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You Gotta Get Behind Your Character

Minerda-sample

Illustration by Robin Follet. Minerda.

There are a lot of reasons to write a book, but for me, it’s because I’ve fallen in love with a particular person. (Not actual, though my characters talk to me constantly like they’re very, very real. And love interests, exes, et cetera have fueled some pretty interesting writing in the past.)

I’ve got to know a character inside and out, give them BFF-on-steroids status, and live with them, a good while. I’ve got to know what happened to her before the story and outside the lines (cue an Outtakes file where never-seen-before/ever scenes go to die).

I need to know random stuff like why Minerva loves Wonder Woman and where Minerva sees herself in six years (Columbia, Northwestern, some kick-ass journalism school for sure). Why she named her asshole cat after a 1970s Volkswagen commercial and papers the walls of her bedroom with ancient issues of The New York Times and The Washington Post.

I need to shadow a character, stalk a character, ask incredibly personal questions of the character, before updating my Facebook status to say I’m in this relationship.

Like real love, it takes time, commitment, work. Humility, too. Because walking behind someone will teach you to be silent, listen in, and be ready to have her back when both the lovers and haters come calling.

There Was a Reason Prince Was Purple

His Purple Highness, the Prince we all loved, rocked a color that is neither red nor blue. It’s more than a royal shade; it’s the perfect blend that holds all things. Masculine and feminine; hot and cool. Two distinct identities in a loving embrace.

I had my own purple moment these last few days as I wended my way through the health care system.

Last week I saw a doctor who ordered a CT scan. Before she did, I told her what my acupuncturist noted when she treated me. “I may have gall bladder issues,” I said to the doctor. “I have these sore points on my legs.” I indicated where they were.

My doctor nodded and said with wonderful diplomacy, “I think it’s great you seek alternative therapies. Myself, I need visuals and data. So I’d like to run some tests to rule out some things.” Seeing her acceptance of East while she did West, well–it was a violet moment for me. Purple

Today I saw my acupuncturist, CT results in hand. Those results didn’t give an “impression” as the radiologist says, of gall bladder issues, but some other possibilities, maybe colitis. She gave the data careful consideration, then placed needles accordingly across my body. I could feel, from the moment the fine, wavering needles touched my skin, instant tingling and energy swirling. I soon slipped into a restful, half-aware state, as only acupuncture can do for me. I’ve tried regular massage, but I never zone out. Only the needles can work mauve magic. I left the session without a rod of stone-like muscle frozen in my back. I left looser, calmer, happier. Mauve, you might say.

This week I hear from my doctor about next steps, Western style, based on the result of the CT. I will probably see a specialist and work in concert with that person and my acupuncturist. I’ve already begun seeking answers to the most lavender of all questions–what’s a good diet while I learn more about what’s wrong? Because we must live in the in between, right?

If you’re not one to flex with the overreaching metaphor, let me make it plain: Prince, medicine, politics, and so many things, are best handled with lots of purple.

As I write the next draft of Minerva’s story, under the wonderful eye of my agent, Amy Tipton, I am listening to the voice of a teen who declares herself “beyond labels.” Is she gay or is she straight, or is she something kind of periwinkle? Or does she really, truly, have to declare a color?

“Plum,” my mother-in-law would say, as they say in Mount Airy (AKA Mayberry). “Plum pretty.”

In these next weeks of writing, in these next weeks of political conventions, in these tearful and lamenting weeks of violent conflict in our streets, I pray we all bow to the most royal of colors and see the compromise, empathy, humanity, dare I say, mixed blood in all our souls.

I’ll turn back to Prince to set us all on the lovely purple path.

Honey I know, I know, I know times are changing
It’s time we all reach out for something new
That means you too
You say you want a leader
But you can’t seem to make up your mind
I think you better close it
And let me guide you to the purple rain

Minerva Mae Would Like to Be Heard

Good morning, blog followers! I’m joining a contest, The Writer’s Voice, sponsored by Love YA and Monica Bustamante Wagner, which offers a chance for authors to share their manuscripts with agents. Part of the process is to post your query and first 250 words on your blog.

Enjoy!

 

Dear Agents of This Cool Contest,

I seek your representation for my YA novel, How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight. It’s a crossover story at 100,000 words for a range of ages, YA meets women’s commercial fiction.

9th grade hasn’t started too well for Minerva Mae Christopoulos, a gifted, weird, wise girl who’s survived some serious bullying thanks to her nebulous sexuality. All Minerva wants is to become the next Christine Amanpour and hang with her best friend, Diana. And though the first goal is looking likely—the school just approved Minerva to be the first freshman reporter—there’s no time to celebrate, because the girls who called Minerva “lez” all through middle school are after Di. They’re not just claiming her; they’re setting her up with a dangerous senior guy. Now Diana’s on the fast track to cleavage-baring camis and the “Hot or Not” tournament.paper-pen2

This can’t be. Minerva will have to muster every bit of journalistic genius to keep Di from becoming #thatslut—and figure out how not to lose a girl who feels like more than a friend.

I’m an indie author of How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, which was the 2011 first runner-up for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and has been reviewed in Publishers Weekly. I have a loyal following of readers; a strong website, Twitter, and Facebook presence; and experience with bookstore signings, a blog tour, and a book trailer. I’m also the winner of an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant and in my other life as an educator, have published three books (National Council of Teachers of English and Chicago Review Press).

I’ve included the first 250 words of the manuscript, and I would be happy to send you the complete novel. I appreciate your time and consideration.

Best,

Lyn Fairchild Hawks

 

How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight

It being the demise of August in Jamesborough, North Carolina, the afternoon heat spreads its suffocating evil upon all creatures such that no sane person should venture outdoors. If I glance out my diamond-pane window above my desk, I have to rub the fog from the glass to see our little neighbor girls across the street, sweating it out under a hoop in the humid air and hellish sun. The house rattles as the air conditioning kicks in, and my hot little attic room, what I call my third-floor garret, the place I nurture deep thoughts as once did great women like Austen and Brontë, finally fills with gusts of air.

I go stand near the vent, flapping my t-shirt. I’m still slick with sweat after my mission into the world—a visit to my future stomping grounds, Jamesborough High. ’Twas all for a noble cause—the sake of journalistic justice.

I can’t wait to tell Di.

A few miles away, Diana Lucy Woods, my best friend since seventh grade, finishes up practice after swimming like the mermaid she is. She keeps insane hours with an elite crew of club swimmers competing for Division I schools. In a few minutes she’ll be here for Ancient Movie Night because it is Friday—the best day of my week. Thanks to my film fanatic father and his massive DVD collection, we hook ourselves up with old-school celluloid so we can hang with gals like Lana, Tippi, and Ava till Di’s curfew.

 

The Haunts with Substance: A Guest Post by C. Hope Clark

Do you believe in spirits? I do, and Wendy Redbird Dancing does. Someday soon Minerva Mae, my next gifted, weird, wise girl in progress, will realize that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in her facts-only philosophy. I’m thrilled to have mystery author C. Hope Clark pay a visit to my blog to talk spirits and some of life’s mysteries.

Halloween was a candy holiday for me as a child. Few tricks made me jump. I never was one much for haunted houses or graveyard treks, either, except for the time I volunteered to be Frankenstein for the school’s fundraiser, and a scared boy almost broke my hand kicking me.

Gooey eyeballs and dismembered hands could be cool. Bubble gum fangs. But it wasn’t until The Exorcist came to the theater did I start thinking: what if spirits do exist?Hope Clark

I don’t mean the macabre sort of being that scares people then hacks their heads off. I’m talking about the essence of humans who have died but not moved on. I choose to believe their presence can be true. It makes a sort of sense. That energy has to go somewhere; why not amongst us?

We all have our What If stories, where we aren’t sure if something we heard, saw or felt was a ghost. Most of us are too afraid to mention them for fear of being taunted, but in close circles of friends we trust, we bring them up.

For instance, the year after my grandmother died, she appeared to me in a dream, led me through the sky to a church on a hill, and pointed to a cross. The message I read was that she now knows that religion is real. I recall my mother turning pale when I described the experience.

Fast forward to my adulthood. I built my current home on the site of a small, hand-built house we had torn down. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Christmus, died in their eighties. He loved the place, having done most of the building. It faced the lake, and even when he couldn’t walk much, he rode a riding lawnmower to check out his garden and get the mail. He died there. She left a year later to an assisted living facility and died shortly thereafter. Before we tore down the house, I spent many days in it trying to envision how this family lived, wondering how I could respect their memories. I could sense them unlike anything I’d ever felt before. Picking through the personal items, I saved doilies, a Depression glass platter, a butterbean bowl, a velvet rocking chair, and several other mementos that seemed too precious to dispose of. That was nine years ago.

Almost every night now when I’m in my recliner, watching my token mystery show, I smell cigarette smoke between ten and eleven P.M. Some evenings it can make me cough. Keep in mind that nobody has ever smoked in my home. However, Mr. Christmus smoked. I often wonder if he’s making himself at home, and if he approves of his new digs. If he ever appeared, I don’t know what I’d do. Thus far, he honors my wishes of keeping things aromatic.

Some late night evenings, my dachshunds walk to the doorway and look into the next room, toward where we used to keep a dog bed that belonged to two other dogs that are passed on. Those two older dogs were precious to us, and I often wonder if they stroll around enjoying their old lives as my current puppies study those that occupied this home before them. My husband used to jest. It’s happened enough now that he no longer laughs.

Sometimes he smells the cigarette smoke, too.

I run all my experiences by a close friend of mine on Edisto Beach who is visited by spirits on auspicious days like birth and death days. She can name which relative appears on which day. Her jewelry gets moved, water comes on, lights flip off, the usual. Occasionally a waft of cologne blows across the air. A tissue flutters when there is no air. I used to chuckle at her stories. Today I grab a drink and listen.

I no longer discount the presence of spirits. While I have no proof they are there, I also have no proof they aren’t. To me, there’s something comforting about the idea we will be able to see people left behind once we pass on to the next life.

I’m a Southern author, and a couple of my books hint about haunts, or haints as they’re called in many places in the South. That’s what my grandfather called them. Ain’t with an H.

In my first mystery series, Tidewater Murder incorporated the Gullah culture that exists on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. They practice a voodoo of sorts, deeply entrenched in the actions of spirits. In addition to hexes and conjure bags, my protagonist also talks about the ghost of an old man who used to live in the house torn down near a lake. Imagine that.

In my second mystery series, Murder on Edisto takes place on gorgeous, secluded Edisto Island. A secondary character I created happens to look like my friend who happens to sage her home to rid it of bad spirits, and she takes time to entertain the good.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????For future Edisto books, I’m researching the abundance of ghost stories in the region. The island owns a wealth of tales to include a love lost in a stormy sea, a bride murdered on her wedding day, and a child buried alive in a mausoleum. My spirit-loving character will have a chance to move front and center in those tales, and we’ll see just how much the spirits really love her. I can’t wait.

No, I’m not a fan of Halloween and all its silliness. Dracula, werewolves, zombies, they’re not real. But when it comes to spirits of people who’ve once been on this earth, people who had a story and seem to still want to relive it, I sit up and take notice. They receive a nod from me, and maybe a place in my next book. Hopefully that will give them something to take back to Spirit Central, on the days they aren’t kicking up their heels on Earth.

Hope Clark still smells cigarettes at night and gives her spirit his distance. She’s written the award-winning Carolina Slade Mysteries and the newly-released Murder on Edisto, the first in The Edisto Island Mysteries. She lives on the banks of Lake Murray most of the time, with frequent trips to Edisto Beach. Learn more at www.chopeclark.com.

 

 

 

 

Kill That Back Story…Says The Village

My writers’ group has told me in no uncertain terms to kill that back story that currently serves as the opening to my new novel.

Image found here

But the other night, I couldn’t quite believe my trusted critique partners. No, the voice of habit and comfort, never mind a fond memory of How the Muse Struck Me, was wa-a-a-a-a-y louder than they.

As I’ve been prepping my manuscript for their critique this week, I’ve stared lovingly at my opening chapter, a back story tale of the protagonist in fifth grade. The history of how the poor thing was bullied–how in the world can I leave that out?

The main action of the novel will take place in ninth grade, when the protagonist vows to seek revenge–but no matter, no matter, the back story tale is just so clever, so well-written, so full of protagonist voice, how could I ever move it from first place?

You see, the Muse brought me the first lines of the character’s voice, they came like a revelation, so OF COURSE they should be the first words of the novel, right?

And don’t readers need to know about the long-standing enmity before we see the ninth grade scenes? Won’t the reader feel the pathos of the poor little 10 year-old character and the story will be the better for it?

My head was so full of these rhetorical questions–in other words, the vote to keep the back story had already won the argument–that I couldn’t move forward. Then it hit me: Post the question on Facebook and see what the people say.

At first I wondered if it was just another one of my procrastination tactics, me refusing to face the hard work of drafting. But I headed into the virtual village anyway.

I wrote, Begin with back story, or jump right into the action? That is the question.

Bob: Only if it’s a prologue, and I’ve been shooed off of those.

Lauren: So many of my favorites start with action in the first chapter, that I lean towards that side. But that’s not to say that there can’t be backstory as well. Find a situation to put your character in that allows them to tell a part of their story as the action develops. Just a bookworm’s two cents.

Karen: Action…plenty of time for backstory later.

Jamey: I do love me some backstory, but I think that might work (at least for me) if it’s doled out bit by bit in the story…This makes me think of when we watch older movies. The credits came before any action at all. And now it has to start with a bang.

Tara: “I will destroy this mean girl.” That’s a pretty darn great first line to a book if you ask me. Flashbacks to the history as she goes would prob work.

The people spoke, and finally, I was ready to listen.

It’s not about my not trusting fabulous critique partners, Stephanie and Jen. They steer my prose well so often. It’s not about my not knowing modern storytelling strategies that work well–because I do. I think one of my issues is that I can’t always define my genre and in this limbo land, I try to be both old school and new school. I write commercial fiction, with a literary twist–but not full-on literary and not straight genre. Since I straddle the lines, those fast-dissolving lines that perhaps never were to begin with, I confuse myself sometimes wanting to be all things to all people, which is a way of giving myself a pass Don’t box me in because there are no rules. In other words, an easy way out.

Not so with writing. What does the audience want? is a question you can never ignore. You can answer it myriad, creative ways, and the voice of the people can set much-needed strictures. Nuns fret not, remember, in their narrow convent rooms; Wordsworth tells me so. Limits are a good thing.

So I got back to work on Chapter 1. And suddenly, I started asking more questions of plot events I’d taken for granted. Why didn’t Mean Girl Carli’s secret get more play? Why didn’t Carli ever directly threaten Minerva, the protagonist? What if they had a scene together? Does the pain of fifth grade seem like centuries ago to a ninth grader, and why should the reader care anymore than Minerva about that fated day, circa age 10? Suddenly my sacred manuscript suddenly looked moth eaten, a Swiss cheese of plot holes.

The new chapter might fix this. I don’t know; it’s only draft one. But if we are going to write novels in this revolutionary time of self-publishing, we must take heed of what the people say, else become part of the supposed “tsunami of crap” that would-be authors unleash on the web, or, lost in the hubbub, the roaring noise of too many voices.

Last thought: if Salinger, Lee, O’Connor, or Munro (four of my favorite authors) had used Facebook, would their writing be better? I’m not saying it would. All I know is, I needed it yesterday for my creative process, and it kickstarted me out of an idling path and revved my engine for better plotting going forward.

Now I have a new chapter called Cornered by Carli’s Cartel. Clearly I’m having too much fun with alliteration. The inspiration came from the crowd, and I’m thankful for it.

Where do you get your inspiration when you’re trying to break through a writing block?