.  The aunt you count on to listen and not judge goes on listening and not judging for years.  She is a rock.  The cousin who criticizes everybody continues to criticize, no matter how his harping damages his closest relationships.  He is a rock too, one with a painfully sharp edge.

Secondary characters can change, or not.  Their development may affect your story and your main character, but they’re not quite as important as your main, so I’m going to concentrate on your hero.

Sometimes, failure to adapt will result in tragedy.  In my novel Ever, Kezi’s view of the religion she grew up in evolves.  If she’d stuck to her original beliefs she would have been sacrificed to a god that the reader has come to doubt.  Even if Kezi herself didn’t, the reader would regard her death as a tragedy.

Arthur Miller’s amazing tragedy, Death of a Salesman (high school and above, I’d guess), is about a man who can’t see beyond his world view, who has staked his life on shallow values.  His values are shallow, but the play is very deep, complicated, and worth seeing or reading.

In a different story, one I’m making up this minute, tragedy might be averted by refusal to change.  Suppose a main character Marnie befriends a new boy at school.  Let’s call him Joe.  At first Joe is well liked, but then rumors begin to circulate about him, serious stuff:  he steals; he brought a knife to his former school; he lies about everything.  When Marnie doesn’t believe the rumors and continues the friendship, her other friends desert her, saying they’re afraid of Joe and are becoming afraid of her.  Even Marnie’s parents warn her against the boy, who is spiraling into depression.  Marnie hangs firm, doesn’t change, and her trust keeps Joe afloat against the accusations, which may be true or false.  If they’re true, Marnie may bring about change in Joe and help him become a better person.  Good grief!  This could be a soap opera!

Or it could go another way.  The rumors turn out to be true, and Marnie is hurt, but she still concludes that she did what was right.  Or aaa!  Marnie could be killed, and then her staunchness turns into a fatal flaw.

In some respects, Marnie will change whichever way the story goes.  She’ll learn more about her friends and about herself.  She may have a greater moral sense by the end of the story.  In most stories, your main character will change at least a little.  As the author, you can highlight the changes by having your main character reflect on them or having other characters point them out.  Or you can simply show your main character behaving in a new way.

So I guess my answer for this invented story is ambiguous and may be ambiguous in many stories.  If Marnie, in addition to her faithfulness, interrupts people often or bites her nails or needs to sleep with a nightlight, these aspects of her personality can remain untouched – or you can change them as evidence of her new maturity.  But you probably don’t want to change everything about her.  Let her keep the flaws you like.

Here are four prompts:

•    Your hero wants romance with someone artistic, attractive, and as much in love with baseball as he is.  He finds such a person, whom he likes, but this character falls short in some important ways.  Write the scene in which he assesses himself and his romantic ideas.  Does he change or not?

•    Your main character wants to reform herself, stop being bossy and become more caring.  Write a scene in which she completely fails at this self-improvement.

•    Superman gives up saving people.  Write the turning point that pushes him in this direction.

•    Wickham from Pride and Prejudice decides to no longer be a scoundrel.  Write the scene in which the change takes place or in which the seeds of change are sewn.  If you like, write a summary of how the plot develops after his transformation.

Fantastical research

Important blog note: If you go back to earlier postings – as I hope you do – please don’t post your comments or questions there.  I don’t check and may never see what you wrote.  Even if what you have to say concerns an old post, please add your comments to the most current one, where I’ll be sure to read it and so will the other writers who frequent the blog.

On March 17, 2010 April wrote, It sounds like you rely primarily on books for research, with online searching as a supplement or back up. Is this just your preference? Or do you think the kind of information you’re looking for is more trustworthy in a book? Or perhaps another reason?

And Priyanka wrote, April- my answer to you for that is that material you find in a cloth-bound book, which took a lot of time to edit and compile, is most probably more reliable than the majority of websites on the web, which probably got their own information from a book! (Take a look at the bibliography sections on well-written Wikipedia articles, they often have an extensive list of books.)
 

There are some exceptions for research online! I would trust anything I find in JSTOR or an online database such as EBSCO. I’m not sure how easily accessible those are for everyone, but high schools and universities usually have subscriptions to them, as do some public libraries. All it requires is a little searching! 🙂
I’m not an expert on research, so please keep my non-expertise in mind as you read.  I also don’t have access to university databases or live near a big public library, so I’ve never used the online databases Priyanka cites.  I do google the topics that interest me, and I use Wikipedia a lot, but the online sources that I find mostly give overviews.  When I want more depth, I read books.

As you guys probably know, most of my novels are fantasies.  Ever, for example, is set in a made-up version of ancient Mesopotamia.  To help me write it, I read two books about the period and visited the ancient Mesopotamian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  I also read Mesopotamian myths and reread the Greek myths.  I read the bible as well, which, among other things, contains information about ancient daily life.

But my purpose wasn’t accuracy, it was flavor and detail.  I didn’t mention Mesopotamia in the novel; the city of Hyte and the kingdom of Akka, where the action takes place, never existed.  If I used a detail from an online source that was wrong, it didn’t matter.

It helps me to have specific information when I write, even if the information is riddled with inaccuracies.  Reading that the houses of the period were made of baked mud helped me picture them (I’m pretty sure this detail is true).  I read about the layout of rooms, and that helped too.  If I’d discovered that these layouts were inaccurate, I would have tried to find out what was correct, but then if the correction didn’t suit my story needs, I would have gone back to what I knew to be wrong.  I make no claims of historical verity, and I hope no teacher has made Ever part of a curriculum of the ancient world.

An aside:  I found an online dictionary of ancient Sumerian and used it to invent names, places, and a few words.  But I worried that I might have accidentally created words that exist in modern Arabic or Farsi, and I couldn’t tell if the words happened to be offensive.  My publisher found a speaker of both languages to look at my inventions.  Turned out that a couple were real words, but nothing bad.

Another aside:  I discovered, online again, numbers as they would have been written in cuneiform.  So, above the ordinary Arabic numerals at the beginning of each chapter are the same numbers in cuneiform.  If you look, you can learn to write cuneiform numbers up to sixty-nine (the number of chapters in the book)!  I love that.

My fairy tale books from Ella Enchanted through Fairest are not set in any time period more specific than pre-industrial.  I did little research.  I looked at costume books, especially for Fairest, but I roamed from century to century to find gowns that fit what I wanted.  (Some of the fashions were completely ridiculous, which suited my story.  For a hoot, take a look at an illustrated fashion history book.)  For Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, I researched armor, but not extensively.

I have gotten letters from children, thanking me for teaching them about the middle ages through my books.  When I read these letters, I shudder and feel guilty.  So for A Tale of Two Castles, which April named on the blog, I did read two books about medieval daily life, and I referred constantly to a children’s book, Castle by David Macaulay, about castle architecture.  If kids write to me about the middle ages in that book I’ll feel a little better, although I still made things up.

Children’s nonfiction is a great source for gaining nontechnical understanding of a complex subject.  In For Biddle’s Sake a fairy turns characters into frogs, and I read two children’s books about frogs.  They told me everything I needed.

It’s important to note that although I’m writing from a European fairytale tradition, there is no Europe in my books.  My fairytale novels take place nowhere on planet earth.  Even though I researched frogs, if I’d wanted to give them wings or make each of them as big as tyrannosaurus rex, I could have.  If you do set your story in a real time and place, then I think you need to be accurate.  For example, suppose your fantasy takes place in sixteenth century France, even if you have dragons dotting the landscape, you need to be true in other respects to the place and time.

When I wrote my non-fantasy, realistic historical novel, Dave at Night, which takes place in New York City in 1926, I did extensive research and tried to get everything right.  I read several books about the period as well as poetry and a novel written at the time.  I spent days going through the photo collection at the main branch of the New York Public Library, looked at street plans of the time, visited the Tenement House Museum and spoke to the curator, visited the New York City Transit Museum and talked to an expert on mass transit during the era.  And much more.  Best of all, I had two friends with excellent memories who were alive at the time.  If you’re writing about a period that’s within living memory of your parents or grandparents or of people you can contact, talk to them.  They will give you details and a flavor of the time that you can’t get any other way.  But then fact-check their information.  When I was little, for example, I remember telephones being only black.  I would guess that they began to be produced in colors in the mid to late 1960s, but the change may have begun earlier.  Dates in memory are often slippery.

These prompts involve research.  If you want to surround them with a story, so much the better.

•    Some emergency has arisen during the night.  Your seventeenth or eighteenth-century daughter of a duke has to dress in a hurry.  Write about her getting dressed with as much historical accuracy about her clothing as you can find.  Remember, she is rushing.

•    Describe five minutes of a medieval feast with as much historical accuracy as you can.

•    A young squire (or female equivalent) is polishing his lord’s armor and decides to try everything on.  Once he’s outfitted, he mounts his lord’s charger, just as someone unexpected (you pick) enters the stable.  Write the whole scene, including what happens next.
           
Have fun, and save what you write!

I’m a boy!

On March 13, 2010, Mya wrote,  One more question:  Though I don’t know why, most of my characters are boys. The only problem with this is that sometimes, I can’t tell how TO write—think—like a boy to portray him correctly. Do you have any advice on writing from a different gender’s perspective?

And on April 21, 2010, Silver the Wanderer wrote,  I’m a girl, but my whole novel is written from the point of view of a guy. Sometimes, I’m afraid of making his thoughts and dialogue sound too girly and/or out of character. Do you have any suggestions pertaining to this?

If you’re a boy or man reading the blog, please post your ideas on this subject.

I’ve written from male points of view several times.  In my historical novel Dave at Night, the POV character is an eleven-year-old boy.  My loosely historical fantasy Ever alternates chapter by chapter between a male and a female character.  And my Princess Tales, while told in third person, shift back and forth in each book from the male and female leads.

Each of these male characters is different from the others, just as every real boy is different from every other boy.  Obviously same for girls.  As I wrote in my post about writing characters older than you, one sixty-year-old will not be like another, and certainly not just because both are sixty.

This gives you a lot of freedom.

In Dave at Night, the main character, Dave of course, is based on my father, whose name was also Dave.  I imagined my father as a boy, and as I wrote I had him firmly in mind.  Because I knew what kind of man he was – spunky, smart, kindhearted, stubborn, diffident – I was able to intuit the boy he would have been.  My father didn’t express his masculinity in bluster.  In the novel he defeats a bully, but not by fighting, by his wits.

So it may help you to have a particular boy or man in mind when you write your male character.  Or you can combine people you know.  Write down the qualities that make them themselves.  How might these characteristics mark them as male on the page?  Think of the way particular boys and girls or men and women in your life behave when they’re angry or arguing or when something lovely has happened.  Compare your male teachers with your female teachers or your male colleagues with your female ones.  Or the male and female members of your family.  Think not only of their inner selves, but also their outer.  Watch the way people stand, sit, walk, run.  Girls are sometimes accused of running or throwing “like a girl.”  Go beyond the stereotype to what you actually see.  Listen to conversations.  Obviously most males, once their voices change, speak in a lower register.  Listen to what’s said, what’s emphasized, which topics are chosen.

In my mystery, A Tale of Two Castles, coming out in 2011, the dragon Meenore keeps ITs gender secret, but, without intending to, I’ve made IT read more masculine than feminine.  In revision I’ve added a few touches to muddy matters.  IT bows to Count Jonty Um, the ogre, and then follows the bow with a curtsy.  I make IT like to play knucklebones (like jacks), a girl’s game.

These two examples are shortcuts rather than deeply rooted character traits.  We need shortcuts because we don’t have an eternity to establish our characters.  But shortcuts can tend toward stereotype, so use them with care.  Here are a few that come to my mind.  You can think of more of your own.  Many boys and men, even in our enlightened twenty-first century, are more restrained about crying and more embarrassed when they do cry than girls and women are.  In dialogue a male character may be less expansive about his feelings.  He may make them known, but maybe not in long paragraphs with many explanations.  He may use bigger gestures or have more explosive pent-up energy.  I once read that women laugh more in the presence of men, and that men are less likely to laugh at a woman’s jokes.  See if you find this to be true.  Along the same lines, I read that women want their men to be funny, and men don’t say they care if their women can make them laugh.  But of course these are generalizations.

It will help if you establish your character as male clearly at the start of your story.  Don’t give him a name that could belong either to a boy or to a girl, for example.  Find a way to describe him early on.  Say that he’s the shortest or tallest boy in his class, for instance.  Have somebody say something to him that demonstrates we have a guy here.  The reader will help you once she’s clued in.  Unless you go far off gender, whatever he says, she’ll hear your boy saying it.  Whatever he does, she’ll see your man doing it.

If your main character is male, you may have an easier time by writing in third person.  You’ll still have to reveal his thoughts and feelings, but you won’t be living inside his head and giving him your feminine ideas and responses.  If you’ve been writing in first, try switching to third and see what happens.

When you write a scene or when you go back to revise it, picture your character.  Does he read as male for you?  If not, what can you do?  Change his dialogue?  He may need to say whatever he was saying, but he can say it in different words.  Or maybe the setting is wrong, and simply by moving him, he will be changed.  Or you can give him something to do while the scene is moving forward that will feel masculine, assembling a model airplane, raking leaves, digging for buried treasure (not that girls can’t do any of these things).

When you’re ready, ask a guy to look at what you’ve written and point out to you where the character feels female.  If you’re never going to be ready to do this, you can be more subtle:  Ask a few people of both sexes how they think a male character would act and think and feel in the situation you’ve set up in your story.

This has been a touchy topic, because for every characteristic I suggest as masculine there are a lot of women who have it.  But it is the sum of the person that you’re going for, not one trait or another.  Blog readers, please chime in if you have more ideas for Mya and Silver the Wanderer.  If you are an actual man or boy, what do you think?

Here are prompts:

•    Your male main character is assigned to work on a project with another male character he dislikes.  Make up the project.  Write what happens.

•    A male character is trying to release his male friend from the clutches of a possessive female centaur.  Invent the circumstances:  where they are, what the centaur’s powers are, how the friend is trapped.  Write the scene in first person from his point of view.  Now write the same scene, making the male characters female and the female character male..

•    Write a male Cinderella story: two mean stepbrothers, a mean stepfather, a wizard godfather.  See where you take the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!