It was the sort of moment when one is struck dumb. “I liked your book,” a woman told me at a book signing in DC. “I wasn’t sure I’d like it when I read that you were a ‘born-again Christian,’ but it was surprisingly good.” Hours after that moment, I still couldn’t decide on a witty rejoinder. Or even if I should have made one.
What had she expected, snake handling? Was I glad that the Christian content of my book didn’t offend this woman? Not really. I’d rather be found guilty of honoring God than not. Or perhaps it gave her a better opinion of Christians. Who knows?
Others were more approving of the religious aspect. A reviewer in The Drood Review of Mystery had actually made note of the fact that my heroine prayed when she was in mortal danger. “There are no atheists in foxholes,” they asserted.
In David Copperfield, a strange, eccentric (though kindly) character named “Mr. Dick” is perpetually writing an autobiography and perpetually complaining that “King Charles’ head” keeps popping up in his text. (King Charles I, the English sovereign, was beheaded in 1649.) As with King Charles’ head, two things seem to pop up in my writing: my sense of humor and my sense of God. That’s not to say that both didn’t come from the same Source.
I was one of those children who would get the giggles at solemn occasions and have to struggle to keep from guffawing out loud. As with Mr. Dick and King Charles, I can’t seem to keep humor out of the most dire of situations in my writing. For instance, in the unpublished novel, Another Think Coming, my character Esther interrupts the villain, Beatrice, in a hospital room in the act of poisoning a patient. Beatrice pulls a gun on Esther. Even in the midst of a dangerous scene, I get a case of author’s giggles:
“Quickly, Beatrice tucked the gun under her jacket and glared at me. It was easy to read that glare: Keep your mouth shut, or else. She carefully spread a wide, fake grin across her face. For some reason, it did my heart good to see that she had lipstick on her teeth.”
Sometimes, the characters themselves insist on expressing my themes. When she returns home after having fallen over a corpse in the public library, Amelia Prentice (the main character in Irregardless of Murder) does what comes naturally to her; she prays:
“I began to tell Sam [her cat] about the night's events and to express my shock at the tragedy, but as my monologue progressed, it gradually turned into a prayer. Sitting on the scratchy wool rug in the entryway, clutching an unusually meek Sam to my breast, I told God how I felt about things.”
Good writing, in my opinion, is opening one’s heart to the world, expressing who and what you are and what you think about things. It’s both a solitary and a public art. IWriting may take courage or egotisim, or a hefty helping of both, but it’s important to be who you are in what you write.
What are your themes? What events of your life do you best remember? Are they tragic or humorous? Bitter or joyous? I suspect William Faulkner had a sad life, and I know for sure that P.G. Wodehouse had the kind of personality that found the funny in everything, even being held under house arrest by the Nazis.
Do a brave thing today. Put a few words on paper. It might make people understand you better.
One of those pesky chandeliers!
Fox News has a feature that I enjoy where every week, a reporter informs the public of five companies that are hiring. Many of the skills required are very specialized.
It occurred to me that there are opportunities for independent contractors with specialized skills right here in the ol’ hometown. No resume required, just good word of mouth and a willingness to use one’s talents. Here is a short list of them, which I hope will spur the reader on to ideas of his own.
1) A Professional Put-ter Together-er.
Are you mechanically inclined? Can you read directions clumsily translated from an obscure Chinese dialect? This job might just be right for you. I know people who will willingly pay full price for a grimy and shopworn display model of something rather than having to assemble it. To them, the words, “Some Assembly Required” are right up there with “Poison If Swallowed.” If you are able to quickly put together a tricycle and what’s more, get it working, well you’re on your way to a career!
2) A Professional Finder
I had a wonderful recipe for a healthy vegetable soup that required that the veggies be chopped very fine. No problem, I’d just use my little handy chopper machine. Only there was a problem: the removable blade, which I had only just pulled from the dishwasher, was nowhere to be found. I searched every drawer, cabinet and hidey-hole in the kitchen and even into the adjoining rooms, to no avail. (I made chili instead.) Also missing are the magnetic clip-on sunglasses that came with my prescription glasses. Poof! Disappeared into the air, complete with case!
My friends, I would hire a professional finder in a New York minute.
3) A Professional Wrapper
Not a rapper, a wrapper with a “w,” as in presents to be given, parcels to be mailed, babies to be swaddled. I see this as especially being a boon to men. Sure, Belk has a gift-wrap service, but the paper selection is limited and the wrapping ladies are generally preoccupied. This would be an in-home service, possibly provided by a nimble-fingered, over-50 grandmotherly type.
4) A Professional Bulb-Changer and Duster
In my community, more and more houses are being built with ceilings the height of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Plus, these ceilings are adorned with handsome, elaborate, dust-catching chandeliers using dozens of special bulbs. Other ceilings feature spotlights. It follows as the night the day that sometimes these bulbs will blow out. Now, I have a long pole contraption that is supposed to grip the bulb and enable the earth-bound homeowner to unscrew it, but results are iffy, at best. Plus, some bulbs have to be removed from above, which makes the whole thing impossible. A professional BC&D would of necessity have a strong tolerance for heights, an extremely long ladder and good accident insurance. However, if he fit the bill, a person could literally—ahem—clean up.
5) Professional Bureaucrat Wrangler
Do you have infinite patience? Do you understand jargon? Can you keep your temper when all around you others are losing theirs? Do you have perseverance? Do you like helping people? Well, you may be a born Bureaucrat Wrangler. You have probably heard of horse-wranglers, cow wranglers and, in horror movies, bug wranglers. These are people who keep their charges under control and direct them to their intended purpose. This is the job of the BW. Your equipment, other than the personal attributes mentioned above, would only be a chair, a telephone, a pad and a pencil. Plus your client’s appropriate information and the desired result. I can see this service being used especially by people who have to deal with insurance companies, Social Security or any other government agency. A professional might even prefer the term “Bureaucrat Whisperer.”
God has equipped each one of us with different desires, talents and goals. I personally can’t understand why anybody would want to parachute out of a perfectly good plane or step into a boxing ring and mess up a perfectly good face, but that’s me. I am in awe of someone who will work tirelessly caring for the sick or cook meals at breakneck speed and call the work rewarding. Of course, I daresay other people would say, “I can’t understand anybody who would willingly sit in front of a keyboard all day, writing. Boring!”
God bless every role. May each one of them glorify the God Who made us!
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. I Corinthians 12:4
A sense of place is vital to a fiction writer’s toolbox. Some authors, such as Michener, have virtually made a character out of the location itself. When you have a clear picture of where your characters are, your story takes on more depth. Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to Hawaii to have local color. Check out the Southern Sisters series by Anne George. Her irrepressible mysteries highlight the more colorful areas of Birmingham, Alabama.
Here are some more ideas on using visual memories in your writing.
My friend Nancy is moving. I’d help her pack, but she lives in Kansas and I’m here in NC. Still, we’re Facebook friends and fellow writers, and I plan to give her plenty of moral support and extremely astute advice. If our friendship can withstand that, we’re true kindred spirits.
One piece of advice I’ll be giving her is to take a camera now, while everything is still in place in the old house, and snap pictures of the various rooms, then go outside and photograph the yard. It’s even better if you include family and friends in the picture. I did this the second and third time we moved. You don’t have to have traveled all over the world, but you probably have been to a few interesting places, and pictures help you remember.
I had dim memories of treasured places where my memories were made. It was a good thing we had an album full of amateur snapshots of our environment. My childhood home in Plattsburgh, NY, is still there—small, neat and cozy—but subsequent owners have cut down the twin birches that stood sentinel just to one side of the front walk and bulldozed the huge old grandfather maple. (For years, I’d promised myself I’d try to get sap for syrup out of that old tree, but never got the chance.) They also took up the fake flagstone my dad had carefully molded from cement, replacing it with a sidewalk. Furthermore, they actually had the old gravel driveway blacktopped. My daddy had been planning to do that for twenty-four years.
We raised our two daughters in a small Texas town and when we moved, I couldn’t resist driving down the street to see our house one more time. The new football coach and his family were moving in and I was shocked (shocked!) to observe that they had already put rustic-looking bunk beds in my daughter’s bedroom. You could see them, because the blinds were wide open. Yes, I realize that we’d long since taken down the boy-band posters, spackled the little holes and painted the pale pink walls a nice neutral beige, but really! My husband had told me not to drive back through the neighborhood, and he was right. (But don’t tell him that.) I’m grateful for the pictures I took of the house before the new people (must stop thinking of them as interlopers) moved in.
So every time we moved, I took pictures of the places I loved in my soon-to-be-somebody-else’s house. Here was the little room I’d set up for future grandchildren to spend the night, all in a restful blue. There was the kitchen with the black floral wallpaper that I still thought was beautiful.
I wish I’d taken pictures of my old high school. It’s where I set part of my stories. It has long since been torn down, so I rely on pictures of my daughters’ elderly high school building for details. The girls helped work on their yearbooks, and when they were through putting each year’s version together, the staff would have lots of pictures left over. Parents were free to help themselves to various odd shots that would only be thrown away, anyway. Ah, the blessings of living in a small town!
As I go through these pictures, I realize that I’m mentally populating these places with my favorite characters. What would Gil say about the bonus-room-turned-giant-bathroom that my sister dubbed “The Grecian Temple?” If Vern decides to marry in one of the next books, wouldn’t the small house where I grew up be perfect for a starter home? These images help me construct the floor plans of my books.
Who knew a pansy could be scarlet?
One of the most important elements in making your book appealing is to make a favorable first impression.
The same is true for people. For instance, one of the first things a person may learn about you is your name.
I met my husband on a blind date. They had told me his name was Harold, and since I had known two Harolds before that I didn’t like much, I avoided committing to the meeting until I was hounded into it. Surprise! He turned out to be handsome, witty and well-read. Even better, we shared a love of music and an enthusiasm for Auburn football. The rest is history, as they say in that very ragged cliché.
Naming a child is important. Whole books have been written about the influence a name has on one’s life.
Naming a book is no less important.
Naming characters, ditto.
Gone With the Wind was originally titled Manuscript of the Old South. I can only assume it was a working title, because it sounds like a doctoral dissertation. And everybody knows that Scarlett O’Hara was originally named Pansy Potts. With those two changes alone, book editors justified their existence--in perpetuity.
When I decided to write a mystery series about a high school English teacher, my sister and I worked on a series of likely titles. Here are some we came up with:
Death Dangles a Participle (the actual name of book #2)
The Village Idiom
To Brutally Split an Infinitive
And, of course, Irregardless of Murder. I almost regret that title now, because I have received mixed reactions to it. Some people don’t even realize it’s incorrect. Others are so put off, they don’t even consider reading the book. In an effort to justify myself, I begin the book with a quote from the venerable Strunk & White, clarifying why it’s incorrect and in the body of the book, I have my English teacher character explain why she dislikes it so much. Nonetheless, if I had it to do over, I might consider another one.
Of course, literary discipline demands that the title must relate in some way to the story, so the third in my series, which takes place partially in flashbacks, took a different title, Murder in the Past Tense. Not quite as sprightly as The Village Idiom, but appropriate.
Many people don’t know that you can’t copyright a title, but it’s true, so Mary Higgins Clark is free to use song titles for her books, which works very well. However, I suggest you don’t imitate other titles too much, except in jest, ie. the whimsical mystery/fantasy Pies and Prejudice by Ellery Adams.
Names of characters are also very important, though a good deal of leeway is allowed. I’ve heard opinions that a character should have a name that reflects his personality, as Dickens’ people often did. The slimy Uriah Heep comes to mind. Others say to name against type.
I chose Amelia Prentice for my main character simply because I liked the name. I named Gil after a popular teacher/principal in my home town and his last name, Dickensen, after the poet, Emily. Later in Irregardless, peoples’ names become very important in ferreting out the mystery, so I’ll say no more.
It’s important to be careful. I recommend doing an Internet search of your character names as well as your titles. Recently, I read an entertaining mystery with a character named Rex Stout. This jarred me every time I saw the name on the page, because Rex Stout is the name of a classic mystery writer, the creator of the famous character, Nero Wolfe. No mention of the similarity of names was ever made. I can only think the author was unaware of this, and pulled the name from the recesses of her memory, unaware.
I’m having fun with a character I call Nimrod Rabideau. Nimrod isn’t his real first name, he just adopts it when he decides to become a backwoods hermit. The name is taken from the Bible, where Nimrod is said to be “a great hunter.” I will need to make sure this is original with me, but meanwhile, I like the name.
My character Vern carries a name that seems a little heavy and old for him. He’s attractive, in his early twenties, a grad student, and very funny. To me, his name seems to give him gravitas, as the politicians say. He is dating a girl and I’m having trouble coming up with a name for this pretty brunette nursing student. She’s “Melody Branch” for the time being, but I’m not totally comfortable with it. We’ll see.
A funny thing can happen when you change the name of a character, if you use the “find” and “replace” function in your word processing. Recently, I was working on my romantic suspense novella, Red Flag Warning and wanted to change the name of a little boy from Matthew to Travis. In a single stroke, I replaced all the “Matthews” with “Travis” and later discovered that a character had made a Biblical reference to Travis 6:14. So watch out!
Sure, there are lots of things to remember when writing fiction. Creating a world inside your head and transferring it to the page is a daunting task and a big responsibility. These little hints are just to ease your load, because writing is also exhilarating and amazing fun!
The famed Oscar Meyer hot dog car
Years ago, when I worked as a copywriter at a television station, we worked in a rabbit warren of little offices linked to one another. My job was to write various commercials and to take care of a loose-leaf notebook that determined the order of the commercials for the week. It was fun, hectic work and sometimes hard to concentrate, especially because there was a television playing our station's programming all the time. There was even one in the reception room. The only place to get respite was the restroom. Which is where I was, primping, when a friend stuck her head in the door and said, "You've got to see this!"
It was around noontime, when a lady named Loretta Bacon would interview people of local interest. Some were celebrities, some were authors; once, she interview Jimmy Dean of sausage and country music fame and another time, Chill Wills. (Most people don't remember him, but if you're a John Wayne fan, you might.)
Today, she was interviewing a home economist who worked for Oscar Meyer and who traveled around in that big, crazy-looking hot dog car. The home economist's name was Ellen Edwards. Which was MY name! I had never met anybody with my name before and I was shocked. (In college, my mail had gotten mixed up with Elaine Edwards's, but never had I met someone with my exact same name!) I waited until the interview and hot dog demo was over and stepped into the studio. "Hi," I said, "what's your middle name?" She looked at me strangely, as well she might, and said, "Oh, Ellen Edwards isn't my real name. It's just a logo name, like Betty Crocker." When I explained who I was, she couldn't have been more gracious, and even gave me a sheaf of memo pads and stationery with our shared name on it, complete with the little animated hot dog figure. As she left, she turned to me and said, almost apologetically, "We never thought anybody would have that name."
Fast-forward a few years. I had just found a publisher for my book, Irregardless of Murder, (this is the first time the book was published) and I am asked what I want to use as my pen name. Here's where the pride thing took over. I thought about all the people I'd known over the years in high school and college and in various places where we'd lived. I wanted them to know that the author of this book was me! So I used both my married and maiden names: Ellen Edwards Kennedy. The big mistake I made was not doing an Internet search to see if anybody else had that name. I knew that Oscar Meyer had long ago stopped using Ellen Edwards for their promotions, so I figured this would be a way to tell all those people I'd once known that I'd done something noteworthy. I knew the name was cumbersome and I knew what motivated me. Yeah, it was pride. But I didn't care.
I wanted Richard and Judy and Bobbie and Mickey and Mrs. M and Miss E and all the others from high school, college and grad school to know that that bland, unremarkable girl was a real, live author.
I don't think my "yeah, it's me" gesture made much of a dent in the universal conciousness (whatever that is), but people liked the book. That was what mattered. A little bit later, I got an agent for another book I'd written, and of course, I used the 3-part name again. But I learned that there was a hitch to this: Ellen Edwards was not only my maiden name, but the real name of a prominent book editor in NY. My bid for attention from long-ago classmates and teachers now looked like a shameless attempt to attach myself to a well-known figure in the publishing world. It may be why my agent cou'dn't find a publisher for my second book, Another Think Coming. Everybody said they loved the book, but nobody would publish it, not even Ellen Edwards herself.
So by my silly impulse to show off, I shot myself in the foot--figuratively. (Need to clarify that. Words mean things!)
So now, I'm E.E. Kennedy. I'd like to call myself EE, rather like ee cummings, but my editor likes to put a period after each letter, and she's probably right. Besides, I wouldn't want ee's family to come after me for being a copycat. That's frowned on in the book business. And there's something else I never thought about: my real initials are signally appropriate for a mystery writer: EEK.
God gave me the ability to put words together, and He wants me to recognize where the good stuff comes from.
When you're promoting your book, there's a tendency to let humility fly out the window. I just grateful He has a sense of humor and taught me a lesson so gently.
The eyes of the arrogant will be humbled and human pride brought low; the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.
The LORD Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted (and they will be humbled),