Where do I get my characters?

by Jill Jaynes

Jill Jaynes

I guarantee that if you ask one hundred writers this question, you will get one hundred different answers, all of them equally valid.

Here is mine.

Since writers write what they know, I’d have to say that my characters must come from what I know.  I know myself, and I know other people. So I think partly they come from inside of me, from who I am and what I feel, and partly they come from the experiences I’ve had with a lot of other people. People I’ve met, and people I’ve only seen. I carry around a whole database of memories, feelings, impressions and emotions that I don’t have to even think about. We all do, actually. Like it or not.

When I get a story idea, one of the first things I do is imagine my main character. I literally get a picture of them in my mind, maybe with just one or two physical characteristics- hair color, height, age.

I have a fuzzy idea of who they are, what kind of person. Are they bubbly and sweet? Reserved and observant? Booksmart or streetsmart? Spoiling for a fight? Not a lot of details, and I don’t plan them out, trying to figure out who they are.

Instead, I start writing them onto the page, putting them into a scene to see how they will react to it, I see their personality develop as I do this- but it is more like recognizing them as they reveal themselves, than making them into something.

I had this one heroine, early in a story development of a historical romance, who wore a hat in a scene. I first described the hat as a plain, brown hat. Very simple. I stopped in my literary tracks. I knew, without needing to examine why, that this heroine wouldn’t be caught dead in an ugly hat. I knew that about her, even though I’d never thought it through in any organized way.

Likely, I may base my character on someone I’ve known or seen. Like movies about dysfunctional families- we recognize all of those characters. We probably have some of those relatives. Heck, we may even be one of them.  We have all met certain “types” of people, that come with a basic sort of set of rules about how they interact with the world around them. These are fun frameworks to start with and explore, maybe even dig deeper into and blow up that careful façade the rest of the world sees.

Here’s where the internal component kicks in.  It’s kind of like Carl Jung’s theory of dream interpretation (sorry, psych major here): every person, every thing in your dream represents something of you. I think that is a little how I create emotional reality of my characters.

When I write my character into a situation, challenge them with difficult situations, new ideas, I stop and imagine how they feel. That’s the part that comes from inside. I have to feel that emotion with them, put that down on the page. Make them human. If I don’t, the reader won’t feel it, and they won’t care about what happens next for that character.  That part comes from me, for sure.

All in all, I try not to overthink it, and let it flow as organically as possible. When I have a story idea, there is already a perfect character for it. I just have to wait for them to show up.

TELLTALE HABITS

by Ottilia Scherschel

My father was a businessman who carried a small notepad in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. He dutifully wrote down the names of people he met and things he wanted to remember. To this day, I carry a notepad in my purse. I know I could enter important information in my smart phone, but the habit I picked up from my Dad has stuck with me.

I recently jotted something in my pad while at a luncheon. A woman at my table said, “You must be a writer.” My taking notes confirmed in her mind I was a writer. Her statement made me think about what gives us away in life, those habits that tell others about who we might be.

I met a woman at a cocktail party recently who wore a silver lanyard with a small pen attached like a piece of jewelry around her neck. While we were getting acquainted, she wrote something on a napkin. I hoped it wasn’t her grocery list. “Are you taking notes?” I asked.

She chuckled. “It’s a bit of dialogue.”

“Something I said?”

“No, but you triggered an idea.”

“For what?”

“An article. You see I’m a columnist.”

I should have guessed she was some kind of writer. Why else would she need a pen around her neck? “Tell me about the article,” I said without revealing I too wrote.

When planning a novel, I spend considerable time choosing habits for my characters with the idea in mind that these should disclose something about them. I’ve even done the reverse by making a list of habits I wanted a character to have and then creating that character from the list.

Look around. Everyone has habits. What can you tell about the people you see? And what do your habits say about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s Nothing as Constant as Change

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I’ve thought a lot lately about how my life has changed over the past few years. A few of the changes have been a bummer, but most have been good. I try to be an optimist, but a lot of the expected changes have come fraught with anxiety at the mere thought of what was to come. For instance, my husband and I put the old house we’d lived in for over thirty years up for sale. Talk about angst, gut-wrenching fear and the emotional highs and lows as we willingly leaped on that real estate roller coaster and rode it, white-knuckling, all the way to our bright, airy, little townhome in our desired neighborhood. It was the longest coaster ride of our life, lasting almost one year.

But, just as most women forget the pain of childbirth and say hey, let’s have that fourth child, we decided to remodel the 1994 kitchen in our new home right away. Like not even two weeks after we moved in. We’re at the “fraught with anxiety at the mere thought of what was to come” stage. We bought our ticket for another coaster ride.

Change is what drives our lives. It’s what gets our juices going and emotions flowing. Endeavors and decisions and dreams fuel change. It’s what the books we read and the movies we see are all about. Simply put, a character comes up against a problem, makes a decision on how to solve it, and in the process of trying to solve it, changes something in her life. The soul-deep, satisfying stories show the character as one way in the beginning, and changed in some way by the end.

Look at Laura Drake’s first published book (a Rita winner), The Sweet Spot. At the start of the story, literally in the first couple of paragraphs, we learn that her heroine, Charla Rae, has a problem with Valium that she uses to try to numb the pain of the tragic death of her son. Divorced and attempting to keep a bucking bull ranch from going under, the inexperienced Charla Rae faces one hurdle after the other. And you just know she still loves her philandering ex, but refuses to admit it to herself. I’m sure I’m not spoiling the story, cause this is a romance after all: Charla Rae gains a level of expertise on the ranch, faces her demons of grief and guilt, and rekindles love and romance with her ex. She is not the same girl she was at the beginning of the story. Soul deep and satisfying. I highly recommend it.

Another way to look at how characters change in stories is to consider – are you ready for it? – Transformers. Yes, those vehicle-robots in the movies and comic books. Take the autobot named Optimus Prime. In the movies, the identity he presents to the world is that of a red and black Peterbilt truck. Utilitarian, strong, solid, worker bee. But given the right motivation, he can rearrange all those Peterbilt parts to become the supreme ultimate, save-the-world hero of Optimus Prime. He always had, deep in his metallic essence, the soul of a hero. Maybe that was kind of a stretch, but it was fun to think about.

Identity to essence, to use the words of Michael Hauge, master story guru, describes a character’s arc from the beginning of the story (the identity she shows to the world) and her essence (who she really is revealed). The trials and tribulations she faces throughout the plot peel back the layers of her psyche to finally reveal who she really is.

Think about the major changes in your own life. Did you learn something from them? Did you find out you were a lot stronger than you thought you were? Weaker? What is your favorite keeper book? I bet one or more of the main characters went through a soul-deep character arc.

Let me leave you with this little nugget about change to think about, because deep in my essence, I’m an optimist:

Change comes bearing gifts.

by Barb DeLong

How’d I get the idea for this book? By Jill Jaynes

Jill Jaynes

So this is a little embarrassing.  The inspiration for my newest book, “Pirateless in the Caribbean,” was a ponytail. And it came from an ex-boyfriend who didn’t even have one.

He wasn’t an “ex” at the time, in 2013- he was quite current.

So, I was a couple of years out of a divorce and swimming along in the dating pool. I was taking a shot at couple-dom with a nice Jewish man I’d met. We circled each other warily when we weren’t giving into the excellent chemistry, trying to get a feel for all the places we might overlap comfortably while keeping an eye open for the land-mines on the borders of compromise.

Anyway, he was intrigued with my writing, not that he had any desire to write, but he had artistic creativity and he loved to brainstorm plot ideas. He was great fun to do this with, because he came at things from a completely different angle than I did.

In any case, I had shared with him my plan to write a series of stories about people who shared one common friend with a magical gift, and then each met the love of their life as a result. All the stories could be totally different from each other, in place and theme.

I don’t remember actually how he came up with the pirate idea, but as soon as he did, he declared the pirate must have a ponytail. And that was that. I don’t know what it was, maybe a wish-fulfillment fantasy of a man with thinning hair, but  he could not let that ponytail go.  I wasn’t even writing that story yet- I was still writing my first story and was immersed in swords and Historical European Martial Arts.

He hounded me about that ponytail for most of the five months we dated and I kept it in my closet of intriguing ideas, thinking that a modern day story about a pirate might call for a Caribbean vacation setting.  It was a good idea, a better one than the relationship as it turned out.

A few months after we broke up, a country song came on the radio that sparked that little ponytail into the full-fledged plot of my next story. Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane” was just the ticket – my heroine was going on a deluxe Caribbean vacation she did not want to take- no way, no how.

I set the ideas on “simmer” while I finished my other work in progress, letting a plot evolve that would put my unwilling character in a first class seat to meet the love of her life- a pirate.

I have no problem at all thanking my ex-Mr happily-for-now for the great idea. As another story-teller once reminded us, “Life is like a box of chocolates.” Dig in and enjoy.

I think it worked out rather well, but you can judge for yourself when “Pirateless in the Caribbean” goes up for sale on June 17th on Amazon and many other places ebooks are sold (you can pre-order on May 1st).

WRITING A BOOK

by Ottilia Scherschel

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

I don’t know when George Orwell wrote that, but I know I agree with him. I often ask myself why I go through the “exhausting struggle” of putting words on the page. Am I “driven by some demon” as Orwell suggests?

I like to think I’m driven by curiosity, a desire to explore the “what if-s” of life. I’m currently working on a short story about smuggling antiquities. In my real world, I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing, but on the page figuring out what a smuggler might do is fascinating. Let’s face it. The idea is to escape my everyday world into a place where anything and everything is possible.

Isn’t this why you read? So far so good. I’ve told you the fun part of what I do as a writer. Now, let’s get to the “exhausting struggle” part.

Writing is a time consuming task. Ideas don’t always come quickly, and sometimes my brain can be as dry as bones bleached by the desert sun. My first draft is never my last draft since what I wrote yesterday may not make sense today. Progress can be slow and at times even negative when I have to start something over. Yet, I refuse to give up. Are you starting to feel “some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand?”

When I finish a writing project, I have a sense of accomplishment and relief—the first because I’m finished and can celebrate completing a task and the second because I can start a new story or book. I begin the “exhausting struggle once more.” I work and keep working because I’m a writer.

Is there something you enjoy doing that would fit Orwell’s description of writing a book?

 

Where do I get my ideas? by Jill Jaynes

Jill Jaynes

“Where do you get your ideas?”

People ask me this all the time. They ask it with a look in their eye that tells me they are a little afraid of my answer. It is the same worry I see in someone’s eye when I tell them my degree is in Psychology.

They worry that the jig may be up. They worry that if writers really write what they know, then I am writing what I know.

And I know them.

There just may be that chance that their lives – warts and all – could show up on my pages for all the world to see.

Everybody can just relax. I am not plagiarizing your life (as tempting as it might be. After all, truth is often stranger than fiction). I couldn’t get all the details right if I wanted to; my memory is not that good.

However, as I mentioned in a previous post about “Where” my stories take shape for the first time (in my head, or as they are spilled onto the page), I rely on a deep pool of past experiences, especially those that are emotionally charged, to bring to life whatever story I am currently telling.

Which still doesn’t answer the question- where do I get my ideas?

I have to say that I have never thought of myself as a creative person. Ideas, especially original ideas, have always seemed hard to come by. But I am beginning to think that the only thing that has ever limited my creativity has been my own lack of faith in it. Because not too long ago, I decided I would come up with an idea for a book. Do something different than I’d ever done. Go in a new direction. And you know what I did?

I thought about it. I thought about what kinds of books I enjoy reading so much that I can’t wait for the next one to come out? What books do I come back to again and again?

Guess what? I had an idea. I had such a good idea, that it brought a whole bunch of other ideas with it. And they aren’t bad. I don’t know exactly what happened, but somewhere I found my confidence, and now every time I reach for an idea, I find one. Or two, or three. It is so much fun.

You’ll see. But you’ll have to buy the book.

INSPIRATION…where does it come from?

I’m often asked where my ideas and inspirations come from by family members, friends and new acquaintances when they find out I’m a writer. My answer—everywhere: when I travel, just out and about, or reading travel and cooking magazines. I take pictures galore to remember settings and save articles that have piqued my interest.

Here’s an example. My professional background is in the field of real estate. Whenever I’m in a new town or city, I pick up the local real estate magazine showing homes for sale. I flip through the pages, look at the pictures and read the listings. I usually fall in love with at least one or two of the homes. One time I read the intro for a property that went something like this:

Nestled in the stately ponderosas, this 5,000 square foot cedar and redwood home weaves modern comforts with endearing rusticity. A huge stone fireplace graces the living room area, while high ceilings and glassed dining area show off breathtaking views. Five bedroom suites provide warmth and elegance, with most rooms overlooking either the lake or the forest. In addition, the 30 plus acre parcel provides a wealth of outdoor activities. This is one of the finest homes ever to come on the market. Priced to sell quickly. It won’t last long.

I can tell you my imagination went wild. I started to think about a heroine who needs a fresh start. She reads an advertisement (like the one above) on a real estate website and decides then and there to put in an offer to buy the property (sight unseen of course). When she arrives she finds that yes, it is nestled in the stately ponderosas, but the modern comforts are not endearing at all. In fact, they look to be from the 1940’s. And so the story begins.

My niece took a picture when she was in Oregon and sent it to me of train IMG_2593tracks leading into the woods. And I was off on an adventure. Might hero or heroine be returning home after running away years before??

One day I was out walking at Downtown Disney by the Disneyland Hotel and I saw a man talking on his cell phone by the gated swimming pool area. I started to think, was his wife sitting by the pool watching their children and wondering if her husband was again talking to the office or worse, his mistress? Was this the last straw?

I’m working on a new project I was inspired to write when a friend sent me a picture of a lighthouse on a charming little island. This one will have a bit of suspense and I will be blogging about it occasionally as I go through the process.photo(2)

I wish you and yours a glorious 2016! I hope it’s filled with relaxing days reading your favorite author and a few new ones.

Jann Ryan

LOCATION!

by Ottilia Scherschel

Location! A realtor will tell you to search for the worst house in the best location. A producer sends out a location scout before starting a film. A writer looks for two locations. One is a place to write and the other is a setting for her story.

For me, a location to write can be any place no one bothers me. Most days, this spot is my computer room that has big windows facing a view of green or brown, depending on the time year, hills. I’m a bit claustrophobic so being able to look outside is important. If writing at my computer is not productive, I escape to a shady corner of my yard, or if chaos reigns in my house, I run away to write at a local coffee joint. For the most part, finding a writing location is not a big challenge, but finding the setting for a story is a horse of a different color.

Douglas Dresser, location manager of the movie The Revenant, says, “Location is everything! A great location hopefully adds to the audience experience in that it takes you into the character’s life. It makes you feel like you are there with them.”

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When I’m planning a novel, I take virtual tours of locations and imagine what I would smell, hear and feel being there. I then ferret out unusual pieces of information that I can use to create my characters and drive my story. The world is full of stunning places populated by interesting people.

Whether you’re looking for a place to live, a setting or a comfy spot to write, remember location is everything!

 

 

 

Barb’s Nest

Jill Jaynes, in her excellent blog here entitled “Where do Writers Write?” talked about where her story is created, whether in her head or on the page. I’m going to talk about where I write – physically. I’m sure you’ve noticed folks in Starbucks sitting at small tables studiously tapping away on their laptops. They could have been writers. One of them could have been me. I also frequent local Corner Bakery cafes (I’m writing this blog right now in just such a place), with their free Wi-Fi, convenient electrical outlets, writer-friendly staff, not to mention yummy food. Since I’m retired why do I feel the need to get out of the house to write? Two words.

Retired husband.

But when I do write at home, I write in what we pretentiously call The Library. It was my son’s bedroom and I was measuring for desks and bookshelves long before he married and moved out. I think he was five at the time when I stood on his rumpled bed taking measurements. The room contains generous shelves brimming with books, two matching desks that cover one wall, and a round glass-topped table with three chairs for visiting writers.

Now, as a reader, I’m sure you prepare, even in some small way, a spot where you sit down with a good book. You choose a comfy chair with a squishy pillow, perhaps a lap robe iIMG_2148f it’s chilly. Others may take it a few steps further—comfy chair, plump pillows, lap robe, cozy fire, a soothing cup of tea, ottoman for tired feet, a small furry, purry friend for company. Hmmm. Sounds wonderful. As a writer, I need to create a space that is not only comfortable, but one that enhances my creativity. I build a nest.
IMG_2138Barb’s nest (pictured here) consists of a regulation office chair (soon to be replaced by a comfier one in a new house), soft pillow, my new MacBook Air, a soothing cup of tea, some of my favorite craft books at my fingertips, my Charlotte Award for encouragement, and Thor for, well, it’s Thor. The nameplate is when I’m lost in my characters and don’t remember my name. Oh, the cat with the heart-shaped mark on her forehead? She’s my furry, purry friend. My nest wouldn’t be complete without her.

What does your nest look like?

Where do writers “write?”

Jill Jaynes

I’d like to talk about this in terms of writing process, as in “Where is the story created- in my head, or on the page?”

Do I think up sentences and clever things for my characters to say, and save them up to dump onto the page later? I know some people who do. Does the writing take place in my head long before I set words to page? How much of the writing is planned and how much is spontaneous? Where does the story take shape- in my head or on paper, and how much of a shape must it have before I set it to words?

Not as simple as you thought, is it?

My husband, (a recent addition in my life- for which I am daily grateful) is not an avid fiction reader, nor a reader of Romance (at least he wasn’t before meeting me -more on that in future blogs I’m sure), but he has confessed to being somewhat disillusioned, or rather dispossessed of certain assumptions he’d held about how writers actually produced books. “I thought they just sat down and wrote it, beginning to end, the same way that I read it,” he confessed. “I never knew there was so much uncertainty in the process.”

I have to insert the disclaimer here that THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT WAY TO WRITE. Every writer has their own process and all of them are right. “Right” is what works for you, whoever you are.

That being said, it is a fact widely acknowledged that writers come in two stripes- Plotters and Pantsters.
Plotters are considered to live almost exclusively in the left side of their brains, compelled to spend hours deciding and detailing the plot of their story and characters, usually using outlines and other “pre-writing” tools long before they ever set story-word “one” to the page. They cannot begin until they know how the story begins, middles and ends.
Pantsters, or those who write “By the Seat of Their Pants,” live in the right sides of their brains, and prefer to just begin writing their story, much as my husband’s imaginary writer works, beginning to end, without knowing much about it at all except for the beginning that begs to be put to paper. They have no idea what is going to happen next when they start, let alone what will happen at the end. (An astonishing number of mystery authors have confessed to working this way). Some of them claim to even lose interest in the story once they figure out what the ending is.

I like to think I live on a continuum between the two, closer to the Plotter end of things. Here is what I need to start a story:
1) I need a spark- usually the serendipitous convergence of two or more previously unrelated ideas.
2) I like to have a clear idea of my total story, at least a starting framework of beginning, middle and end that may change as I get further down the road. I will usually write a simple outline.
3) I like to know basically who my characters are- what they want, why they want it and what is standing in their way (why don’t they have it now?) and what is the conflict between them?(This is Romance, after all). I will usually write this down. I will play with some names for my characters- they usually jump out at me, clear and obvious, for this character in this story.

Now, those parts actually involve a lot of creativity. I’m creating a world and people in it. Takes a little imagination, I’d say.

Once I have that, I can pretty much start putting words to the page.

I’ll start writing a scene. I know where the scene starts and what must happen by the end of it.

And this is the part that is a little bit magical.

I usually have no idea how this is going to go. I don’t know what my characters are going to say or how they are going to respond to each other. There is no rehearsal, I don’t give them their lines. They walk onto the page and off they go- hopefully headed off in the direction I intended.

I don’t save up clever things for them to say that I think of while I’m driving in the car. I don’t make lists of really cool words I want to make sure and use. I don’t write practice conversations between my characters that don’t have anything to do with my story. I don’t “pre-write” in that way.

What I do, is rely on a surprisingly deep well of past experiences, people, emotions, smells, tastes and sounds that inhabits the border of my consciousness. Stephen King calls it “the boys in the basement.” It’s really the subconscious, storing up all that seemingly useless clutter you’ll never forget, especially the emotionally charged stuff. Whatever I need, it’s somehow right there when I reach for it. Kind of amazing, really.

Writing, when it’s really good, is like watching a movie play in my head, but more intense because I am submerged not only in the scene but in the character and their emotions. When I’m writing, it’s hard to say exactly where I am. I think my body is sitting where I left it, but I’m long gone, the vacancy sign hung around my neck. If it goes well, I will have written something that reproduces that experience for the reader.

I recently spent an afternoon writing a scene in which my characters are caught in a violent island storm. When I finished, I emerged, blinking, from my writing coma to find myself in the middle of a beautiful Tuscon afternoon with cactus waving at me from the other side of my hotel window.

Mission accomplished.

Jill Jaynes