Category Archives: Characterization

Characters Say the Darnedest Things!

Have you ever, in the course of writing fiction, had a character come to life on the page?

I mean…like suddenly this is a new person, not the one you envisioned? Happens to me every now and again.

Case in point, Merren, head of the Kai (roughly, “emperor”) Suhuru’s security guard. He has picked up a new man from a training center and is bringing him back to the estate, where the young fellow will serve as the first of a team (eventually to number five) devoted to the Kai’s daughter’s safety and convenience.

They’re riding a high-speed public-transit vehicle under the city of E’ho Cinnora. While they wait to arrive at their destination, they gamble at a board game and chat, tentatively getting acquainted. They live on Varnis, the center of a vast galactic empire. Chadzar is the offspring of natives of Michaia, an ice world in continual rebellion against the empire; Merren is from a world called Samdela. Merren has, earlier in the chapter, silently wondered if Chad is the son of his now-former master, Haddam. Chad’s mother is a handsome and (in Merren’s opinion) much-indulged Michaian slave woman.

§ § §

“E’ho Cinnora is big, isn’t it?” Chad remarked.

“As Varn cities go, I guess it is,” said Merren. “It’s not like Samdela, though, where the whole damn planet is a city. You’ll find it’s not very hard to make your way around.”

“You’re Samdi?” Chad asked.

“Mostly. My mother was Samdelan. They say my father was part Varn. I wouldn’t know, though — never saw him.”

“Me neither. Ever saw mine, I mean — my mother was pregnant when she was brought here.”

“With you?”

“Well…yeah.”

There’s a question answered, Merren reflected.

“Is it true what they say? That all of Samdela is covered with cities?”

“Pretty much. It’s all built up. Except for maybe a few mountain peaks.”

Chad seemed to think about that for a few seconds. “So, without farmlands, where do you grow your food?”

“We don’t. We eat our children,” Merren said.

The Michaian’s green eyes widened.

Merren chuckled. Gotcha! “They make food in factories. Or sometimes grow it there.”

Chad gave him a dubious glance and then laughed. “Should’ve known,” he said.

Et voilà! Merren has a sense of humor. A pretty deadpan sense of humor.

It never occurred to me that he could or would say a thing like that. During the several years that he’s inhabited the back of my mind, he’s shaped up as a hard-bitten veteran of Samdela’s criminal industries, which dominate the planet’s culture. Forcibly reformed and, by dint of talent and luck now employed in the house of a man who amounts to the king of the universe, he is stolid, wary, skilled with weapons and electronic surveillance, potentially murderous, and unwaveringly loyal. Not the sort of guy to see much  humor in anything.

Or…so I thought.

Drafting, drafting, drafting…

I feel like an old dog that, after laying on the rug half the day, climbs to its feet and shakes off  sleep with a great rattling of fur, ears, and tail.

Just as I arrived at the end of a VAST quantity of editorial work — to give you an idea, I earned as much in a month and a half as I normally earn in a year — I came down with one of the three or four nastiest respiratory viruses of my lifetime. And since my lifetime spans three-quarters of a century, that’s sayin’ something.

At any rate, around the single client project that remained, I’ve been fiddling with a new bookoid. Escapist scribbling, as it were: something to think about that is NOT Donald Trump, NOT mathematics, NOT academic screeds on the subject of how oppressed (fill in your favorite minority or majority group) is, NOT statistical studies of business management or economics, NOT indexes of medieval maritime history….

Drafting of fiction goes very, very slowly for me. Don’t know quite why that is. Maybe it’s that I spend more time visualizing and imagining the setting and the characters than I do actually writing.

Puzzling over this verity, the other day I decided to see how much I really could write in an hour. One hour. Beginning to end. Not much, as it develops: about four paragraphs, most of them dialogue!

Here’s what came of that exercise, draftig, draftig, draftig: set in another time in a galaxy far, far way…. Merren is the head of guard for what amounts to the emperor of the known universe; he is a slave. He has arrived at the home and training academy of Haddam, who turns out high-end servants for high-end clients. Chadzar is the son of Ileite; both are Haddam’s slaves; Chad is being sold to serve as a security guard and valet for the emperor’s unruly and rebellious daughter. Chad and Ileite are Michaians, a race distantly related to the residents of the planet on which they live, pretty much against their will. Merren has offered Chad the loan of one of his own distinctive liveries, exclusive to the emperor’s service, and Chad is trying it on.

“She’s only seventeen, you know.” [Merren said]

“The most difficult age,” Ileite remarked.

He smiled. “Actually, I think that was thirteen.” This line of talk, he thought, could lead him into trouble. Though Ileite and Haddam both chortled ruefully at his remark, evidently having enjoyed thirteen-year-old company themselves, he sensed he’d better direct the conversation away from the Kaina’s behavior, which surely had its moments. This mother sparrow worried about what her chick was flying into, with good reason.

“That sounds . . .” She was interrupted and Merren was rescued by Chadzar’s reappearance, resplendent in the borrowed livery. The mist-blue color made his translucently silver hair stand out in sharp contrast, in a way the standard gray slave’s livery did not. Even his eyebrows and eyelashes, Merren noted, were white. “Oh, my goodness!” she gasped, her eyes widening.

Haddam also looked a little wide-eyed. “Well, my lad,” he said, “you look. . .” he paused for the briefest instant, “very fine!” He smiled, and practically glowed with pride. Ileite blinked back an inchoate tear.

“Looks like it fits him pretty well, Merren,” the old man remarked.

“Not bad.” Merren stepped over and adjusted a loose area. “He’s got about fifteen years of filling out to go, if he’s going to catch up with me.”

Haddam chuckled. “Don’t overfeed him, or he’ll get there sooner than that.”

“We work out twice a day. He won’t get fat too soon, sir.”

“Two workouts a day!” Chad exclaimed. “What else do we do?”

“Well…every day? Target practice. Weapons maintenance and training. Prep for whatever events are coming up. Two work shifts a day. And about once each SECONDARY MOON we host a pow-wow with the police for security, strategy, and intelligence updates.”

“Police?” Ileite asked.

“We work with them all the time.” Ileite raised her eyebrow in Haddam’s direction. He ignored her. “When the Kai — or the Kaina, now — goes to a large event, we hire them as extra staff to help us out.” She making no reply, he added, “It’s good for our guys to spend some time with the hired help — some of us aren’t very comfortable with blacksuits, and it helps to be around them in less formal way. And I think it’s good for the cops, too, to see us as guys like them and not. . .” he shrugged.

“. . . felons,” she filled in his blank.

Surprised, he looked up and straight into her unfathomable, saucer-like blue eyes. The creatures never blink, the thought came unbidden to mind, irrationally oblique to his annoyance. [disquiet, discomfiture, see synonyms] “Former felons,” he corrected her.

Ugh. Talk about “inchoate.” Most of this will unrecognizable if and when it’s finished. But what the heck: at least something is installed in little glowing digital characters…

Image: DepositPhotos, © frenta

First Erotica Novelette in Hand!

Hm. Maybe that’s not a felicitous turn of phrase. 😀

Doesn’t take much of this kind of writing to cause you to hear double meanings in about every third word anyone speaks. Who knew?

At any rate, my first effort at writing erotica — the hard-core variety, I mean — is DONE! And sent off to a couple of writing & editing pals for review. One of these wants to fall in with me by way of seeing how this works; she’s more interested in the standard romance formula than I am, and, we might add, a far more gifted writer of fiction.

She being an MFA type, she actually can crank a piece of lit’rature. Me, I’m lucky if I can write a coherent blog post that doesn’t put the reader to sleep. But on the other hand, what we’re proposing to publish hardly comes under the heading of literature.

It took a great deal longer to write the thing — all of about 7100 words — than I expected, since I was in the hospital for five days and pretty much out of it for a couple days after that. Whether I can actually write ten to twenty of these a month remains to be seen. But I suspect once you get the hang of it, you probably can move along at a brisker pace.

And I have an idea for the next bookoid — a piece of spectrophilia. Yes. Believe it or not, getting it off with ghosts is a fetish. And it’s one that’s been around since humans have been human: apparently it stems from a surprisingly common hallucination caused by sleep paralysis. Weirdly, I haven’t come across a story at Amazon specifically revolving around a succubus or an incubus. But there will be one. Soon. 😉

Today, though, I’m going to read some Anaïs Nin. I downloaded Delta of Venus and Little Birds yesterday. Interestingly, her introduction describes the challenge of writing to clinical details in the absence of anything resembling a credible or intellectually interesting plotline. Her client, who was paying her $100 a month to write smυt for a supposed “old man” (who actually was himself), kept urging her to can “the poetry” and just write “sex.”

If you’re used to doing any real writing, that’s easier said than done. In the current biker book, I found myself developing character (as if by instinct) and building motive. Even though I managed to keep the action going at a fair clip, probably more “poetry” intrudes than is desirable.

Heh.

Oh, sorry.

The point is, it’s harder than it seems to build a story solely by moving puppets around on a cardboard stage.

Nevertheless, probably thanks to “the poetry,” Nin is regarded as one of the finest writers of female erotica in English, even though she thought of the stories as caricatures. Which of course is exactly what p0rn is: cartoonish. Clinically cartoonish.

I, on the other hand, do not care if I’m ever regarded as a fine writer by anyone. I just wanna make a living. And not by teaching freshman comp or greeting Walmart shoppers.

 

Writing Dialogue: It’s Not All Talk!

(Tips on writing better dialogue.) Whenever you use dialogue, use it to accomplish something. Don't throw it in there because you think fiction has to have dialog.Lately I’ve been reading a lot of dialogue in manuscript. Some would-be famous novelists are better at it than others. Ditto some published novelists.

Recently two things have struck me about the products of people who are developing skill in writing conversation: they either get so baroque with the attributions as to become unintentionally silly (“Let’s go,” said Tom swiftly…or better yet, “Let’s go!” Tom ejaculated), or they go full throttle in the other direction with no attributions (“dialogue tags”) in page after page of back and forth (this is called stichomythia: extended dialogue with no he saids).

Dialogue serves several purposes in fiction. It fills in backstory. It helps to characterize the story’s people. It slows down action. It may deliver the occasional surprise. Whenever you use dialogue, you should use it to accomplish something, not throw it in there because you think fiction has gotta have dialogue.

Dialogue does not exist in a vacuum. People think things while they’re talking. If the scene is told from a single character’s point of view, the writer will share only that character’s train of thought. But everyone’s outwardly visible activities can be shown, allowing us to surmise what they might be thinking. People get up and move around. They sigh. They smile. They frown. They raise an eyebrow. They look puzzled or quizzical. They observe other speakers in the scene. They become momentarily distracted. They indulge an idiosyncrasy. You name it, they do it.

Describe THE WHOLE action, not just the motion of the mouths and the vocal cords.

Here’s a dialogue-heavy passage. Note the parts that are not dialogue but that complement or elucidate it:

Kay and Fallon walked back toward their camps. They were joined by Devey Mayr of Metet, a tough A’oan who, though Kaybrel thought he looked too young to sit a horse, had led his party of fifty men straight through Roksan’s main gate in the minutes after the barriers fell. Devey affected a little strut that made him attractive to women, and sometimes made other men wonder what he was trying to prove.

“So you think the pickings are pretty slim on the coast?” he asked Kay.

“I know they are,” Kay replied. “Well, actually—they say the people in the far south are better off. But about ten years ago Hef of Aber’—you remember him, Fal? He died at the battle of Pakta.”

“Vaguely,” Fal said.

Of course, Kay thought. Fal would have been about twelve or fourteen at the time. “Hef and I crossed the Wammets and reached the coast about as far north as Bose. We damn near starved out there. Didn’t find many people—a few ruins poking out of old silt flats, nobody living in ’em. They don’t have much food, and truly, we didn’t see any decent stock as far as we went. We made it down into Galifone, to a place the locals called Hamun Bay. The ocean is something to see, but it’s not worth driving a whole army over a mountain range.”

“No farms?”

“A few. Not many. Doesn’t rain there much. Most of the seacoast is desert. We ended up having to live off the land most of the way—and believe me, there’s not enough to support twelve hundred men.”

Devey looked disappointed. “I’d like to see that ocean,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s almost worth the trip,” Kaybrel agreed. “But go there on your own. No point in taking a big party. Just go check it out.”

“Maybe next summer,” Devey said. “I’d have to get leave from Bose. And Lhored, I expect.”

“You’ve done your job,” said Fal. “They won’t mind.”

“Wonder if he’d let me and a couple of my guys run over there now. We could probably get ourselves back to A’o before first snowfall.”

Kay laughed. “I wouldn’t, if I were him.”

“Somebody’d have to take my men while we were gone. How’s about you, Fal?”

“Not likely!” Fallon countered. “I’ve got enough chuckleheads to ride herd on—I don’t need more trouble.”

Devey smiled and scratched absently at a half-healed rash on his arm.

“Wait till next summer,” Kaybrel said. “If I come into the field, I’ll take your men with mine.”

“What ‘if’? You planning to stay home next year?”

“Maybe.”

“We need you out here.”

“Well, I’m not so young any more, Devey. Three or four months in the bush gets a little tired, you know, after a while.”

Devey considered this for a moment but couldn’t let it rest. “You’re no older than the brez,” he remarked.

“I’m four years older than Lhored,” Kaybrel said. “Our mothers were the same age. We were both first-born.”

“Lhored is still going strong,” Fallon said.

“Yes. But his time is coming to an end. Just seven more years.”

“Seven springs?”

“Six.”

“Long enough,” said Devey. “You must be forty-two, then?”

“That’s right,” Kaybrel admitted.

Fallon rarely contemplated the possibility that his friend was past the middle of his life. Kaybrel always struck him as vigorous, and Fallon thought of him as somehow near his own age. In truth, Kaybrel had come to the time when six and a half years looks hardly more than a day in the future; to Fallon and Devey, it still seemed a long time.

They passed in the direction of the A’oan campsites. A round, red-headed lad emerged from that crowd, waved, and strode over to Devey.

“Hey,” he said. Devey gave him a rough hug and a playful shove. “Duarto and Guel’ say you brought us a new chacho,” he said to Kay.

“That’s so, Porfi,” Kay replied.

The remark that “Devey affected a little strut…” is what literary journalist Tom Wolfe used to call a “lifestyle marker“: habits or personal accouterments that reveal, sometimes deliberately but often unconsciously, some cast of mind or statement about oneself. Dialogue, like description, lends itself to lifestyle markers. The way people speak and behave while they’re talking often says as much about them or about what they’re thinking as what they say explicitly.

Within the book’s context, Devey is an adventurer; Kay is a seasoned warrior who also has passed some time as a traveler and adventurer; Fallon is Kay’s follower, for whom Kay serves as a mentor. Both Fallon and Devey are younger men; Kay is old enough to have grown tired of war-making. These characteristics are introduced or developed in the passage of dialogue, which appears near the top of chapter 1.

Dialogue doesn’t stand on its own. Let it articulate with the rest of the story, and work in narrative and description to help accomplish that.

Sex Scenes: How much to say, how much not to say?

So one of my clients has been wrestling with the question of how to present a sex scene between his two favorite characters. He swings between flummoxed (oh, no! writer’s block!) and exuberant (hooleeee mackerel!). I think there’s an in-between, but am not sure how to explain it. Assuming there is an in-between.

When an author addresses the sexual frolics of a story’s characters, he or she runs into a slew of challenges:

  • One’s own hang-ups. (Thanks, Mom & Dad! Thanks, Favorite Sixth-Grade Teacher!)
  • One’s own fantasies (Even in fiction, there’s such a thing as over-sharing…)
  • The characters’ hang-ups and fantasies
  • The influence of other authors’ sex scenes (“and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”)
  • The sense that it is impossible to improve on some other author’s sex scene (See above.)
  • Political correctness
  • Resentment of political correctness
  • Absence of political correctness
  • Expectations of the perceived audience
  • Imagined or real hang-ups of the perceived audience

One could go on at length. As it were.

Oh. Ahem. Sorry! One could add: “The essential ludicrousness of the sex act between human beings and the difficulty of making a love scene appear less than (or more than) ludicrous.”

I try to advise, but am limited by all of the above. I certainly have written a number of very randy sex scenes, one of which, with some trepidation, I copy and send over him as a sort of example. This gets him past his Victorian mores and jump-starts a pretty lively exchange. But I think it’s a bit much. Baroque, even.

When it comes to writing sex, there’s a fine line between not enough and too much; between wimpy and creepy. And as for what the readers want to read? It’s anyone’s guess.

Personally, I think the writer is better served by restraint than by extravagance, where sexuality is concerned. Tone it up. Tone it down. But make it part of the story.

As a real-life human being’s sexuality cannot be divorced from his experience and his milieu, so a fictional character’s sex life must fit into the plot and the action. Whatever that character gets up to must relate in some way, preferably in a significant way, to the ongoing narrative.

In this one, Aniel and his wife Jenna reflect on an episode in which young Tavio almost got himself killed, and which led the warlord Kaybrel to risk his own life to track him through a blizzard and rescue him. Although Tavi is scolded and punished mildly, he escapes serious censure. Aniel, however, remains skeptical.

In their quarters later that night, Jenna and Ani curled up together, warm under layers of blankets, and basked in the afterglow of their love-making. A single candle burned on the nightstand. Ani gazed at Jenna’s delicately flushed face, a wisp of hair at the temple still damp with sweat, and thought how perfect this slender, small woman was, and how miraculous it was that life had brought him to her.

“Do you think Kay will let Tavi come with us when we go up to Cham Fos?” Jenna asked. The kubna and kubnath planned to visit Bett Kubnath of Cham Fos and the exotic newcomer, Hapa Cottrite, shortly before the winter solstice and then return to Moor Lek to officiate at the town’s midwinter religious holidays. They would take the children, of course. That meant Jenna would go along to help care for them and Ani to manhandle luggage and deal with the horses and carriage.

“I dunno,” Ani said. “There’s really no reason for him to. Why should he?”

“Well, Tavi might like to see his friend Duarto. And to see what Cham Fos is like.”

“You and I won’t need any help,” Ani replied, “so it would make more sense to keep him on the job. Especially if he’s going to make the kid live at Jehm and Nina’s house.”

“All work and no play…,” Jenna said.

Ani chuckled. “I think it’s the other way around with that kid!”

She stifled a giggle. Then she ran her fingers up Ani’s muscular arm, along the collarbone, and up the side of his neck. He shivered with pleasure.

“Want to go again?” he asked.

“Could be,” she said.

“Well,” he said and kissed her shell-pink cheek, “give me a chance to catch my breath, OK?” He planted a line of exquisitely gentle kisses from her cheek to the back of her ear, then across her jaw to her lips, where he paused and savored before laying back against the pillows. She breathed a contented sigh, turned toward him, and laid an arm over his shoulder, waiting for him to feel ready again.

“Kay was kind of harsh on Tavi this evening,” she remarked.

“Don’t think so,” Aniel said.

“‘Not as much sense as God gave a donkey?’ That wasn’t very kind.”

Ani laughed aloud. “But so accurate,” he said.

Jenna couldn’t help laughing, too, but then added “Making him stay in town is pretty hard. He seemed really upset by that.”

“I’m sure. If he has to stay in the shop until Jehm knocks off, he’ll have to put in a full day’s work. That is rough.”

“He’s just a kid,” she said.

Ani fell silent for a moment, thinking about this. If Tavio was “just a kid,” he reflected, then Ani was Maire’s pet cat. What they both had seen of the wars in Socalia would make a man of a boy at any age, if it didn’t turn him into a raving lunatic. Tavi was every bit as much a toughened camp boy as Ani had been a dozen years before, when the Okan warlords were barreling around the south, fomenting trouble between the provinces and the alacaldo Consayo of Roksan, raiding towns, and burning villages. Out there in the field, Kay and his cousin, Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos (God rest him and long may his name be honored), had rolled the dice for a tasty prize: Aniel. Kay won.

So, Ani supposed, had he. Ultimately. Jenna breathed softly beside him. Ani brushed a finger across her cheek.

“Doesn’t it strike you that there’s something odd about that story?” he said. The candle was guttering, and he spoke the question more or less into the dark.

“What story?”

“Well, I mean the whole thing about him supposedly leaving Jehm’s shop in time to get back here before the worst of the storm hit and then the thing coming up faster than they expected.”

“He…well, he has to walk home before it gets dark,” she said.

“Yeah, but think about it: after the first snow started to fall, it was a good thirty, forty-five minutes before this blizzard set in.

“It’s only a fifteen- or twenty-minute walk from the town to the keep. If he’d left when he said he did—when he might have some excuse for saying he couldn’t tell the thing would turn into a whiteout—then he should’ve gotten here ahead of the storm.

“Besides. Jehm’s no donkey. He wouldn’t have let the kid go if he could see a blizzard right on top of them.”

“So…what do you think happened?” Jenna asked.

“Dunno. Either he left later than he said he did—in which case Jehm wouldn’t have let him go out into a storm like this—or he went someplace on the way home.”

“Where on earth would he go? You think he has a secret girlfriend?”

“Not likely!” Ani said. He chuckled again at the thought. “No, I reckon he probably dawdled on the way back. Lollygagged up into the woods chasing butterflies—who knows?”

“Maybe the storm blew up faster there. The town’s closer to the lake than we are.”

“Maybe. It’s fishy, though. I wonder if he’s being straight with Kay. If he’s not, he surely deserves what he gets. He put his own life in danger, and Kay risked his to go get him and haul him home.”

Time to change the subject, Jenna thought. She propped herself on an elbow, found Ani’s mouth with her lips, then gave him a deep, probing kiss. She felt him catch his breath and stir beneath her hand.

“My turn to get on top,” she whispered. Her cascading blonde hair fell over their faces like a veil between them and the darkened world.

This particular scene, which at the outset wasn’t conceived as an erotic scene, uses the two characters’ love-making as a kind of frame story, an event in which the retrospective narration of other events is set.

It serves at least four purposes:

  1. To advance the plot.
  2. To characterize Aniel and Jenna.
  3. To introduce and explain Ani’s increasingly jaundiced view of Tavi.
  4. To add a little spice to the narrative.

Like any scene in a piece of fiction, I suspect the effective sex scene does more than add spice. Otherwise you get a hot tamale with no interest other than its jalapeños. Not that we don’t enjoy the occasional hot tamale…but Man cannot live on jalapeños alone.

A sex scene needs to add spice. But it also needs to serve another purpose. Jalapeños, after all, are full of vitamin C.

😉

Models: Where Do Your Characters Come From?

Writing fiction - Where do your characters come from?Where do the people in your fiction come from? Do you even know where they came from?

I have to admit that sometimes I have no idea. Fire-Rider, the first of several soon-to-be-published stories of an invented world in the far, far future, teems with characters who bear no resemblance to anyone I’ve ever met or even read about. Homicidal warlords and foot soldiers, powerful ruling women and their sister wives, a boy prostitute and a prosperous madam, a tribe of young refugees unhomed by ceaseless wars, a woman hunter and trapper, the foreman of a vast ranch-like estate, a healer who’s also a warlord, a wandering teacher and bard…whence did these people arise?

Athena springs from head of zeus

Athena springs from the head of Zeus

Well, out of the writer’s mind, obviously. Often I think that each character is a fragment of the writer’s consciousness, some part of her or his own personality in some way hidden until it pops out, full blown from the head of Zeus, and materializes in the form of a new (albeit imagined) human being.

Other times I think, “That is just not possible!” These people do things I have no experience with; they know things and say things that I could never know or say. I have to do hours of research to envision some kind of understanding of their world, their lives, and their loves.

Is there ever a real-life model for such characters?

Occasionally. Just now I’m writing a chapter in the first-person voice of a character who’s a kind of public intellectual, to the extent possible in a time when almost no one can read or write — that would be the wandering teacher and bard. After Hapa Cottrite coalesced in my imagination, I realized that he resembles one of my editorial clients, an international banking CEO and long-time ex-pat with a sharp mind, broad curiosity, and zest for living among foreign peoples. Once that dawned on me, I began to model Cottrite explicitly after this man, to the extent that their moods, outlook, and even physical appearance are similar.

But most times, there’s no visible connection between a character in one of my tales and a real-world human being. They don’t resemble anyone I know, because no one I know lives in a reimagined analog of the European Middle Ages amalgamated with life in medieval Mongolia.

Probably they’re modeled on what I know about life in the medieval period and about the world-view of people who inhabited that world. That’s considerable: before I finished the doctorate in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean English literature and history, I wanted to specialize in the medieval period. So, I took quite a few upper-division and graduate courses in medieval literature (this stuff comprised both British and continental works, because my undergraduate major was in French). And I still edit scholarly works of medieval history.

Some pretty heady stuff went on during those times. And it was weird. If you or I could magically step through a time warp and come out in 1250, we would feel like we’d landed on another planet. That’s how different those people were from us.

William the Conqueror and his two half-brothers

William the Conqueror and his two half-brothers

So I suppose you could say the Fire-Rider characters are sort of “modeled” on what I happen to know of a typical medieval warlord, informed to some extent by what I’ve learned about Mongol warriors of Genghis Khan’s time. That’s pretty broad. And since no two of these characters are the same, it’s hard to say where their individual personalities came from.

The women’s roles, however, are completely re-imagined and warped. Never in human history have women, aristocratic or otherwise, done what Fire-Rider‘s women do. In their cases, I’ve had to invent, invent, and re-invent. Even to imagine what they look like, to say nothing of what they get up to, requires a great deal of focused, concentrated work.

Maybe we could say, then, that our characters come out of our experience, learned and observed, and out of our invention, purely imagined.

Or maybe they spring from the head of Zeus?

When you’re ready for an editor or publisher, contact us.

Just the Facts, Ma’am. Lots of them…

Writing tips - facts and details spice things up and make the world real to your readers.I’ve been revisiting one of my very favorite writers, John McPhee. How can I count the ways I love McPhee? His astonishing style, his engaging voice, his eclectic subject matter, his amazing story structure, his mind-boggling erudition, his sense of humor…it goes on and on.

One of the things I especially love about John McPhee is the hefty, dense factual content of his prose. To say you can’t read a McPhee piece without learning something is to understate grossly. Truth to tell, you can’t read a McPhee piece without learning something in almost every sentence.

Some of it is observed fact:

Carol [dissecting a snapping turtle killed by a car]…talked to the dead turtle, soothingly, reassuringly, nurse to patient, doctor to child, and when she reached in under the plastron and found an ovary, she shifted genders with a grunt of surprise. She pulled out some globate yellow fat and tossed it into the pond. Hundreds of mosquito fish came darting through the water, sank their teeth, shook their heads, worried the fat. Carol began to move fat from the turtle’s body. The eggs were like ping-balls in size, shape, and color, and how they all fitted into the turtle was more than I could comprehend, for there were fifty-six of them in there, fully finished, and a number that had not quite taken their ultimate form. (John McPhee, Travels in Georgia, in The John McPhee Reader)

In four sentences we learn snapping turtles contain ball-shaped chunks of yellow fat, that mosquitofish will eat flesh (or at least free handouts of turtle fat), that snapping turtle eggs are as big as ping-pong balls, that a mature female can lay upwards of 56 of them, and that this Carol knows how to dissect a large, hard-shelled reptile.

His prose is informed as much by research as by observation, though:

The purpose of such projects [we’re viewing a type of reclamation project called stream channelization] was to anticipate and eliminate floods, to drain swamps, to increase cropland, to channel water toward freshly created reservoirs serving and attracting new industries and new housing developments. Water sports would flourish on the new reservoirs, hatchery fish would proliferate below the surface: new pulastions in the life of the rural South. The Soil Conservation Service was annually spending about fifteen million dollars on stream-channelization projects, providing among other things, newly arable land to farmers who already had land in the Soil Bank. The Department of Agriculture could not do enough for the Southern farmer, whose only problem was bookkeeping. He got money for keeping his front forty idle. His bottomland went up in value when the swamps were drained, and then more money came for not farming the drained land. Years earlier, when a conservationist had been someone who plowed land along natural contours, the Soil Conservation Service had been the epicenter of the conservation movement, decorated for its victories over erosion of the land. Now, to a new generation that had discovered ecology, the SCS was the enemy. Its drainage programs tampered with river mechanics, upsetting the relationships between bass and otter, frog and owl. The Soil Conservation Service had grown over the years into a bureau of fifteen thousand people, and all the way down at the working point, the cutting edge of things, was Chap Causey, in the cab of his American dragline, hearing nohting but the pounding of his big Jimmy diesel while he eliminated a river, eradicated a swamp. (John McPhee, “Travels in Georgia”)

In ten sentences, we learn the following:

  1. Stream channelization is a flood control technique.
  2. It’s used to drain swamps.
  3. It’s used to increase cropland
  4. It’s used to channel water into reservoirs.
  5. It benefits sporting, and real estate development industries.
  6. By 1975 (when “Travels in Georgia” was published), the Soil Conservation Service was spending $15 million a year on stream channelization.
  7. The supposed benefits of the projects were often redundant and served to profit those who were already plenty affluent and who had already acquired sufficient wealth through government programs.
  8. Southern farmers benefited from government support projects by collecting money to leave land idle.
  9. Southern farmers benefited from soil channelization when swamp draining enhanced the value of their bottomland.
  10. Southern farmers further benefited by collecting federal dollars to leave this newly valuable bottomland fallow.
  11. The SCS used to be one of the nation’s premier conservation agencies, thanks to programs to prevent soil erosion.
  12. By 1975, the SCS had built a reputation for harming the environment, largely because of its drainage programs.
  13. Drainage projects harm ecological balances such as those involving bass and otters and frogs and owls.
  14. By 1975, the SCS employed 15,000 people.
  15. The operator of the American (brand name) dragline crane engaged in the project at hand was named Chap Causey.
  16. The engine of an American dragline crane runs on diesel.
  17. The crane’s engine was made by GMC.

Think of that: 17 hard facts in 10 sentences. That’s almost 2 facts per sentence, and it’s not even one of McPhee’s true tours de force.

Being a writer of what today we call creative nonfiction, McPhee uses observed fact (and sometimes researched fact) for literary as well as journalistic purposes. To paint a setting, for example:

A stop for a D.O.R. [“dead on road”] always brought the landscape into detailed focus. Pitch coming out of a pine. Clustered sows behind a fence. An automobile wrapped in vines. A mailbox. “Donald Foskey.” His home. Beyond the mailbox, a set of cinder blocks and on the cinder blocks a mobile home. (“Travels in Georgia”)

Or to perform a deft, swift characterization:

…Carol turned on the radio and moved the dial. If she could find some Johnny Cash, it would elevate her day. Some Johnny Cash was not hard to find in the airwaves of Georgia. There he was now, resonantly singing about his Mississippi Delta land, where, on a sharecropping farm, he grew up. Carol smiled and closed her eyes. In her ears — pierced ears — were gold maple leaves that seemed to move under the influence of the music.

Facts — accurate facts, astutely observed details — are the heart of journalism, but they’re also the heart of any writing, fiction, essay, and even poetry included. You doubt it? Check out, for example, a random passage from Alice Munro:

That was the time of their being women together. Home permanents were tried on Juliet’s stubborn fine hair, dressmaking sessions produced the outfits like nobody else’s, suppers were peanut-butter-tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwiches on the evenings Sam stayed late for a school meeting. Stories were told and retold about Sara’s boyfriends and girlfriends, the jokes they played and the fun they had, in the days when Sara was a schoolteacher too, before her  heart got too bad. Stories from the time before that, when she lay in bed with rheumatic fever and had the imaginary friends Rollo and Maxine who solved mysteries, even murders, like the characters in certain children’s books. Glimpses of Sam’s besotted courtship, disasters with the borrowed car, the time he showed up at Sara’s door disguised as a tramp. (Alice Munro, “Soon,” in Runaway)

  1. Juliet and Sara were close friends.
  2. Juliet has fine hair.
  3. They tried to permanent it.
  4. They ate awful food when one of them didn’t have to cook for a man.
  5. They related stories from their lives.
  6. Sara was once a schoolteacher.
  7. Sara had a bad heart.
  8. Sara’s heart trouble stemmed from rheumatic fever.
  9. Sara’s rheumatic fever probably occurred when she was a child.
  10. Sam drinks, or possibly he’s just clumsy
  11. Sam got into some sort of trouble with a borrowed car.
  12. Sam has done some odd things.

Twelve facts in five sentences. Not bad!

It’s the details that allow the reader to visualize, understand, and absorb your message. So facts, whether they come from research or observation (and the imagined facts of the fiction writer or poet are based on observation and experience) are indispensable. Writing is a process of reporting research.

Every writer needs facts. Lots of facts.

Get them. Don’t neglect them!