Monday, August 13, 2018

Ideas Can Come from Absolutely Anywhere

I have a confession to make.  I really, really love the Muppets.  I fell in love with Kermit the Frog on his very first appearance on THE TONIGHT SHOW, and I've followed the Muppets through the years including THE MUPPET SHOW.

One of my favorite characters is The Swedish Chef with his big jowls, bushy eyebrows, mustache, and cheery pseudo-Swedish gibberish.  

I have always felt that he looks like a Southern good ol' boy so in GUARDIAN ANGEL when I needed a secondary character who runs a restaurant, I had an evil thought.  Why not use the Swedish Chef as an inspiration?

Enter Bubba, proprietor of "Bubba’s Fine Swedish Food."  As a young soldier from North Carolina during World War Two, he spent time in Sweden and came home with a beautiful bride.  He also had a pile of medals for bravery. 

Bubba proved to be such a wonderful character that he made two more appearances in GUARDIAN ANGEL.

In this scene, Gard and Desta have left the FBI headquarters in Charlotte after being interviewed by Gard's former partner, Mark Faulkner, and hitmen begin to chase them.  

Desta trotted beside Gard down the long, neat alleyway behind the specialty shops. Four doors down, Gard stopped, glanced back for emerging goons, and knocked loudly on a metal security door.

The door swung open, and a man with a fat, rough face stuck his head out, regarded them with suspicion, and drawled in a thick country accent, “What you want, boy?” His eyes lit up with recognition. “Why, Gabriel, you old son of a gun.”

“Trouble, Bubba.” Gard motioned backwards. “Someone's after us.”

“Come on in then, son. Come on in with that pretty little lady.” Bubba swept open the door.

Desta darted through with Gard.

A bullet hammered into the door, but Bubba eased it closed as if things like this happened every day and bolted it shut. “That sucker’s made of steel. Take a Howitzer to bring it down.” He wiped his huge hands on the clean chef's apron stretched across his pot belly.

They were just inside a small restaurant kitchen. Pots boiled and simmered with interesting smells, but Desta couldn't identify any of the dishes in preparation. Her stomach rumbled with hunger; she hadn't managed to have lunch today. 

On a nearby preparation table was a menu with the unlikely name of “Bubba’s Fine Swedish Food—We Cater” imprinted in elegant gold letters on it. Big Bubba looked more like a local tobacco farmer than a Swedish restaurant owner and chef.

“They'll circle back around and come from the front,” Gard decided.

“Let ’em try.” Bubba unlocked a cabinet, pulled out a sawed-off shotgun, and strode toward the dining room.

“These are pros,” Gard warned and followed him. “Don't be foolhardy. Let me take care of them.”

“Hell, boy, I was dealing with pros before your pretty momma had you. You take the left, and I'll take the right.” He hunkered down in a little alcove on the right.

Desta trailed after Gard. The small dining room was empty of customers, the dozen tables cleaned up from the lunch crowd. With white linen tablecloths, candles, and elegant homey details, it was a charming place, probably popular with trendy area executives.

Wooden with a lattice covered glass window, the locked front door rattled violently.

“Get into the kitchen, Desta” Gard ordered and slipped into the small vestibule to the restrooms.

“I won't wait like a helpless mouse for them to find me. I'll stay with you.”

Gard opened his mouth to protest, but the door shook with the loud crunch of someone's foot battering against it. Grabbing her wrist, he yanked her behind him. “Stay out of sight.”

Scrunched into the space between his back and the front wall of the vestibule, she rubbed her wrist. She was getting extremely tired of him throwing and yanking her around, but now seemed a bad time to mention it.

Gard tensed, his gun hand going upright parallel to his chest in a marksman's stance, and he peeked around the door frame toward the front of the restaurant, then he jerked back.

Her heart whammed so violently with terror it threatened the structural integrity of her ribs. She whispered a little prayer to her celestial guardian angel for his human counterpart and her. Life had introduced too many sweet possibilities in the last two days, and she didn't want to die, and she especially didn't want Gard to die.

She added a quick prayer codicil of protection for Bubba the Swedish chef good ol’ boy.

Someone huge battered into the front door. The door's window shattered.

Jumping, she fumbled around inside her purse. Until that moment, she'd forgotten her pistol. Her hand wrapped around its handle, and her finger found the trigger, but she left it camouflaged within the purse. She had no intention of surrendering meekly to that hired killer with his psychotic eyes or of letting Gard face him alone.

“Bubba, get back into cover, you idiot,” Gard whispered loudly.

The door smashed open.

Bubba’s shotgun blast was followed by its second barrel.

A whimper of panic escaped, but Desta remained still, her hand firm on the gun.

A pistol shot from outside followed the shotgun in quick succession, and male voices shouted on the street.

Gard peered around the door frame.

Silence was deafening and lasted a hundred interminable years while they waited for the goons’ next move.

“They've gone,” Bubba announced cheerfully and strode into the restaurant dining area and toward the front door.

“Get back!” Gard motioned toward safety, but he was too late.

A scuffle shook the room as someone attacked Bubba. A lot of someones. Furniture crashed everywhere.

Gard jerked back into hiding, shoved Desta into a corner, his body shielding hers, his gun at the ready, and waited for them to come to him.

She could feel sweat dripping down Gard’s neck and the ragged whisper of his breath.

Someone finally came.

Gard spun, his body going into a gunman's crouch as he aimed his weapon.

The other gunman reacted as quickly, his body a mirror image of Gard’s deadly ballet-like grace.

Both men froze, their fingers just squeezing the trigger.

The other gunman was Mark Faulkner, Gard's expartner.

Mark unthawed first. With a grin, he lowered his gun. “Faulkner’s rule number five—”

“Never shoot the cavalry coming to your rescue.” Gard lowered his own gun. “What took you so long?”

“Even impromptu rescues take time. Lucky for you Peggy Altley lusts after your body and was watching you leave from the second floor, or we'd have never known.” He offered her a deadly lady-killer smile. “Hello, Desta. Nice seeing you again.”

“Hello, Mark.” Her hand slid away from her gun, and she pulled a hankie out and daubed at the rivers of makeup and sweat running down her face.

Gard walked out of the vestibule. “You can let Bubba up, Al. He owns this place. He's on our side.”

Three large men sat on Bubba’s prone body in the midst of broken and fallen tables, chairs, and debris. They eased off as if dismounting an untamed lion and backed away.

Unscathed, Bubba stood and shook himself. “Must be getting old. Used to take four or five to do that.”

Monday, August 6, 2018

Rolling the Monster DIce

All Julie wants is to be a professional dancer, but, when danger strikes near her several times, her family moves overnight from Atlanta to the small island where her parents came from, and she finds herself in a weird Stepford Wives community of perfection and strange secrets.  What is going on, why is her whole family lying to her, why can she produce electrical energy from her hands in times of danger, and how can she return to dance? 

The author rolls the monster dice and uses the results—the characters are fae/fairies even though they are nothing like any fae ever written.


Ann is starting medical school, but she’s distracted by the ghost of her father who appears before her several times.  Meanwhile, she’s noticed two men following her.  

The author rolls the monster dice and uses the results—the characters are aliens from another planet.


Mary is developing weird powers.  She can make light bulbs explode when she’s angry, and she’s starting to read minds.

The author rolls the monster dice and uses the results— Mary is a born vampire.

These are recent examples of books I tried to read where the author seems to be setting up unusual paranormal creatures and situations, then, out of nowhere, calls them by a common monster name although nothing about them is like any of the folklore of that creature.  

Beyond the sheer annoyance at the out-of-nowhere identification of the characters and the total lack of knowledge at what these traditional creatures are, these books are wasted opportunities at offering something different to readers jaded by too many vampires, fae, and aliens among us.  

When you are worldbuilding, make up your mind whether you will follow, at least partially, the tradition of some creature or whether you will make your own creature, and stick with this decision instead of randomly redefining established creatures.  

Monday, July 30, 2018

Chat and Twitter as Dialogue

QUESTION: I need to include multiple lines of on-line chat dialogue in my story. My question is about rendering the punctuation of it.

For example, in a rapid fire online chat exchange with short snappy one word answers, in real life, the writers would be unlikely to use much punctuation including periods. Can I eliminate them in my rendition of it to the page?

As long as what you write is clear to the reader, I see no problem with doing the punctuation or lack of it as you wish. Just be consistent.

One thing to consider is who your reader is. If your book is aimed at younger readers, they will be much more comfortable with nonstandard punctuation than the older reader.

To differentiate the chat dialogue from the regular text, I suggest you narrow the margin on both sides of the page by another inch and use names in the same way as in movie and play scripts.

JANET: OMG OMG Dirk asked me to the prom.

MARY: WTF He asked me, too!

Emoji images are something you should avoid.  Some are copyrighted to be used for pleasure and individual sharing, and a for-profit use in a book would be illegal.  Also, the inserted code may very well not be translated so your reader will be left with code gibberish instead of images.  

NOTE:  This advice should work for any of the many new ways to communicate with smart phones, etc.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Starting the First Novel

QUESTION:  I have an idea for my story, the characters, and most of the plot, but I’m afraid to start, and I really want to.  What’s my problem?

Thirty odd years ago, I finally decided it was time to begin writing that novel I'd always wanted to write.  I started out with lots more advantages than the average writer.  I'd taken writing courses in college, I'd written poetry and short stories for years, and I'd been an English major.

Those first pages were nearly impossible for me.  I felt like I was writing it in my own blood.  Everything I'd ever learned about writing seemed to have vanished from my brain, and I struggled just to get words down on the page to tell the story I wanted to tell. I had absolutely no confidence in myself as a writer.  

Then about six months into writing and a fourth of a way through the novel, something clicked inside me, and I realized I could do this.  My confidence came back, and the story began to pour out of me onto the page.  I finished the novel in under six weeks.  

Yes, the novel had major problems, my craft stunk, and the novel wasn't remotely publishable, but I'd finished it.  I began to rewrite it using what I'd learned as I wrote.  The novel has never been published, but few first novels are or should be published.  They are practice rounds.  

Without the Internet and all those online classes and experts as well as critique partners we have now, I had to struggle to figure out my craft on my own, and my first sold book was my seventh.  

The point is that most writers struggle with the writing.  It takes work and courage to put words on the page.  It takes even more work to make your craft competent.  But you have to start somewhere.  

Write the story and don't worry if it's not good enough.  Rewriting can take care of the flaws.  Teaching courses and good critique partners can hone your craft.

If you have to write and have to tell the characters' stories, then the work is more than worth it.

Here's a favorite quote from Nora Roberts who has written a zillion books, all of whom hit the bestseller lists.

"I'm just starting [a new book] and the battle has already begun.  I don't think they ever go smoothly. It's work. It should be work.  It should be hard work. I think if you sort of sit around and wait to be inspired, you're probably going to be sitting there a long time. My process is more about crafting, working an idea through my head to see if it's a good concept." Nora Roberts in an interview with the "Hagerstown Herald-Mail."

Monday, July 16, 2018

Life Experience and Writing

QUESTION:  Do I really need real world experiences to write fiction?  In other words, can I write a fight scene if I’ve never hit anyone or been hit?

Real life experiences can certainly inform your fiction and give it realism, but I don’t think it is absolutely necessary.

I have written space battles without being an astronaut, diving scenes and I can't swim, and fight scenes using swords, fists, and futuristic weapons, and I have never used any of them.  (I am a pretty good shot, though.)

I've never had the first reader tell me that I got any of my fight or action scenes wrong.

I have never been punched, but I used to ride.  I have had a horse smash her head into me. I've been kicked and knocked into a tree.  I’ve also had a six-hundred-pound horse fall on me then step on me when she was getting up.  

All that has given me more than enough visceral information about taking physical abuse to use in my writing.

I got my diving scene right through research, then I ran the scene past friends who do dive to check for accuracy.  

However, the more you write about something in particular, say your main character is a diver who spends much of the novel underwater looking for a treasure, the more important having personal experience is.  This is particularly true for a real-life task that readers may have experienced themselves.

As a non-swimmer who has never dived, I would never choose a main character who spends important parts of the book underwater because no amount of research will keep those scenes as authentic as they need to be.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Making Your Characters Sound DIfferent

QUESTION:  My critique partners say most of my characters sound alike in dialogue.  Help!

Cast all your characters with actors you are very familiar with so you can hear their voices when you write dialogue.  Unless you have a tin ear for speech, you will rarely have two characters sound alike.

When you pick your actor, consider what part of the country or country of origin your character is from.  Make sure their voices reflect that. You don’t want an actor from DOWNTON ABBEY to play a cop from Philly.

Writing dialogue as what it sounds like rather than the proper spelling is frowned upon these day unless used very sparingly so don’t go overboard with phonetic spelling ("Yo' ole father doan' know yit what he's a-gwyne to do. Sometimes he spec he'll go 'way, en den agin he spec he'll stay.”--from HUCKLEBERRY FINN) or apostrophes to show words that are slurred together. (“If’n you think, I’s stupid.  You be wrong!”)

If you aren’t that familiar with a region’s speech, be very careful how you write it because it’s easy to stereotype or get it wrong.  For example, most of us in the Southern US don’t use “y’all” that often, and when we do in very informal speech, it’s plural meaning more than one “you.”   (Jennifer turned to her cousins and smiled sweetly, “Y’all come home with me and have some supper.”  Her voice turned frosty as she glared at her brother.  “You don’t come, period.”)

You should also consider social class and education.  Someone with a college education and an upper middle class background won’t sound the same as someone who never finished high school whose parents never finished high school.

Read your dialogue aloud or in your head to see if you’ve got different voices, or ask a few friends or family to read your dialogue like a play to see how it sounds.

Another good test is one line of dialogue that isn’t attributed to who is saying it.  If a reader can tell who is saying it by how and what is said, then you’ve succeeded at your task.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Adding a Romantic Partner

QUESTION:  I’m writing an action adventure novel and someone told me I needed to add a girlfriend for my hero so he could save her and win her love.  What do you think?

One of the problems with the hero getting the girl/love object in the end is that it harkens back to the idea that the girl is only a sex partner/thing to be won, not an active participant who deserves the happy ending.  The passive love/sex partner really annoys most readers who find it either sexist or boring.  

If you put the girl/sex partner in, you have to make this character a participant in the story in a very important way, and she must be more than a sex object/prize.

My own advice is that it isn't romance but love that makes a novel stand above others.  The main character must love— be it a romantic partner, his family, or some ideal like his country.  That love must drive what the character does and what the character is, or the novel lacks the something that makes it more than a quick read that is quickly forgotten.