POWER – Imagined or Real

The solar eclipse happened yesterday afternoon here in Michigan. We were not in the total eclipse path, but we knew the sun would be partially covered. Knowing that it’s a bad thing to look directly at the sun at any time, when it started getting dark outside (not quite dusk-like; about fifteen minutes before the darkest it would get here), I decided to sit on our front porch to horizontally watch our neighborhood darken.

Earlier this summer, bees decided to build their hive under our porch. I’d often sat out on the bench, watching their busy goings to and fro. They’d never bothered me. But right at the height of the eclipse for our area, three of the little guys stung me.

This got me thinking about power. Actual or not, I figured the hive thought I was the one causing the disruption in their daylight. In other words, they assumed I, who was not normally that close to them for an extended period, had the power to block out the sun. It was imagined, an assumption. A misassumption, but one they acted upon. Then I felt their response in actual power, in their stings.

A gossip has the power to cause much damage with lies and assumptions. A result can be with actual power when people react to those lies and assumptions.

Think about your characters. What are their powers? Are they real or imagined? Is there a motivating stimulus and a character reaction? A villain and a hero? Bees and an innocent by-sitter? And where is the real power?

“Thank you for being honest.”

I just returned from a shopping trip where I handed the clerk $20. I donated the coins change, but as I started out of the store, I realized I held a $20 bill in my hand.

I returned to the clerk serving the customer after me and said, “You gave me a $20 bill.” She looked confused, and then embarrassed. “I should have given you five.” She exchanged it and then said, “Thank you for being honest.”

It was my turn to feel embarrassed. She’d given me too much change. It wasn’t quite an unusual occurrence over my decades of shopping. But it got me thinking. I wondered why anyone should be thanked just for being honest? Shouldn’t honesty be the norm, the line below which ought to have repercussions and shame, the line above which ought to have respect and thanks?

I might have to wait another decade for the chance to “be honest” with another clerk, but as a writer, I can have my characters be honest – as the norm!

I see my books like society’s teeth braces, ever so slowly, over time, straightening out the line, the line of what should be normal. My characters go through difficult times and sometimes create trouble for themselves, but in the end, my good characters are better than the norm of good. (And my bad guys below that line, the farther down, the more interesting on my poor main characters.)

I know from my thousands of folk tales that other cultures honor and respect different virtues, like lies and trickery. In my fantasy or historical fiction worlds, goodness is expected. It’s the norm. Even so, there are some characters who prefer the lies and trickery, feeling that is the norm. For if my main characters didn’t have something to overcome, it would make for some awfully dull reading.

As far as the real world goes, all of us may make mistakes, like today’s clerk, but being honest is, and should be, the norm.

Thank you for listening/reading.

Summer Solstice – Merging of Opposite Characters

I love the Summer Solstice. Full moon. Longest day(light) of the year. It makes me feel happy and dance-y. I also feel the opposite, for I get sad knowing from this point until late December, the day(light) will become less and less.

I love the light. In fact, I told that very thing to my husband at supper yesterday. He stared at me in disbelief and replied, “No, you don’t.” As if someone else (even someone I’ve been married to for nearly four decades) can tell me what I do or don’t like. Thing is, we were both right. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that even after nearly four decades, we still have this communication problem. Like the old married couple who went in for counseling and the counselor asking the husband, “Do you have a grudge?” and the man answered, “Yes…a two-car one attached to the house.” The counselor then turned to the woman and asked softly, “Does he beat you up?” the wife answered, “No…I’m usually the early riser every morning.” After a few more questions, the flustered counselor asked them both, “So why have you come to see me?” “We just don’t seem to be able to communicate,” they answered.

In our own marital case, last evening as the sun was high during our supper hour, my husband’s view of me not liking light came from me turning off the ceiling light in the dining room, where I was thinking of how bright it was outside, just like mid-day. Electrical lights – blah. Natural light – yay.  Communication – eh.

So like on a summer solstice, when opposites come together, let your character’s voice be strong, and sometimes maybe her words not be expressed exactly like how her opposite hears them.

Happy writing.

Getting to Know your Character — Items of Importance

The minimalist attitude (lack of accumulated material goods) is a hot topic of late.

This week, I got out my guitar for the first time in months, played it a little, then let it sit outside its case in the livingroom. Each time I passed by, I thought to play it some more. Sometimes I did. Often I didn’t. I used to play it every day, for hours. Priorities change.

IMG_4983

While I paced the house and procrastinated writing, seeing my old guitar setting there got me thinking about past days. There was a time in my twenty’s that I figured I could travel anywhere with just seven items: my toothbrush, toothpaste, a hairbrush, a clean pair of underwear, a book, a sleeping bag, and my guitar, with it all packed into my guitar case (except for the sleeping bag, of course). In fact, I’d often travel like that on weekends.

Later, during my seven and a half week camping honeymoon four decades ago, inside the little Pinto car, besides our clothes in two suitcases, we packed: two tents (one canvas and a nylon one for backpacking); two backpacks; two sleeping bags; mattress pads and pillows; a blow-up raft with life jackets and two collapsible oars; a cooler; a two-burner stove with pots and plates and silverware and a can of white gas; a backpacking stove; two folding stools; two cameras with multiple lenses and heavy tripod; my guitar; and a bunch of dried food, including fourteen jars of peanuts. We used it all–except for some of the peanuts, which are a topic for another post.

1978 Honeymoon

Fast forward to the present. I wondered if I were going away for a weekend, what seven essential items would I take this time? If I were packing for seven weeks away from home today, what items would I make sure we had?

Your turn. A getting to know your character writing challenge:

If your character could only take seven items for an overnight, besides the clothes on his back, what items of importance would they be? If your character traveled for a week (business or vacation), besides the clothes she wore, what would be vital that she pack?

Have fun writing.

Old Friends — True Characters

This past spring, Chris, an old high school friend, discovered during a regular mammogram check up that she’d developed cancer. Although she has an exceptional support system with family and doctors, like any reasonable person facing the unknown, Chris wanted all the support and prayers she could muster. She contacted seven high school classmates to form a Circle of Friends around her, and let us know at the same time what is happening to her.

Even though it’s been decades since we’ve seen each other, even though we seven come from different family units, different faiths, different life experiences and philosophies, we wholeheartedly agreed to support our friend Chris through group on-line communication.

We are so unique from each other, it makes me wonder how we were ever friends in the first place. And yet, we were. And yet we are.

When I develop characters in my books, I sometimes pick traits from true characters–people I know. Someone who is bold. Someone who is betrayed. Someone who did something out of character (so, what lies beneath?). Also, I consider how characters view each other. Do they see someone who is unafraid on the outside, yet the character is actually terrified on the inside? The person’s reaction to conflicts (like cancer or life or death, or someone with an alternate view) prove a person’s true character. Observation and thought not only gives understanding in real life, but is wonderful writing fodder.

Though all the trials of life, and through all our differences, we in the Circle of Friends remain friends How contrary this is to the faceless Internet strangers who so easily stir up word-trouble with their comments. Can your characters be distinct enough from the others, yet retain their individuality, and yet be able to change? Ah, the wonderful challenges of writing!

Today’s Writing Challenge: Pick two of your characters. Make a list of five inner traits which make them unique. Pick two of the most polar traits between them, then put them into a situation where these differences cause feelings to escalate, i.e., conflict–something every good story needs today. Write a scene how they work out (or not) their differences.

Have a great writing week.

Writing AND Marketing — It’s All About Relationships

In fiction writing, character-driven stories are quite popular. These stories are about characters relating to other characters (as well as nature and self). All around you are characters from which to draw, each individual. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock on an actual professor he had. When neighbors of Samuel Clemens read Mark Twain, they laughed as they identified which characters were based on people in their own town where the author had lived. “The Big Bang Theory” was created from real people the writer knew in grad school.

So you don’t have to do a lot of making up of individuals from your own imagination. There are unique characters all around you. And they make for very interesting characters. However, you may want to change the identity to protect yourself. For instance, that mean neighbor who terrorizes the willy-nillies out of you? My,  how he’d make a lovely troll. That boss who accuses you of things you never did? She’d make a great character who whines and screeches and threatens, “I’m gonna tell the teacher.” The ordinary boy who did a small kind act, like stopping in the hallway to help you pick up your books? Oh, yeah. He’ll make a nice YA love interest.

Relationships for writers is more than just our characters. How could I continue writing another word without the encouragement of my critique group or other writers I’ve met over the years?

And now that I’m published and involved in the crazy world of marketing, I’m finding relationships continue, but in an entirely new area. I have multiple contacts and relationships with school and library visits. What a joy it is to work with these people who want the best for their people and believe I am the best for them.

I have multiple contacts and relationships with booksellers which have developed over the years. Just last week, I met an indy bookseller who has regularly reordered my books since the first one was published in spring of 2013. Even though her store is in a delightful touristy town, it’s still ninety minutes away from my home. In the past, she was always gone when I was there. This last week, meeting Pam Haferman face-to-face was a delightful and emotional experience and I left her store bouncing from cloud to cloud — a feeling which stayed with me all the way home.

So whether you’re experiencing potential characters, writing about characters, or working with others to make an event be superior, it’s all about relationships.

Bkst owner Pam H 'n Sandy 4-2015

Pam Haferman of Black River Books, South Haven, MI, and Sandy Carlson, April, 2014

Art and Art Lessons Learned — Watercoloring and Writing

Last night I attended a watercoloring demo with Ken Dey at the Battle Creek Art Center. I’ve taken watercolor classes before, but this style of demo was new to my experience. (And thank you, all my illustrator friends, for your cheers and encouragement at my untalented-but-willing painting-for-fun efforts.)

I do like to dabble with both sketches and paints, but I’ve never felt I was very good. That said, I know from my writing experience the more practice and more I study about the craft, the better I become. But any craft takes time to learn in order to get it…acceptable for others’ eyes. Time is a huge factor in pursuits. At least for me.

With most of my adult life focused on writing (v.s. illustrating), it wasn’t much of a surprise to find my mind last night translating what Ken was teaching into writing. So here are the things I parallel-learned from last night’s demo:

1)  Study and practice your craft under someone who is more experienced than you, someone who also answers even the most basic questions. (For writers, these can be conferences, workshops, webinars, writing craft book clubs, etc.)

2) Good equipment and materials make the act of doing your craft more seamless. (For illustrators, a workspace, paper, paint, and brushes; for writers, a workspace, working computer (or paper and pen), related computer programs.)

3) Have a plan. (Illustrators–sketches; Writers–theme, plot outline, and character sheets)

4) Start with general placement. (Watercolorers–wet on wet, section by section; Writers–rough draft, or what I call Raw Writing, loosely following the Three Act plan until your story is “done.”)

5) Take time to let it set. (Painters–wait till the next day, or use a hair dryer; Writers–time is your hairdryer. There’s no rushing the set time for us. Put your story aside a few days or months and come back to it with fresh eyes.)

6) Go back to fill in details. (For artists this would mean tree branches, grass blades, shadows, removing gumm, etc. For writers this is what we call “revisions,” like making clearer motivations for each action, working on language to make your words count, making sure your readers can use their five senses which you’ve planted in your scenes, etc.)

7) Say thank you to your friend who invited you to the demo (or whatever), and make sure to invite others to things you care about as well. (It’s a lot about connections and networking, people.)

Character Motivation — Analyzing your Characters

I popped into the grocery store for a few items. I almost didn’t need a cart. As I started to unload at the checkout, a large woman in a baggy coat charged at me and practically yelled, “Can I go in front of you!” It wasn’t a question.

Usually when I’m in line at a store and someone behind me has only a few items, I always ask if they want to go ahead of me. So why did this woman irritate me so? It wasn’t like I was in a rush for an appointment, or that I may have left starving, wailing children and husband at home. As she counted out her pennies from her coin purse to give the exact change (when my swipe of a credit card is so much faster), I had to stop to breathe deeply and analyze why I was so upset.

Could it be because I didn’t have the opportunity to be gracious and kind and offer the woman the spot in front of me like I normally do? (i.e., my gift-giving was snatched away)

Could it be that I had six items in a cart and she carried her two items by hand? (i.e., not much of a difference in ringing up the items, so why did she need to be ahead?)

Could it be that I felt forced to say, “Why, yes, of course” instead of being given a choice? (i.e., I’m all about options)

Could it be that this woman didn’t even take the time to say thank you? (i.e., how uncouth)

Could it be that I knew she could beat me up with or without her cookies? (i.e., terror motivates many an action)

The reason I got upset may have been some of all those. I’d hoped to get out into the parking lot and pull out before she did just to let her see how fast I was. But once outside I didn’t see her. I recalled a quote: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Was the baggy lady with her two bags of cookies really an angel in disguise? If so, I certainly failed any spiritual or good character test. Even though I had done the polite action. My attitude did not parallel my action.

This bitty incident in the grocery store made me think of my book characters. How well do I really know them? How well do I really express in my language their true motivations?

So, here’s your writing challenge: Take this situation, but put your own characters in it. How would X respond-reply-act to this woman? How would Y respond-reply-act to this woman? And continue plugging in your various characters into the same situation.

Happy writing. (And now back to NaNoWriMo.)

The Kind, the Funny, and the Peculiar Characters

This week I’ve realized my book characters are too bland and ordinary. Real life sure isn’t. It’s full of all sorts of interesting and dramatic characters.

* Five days ago I blogged about my encounter with kind and helpful strangers stopping to help me when my car broke. (See https://sandycarlson.com/2014/03/31/good-samaritan-recipient/ ) They stirred good feelings towards them with no way for me to pay them back. It was quite humbling.
* A second incident happened today as I walked through the parking lot to a grocery store. As I passed a car, a little dog inside started barking at me. Ever notice that the smaller the dog is, the quicker and higher pitched the yip, accompanied with lots of bouncing and jumping? (“See how tall I am? And how dare you approach my territory! Yap!”) Anyway, his yipping and jumping set off the car alarm.

I find it amusing how car alarms vary. Our own car alarm is rather wimpy. I set it off on purpose once. I had to get close to it to hear. It was a pitiful, “Oh, pooh. Oh, ow. Oh, and, yeah: help. But only if you wanna.” On the contrary, Mr. Yippy’s car alarm could be heard two blocks away. (“Yeah, you better keep walking, you human. Yip!”)

* And then there are the peculiar characters, like the Cedar Rapids, IA, dog owner whose loose dog bites neighborhood kids in their own yards and terrifies postal workers so there is no mail delivery in the neighborhood until the dog-owner-issue is resolved. There are many wonderful dog stories, but who really wants to read about irresponsible owners? Yuck.

* Another peculiar character involved my friend Freda in a border disagreement. She’d raked leaves for mulch on her side of the telephone pole and pink marker in the woods which NDN (Next-Door-Neighbor) had marked himself. He blew the leaves back into her yard. When she confronted NDN, he paced and yelled without making eye-contact, accusing her of moving the border marker (which in his guess was 12″ into his woodland separating their lawned yards). He then accused her of tossing huge chunks of 200 plb cement over her fence. Freda quietly backed away, fearing his anger would evolve into more than just words.

So there you have it: the kind, the funny, and the peculiar characters. They’re around us ever day. What about in your writing? Are your own characters as interesting?

Keep on writing!

You’ll End Up In My Novel

My husband bought me a T-shirt which reads: Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.

I don’t normally wear T-shirts with writing on them in public, but tomorrow, I’ll boldly be wearing this one at the Leilapalooza Music Fest in Battle Creek, MI. Because I write historical fiction (with some fantasy books tossed in), I have an 1850’s hoop skirt outfit I wear to presentations, or an 1890’s Victorian outfit to do the same. But a music festival with sixty bands playing throughout the day and evening on six stages? Naw. Victorian clothing would not be the proper attire. Perhaps if I went more steam-punk, but I haven’t got that. So… a grey T-shirt with “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel” seems appropriate. (Who would have ever thought when I started writing decades ago that I would have to make fashion decisions when presenting or representing my books?)

Of course, I have a disclaimer in the front pages of my books about any similarity to characters being coincidental, plus I wouldn’t make a big, bad bully in my real life recognizable for fear of my life. I’d change the age, gender, nationality, etc. Unrecognizable, except in my memory. There are some characters out there in real life who are stunning, and I don’t mean that in the beautiful sort of way, but in the stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks-and-hope-they-don’t-catch-you-staring sort of way. After attending nine Sturgis Motorcycle Rallys in South Dakota, I can tell you that not many outfits or lack thereof surprise me. But characterization goes far deeper than just the clothing.

They used to be refered to as “tags” — various aspects of a person’s character. The style of clothing. Color of hair, eyes, skin. A “prop,” like a pipe or wand or parrot on shoulder. A physical character, like a twitch, chewing on a toothpick, or the walk. The voice, scratchy, low, stuttering. Actions and reactions. Introvert or extrovert. Much variety.

People are made up of many characteristics. So tomorrow as I sit in my booth, smiling at you, telling you about history and hoping you’ll buy one of my books, my warning holds: Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.