Friday, March 6, 2015

Strong Women: Building a Character’s Background

Posted by Sandy Parks

This week includes and celebrates Worldwide Women in Aviation week, Women in Construction week, International Women’s Day, and Women’s History month. Whew, and I probably missed a few. That’s great to know, but what do these celebrations have to do with building characters?

Any writer wants their female protagonist to be strong (or achieve that through the story), but her background must explain how she became a doctor/lawyer/pilot/spy when she came from a troubled, impoverished, or lacking of support background. Writers frequently make the heroine a successful person who climbed up by her bootstraps, often times via unbelievable circumstances. That inconvenient necessity of getting from A to B is glossed over. She is a doctor because her cancer-ridden, drug addict mother left her abandoned at a young age. Motivation, yes, but hmm. How did she get from there to having the grades, the drive, and the funds for all the education required?

How does building characters connect to these women’s week celebrations? For one, there are often events during those weeks that are specifically aimed at young women of school age to entice them into particular fields. One is happening this week near me and is sponsored by the 99s, a women’s pilot organization. They offer free first rides and hands on seminars about being a pilot. They follow up these events with scholarships to encourage women to learn how to fly or hone other skills, and often provide mentorships to get young women jobs and internships. Many a young teen working at an airfield has gone on to be an aviation mechanic or pilot.
First flight for young girl at Women In Aviation Week activity Fly it Forward.
Photo by S.Parks
Other organizations do similar things. So if your character comes from a low income family, or is orphaned, or lacks a support system, hook her up with a mentor, give her an opportunity to try her hand at construction or mechanics or business, or just about any field (especially those under-represented by women), and then let her grow. Here’s an example. For extra money, your character cleans the church after services. The pastor has a flying ministry so takes her for a flight. When she shows interest in aviation, he gets her a job at the local airfield where she gets interested in working on the planes. The head mechanic starts to teach her and suggests she eventually apply for a training scholarship from the women’s mechanic organization. Sounds boring, but it builds a plausible background for why your gal can manipulate an aircraft or even car engine with ease.
Girls waiting at tarmac gate. A female member of the Civil Air Patrol is
running ramp safety with the CAP cadets.

Boys and girls wait for their first flight at an
Experimental Aircraft Associations Young Eagles day (free first flight). 

Where can mentors come from? The woman who flies her plane on the day your character shows up at a local hangar for the free flight. Or an aerobatic pilot at the local airshow where the young girl waits to get an autograph from her favorite flyer. Or a “big brother” or “sister” who comes into her community to assist? The special mentor may also add another layer to your story and be that missing mother or father figure, or be the comedic release in your story.
99s who offered free rides at event and often act as mentors
to women interested in flying. All ages and varying careers.
Young fan standing before Patty Wagstaff's aerobatic plane at an airshow. Patty is a multiple National Aerobatic champion, instructor, and supporter of women in aviation. Photo S. Parks

All in all, a woman who works hard to build/grow into the person she is today, is more likely to have the strength to be the super heroine we want in our stories. So start thinking about that background/backstory and how it can play into building the character you need to make the story believable. Give her an opportunity to become interested in her chosen field, a mentor to guide her, and scholarships/internships to carry her to success.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Let's talk about a movie!

I went to see American Sniper on the weekend. I've read a lot of autobiographies written by soldiers and SEALs who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I hadn't read this one. (I confess I knew the movie was coming and I'm lazy).

First off, let me say, I loved the movie. I've read a lot of the criticism aimed at the film but for me it was a simple story following one man's life as a SEAL and the effect that life had on his marriage. The whole movie is perfectly shot. The graphic horror--the speed with which everything could go to hell? Very well done. I thought the characters were beautifully underplayed in terms of acting, and the most impressive thing to me was how the movie was told unflinchingly in terms of point of view (such an important lesson for writers to learn and apply). There is no room for doubt in this guy's mind. He is fighting a war against evil. End of story.

So that's what I liked about the movie. The one thing that detracted from the whole experience for me was the creation of the fictional olympic gold medalist sniper who is on the other side of the war. I 'got' it in terms of storytelling, but couldn't the guy have just been a really great shot without making him an Olympian? That little bit of Hollywood irked me. It's not true. There was no need for it and it made me doubt the integrity of the interpretation of the rest of the book. Now I'll have to listen to it on audio just to see what else they changed.

Bradley Cooper was amazing, as was Sienna Miller, an actress I've never really cared for before. The movie made her seem very human.

That Chris Kyle made it through the horrors of war, the years of separation to get back to his wife and kids, and fought the often unexpected mental battle of returning to civilian life--that was inspiring. The fact he was murdered by a vet he was trying to help? Heartbreaking. Gut-wrenching. It took the story in a circle that is so fictionally perfect it doesn't seem real.

So, have you seen the movie? Read the book? What did you think?

Sunday, March 1, 2015


Join the authors and friends of Not Your Usual Suspects for an occasional series of posts about their world of reading, writing and publishing.

Short and sweet, hopefully both informative and entertaining - join us at I-Spy to find out the how's and why's of what we do.

TODAY'S POST: I-Spy something beginning with ...


I’m a passionate fan of outlining, especially for novels with extensive world building and plot twists, red herrings and clues. They keep my details in order, remind me of key points and provide a roadmap for my story. If you’re having trouble pacing or plotting your novel, outlining is a great way to get the words flowing again. Personally, I think outlining is the most powerful tool in my writer toolkit. Don’t get me wrong. I still follow the story when it deviates from my outline, but as a girl who’s done it both ways, I have to say a detailed outline will save immeasurable amounts of time among other things.

Here are my favorite things about outlining:

  1. Making time to write is tough. Writers have other things to do, right? Lives. Friends. Family. Fandoms. Actual paying job-gigs. So, we have to make the most of our time at the keyboard. Outlines break the novel into bits, so you can get your head around what you need to write each day. Don’t waste precious time rereading yesterday’s work so you’ll know where to pick up. No more wondering what will go into today’s chapter. With a complete outline, you’ve already done the hard work. You’ve plotted it all and broken things into chapters. Now, mark them off. Delete them if you want. Letter by letter. Number by number. It will be simple to see how far you’ve come and exactly where to start next.

See? You just saved hours! Plus, I love marking things off. Sometimes I make lists just to cross things off. It feels amazing. What writer can’t use a pat on the back?

  1. Outlining gets all your tools in one place: IE your ideas, your time frame, motive and red herrings. When the outline is perfect, you’re ready to write.

  2. No more plot holes and underdeveloped story arcs. Completing an outline will give you the opportunity to review quickly for missing plot points, arcs you started but forgot about, and other writerly disasters. Remember: It take seconds to remedy errors at the outlining stage. Find the same mistake in your manuscript, even in your rough draft, and you’re looking at hours to make it right.

  3. Use color. I color-code my outlines and use them as visual aids when I’m finished. It’s easy to see if the back story scenes (blue) are too clustered or when the romance (pink) runs too thin in one area. Color-coding provides a quick visual of your story.

  4. Voila! Guidelines! Outlines keep you, the writer, moving forward. For example: I try to write a chapter a day. That’s my thing. So, I open my document and my outline, scroll to where I left off and boom! When I’m done with the chapter, I walk away. Guilt free. Which brings me to…

  5. Daily goals. Maybe word count goals discourage you. They flat out freak me out. Don’t even ask me about my Nanowrimo. Just. Uh-uh. Outlines show daily goals in terms of scenes and chapters not words, and I love that. It feels great to finish for the day and not beat myself up for spending such a small amount of time at the keyboard. Hey. I met my goal and I’m going to go watch Netflix.

For me, a couple days of outlining and plot prep saves months of lost time staring at the screen between flashes of inspiration or thousands of lost words when I realize something I put into the story isn’t working. There’s nothing worse than highlighting a few thousand words and hitting DELETE.

What do you think? Do you outline?


FUTURE POSTS will cover:
Kindlegraph / the art of research / writing male/male romance / rejection and writer's block / building suspense / writing love scenes / anti-piracy strategies / audio books / interviews with editors and agents / using Calibre.
We welcome everyone's constructive comments and suggestions!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Mary Sue and You - How Much of Ourselves Do We Put in Our Novels?

by Janis Patterson

One of the more peculiar kinds of book is known somewhat disparagingly as the Mary Sue. Although it can occur in any genre, it seems most prevalent in romance and marginally less so in mystery and usually but not always is the offering of a beginning or very amateurish writer. The generally accepted definition of a Mary Sue book is that the protagonist is always just too perfect – too beautiful/handsome, too smart, too brave, too kind, too loveable, too adored by everyone they meet, too… everything. Obviously most of the time this is just a bit of wish fulfillment and self-projection by an unskilled author. Yes, there are professional authors who indulge in this fantasy trip, but thankfully they are rare.

On the other hand, some don’t believe a writer can create a believable character without putting a little of themselves into the mix. It is this touch of humanity that makes the character live. So when we are creating our characters, how much of yourself do you put into your people? I’ve asked this of a lot of writers and have gotten answers ranging from ‘nothing at all’ to ‘a passion for ripe olives’ to ‘she’s my Aunt Clarissa.’

I know that writers are all different, but I do believe that most writers tend to make their protagonist the same sex as themselves. While there are some who do write the opposite sex both beautifully and believably, doesn’t the basic denominator of sex itself color our writing? A well-crafted male character will have a different view of and reaction to the world than an equally well-crafted female character, no matter by which sex they are written. 

While I am neither, I have written 20 year old protagonists and 80 year old protagonists, but at the base of their character is the fact that they are women and that basic fact of femaleness does a great deal to shape them.

I’m not going to go into sex stereotypes, which is its own minefield, but say again that what and who we are has to influence the characters we create. As an experiment, we should take the skeletal description of a character – for example, a 35 year old widowed single mother of three who is a welder, who used to want to be a nun and who is allergic to peanuts – and then ask five or ten authors to flesh the character out by writing a couple of scenes. Other than those skeleton points, I wonder how much any of the characters created would resemble each other.

To offer up my own work, my main protagonists are human (as I am), are female (as I am), are Caucasian (as I am), are politically and socially conservative (as I am), are generally tall (as I am not but wish I were) and reasonably intelligent (as I hope I am). Other than that they run the gamut from demure 19th century librarian to arrogant and opinionated old lady to wildly courageous contemporary spy and, should they ever meet, would probably have nothing of substance to say to each other.

I’m not saying that every writer should have something of herself in her characters. Neither am I saying that no writer should ever put anything of herself in her characters. I am instead offering for thought that a part of ourselves does live in our characters, that it cannot help but do so. Our job as writers, though, is to keep Mary Sue at a distance and let our characters shine as themselves.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Ugly Truth

Here’s a dirty little confession: I get jealous sometimes.

I’ve been blessed with great writing friends. They cheer me on when I’m up and support me when I’m down, and I like to think I do the same for them as they struggle in this crazy profession of ours.

But every once in a while, when they experience greater success in their writing than I do, I get jealous.

This isn’t an easy admission. Jealousy is petty. It turns me into a small-minded, mean-spirited version of myself that I really don’t like. And it takes away from others’ success, even if it’s only in my mind.

My closest writing friends and I started at roughly the same place in our writing careers and we worked very hard. They’ve earned every little bit of their success. As have I.

Jealousy–in my case anyway–is like admitting that I believe I’m the better writer and really, should be more successful than they are. They should be jealous of me.

I know, I know. I told you it was a dirty little secret.

I couldn’t handle the feeling, so one day I told one of my friends how I felt.  Instead of recoiling in disgust, she just patted me on the knee. Then she shared her own stories of jealousy and we laughed at ourselves.

How do writing couples deal with this? What happens if one partner has more writing success than the other? Seems to me you need a strong, healthy relationship to deal with the monster together.

I deal with it by admitting it. Whenever I feel that spike of jealousy at a friend’s success, I tell them. Turns out the jealousy monster gets smaller when you shine the light on it. I’m still not proud of feeling jealous, but I am gaining self-knowledge, and maybe a little wisdom.

Here’s what I learned. Don’t let jealousy fester in the dark. Drag it out into the light and let it shrink from shame. Share your feelings with your friends and learn to laugh at yourself. And whatever you do, don’t belittle other writers in any kind of public forum. That only reflects poorly on you.

So… anyone else out there feel like confessing? How do you deal with the ugly feelings that jealousy engenders?

You can find Marcelle here: web | facebook | twitter

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Gay Georgian Underworld

My historicals are mainly set in the mid-eighteenth century, when the Georgian era was at its height. The era has always fascinated me, from the great country houses to the hovels in the city, and the way the people at that time lived.
And my, did they live. They loved, lusted and laughed, all without the hypocrisy and the manipulation of guilt that the Victorians were so good at. I fell in love with this era when I was nine years old and it’s the longest love affair of my life.
I’ve read the books, and my husband says I read more eighteenth-century magazines and newspapers than I do modern ones! I get some of my plots from them, so outlandish though they might seem, most are based on real-life cases.
But in one respect, the eighteenth century was as moralistic as the Victorians. Gay love, or, as it was called then, sodomy. It was punishable by death.
The crime was “sodomy,” or the act of anal sex. Strictly, this was between males and females, or males and males, but in practice, only males were prosecuted, and women weren’t, except as pimps or madams. It is based on Church law, but the offence was a criminal one, not a civil one, and subject to the direst penalties.
Gays were prosecuted throughout the century, from the spate of prosecutions in the 1720’s, possibly a cover for Jacobite activities, to the “Mother Clapp” prosecutions later in the century. And they were hanged for it (game is hung, men are hanged).
Although obvious gays, or rather bisexual in Lord Hervey’s case, existed, most were tolerated. Hervey had lovers, male and female, and he was an important member of the government in the 1740’s, an immensely clever man and a friend of Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Alexander Pope (who may himself have been gay). But that wasn’t a crime – sodomy was. Lady Mary said of him, “There are three sexes – men, women and Herveys.” So gays existed and were tolerated, even exalted in this era when men wore pink but carried a sword by their side.
I’ve created three gay characters so far, one an honourable, intelligent man who has suffered for his sexual orientation, one a coward, who made another person suffer. This last character was the first husband of Isobel, the heroine of “Seductive Secrets.” Isobel hasn’t been told the facts of life, she discovered them for herself. Her mother never encouraged her to talk, when it became obvious her marriage was going wrong, and she never told Isobel anything about sex when she went into marriage. So Isobel associates sex with pain and misery. Harry’s sin isn’t that he’s gay, it’s that he hasn’t the courage to face up to his responsibilities, and when he can’t ‘perform’ with Isobel, he blames her for the failure, not himself. In short, Harry is a coward. 
My latest gay character is in the Emperors of London series, and like Gervase, he's a twin. But Val and Darius are very different to Richard and Gervase. Their troubles won't be the same, either.  I haven't written their book yet, but I've sent in the proposal, and we shall see what happens!
I didn’t see why gay characters should be caricatures – either saints or the tooth-gratingly irritating “gay best friend” character, someone who has natural taste in interior design and making women laugh. Yes, I’ve known several gays. We all have. Some played up to the stereotype, others didn’t. So I wanted to make all my characters real. People, not archetypes, stereotypes or ciphers. I wanted to give the gay characters in my books permission to be bad as well as good. Just as long as they didn’t slot into a preformed character slot.
The collector of automata, Ken Rubin, has machines that perform in a variety of ways, all from the same penny. He has a huge collection of early bubblegum machines, all of which do ‘something’ before you get your gum. You can watch your penny chase down convoluted pipes, get your fortune read or try to hit a target. But you get your gum in the end. You can (and I did) spend hours studying them and marvelling at the ingenuity of the creators. I hope my characters are as diverse and unexpected as Ken’s machines, if not a bit more.
You don’t know what you’re getting when you put in your penny, but you always get your gum in the end.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Finding Your Bliss

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you
where there were only walls.” ~ Joseph Campbell

I’ve been trying to finish a light amateur sleuth mystery (yay! Finally a series to write!) but another story keeps nagging at me. It’s one I’ve picked up and put down about a dozen times; changed the focus; the motivation; everything except the central characters and the theme.

I’m not sure why that book keeps pulling me back. Maybe it comes from the idea that each one of us has something special to contribute—maybe work we feel compelled to do. By doing it, we feel fulfilled and enrich the world. Joseph Campbell talks about finding your own path (“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path.”). How do you find that path? Some refer to it as following your bliss. Others say, find your heart’s passion.

But is that passion the broader goal or a kernel that embodies it?

For many of us on this blog, our passion is writing. Taking intuitions, snippets, dreams and moments of pure fantasy imagination. Adding overheard conversations, glimpses of a vignette as we pass by. Grabbing that nebulous possibility, and shaping and turning into a polished story.

Is writing the passion we want to share with the world? Or is it a particular theme or story that we feel we have to tell to reach that bliss?

I really have no idea, so I keep putting one foot in front of the other and step by step find my path.

Right now, that path is strolling along with a snarky divorcee who's temporarily living on a tree farm... You might hear a bit more about her later.

But as much fun as the amateur sleuth is to write, that other story is still there, a siren song.

Even if we take the steps to become an author, maybe we chose a certain path because we fear the stories we want to write won’t sell. We love chic lit or romantic mysteries or literary stories where the characters rule and the words flow to a different rhythm, but we read online, hear from editors, agents, creative writing texts that D, all the above are passé. We’re tempted to follow trends rather than listen to the story inside us. I think most of us have cleared that hurdle, but the doubt is always there--should I have chosen a different path?

Overall, I'm happy with my path to "here." Sure, there have been highs and lows, joys and regrets. I'm happy our paths crossed, here on the blog, at Carina, conferences or any of the other places we've connected. I hope my passion for writing lives on and that I can share my joy and make a small corner of the worlds a better place.

And in the meanwhile, I think my other story is still growing—or growing up—quietly evolving in my subconscious. I have many books still to write.

But I suspect “that story” will one day be the one I have to tell.

What about you?

“As you go the way of life,

You will see a great chasm. Jump.

It is not as wide as you think.”

Joseph Campbell

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

I Didn't See That Coming!

I love writing plot twists. And I hate writing plot twists. That part of my writing process turns my brain into a pretzel. But to me, the temporary (let's hope!) insanity is worth it.

One of my favorite reasons for watching or reading thrillers, mysteries, suspense, and romantic suspense is the potential for surprises. To me, there’s nothing better than an unexpected twist. That's especially true when I'm trying to figure out a puzzle and it zigs where I thought it would zag. After years of watching television and movies and reading books that throw twists at me, it’s really hard to surprise me.

Which makes it that much more delicious when it happens. And it makes me wish I'd thought up that plot.

I have a list of some of the books and movies with the most notable plot twists and surprise endings. I won’t spoil the endings for you—but you can find spoilers on the internet if you must.


  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

  • Atonement by Ian McEwan

  • Tell No One by Harlan Coben


  • The Game

  • Identity

  • The Usual Suspects

  • Dead Again

  • Psycho

  • Primal Fear

  • Fight Club

  • Se7en

  • L.A. Confidential

  • The Sixth Sense

  • Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

I would love to hear which books or movies have surprised you. I’m always looking to be shocked.