Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rabbit Trails and Red Herrings

Rabbit trails are enticing. It's easy to leave the path, travel a few steps, look back to the original path then continue along the rabbit trail. What's the motivation?  New, exciting enticements planted along a trail which leads away from the path.

I turned on the radio as a speaker introduced his speech.  The title piqued my interest.  The speaker opened with an amusing story which drew laughter from the audience.

He gave his first point then illustrated with a personal example.  He went on and on and on and on. The audience laughed.  I did too, at first. Then I wondered, what does this story have to do with the topic?  Why did the speaker spend the last fifteen minutes telling a story and spawning other illustrations which drove listeners away from the point? I couldn't stand it any longer, I changed the station.

Rabbit trails take readers through a maze of seemingly related anecdotes, metaphors, illustrations, examples, and models intended to support a point.  These fluff and stuff scenes pad word counts and ultimately bore readers. I grabbed my WIP to search for rabbit trails sprinkled through my text.  Aack!  Gack! I had to save an editor from slashing these rabbit trail scenes.

Red Herrings, by contrast, provide parallel scenerios convincing the reader of a plausible bend in the plot. Mystery writers use red herrings a lot. But, other writers use this tool as well.  The wizard in The Wizard of Oz, sent Dorothy and her friends on a mission to get the Wicked Witch of the West's broom.  He knew the broom wouldn't provide the way home for Dorothy, courage for Cowardly Lion, a brain for Scare Crow, or a heart for Tin Man. 

The wizard used the broom as a red herring to make Dorothy leave.  Little did he realize, the adventure would provide their true hearts' desires. This Red Herring provided the spice to the story (and caused many kids like myself to hide their faces when the monkeys came...and yes, that was a rabbit trail comment :) )

How can we test if a scene is a red herring?

1. The scene leads back to the story:     Dorothy left the Emerald City, found the broom, and delivered it back to the Emerald City.

2. The scene parallels the main story in direction:     Mystery writers challenge readers by setting up false clues while embedding grains of truthful evidence. The ultimate goal is to determine "whodunit."

3. The scene adds spicy sidebar to the story:  The battles for Middle Earth in J. R. R. Tolkien's  Lord of the Rings, adds spice as a red herring.

4. The scene brings out possible solutions:  Gaston from Beauty and the Beast rallies the townspeople to rid evil by killing the beast.

Have you woven red herrings into your WIP?  How has your red herring added the oomph needed to hold your reader's attention?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Do You Use The White, Spaces?

When was the last time you picked up a book to read and became so overwhelmed by all the words on the pages you began to skim? That thick, dark block of text is hard to wade through, isn't it?

The use of white space is a lesser known structural writing device that is too often overlooked. We read all the time in writing craft books about plot, structure, characterization, and hooking the reader, but it is a rare occurrence to read about white space.

White space is something we need in our manuscripts. When we have pages and pages of narrative, we bore the reader. We need shorter paragraphs to help the reader process the story and keep them interested. It gives their eyes a break and keeps them jumping to the next paragraph.

You might think about having a "one sentence paragraph". This one sentence gives more of an impact when standing alone in the midst of white space.

A good way to keep more  white space in your story is to use dialogue within the narrative. This not only gives more white space, but increases the action and allows you to show who the character is, rather than tell about the character in the narrative. Plus, dialogue keeps the reader reading!

And that is what we writers want, right? That's why we have people read our stories. So let the white space rule over your manuscripts and may the eyes of your readers soak in your beautiful prose.

Do you actively incorporate white space in your manuscripts? Or do you prefer more descriptive narratives?


Sunday, June 27, 2010

What's Up the Street For Next Week?

Happy Sunday, everyone.

Grab a water-gun and get ready for a splashing-good time here on The Writers Alley. There’s always a spray of excitement around here. And our upcoming guests for July are a BLAST!

Monday- Pepper fires off the week asking the question: How Do You Like Your Stakes? What some of the best writers have to say about raising the stakes in your fiction. Personally Pepper prefers her steaks med-well, but the only way to write effective stakes is well-done :-)

Tuesday – Sherrinda talks about White Space and why readers love it. Is that anything close to white noise? Or what about a white dwarf? Snow White? Sorry, getting a bit off topic here.

Wednesday – Don’t get lost along the way, as Mary talks about Rabbit Trails and Red Herrings.

Thursday – Casey gets tough with her post called Hitting the Word Count Every Single Day. (Or as tough as Casey ever gets. She’s much too sweet to get too tough :-)
Friday – Come ready to learn and laugh with Krista’s post Shoot! I Forgot the Fourth.

Saturday – Oh what Fun! Cowboys and romance have never been better! Welcome author Mary Connealy as she talks about characters and quirks. She’s giving away her new book Doctors in Petticoats. Stop by for your chance to win.


July 10 - Welcome Author Vickie McDonough as she posts about Developing Characters Using Archetypes.

July 17 - Kathleen Y'Barbo teaches us the imporance of adding the five senses to our writing. Her newest release looks absolutely breathtaking.

July 24 - Join Shawna Williams as she discusses e-publishing and her writing journey.

July 31 - Big hats and corsets? Donna Winters drops by to chat about women's fashion from 1900-1905.


Casey’s been busy. If you haven’t visited her Operation: Encourage An Author, you can learn more about it on July 13th in an interview at Reflections in Hindsight.

Mary's blog invites you for Monday: Summer tip #3 - How to tell neighbors and summer friends about Jesus.
Wednesday and Saturday: Imagine living to be 130 years old. Shortly after your birthday you move to a new home with seventy relatives (plus a few) to another country where a different language is spoken, different foods are eaten, and the people wear different clothing. Read these exciting Bible retellings at God Loves Kids

It’s the last week for Sizzling First Encounters on Pepper’s Blog, Words Seasoned With Salt. And the WEEK. IS. FULL! Siri Mitchell, Missy Tippens, Audra Harders, Jamie Carie, Kaye Dacus, and Tina Pinson. Stop by and check it out.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Special Guest Saturday: Lena Nelson Dooley on Her Publication Journey

Things I’ve Learned on My Publishing Journey
by Lena Nelson Dooley

As a beginning author, I had a lot to learn. I’ve always been a storyteller so that came naturally. I believe authors are created by God in their mother’s womb. However, just as sports figures and singers and actually anyone with a God-given talent, we have to learn the craft. And that takes time. For some, more time than others. But by honing your skills, you move steadily toward publication.

I’ve learned to really love my readers. Many of those who are real fans have become friends. But I also love the readers who aren’t really fans of my work. I learn from their comments, and I pray for them when they contact me. Without readers, books cannot be published.

Critique partners are very important to me. They help me see the flaws in my story so I can correct them. My critiquers are also my special friends now. We connect. We fellowship. We pray together. We grow together.

I’ve learned to appreciate the help that agents give an author. My agent has become a dear friend to me as well. She has helped me grow.

I started out intimidated by editors. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was to realize that editors wouldn’t have a job if it weren’t for authors writing books. We’re partners in creating the work of fiction. I welcome their valuable input. And my editors have become my friends.

I love other authors. I learn from those who’ve been in the business longer than I have. And I help the new authors coming along beside us.

Do you see a pattern here? Our writing life gets better when we value efforts of others as much or more than we value our own efforts.

And above all else, I’ve learned that I’m a better author when I stay connected to the One who gave me the talents in the first place. God has led me places I wouldn’t have been able to go without Him.

A wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, Lena is also a fulltime writer, speaker, and book reviewer. Lena's books that are currently available: Minnesota Brothers, Pirate's Prize, Never Say Never, A Daughter's Quest, The Spinster and the Cowboy (Spinster Brides of Cactus Corner), Can You Help Me? (Carolina Carpenter Brides), Christmas Confusion (Montana Mistletoe), Who Am I?, The Best Medicine (Snowbound Colorado Christmas), Wild Prairie Roses, The Prairie Romance Collection, Cranberry Hearts, The Spinster Brides of Cactus Corner (Large Print edition), Can You Help Me? (Large Print Edition), Charlsey's Accountant (Wild West Christmas), No Thank You (Christmas Love at Lake Tahoe), A Daughter's Quest (Large Print edition).

Friday, June 25, 2010

Follow the Yellow Brick Rules

We've all heard of them. They are the "writing" rules that we, as newbie writers, need to pay attention to and follow. They are taught at writing conferences, preached in craft of writing books, scribbled in the margins of a critique, and typed in the notes of a contest judge.

But, we've also heard all the moaning about the rules. They stifle our creativity. They inhibit our voice. They are ignored by famous published authors, so why do we have to follow them? And who in the world makes these "rules" anyway?

All of these are valid questions. And *ahem* I'll attempt to answer them today. Beware though: You may not like the answers!

Myth #1: They stifle our creativity.
The rules shouldn't stifle you. If they do, something is wrong. In your creative mode, the rules should be in the back of your mind. Your first draft is totally allowed to break them. Get the story down. The editing stage is when you should REALLY start looking to see what works and what doesn't. Did telling make a scene boring? Can your writing be tighter if you resist the urge to explain? Do you have five was's in a row that make you writing sound weak? Find those things in the EDIT stage, not the WRITING stage.

Myth #2: They inhibit our voice.

This is a half-truth. If you let the rules direct you during the writing stage, your voice may be tampered. If you care more about pleasing a contest judge and less about writing a riveting, compelling story, then your voice might croak a little. Again, the answer is this: Write using your voice, edit using rules.

Myth #3: They are ignored by famous writers.

Why can established and famous writers break the "rules" and we can't? Well, there are a few reason for that.
  • These writers already have a proven audience who are used to the "old" way.
  • Writing "rules" change and develop. Many of these writers started writing BEFORE we knew what head-hopping was.
  • Readers don't know what rules are. They just know if they like the story.
  • I'm convinced this is the biggest reason: Many famous/experienced writers know how to break the guidelines in style. It's like that famous actress who wears something we could NEVER pull off, but they look phenomenal in it. Conversely, sometimes they wear something that looks stupid, but because they are famous, we forgive them:-)
Myth #4: No one knows who makes the rules.

Easy answer: Readers and Editors. Readers know what they like to read. Editors make it their job to know what pleases readers and what will sell. Eventually, the trends trickle down to us writers in the form of what we call rules.
So, here's the other thing.

There is NO SUCH THING as a writing rule. There is no big writing rule book that must be followed. In fact, I've heard several people say, "The only rule is that there are no rules" and I totally agree!

They are, in fact, guidelines. Things to keep in mind while writing. Take every rule you hear and do this.

When you see the word "Always" replace it with "Usually."
When you see the word "Never" replace it with "Sparingly."
When you see a command, add "Most of the time, you need to ____" at the beginning.


There is always a but, isn't there? I've seen many writers (including myself) use the fact that these are "guidelines" as an excuse for bad writing, which is a big no-no!

The way to combat this is with a GOOD editor and/or with GOOD critique partners, ones who understand that the rules are guidelines and won't ding you for each and every was, won't ask you to "show and not tell" in every single spot even when it would be *yawn* worthy to "show", but will honestly tell you when things just aren't working or when you've colored too far out of the lines. These partners won't tickle your ear with unnecessary praises, but will give you honest, balanced feedback, both the good and the bad.

I'm curious. What is the one rule you have the HARDEST time following? Conversely, what is the one rule that is easy for you?

For me, the hardest is a toss up. I suppose repetitive words and the use of "was" rates up there, as well as RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain.)

The easiest is no head-hopping. I am very linear and analytical, so staying in one POV is very comfortable to me, and I can usual spot a POV slip a mile away when critiquing a novel.

What about you?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Guest Post: Historical Accuracy with Jill Eileen Smith

Historical Accuracy

by Jill Eileen Smith

History is story. And stories are about people. Take historical facts, keep them accurate, then dress them up – one in blue, the other in gray and set them at odds with each other in the same family during the Civil War – one defending a livelihood, the other defending a people, and you’ve just snagged my interest. But if you want to keep that interest, the author’s attention to historical detail must carry through the entire novel.

Case in point. I was reading a historical novel set in biblical times a few months ago, which included scenes involving religious rituals of an ancient culture. The descriptions were rich and colorful, and put me there. The religious ceremonies (though foreign and pagan to biblical thinkers) were interesting to “see” and understand. If the author got her facts straight, she was doing a great job of letting me envision a different culture.

But when she got to some of the facts in the Bible, I found some blatant errors. Where the Bible named someone specifically as having done something, she had the act done by someone else. Since I believe the Bible to be accurate history, she lost me with those errors. Writers of historical fiction need to do their homework and double and triple check facts to make sure they get things as right as possible. That is not to say we will never make mistakes, but we should do our best not to.

This carries over into little things a writer might at first overlook. For instance, if I’m writing about 1000 B.C. during King David’s reign, I’m stepping into a whole different world. While the characters may live and love and struggle as we do today, they were not modern in the things they used. In truth, they would not even think as we do today, though figuring out their mindset can be much harder than understanding what implements they used in daily living.

The writer of historical fiction must be aware of all of these things, but one of the easiest to overlook are modern terms we use without thinking. For instance, we might be used to saying A minute later…but “minute” should be “moment” because they would not have measured time in minutes then. The same is true for words like miles, inches, yards. Fabrics were never mixed in Israel, and cotton did not grow there. Rayon and polyester and other synthetics, of course, were unheard of and undiscovered. It’s debatable whether they knew of silk at the time. Their clothes were made mainly of wool or linen. These may seem like small things, but they add up to credibility. Even verbs like “inched” as in, She inched closer to the door, straining to hear, can’t be used because “inch” was not a unit of measure at that time, so the verb would not fit.

Thanks so much to Jill for stopping by to write such a helpful articale! I know we can all of us who have written or writing historical fiction know how hard it is to keep things acurate, so thank you!
Do you have a question for Jill? She will be visiting us here on the Writer's Alley today, so don't be shy!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Staying True to Your Message

Have you ever heard an instrument off key? I have… my own. My first response to the clamor is to flee, cover my ears, escape. I know, it’d be better if I’d simply tune it.

Like an out of tune instrument, I can get out of tune with the message in my writing and solicit similar reactions...a manuscript plopped down on a desk; a rejection stamp on the front page; a shrug from the mailman as he stuffed the envelop in my box.

It’s easy to get off track, to see something shiny--or a squirrel as I write. John Bunyan’s characters, Christian and Hopeful, found themselves locked in a giant’s dungeon after getting distracted and choosing to leave the straight and narrow way. Fortunately I’ve never had to flee a giant to get my story back on track, then again, in a way I did.

A reader can sense when I take a left turn. At the end of a novel I recently read, the author added a component to wrap-up the story. It didn’t fit. It stole away a message paved and groomed on previous pages. I never finished the last chapter, and haven’t recommended the book. I’d rather edit those giants out before it’s too late.

Last week, Casey shared a bit about her character Jenna. "This is what makes Jenna act the way she does. Her biggest fear is that someday her husband will stop loving her and Jenna does not want to lose her husband like her mother lost her father. She is driven to keep her husband’s love, to the point of never telling her husband about the baby that isn’t his. Because she saw what losing her father’s love did to her mother, and she will not turn into the woman her mother is."  To me, a message of struggle and hope rang clear in this discription of Jenna. A concept anyone could identify with in varying degrees.

This made me think about my WIP. Am I simply writing a story that goes from beginning to middle to end? Will I exhaust my readers with endless action that crescendos from page one and peaks on the last page or is there a message a reader can whittle out and make their own?

Cinderella is a favorite story of mine loaded with good messages. It seems to pop in my mind whenever I dust. I totally hate dusting. From this I’ve seen a well-crafted message sticks with readers long after the last page is turned—even when dusting


1. Ask: What is my message? Is there something for the reader to take away?

2. Research my manuscript:

     a. Did my characters hold to the message? In the novel I mentioned above, a dad and mom appeared in a setting and said things not typical of their stature. The impact changed the tone of the message.

     b. Did my plot reflect the message? Sometimes a rabbit trail pulls the reader away from an established message. Red Herrings are different.

     c. Did my setting, action, and dialogue reflect the message? Maybe I got caught up in the excitement and let a character do something they couldn’t--shouldn’t--wouldn’t do.

3. Ask your critique partner or group what the message is. Based on their answer, smile and pat yourself on the back or tweak your manuscript.

I must say the idea for this post came from a recent Bible study I heard on the radio. The speaker spoke about marketplace missions. He asked if we lived true to our message. It struck me that this affects my writing as well. I truly want to live God’s message in my writing, whether the work is for the Christian or secular market. This doesn’t mean I need to shove the Gospel down my reader’s throat. But, it does mean I need to watch for opportunities to appropriately share, as Jesus did.

How have you kept your writing true to the message for the specific work? How do you live God’s message in your writing?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Editing Paragraphs

I've been editing my manuscript this past week and it has been difficult. I admit I don't see my problems like I should, especially when it comes to paragraph structure.

My father is an author, editor, and ghost writer in the CBA market and he graciously edited my first four chapters when I finished my first manuscript. It was a lot of work for him and since he usually has many deadlines himself, I asked him to stop and get his own work finished. Poor guy, he was really nice in his edits, but he had a lot of things to say. Here is what he said about my paragraphs:

What I’m trying to do here is give your sentences more elegance, more connectivity to each other, and a little more drama. The sentences need a certain balance and rhythm. I can’t clearly describe what I mean, but you will develop an ear for it. Sometimes it helps to say your sentences as you put them down. 
Hhhmm, that's a little vague, isn't it? As a new writer, how am I supposed to know what it is supposed to sound like? I'm reading through my work as I edit and for the most part and thoroughly enjoying myself. So what does he mean? Well, he went on and gave me questions to ask myself as I write, or in my case, edit. 

Are they as expressive as they could be? 
Could the verbs and nouns be more vivid without going over the edge? 
On the other hand, have I used meaningless, unnecessary words in order to achieve rhythm and balance? 
Does this sentence sound a little trite? 
Do the sentences feel balanced?
Does this sentence end too abruptly? 
Is it constructed so that the action it describes is sequenced correctly? 
Have I repeated words or phrases (other than “and”, “the”, etc.) that I used in sentences close by? 
Does the sentence build toward its climax or trail off, diluting the meat of the sentence? 
Am I showing or merely telling? 
Are all the actions and words consistent with the personality and deeper motivations of the characters? 
Are all their actions and words rationally motivated? 

There’s a lot to think about in constructing each paragraph and each sentence within it. I'm sure it takes several passes through your work to see all the problems it has, and even then you will probably miss some! But hopefully, this list of questions will help you focus as you edit.

Monday, June 21, 2010

What do you need?

Well, we’re going to talk about needs today – so I think I’m in ‘need’ of some cyberfare. How about donuts? A mix of chocolate, blueberry, and good-ol glazed. Throw in a bowl of fresh strawberries from the farmers market down the street and I think that’s a good start.


We all have them and our characters shouldn’t be any different.

In Diann Mills lectures on characters, she talks a lot about how needs influence your characters and your story.

There are basic needs that we all adjust and define as we develop our characters. And to provide the conflict needed to keep a story going for 50,000 words, your characters must have unmet needs. When our characters have unmet needs, the reader feels an emotional connection. Emotional connection is vital.

Emotion comes out of conflict and conflict is the heart of a good story.
As a writer, if we can develop some unmet needs in our characters, we’ll hopefully build an emotional connection with our readers, as well as a more three-dimensional character.

So, what are some needs to consider as you create your characters?

1. Survival – Is your character’s life in some sort of danger? Is he/she sick? Is there something placing his life in jeopardy?

2. Security – This has to do with the need for emotional and economical stability. Is there anything going on in your story where your hero is close to emotional bankruptcy? Needy in the emotional realm? For example, my heroine’s husband left her for a younger woman. She is emotionally insecure because of it.

3. Sex- The need for physical intimacy. Basically every human wants this. Not necessarily the physical act of sex, but what it represents – closeness.

4. Significance – The need to feel important in the world, perhaps even prove oneself.

5. Self-hood/esteem – need to know who you are, and a need for goals, achievement, and/or recognition.

6. Belonging – The need to be loved. This goes along well with #2 (emotional security). In my wip, my heroine doesn’t have a ‘home’ and despite what she says, she longs for a place to call home. A place to belong.

7. Self-Actualization – the need to live up to one’s fullest potential. Win the goal. For some reason I thought of Eric Liddel, Olympic runner, who knew what he wanted and went for it – both spiritually and physically.

Okay – so it’s a short and simple list, but if you really think about it, these are some complex needs. Can you list one or more needs for you hero or heroine?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

What's Up the Street For Next Week?

Happy Weekend everybody! I thought we’d enjoy some scenes from the fairgrounds today. Carnivals and fairs are happening everywhere, you know. Rides, clowns, cotton candy. The smell, the sounds, the food – the stomachache afterward ;-)

Do you have any great memories from the carnival?

Mmm, roasted peanuts and funnel cakes. Love the smell.

Well, we may do a lot of clowning around here at The Writers Alley, but we do take our writing seriously – most of the time.

Here’s a look at our plans for next week.

Monday – Memorable characters have needs. Pepper takes some tips from DiAnn Mills course on writing romance to discuss the basic needs of a character and how you can use those to make your characters more three-dimensional.

Tuesday – What do you do when you aren't sure what you're looking for when editing? Sherrinda has been trying to figure that out and will share with you what she has come up far.

Wednesday – Mary encourages authors to Stay True to Your Message.

Thursday – Jill Eileen Smith joins us today to talk about Historical Accuracy.

Friday – When it comes to writing, how do you know when to follow the rules and when to follow your heart? Krista talks about the options and opportunities in her post, Follow the Yellow Brick Rules

Saturday – Lena Nelson Dooley guests with us this week to talk about her publishing experience. Stop by and learn more about Lena and her brand new book, Love Finds You in Golden, New Mexico


Mary Connealy starts off July with a visit to The Writers Alley on July 3rd AND she's giving away her BRAND NEW BOOK Doctors in Petticoats. Make sure you stop by for your chance to win.

July 10 - Welcome Author Vickie McDonough as she discusses writing a male point of view.

July 17 - Kathleen Y'Barbo teaches us the imporance of adding the five senses to our writing.

July 24 - Join Shawna Williams as she discusses e-publishing and her writing journey.

July 31 - Big hats and corsets? Donna Winters drops by to chat about women's fashion from 1900-1905.


On Mary's blog this week:
Monday's I'm Bored Tip for this week is Make a mission's trip. It will help kids and families set up their own mission's trip.
On Wednesday and Saturday, read about an elderly man, whose eyes had grown blind, and his journey to Egypt to see his long lost son.

On Operation Encourage an Author, stop by and learn about Lisa Lickel at

For the month of June, Pepper will have a Blog Series called “Sizzling First Encounters” on her personal blog at We've been having loads of fun with fantastic conversation and even a few giveaways.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Special Guest Saturday: Margaret Daley on Writing Suspense

By Margaret Daley

An inspirational romantic suspense has three main elements: a suspense or mystery, romance and faith element. For me that means I have to juggle three aspects of a story within a 275 page manuscript. Not an easy task and one that requires a lot of planning and thought. In a suspense pacing is so important. A reader expects to be taken on a merry ride where the hero and heroine are threatened, running for their lives, trying to solve something, trying to save someone. In a mystery, which I call a whodunit, the action might be more sedate but not necessarily. My stories often combine the elements of a suspense and a mystery.

A romantic suspense is usually fifty percent suspense and fifty percent romance. So often the problem arises when you are working your way through the suspense part of your book and you forget to have your hero and heroine fall in love. It can be harder to show it when they are being threatened or running for their lives. But if you have a furious pace throughout your book, it will overload your readers. I have read many romantic suspense books and there should always be moments of down time. That can be when you build the romance between your hero and heroine. Even when they are running for their lives, it is a good thing to keep them emotionally connected and aware of each other.

In an inspirational romantic suspense you must also delve into the spiritual growth of your hero and heroine. I find it is easier in a romantic suspense because of the heightened action and often the life and death aspect of these type of stories. We turn to the Lord in times of trouble and when we need Him. This can feed very naturally into your story.

But again I will stress because you have to juggle faith, romance and suspense, you must plan. In a lot of stories you will need to give false information and clues as well as real ones. Readers like to have a chance to figure out who is behind all the commotion in your story. I do realize some suspense (not mystery) books the reader will already know who the villain is and that is fine. An example is the heroine being stalked by an ex-husband or ex-boyfriend. She knows who he is, but she is in grave danger.

So where do you start? The first thing I usually come up with is a premise for my story. Sometimes it can be something as simple as a favorite setting like the jungle in Heart of the Amazon or an occupation in my Guardians, Inc. series starting in December 2010 for Love Inspired Suspense. This series is about female bodyguards. In So Dark the Night I came up with the premise what would happen to a sister who witnessed her brother’s murder and fled the scene with the killers after her. Or in Vanished, the premise was what would happen if a sheriff had to be both lawman and father when his daughter is kidnapped by someone from his past. Usually it is easiest to come up with some kind of concept and build a story from there.

A great way to learn about writing inspirational romantic suspense books is to join writing organizations that educate and support writers in networking and learning the craft. American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW at ) is a wonderful place to connect with others who love to write Christian fiction.

My next romantic suspense from Love Inspired Suspense is Christmas Bodyguard in December 2010 and Trail of Lies in April 2011. Visit my Web site at  to see more articles about writing and to read about my upcoming books. Also visit my blog at  to read author interviews and have an opportunity to win a book in weekly drawing.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Characters and Sandwiches... gotta love 'em!

I love my characters.

Yes, all of them, even the villains. I figure that's okay since they are fictional, plus God tells us to love our enemies, right?

This week, the shopkeepers in the Writer's Alley have given you a sneak peek at their beloved characters and what makes them unique.

See, the thing with characters is this: They are the ultimate oxymoron.

We need unique characters that stand out and are not cliche, including hero's women can swoon over, heroines we can cheer for, and villains we can throw darts at.

However, we also need characters that are believable and relatable.

My friends... sometimes that is HARD. And I'd even argue, almost impossible. There is always going to be that reader who says, "That character is crazy, I totally can not relate to him/her." About that same character, someone else might say, "I LOVE THAT CHARACTER! That is so totally me!" And yet another reader will say, "Ugh! Been there, read that, *yawn*"

Knowing that the ultimate goal of pleasing everyone is impossible, we do the next best thing. We create characters with:
  • Dynamic Back-story (that you don't tell in the first 30 pages of course!) and
  • We give them characteristics that set them apart.
  • If not everyone gets or likes them, well, tough:-)
This brings me to MY characters. I have two completed novels, and oh my goodness, it was hard to decide WHICH characters to share with you today. I decided to go with my Sandwich book, as the picture of my heroine from my other book is one I found off a bridal announcement website of a real bride, and not sure some random person would appreciate me posting her picture.

On top of showing you their picture, I'm also giving your a brief view of who they are what makes them tick, i.e., what makes them, IMHO, unique.

Madison (Maddie): Maddie is one of my favorite characters. She's dynamic and has a ton of spunk, but underneath, she's an emotional girl who wants to please people. She does nothing partway. Her past was not so grand. She was a foster-child teen who found power, control, and a sense of belonging with guys. All that was shattered when she shacked up with a bad boy her senior year and ended up beaten and emotionally destroyed. She swore off men forever, but made an exception when she found Jesus via her teacher in cosmetology school. Fast forward six months: She takes her first hair-cutting job in the small town of Sandwich, IL in hopes of building a home and getting custody of her little brother who is still in foster-care. Her first customer is irritable, career-driven, Rueben.

My FAVORITE thing about Maddie is her relationship with God. She made a pack with God: If He would be real and honest with her, she'd be real and honest back. I love her newbie Christian passion and spunk, and her honest relationship with her Savior. I've learned a ton from Maddie about loving God beyond the restraints of religious jargon that, as a girl who grew up in the church, I've become used to.

Rueben: Ah, Rueben. Rueben, Rueben, Rueben. He's engaged to his high-school sweetheart, Olivia, but their relationship is ten years old and has become more of a habit than anything. He is 100% dedicated to his career, restaurant owner of The Sandwich Shop in Sandwich, IL, and fulfilling his father's dream and dying wish: Growing the Shop into a national chain. Rueben is passionate about his dream, but tends to let his work override his personal life and get in the way of his relationships. He also can be a wee bit too prideful. So when a snarky, new hairdresser snips a whopping 4 inches off the front of his hair in error on a morning when everything has gone wrong anyway, he's ticked.

Rueben isn't full of faults only though. When he is passionate about something, he gives it his all. He loves big and protects fiercely. He's been a Christian since he was young, but has a hard time letting go of the reigns in his life and giving God complete control. Sound familiar? It does to me!!!

Olivia: And then there was a villain ... Olivia is a conniving not-very-nice girl. I use Jessica S.'s not because I think she looks villainous but because Livy is an A-typical man's dream: Curly blond hair and ultra-curvy body. She knows it and takes advantage of her looks at every turn. But, she too has a story. She lives with her single-mother and has never known her father who split when she was very young. Her mother is, to say the least, bitter against all humans with XY chromosomes. She pounded into Livy's head from a young age: men only one two things, beer and sex.

Livy has been in love with Rueben for years, but Rueben has always put his career in front of her, which has causes her to be bitter and jealous and yield to her mother's influence. She'll stop at nothing to keep her man's eyes on her instead of the irritating new-comer.

This is a hard story for me to write, as it touches some touchy issues (aka Maddie's floozy history and Livy's penchant for using her body as a tempting device) but I wanted to show that 1.) God redeems us all, no matter our history and 2.) Looks aren't everything. But then that goes into a whole other blog post: Themes!

So, anyone care to share what makes YOUR characters unique?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Character Sketches -- Why??

It is that ever annoying question, parents have learned to dread.

“Can I have this, Mommy?”



“Just trust me, the answer is no.”


“I don’t know. Hush.”

**long pause**


And if you are a parent of any 4 year old, you know this dialogue very well. You can tell by their voice when that dreaded question is going to be popped and watch out, you just might do some popping yourself!

But as novelists, this question is allowed and should be asked at an alarming rate. Because to truly understand our characters and their reasons to act, we must ask the age old question.


When I started my women’s fiction novel (insert title here- literally!) in early late April/ early May, I wanted to take the time to build my characters. To get to know them and just what makes them tick. Because only through knowing that, will I understand how they will try or lack of trying to control whatever situation is thrown at them.

I am a SOTP writer. I like to wing it and see where it will take me. But even if you are a seat of the pants writer, this little exercise won’t take away from any creative energy, in fact it will actually give you a better game plan and help you from getting lost in the middle, unsure where to take the story.

The outline for my heroine looked a little bit like this:

Jenna Hutch, married, and pregnant with another man’s baby. Conceived before the wedding. Husband does not know.


Fear of commitment drove her to make a fatal mistake on the eve of her wedding.


She is fearful her husband will one day not love her and leave her for another woman.


Her father dumped her mother when Jenna was a child, leaving her for another woman.


Because her mother drank and did not show her husband love.

Ha, here is one of the answers I was searching for when I was drawing Jenna. This is what makes Jenna act the way she does. Her biggest fear is that someday her husband will stop loving her and Jenna does not want to lose her husband like her mother lost her father. She is driven to keep her husband’s love, to the point of never telling her husband about the baby that isn’t his. Because she saw what losing her father’s love did to her mother, and she will not turn into the woman her mother is.

Have you ever seen the reality TV show, Biggest Loser or Losing it with Jillian? If so, you will understand what I am saying here. The people in need of weight lose usually come under her thumb with some comment about why they "don't know why they are fat." A-hem. Jillian never lets them think that way for long.

"I don't know!"

"Yes you do, why?"

"I don't know!"


And on and on she will go until she hits the root of the problem and you know what, she is always (ok nearly, no one is perfect!) right! That is what we need to do with our characters. They can't answer "I don't know", because they do know, you just have to drill it out.

All through my story Jenna slips deeper and deeper into the pit she never wanted to enter. And the deeper she slides, the worse her situation gets.

All because of that little tidbit I discovered about her when I was creating my character sketch.

I even did an outline on Jenna’s mother. Why she drank, why Jenna thinks she pushed her dad away. I found out what made Jenna’s husband tick. Though he didn’t play as big a role in the story as I originally planned, I still needed to understand why he acted a certain way. Finding out that he was adopted and was lied to his entire life and found out about it after his parent’s death played an important role in the story. He values complete honesty and Jenna is lying to him. So when she finds out he despises liars, it sends her into another tail spin to never tell him about the baby for fear she will lose him.

I had to know my characters before I started this novel. I didn’t want to go into it blind and not understand their motives. But I also wanted to know what they looked like. Having a visual image of my characters before me was extremely helpful in picturing them. Visualizing the facial expressions or their reactions. And actually as the novel grew, I stopped looking at the pictures as their image took over my mind and I saw and understood them better.

But I chose Kimberly Williams-Paisley as my heroine Jenna.

And Logan Bartholomew as my hero, Greg

Understanding what your characters look like can be extremely helpful in writing them. Visualizing what they are wearing and the like can make the crafting and showing of the story that much easier. (Refer to Krista’s post, Avoiding Bare Walls and Three Sided Houses, if you would like more excellent information. )

Don’t be afraid to ask the “why?” question. It just might take you deeper and help you understand your characters that much better. Dig deep, the deeper you go, the more realistic your characters will become.

I want to share a small excerpt with you, a section that wouldn’t have been possibly unless I truly understood my character, but before, what is the big WHY question your character faces? I would love to hear about it, and maybe do a little brainstorming if you need to!

Home has and always will the same. The green grass outside the front porch, its arms welcoming all who come and enter to be filled with peace.

But the funny thing with images is that they are just that. A persona. A glimpse into a perfect world that hides its warts with surprising agility.

I parked my car beside Dad’s two ton pickup and stepped out into the warm afternoon air. Summer in the high desert of Oregon could be brutal, but today was the perfect combination of an overhanging cloud and a kiss of a breeze feathering my hair.

The cotton less cotton woods, Dad nurtured and babied for as long as I could remember, cast a tall shadow over the house I had called home for eighteen years. Their green leaves crackling gently.

Three white crosses all bearing names I didn’t need to see to know, sat at pristine angles, burrowed into the soil beneath the tree.

I turned away. The outside of my life was just like that cross. Pristine and white, standing straight, but dig deep enough and like my mother’s obsession with those symbols, my life was just as tormented.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Character Sketches: Making Memorable Characters

When I turn the last page of a good novel, I’m truly bummed.  I don’t want to say goodbye to the characters.  I’ve cheered with them, laughed with them, warned them about dangers up ahead, and cried with them when they didn’t hear me.  It’s almost as if a friend has moved away. 

I would like to create memorable characters like that. 

The opening words of the song “Getting to Know You,” from the musical The King and I popped into my head as I thought about what to write for this post. The opening lines sum up my responsibility when creating memorable characters:

Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you.

Anna sang this song to the King’s children.  This odd woman, who stood in the presence of the king, wore strange clothing, and demanded a home of her own was a proper English woman trying to communicate with children from a foreign king's land at a time in which women held a low station. The children eventually respected and honored her.  They never said those words, but their feelings were clearly communicated as the story progressed. As the reader, I cheered this budding relationship that later touch the king’s heart.

If I delve into the inner soul of my characters, way beyond the needs of my novel, then I should be able to embed their personality into the core of the story.  Before I can know my character I need to find out who they are!

Summary of my WIP:  Gregson Holmes' English teacher had no clue he'd opened a pandora box when assigning weekly stories on any topic.  Using his gift of observation and keen interest in Sherlock Holmes, Gregson penned stories about schoolmates. Every event described in his paper came true the next day.  His best friend, Jon, failed to understand how Gregson knew ahead of time.  While the stories appeared harmless, Gregson discovered his English spiral missing the day after his teacher read a story about three suspicious men.  Robbery. Kidnapping. Stranded. Starving. Murder. Chase. Gregson's future as a writer or detective may be details.


When trying to get to know my protagonist, I felt like I was looking at a shadow hiding behind a tall piece of furniture.  As I walked closer, the shadow inched further away. To make him feel comfortable I stepped back to asked a few questions:

"Who are you?"   He didn’t answer. “Plese come into the light and tell me who you are.”  He still didn’t answer.

I stopped back each day while doing research for this WIP to listen for him.  One day I overheard him chatting to his friend on facebook.

G:            Hey, Jon.  You’re on!  How’s the peach fuzz?

J:            It’s raining again, Gregson.  Of course I’m on. How did you know I got my hair cut today?

G:            Simple, Jon. You get your hair cut on the second Tuesday of the month, like clockwork.

J:            Hmmm. I hadn’t noticed. Did you finish your paper for Mr. Watson? I haven’t started. I hate 6th grade English.

G:            Of course.  I wrote a story about Rene getting an A on the math test next week.

J:            You’re kidding?  Why’d you do that? You know she never gets higher than a D in math.

G:            Gotta go. Three men just walked passed my house.  Never seen them before. Think I’ll follow.

The day after the test, Rene flashed her math paper around the classroom. Who wouldn’t notice the huge red A.

Jon pulled Gregson aside where others wouldn't hear.  “How’d you know?”

Simple, Jon. Last week when we walked my dog, Toby, I noticed scraps of paper with scrawls of practice problems falling from the trash can on the curb in front of her house. Several pieces had the same math problem scribbled; one had the answer correct.  There was a brown stain at the top on one page indicating long hours studying which required a caffeine product, most likely a cola since she brings one every Wednesday for pizza day.  I immediately deduced she studied a great length for this test, most likely the entire week based upon the volume of torn pages. Quite unusual for her, I might add. Her mother must have helped her for there was a trace of hairspray residue.

J:            But I only saw you grab a scrap piece of paper out of Toby's mouth.  I didn't notice anything on it, or any other scraps of paper.

G:            Observation requires more than simply seeing, Jon.

Once I overheard this conversation, I knew exactly what Gregson and Jon looked like.  I found pictures of them from two years ago. They actually looked like two boys I already knew!

Choosing the best character to put in our story involves more than filling a grocery list of characteristics.  We need to get to know the real-deep-down-inside them.  At that point, we  can tell their story in such a compelling way the reader will develop a bond.

As you spend time getting to know your characters try to answer these questions:
Here is a partial list

·      What does he like to wear, eat, listen to?
·      Who are his friends, and why?
·      Who causes him problems, and how?
·      What does he do in his free time?
·      Where does he live? What does his bedroom look like?
·      What is his main problem?  How can he solve it?
·      Who are others in his life and how do they impact his story?
·      What distinctive traits does he have (physical, mental, spiritual, social)?

Got it?  OK, here's a test for you.  Pretend you're at a police station sitting at the desk of a sketch artist.  She asks you to describe the missing witness (your protagonist).  Would she draw an accurate picture?  Would the police get ideas how to look for the witness based on mannerisms you’ve shared?  

What other ways can you share with us to make memorable characters?

BTW Zach and Adam have graciously allowed me to use their pictures in this post.  Thanks, guys!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Character Sketches with Strength & Honor

I love books set in the medieval era, in a time where ladies were treated like dirt, and men didn't bathe or brush their teeth. What, you say? Actually, that is a misconception. Well, at least in some instances. True, they didn't bathe as regularly as we do today and women held little power in the world, unless their husband/lord was away and she took over running the castle, but there were many women who rose to power and made a name for themselves.

In fiction we tend to gloss over the ugly, dirty part of the medieval era and instead focus on the valiant, alpha males, fighting to protect their land, their castle, and of course, their lady. It takes a man of strength and honor to be lord and it takes a woman of courage and strength of will to be the lady of such a lord.

I believe this is why I love writing medievals so much. I get to write strong, alpha males when in today's society we would call them arrogant and bossy. I get to write strong, feisty females,which is fine in today's society, but 800 years ago (give or take a few hundred), it was not quite as common.

My medieval is about a novice who escapes the convent holding her prisoner in order to expose her murderous stepmother. Disguised as a boy, she impersonates a squire to serve a knight on his way to a tournament at her home castle. He desires land of his own. She longs for a family. When secrets are revealed, hearts that have grown close will rend in two and lives will hang in the balance.

Here are my characters:
Jocelyn: Sent to a convent by her stepmother at the age of nine, Jocelyn longed for family, but became independent and self-assured. She was a curious child and a bit willful at times. Not overtly disobedient, but tended to get in trouble with that intelligent, curious nature. (Think Sound of Music).This type of personality enables her to do the unthinkable and flee the convent disguised as a boy and have the courage to squire for a knight. This strength gives her the bravado she needs to pull off her masquerade and confront her murderous stepmother.

The picture I found is one that looks like the Jocelyn in my mind, except for the eyes. Jocelyn's eyes are sky blue.

UPDATE: I just got an email from Kaye Dacus who sent me a NEW photo of Jocelyn WITH SKY BLUE EYES!!!! How cool is that!?!? Now isn't Jocelyn gorgeous? (I left the the brown eyed Jocelyn in so you could see the difference!) Thank you Kaye!!!!!!

Malcolm: The youngest of five brothers, Malcolm earns his spurs and makes the tournament rounds to earn gold to purchase land of his own. He is fearless. He is strong. He is sigh-worthy, if I do say so myself. He was taught to wield a sword by his father, a tough disciplinarian. It has shaped him into the man he is. Tough. Self-sufficient. He's focused on gaining his gold, but has an inner sense of honor that enables him to help those in need.
The picture that looks most like the Malcolm in my mind is Ashton Kutcher. Dreamy...though not quite as buff as my Malcolm.
Abbess (villain): A rather plain woman who lived in the shadow of her beautiful sister. She entered a convent and rose to the office of Abbess and loved the sense of power she held. She takes advantage of her position and uses church funds for her own comfort. She takes payment from her sister Helen (Jocelyn's step-mother) to keep her at the convent and out of the picture. The web of lies she weaves entraps her in ways she never dreamed.

Helen (villain): A woman who uses her beauty to get what she wants. She wanted to live the life of a grand, noble lady and found it in marrying Jocelyn's father. She sends the young heiress, Jocelyn, to the convent and pays her sister, the Abbess, to keep her there. She has developed plans to rid herself of her husband and enable her love interest to take his place. (there is a big plan which would take way to long to get into!) She is devious and in the end, a bit insane. Sometimes that drive, that passion for wealth and fame, can affect our hearts and our minds in a ways that can destroy.
I don't know how you come up with your characters and give them life, but I used character charts for mine. There were pages of questions that made you think about their lives, their families, things that happened to them in their childhood, etc. It made you build a life that makes your characters think and act they way they do on the page. You may never use or share what you have written in these charts, but it is a good basis for character building.
Here are a few links for some good character charts:

May your characters live long and, except villains. May your villains fall flat on their faces.