C is for Characterization

This is the third day of the 2017 A to Z Blog Challenge, so today’s post must have something to do with the letter “C.” Thinking in the realm of writing fiction, I settled on the word CHARACTERIZATION.

Characterization can be shown through narrative, dialogue, action, and reaction. All four should be used by a writer.

There are many things for a fiction writer to keep in mind in creating and fleshing out characters. My writing mentor from Queens University of Charlotte, Judy Simpson, said, “Don’t begin writing your story until you know all of the major characters.” I can’t remember if I followed that advice when I started writing The Spanish Coin manuscript 10 or more years ago. (There! I’ve said it! This has been a labor of love that I have worked on in spurts and fits, sometimes not touching it for more than a year at a time.) But I digress.

The famous mantra of writing instructors comes into play in characterization:  Show, don’t tell. Don’t tell the reader about a character. Reveal character details through what they say, how they say it, and what they do or don’t do.

Even though the writer might have in her notes a driver’s license description of each character (e.g., black male, brown eyes, black hair, six feet tall, 180 pounds) that is usually not the best way to introduce a character to your reader. Let those details (or just the ones that are pertinent) come out gradually and in subtle ways.

Every character has strengths and weaknesses. A “goody-two-shoes” character is boring and, let’s face it, offensive and irritating. Likewise, even the most heinous villain probably has some redeeming value.

Characters unnecessary to the story should be omitted. Related to that, a writer should not include minor characters early on in a novel because the reader might be misled and lose interest.

There is also the matter of choosing names for all the characters. Writing instructors caution beginning writers not to give two characters in the same short story or novel names that are similar. For instance, you might not want a Phil and a Phyllis in the same book.

I have struggled over the name of a free woman of color in The Spanish Coin. She was Rachel for a long time because I think Rachel is a beautiful name and it conjures up an image of a strong and elegant woman in my mind. I changed her name to Clarissa in honor of a woman of color who made a great impression on me while I was writing local history articles for a newspaper a decade ago. It will be interesting to see what the character’s name turns out to be in the final product.

Another consideration that must be taken into account, especially when writing historical fiction, is that the writer must make sure to give characters names appropriate to the time and place. For instance, you won’t find a Tammy or a Kevin in The Spanish Coin because those names were not used in 1771 in the Carolina backcountry.

Each character should have at least one distinguishing characteristic in order to help set an image in the reader’s mind. A character could have a foreign accent, a disfiguring physical feature, a hearing problem, a lisp, a limp, an annoying laugh, a mental illness, or a word or phrase that no one else says.

Who knew there were so many things to think about when giving a fictitious character a name?

Until my next blog post tomorrow

I hope you have a good book to read. (I seem to always have too many on my bedside table! One night they’re going to topple over and give me a concussion.) If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet

2017 A to Z Challenge Badge
Blogging from A to Z Challenge Badge 2017

B is for Background

On this second day of the 2017 A to Z Blog Challenge, my blog post is supposed to have something to do with the letter, “B.” I was tempted to write about blogging, but I’ve had that as my topic several times lately. I decided to write about BACKGROUND and what it means in fiction.

Foundations in Fiction

My first thought was to see what my fiction writing instructor in the Continuing Education Department at Queens University of Charlotte, Judith H. Simpson, had to say about background in her book, Foundations in Fiction.

Judy Simpson's book cover 002

Although background and setting are often used interchangeably, Judy chose to address them separately. Whereas setting is physical location, background is the story’s environment. Of background, Judy wrote in her book, “It is not the physical place but something more than that. It can be the hero’s job.”

Examples of background

Many popular authors use a background for their novels that becomes part of their brand. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels are set in New Jersey, but the background is bounty hunting — albeit of the bumbling variety. Tony Hillerman used Indian reservations for background in his Leaphorn and Chee series. Margaret Truman used iconic locations in Washington, DC in her murder mysteries, and Amy Clipston uses the Amish culture as the background in her fiction.

I enjoy reading and writing historical fiction. The historical fiction writer must create physical setting, create story background, and recreate a past culture, according to Judy Simpson. That last aspect — recreation of a past culture — is what gives historical fiction authenticity.

The writer of historical fiction must do extensive research in order to write believable characters. The novel manuscript I’m writing is set in the Carolina backcountry in 1771. People dressed and lived differently in 1771 than how we dress and live in that same geographical location in 2017. The culture, values, and accepted societal mores were different in 1771 than they are in 2017.

The writer of good historical fiction “must know the history of the period you are using; you must understand the social structure of this society; you must know how they lived, what they wore, what they ate, their monetary system, their transportation system, their social events, their daily lives,” according to Judy’s book. If you make an error, one or more readers will delight in bringing that mistake to your attention.

In writing my The Spanish Coin manuscript, I have done extensive research. The fear of making a mistake has paralyzed me sometimes. If I wait until my research is complete and my writing is perfect, though, my novel will never be published. At some point in the next 12 months, I need to conclude that it is as good as I can make it, push to get it published, and get back to writing the sequel.

The Flavor of Historical Fiction

Judy Simpson wrote the following in Foundations in Fiction and I try to keep her words in mind as I work on my book:

“Remember that what makes a historical novel different is the flavor, the sense of time and place of a long ago era. When the reader finishes the book, they should feel as if they were there, as if they really know what it would be like to live then. You have to capture the essence of that time and each period has its own flavor. Only you, the writer, can open the gate to that era for the reader.”

Until my next blog post tomorrow

I hope you have a good book to read. (As I was writing this last night, I was still reading The Heavens May Fall, by Allen Eskens.) If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet

Writing talents from my mother

I’d like to think I inherited my writing talent from my mother, but she set the bar high. Today would have been her 104th birthday.

My mother was one of 10 children. She was the third youngest. She grew up on a farm in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, attended first grade a one-room school where all 11 grades were taught in one room.  When she graduated valedictorian of a consolidated high school in Charlotte, some of her city classmates were displeased. How dare a farm girl make the highest grades in the class! She went on to major in French and English at what is now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro during the Great Depression. After graduating, she taught French and English on the high school level for five years (also during the Great Depression, being paid $70.00 per month) until her marriage and second career as a homemaker and mother.

Growing up with an English teacher for a mother can be frustrating at times. Such a child is not allowed to make grammatical errors, even in jest. Such a child is taught from birth to use the correct verb tense. You might say the use of an incorrect verb tense was my mother’s pet peeve. By her example, I grew up ever-vigilant in catching grammatical errors I heard on TV or read in a newspaper. Although my mother died more than two decades ago, I still think of her and cringe  every time I hear an error by someone on TV who “should know better” or read a mistake in a news article written by someone who “should know better.” It wasn’t until I became an adult that I appreciated what my mother did for me. It wasn’t until I tried to become a writer that I became painfully aware that I should have paid more attention to punctuation in English class.

My mother loved teaching and late in her life she wrote and self-published a history of the first 100 years of organized women’s work in our church congregation. She even wrote a little play to accompany that 100-year milestone.

I was a young adult when she wrote that book, and I did not fully appreciate her accomplishments. For one thing, I just always took for granted what my mother did. I assumed all mothers could make doll clothes and some of their children’s clothing, even if they’d never had a sewing class. I assumed all mothers taught their toddlers to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in two languages. I assumed all mothers knew how to make doll cakes for their daughters’ birthdays. I assumed all mothers could teach themselves how to knit and crochet. I assumed any mother could write a book. Wasn’t that just what all mothers did?

It wasn’t until I reached my 40s and she was gone that I realized just how gifted my mother was. I’ve had sewing and quilting lessons, but I still struggle to darn a sock or sew on a button — things she did with ease. I can make a cake and ice it, but it would take me all day to make a doll cake and it wouldn’t be as elaborate and pretty as the ones she made. It wasn’t until I took a fiction writing course at Queens University of Charlotte in 2001 and started writing short stories and longer fiction that I realized that writing is hard work. My mother made all these and a host of other things look simple. I’m 63 years old and I still can’t get all the components of a meal ready on time or at the same time.

Mama, how in the world did you do it?