Heidi here, reporting progress for once.
It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, in just a couple of hours, one highly structured writing exercise adorned my bare plot with complex characters, details of setting and multiple red herrings. Truly, it happened.
After pantsing my first novel, I swore I’d never go through that again. I was already using Scrivener, though not handily, so I bought Stephanie Draven’s Plot Your Book in a Month with Scrivener. Then came the miracle.
Draven starts you off on characters, and you have to do it her way. The exercise requires you to set up eight, count them, eight, separate folders under each character’s template. These are Vocation, Vulnerabilities, Strengths & talents, Flaws, Ideals, Beliefs that must change, Goals and Problems. For each, she demands of you five examples in your character’s make-up.
I started with my villain. He was due to commit a crime (art forgery) for money. Ho, hum! But pondering his vulnerabilities (by which Draven means innocent weak points, not the character’s fault), I discovered the motive behind the motive. His desire for money has its roots not in greed, but in resentment. The origins of this are familial, but over a lifetime it has added malice to his purely personal flaw of greed.
As this dynamic developed in my head, suddenly, from nowhere at all, a countervailing vulnerability popped up. My forger works in a precise and detailed genre – but he suffers from a longing to paint in the Impressionist style. He is not at all good at it. For reasons I won’t go into, this innocent commitment will betray him.
From his resentment and malice flowed a conviction that “Hell is other people.” To him, they are either obstacles or nuisances, though he is usually careful to conceal this. It hampers him in dealing with new people in new situations. At the same time, it causes him to be a loner and to be perceived by those he encounters as lonely, a sympathetic trait.
Spending time in the character’s mind brought me into his physical world as well. I felt rather than deduced that his natural pace is slow and his focus on details. As he is well up in years, this lifelong trait can come across to new acquaintances, incorrectly, as the slowing of physical and mental faculties with age, another sympathetic trait.
This perception of his physical traits, in turn, spilled over into the creation of another character, with whom he will be in conflict. She was always going to be more than a generation younger than he, but now she is also taller, robust where he is lanky, obtrusively energetic. He, in contrast, seems hardly fit for the pace of the 21st century.
And while I was thinking physically, another connection occurred: I want the setting of my books, northern New Hampshire, to be vivid to my readers, almost a character in the story. So my villain, thin and not robust, is always cold no matter where the thermostat is set.
Draven knew what she was doing when she put the vulnerabilities before the strengths. Once I had watched my villain develop layers of motivation, it became clear that his strengths would not all appear, or in fact be, villainous. His desire for distance from other people, along with the demands his professional associations, require him to have excellent manners. His extensive knowledge of his academic specialty is necessary for his crime – but it also garners deserved respect from his colleagues and gratitude from the few outstanding students whose careers he promotes. (They, in turn, can be put to good use in his nefarious schemes.) It will also, I hope, form an additional thread of interest to readers.)
The whole exercise was so inspiring that it was hard to keep the categories separate even on the first run-through. Vulnerabilities suffered through no fault of one’s own blossomed into flaws via unfortunate methods of coping. Strengths quickly became ideals – because our own good points are always the really important virtues, aren’t they? Initial problems bred solutions that became complications of a straightforward criminal enterprise.
So thank you, Ms. Draven. If this thing ever sees print, a fulsomely autographed copy will be yours.
P.S. I have to say, the “one month” thing isn’t working out. Each new exercise takes me days to think through and tinker with. However, if you’re a wo/man of steel, and don’t eat or sleep much, maybe you could manage it.
I like my cozies cozy. We’re talking mystery novels here, of course. The base-case definition of “cozy” is “no overt sex or messy violence onstage.” For me, there’s one more requirement: the story has to happen in a place and/or a social setting made so vivid by the author that living in it for the length of a book is worth the price of admission. Cozy, after all, is a matter of one’s surroundings. Solving a murder? Not so important. It’s local color that makes me part with my cash in the bookstore.
Currently, I’m reviewing the presence of the great state of New Hampshire in the umpteenth draft of my novel. It’s a wonderful place, no question. I notice, though, that my local color focuses only on the nice stuff. Autumn-leaves-sort-of-thing. This is the “place” equivalent of the sweet and comforting cat owned by so many mystery protagonists. Said cat never ignores her owner, gores the vet or vomits on important people. Autumn color on the Kancamagus Highway is New Hampshire’s version of that cat.
So I’m hunting around for aspects of the New Hampshire life that will take readers into the real place, including the unsweet parts, which they will nonetheless want to explore with me. Here’s where that effort took me.
The Kancamagus, narrowly defined, is 37 unspoiled miles of two-lane road through the White Moutains, no turnoffs (except for trailheads), no gas stations, no food outlets, no nothing. On the other hand, it starts in Lincoln, New Hampshire, home to the Loon Mountain ski resort and a stretch of random and ramshackle shops whose only purpose is to extract dollars from skiers and leafpeepers. You can eat a gyro, spend more on a mountain bike than the annual household income in Rwanda, or get your nails painted blue with little sparkles on. Every tourist trap in the country could boast the same. So how is this New Hampshire?
I find a possible connection: a little strip-mall shop that sells very upscale foodstuffs, organic of course, plus Luna bars, sandwiches, and elaborate chocolate pastries clearly made by machines in a factory somewhere well to the south. But one of the sandwiches is a lobster roll better than anything I’ve tasted on the coast of Maine. Why make that a specialty? Because this is northern New England, mountains or no mountains, and the lobster is one of our totem animals. (So is the moose, but you don’t want moose on a bun.) Serving bad lobster is done in New Hampshire, yes, but it is nevertheless Not Done in New Hampshire.
Winter is another New Hampshire specialty. I do let my heroine enjoy the first pristine snow of the season. This brook isn’t just down the road from my house, but its twin brother is.
Where I have to be stern with myself is on the downside of all this loveliness. Hence :
We aren’t the rural state we once were, either. In the southern tier, New Hampshire is becoming downright post-industrial. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is no longer the economic engine of the area. It’s more a blight on the sea coast. Good place for a thrilling climactic chase scene, though.
So one way or another, I imagine I’ll give my readers a place more interesting than some non-denominational Heaven. If I get really desperate, I still have one lead to follow:
As an early Mother’s Day gift, my daughter, Jennifer, took me to the Sunday matinée of “An American in Paris.” The venue was the Gammage at ASU in Tempe, AZ. The musical, inspired by the Academy Award winning movie from 1951 starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, recently closed at the Palace Theater on Broadway.
Before the curtain went up we didn’t know we were going to see a musical ballet—we thought it was just a musical. We didn’t care–we loved the fact that we were actually at a live Broadway musical set in Paris transported to the desert of Arizona.
The main male characters in the musical are two American ex-GI’s: a composer/rehearsal pianist and a painter, and a French singer, with the latter two competing for the affections of a French ballerina/store clerk, Lise. I was quick to notice that there was nary an author to be seen yet I imagine that Paris had its share of American writers in 1951. Possibly a character with the intelligence of an author wasn’t a good fit for a musical ballet.
The choreography was amazing especially the final ballet sequence (seventeen minutes long in the movie—I didn’t time it in the musical performance but it was long). I kept waiting for someone to speak. Without dialogue, I couldn’t figure out what was happening any more than I can decipher a fantasy novel. Were we just being entertained by an elegant ballet? I suppose this was where my imagination was supposed to kick in….
Afterward, I couldn’t resist reading the reviews by New York theater-goers who saw the musical on Broadway. To my surprise, most of them were either totally or partially negative. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was reading a review of one of my unfinished novels: main male characters were boring, flat, lacking in emotion (but this is a musical ballet—they could sing and they could dance!); not enough character development; confusing, hard to follow, and flat plot; no conflict until two-thirds of the way through; predictable ending.
Thank you, Jennifer and family, for a fantastic Mother’s Day gift!
Leaving Arizona: With our impending return home to New Hampshire, I am starting to feel the same as when the end of August approaches. That’s why I wiled away the afternoon yesterday in the pool instead of checking things off my To Do List. As the thermometer inches closer to one hundred and above, it’s time to face the gray skies and cool temperatures of New Hampshire. And the budding crab apple and lilac trees, the perennials peeking out of the ground, and the acres of green grass awaiting the awakening of the John Deere mower from hibernation.
It’s 90 degrees and 100% sunshine where I am in Arizona–and yet I’m sequestered inside, lounging on my bed as I try to conjure up a topic to blog about that simultaneously edifies and entertains our loyal readers.
In the Valley of the Sun there are no changing leaves to wax on about–no doubt you have had your fill of the foliage, whether as a leaf-peeper yourself or via all of the pictures posted on Facebook. There is no question that this was a stellar year for colorful foliage in New Hampshire and Vermont.
Green-thumbed residents in Arizona are planting their gardens, though the sun continues to blister the tender arugula and basil plants. Back home it is time to weed-whack the perennials or continue to cover them at night with sheets as we try to eek out a few more weeks of blossoms.
We have seen numerous vees of ducks and geese, presumably ones that have followed us here from brrrr chilly New Hampshire. Unfortunately, my husband (if I can drag him onto the plane) and I, unlike those real snowbirds, must return this week to furnaces and wood stoves, sweaters and gloves, delaying our true winter migration until after Christmas. In Arizona it is still shorts and sandals, air conditioning and ceiling fan weather.
Our grandchildren are out scorpion hunting–and killing–at night with black lights. The good news is after six days here we no longer check our bed at night for scorpions and we aren’t afraid to walk around indoors without our shoes on. Outdoors–that’s another story.
Our mode of transportation is an open air Jeep Wrangler. The other day I was caught without my sunscreen as the sun beat in through the open roof. (Luckily, I never leave home without my zippered, hooded sweatshirt in tow, just in case we venture into a store or restaurant with the a/c thermostat set at sixty or lower. I plan to launch a campaign to “encourage” businesses to raise their a/c thermostats. Sorry, I digress….) With what I considered a clever defensive move, I whipped on my sweatshirt backward with the hood covering my face. Instant protection. And immediate embarrassment to my husband as we stopped at a ubiquitous stoplight and the women in the car to our left and the man to our right gawked and laughed. At me. (This appears to be a case where ” you really had to be there” to appreciate the humor of the situation.)
With any luck I’ve entertained you. Or made you envious. The edification will have to wait. I’m still on vacation.
October is here and we in northern New Hampshire know what the forecast is. Changing seasons: shorter, cooler days. Turning leaves: tour buses, leaf peepers. Flipping the family photo calendar: grandchildren clad in Halloween costumes, my mother’s birthday. Swapping out my wardrobe: fleece, socks and sneakers. Fall cleaning: screens down, deck furniture in.
October whispers in my ear: I know you’re busy but don’t forget that NaNoWriMo is on its way. November first is less than thirty days away now. Don’t you always say you are going to start preparing for NaNoWriMo in October? Get your outline and character sketches done so that you can just start typing away on November 1 with your outline for reference? I bet you can exceed 50,000 words if you do that.
This year I have a response. Listen, October, stop bugging me. I am working on an outline for NaNoWriMo. I already have my characters’ names with personalities formed, allowing for more novels to follow. I’ve drawn a rough map of the town where the murder takes place. I’m reading Louise Penny’s “Inspector Gamache” novels to make sure that I don’t end up copying her quaint, idyllic, deadly town.
It’s a real temptation, especially as this area of New Hampshire abounds with similar towns: a town common or green surrounded by old churches, old stately homes, old maples, old, white fence, old pines adorned with Christmas lights. Possibly a gazebo decked with red ribbons and sparkly snow. You get the drift….
My fictional town of Woodbury wears a blue-collar attitude. A diner instead of a bistro. An auto repair shop in place of a bookstore. A run-down motel instead of a B & B. The hub of the town? A Village Store where the locals go to catch up on all the gossip they missed at the diner. And let’s not forget the farms on the dirt roads spiking out of Woodbury. Beyond town lies another world, a lake populated with out-of-state visitors, some who visit for the summer, most just a week or two.
And there’s plenty more. I think I am in better shape than I have ever been for NaNoWriMo.
So take that, October.