Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

Do You Enjoy Settings?

May 10, 2019

Character. Plot. Setting.
Of those three, which do you enjoy writing the most?

For myself (and many writers I know), character usually takes the top spot. Humans connect with other humans, after all, so it’s often easier to invest oneself in characters and their conflicts.

A place, though important, is a bit more difficult and, if you’re one of those writers who struggle with setting (I know I am), I’d like to share an approach that might help.

Treat Your Setting Like a Character
I’ve talked about this before. Memorable fictional characters always have strong characteristics. You need to explore how to assign equally vivid characteristics to your settings, and suggest those characteristics to your readers.

Let’s review some of the questions I’ve suggested you ask yourself when creating characters:

1. What does this character look like?
2. What is this character’s backstory?
3. What does this character want?
4. What secrets does this character hold?
5. What is this character’s conflict?

Now that we’ve reviewed the questions, let’s answer them … only this time not for the characters … for the setting.

1. Appearance
Most writers begin describing setting with question one, using a few sentences to set the scene. It’s the most basic aspect of setting and likely the most obvious. Consider this, from my award-winning novel, Reichold Street:

The day started as a humid, hurt-your-lungs-on-a-deep-breath morning. A blistering sun was rising over the railroad switching yard at the far end of the street. Its red-orange glare filtered through exhausted-looking trees, while sinuous heat ribbons shimmered over motionless freight cars, their rusty shapes defined like so many slumbering beasts.

2. Backstory
Like many great characters, the best settings have detailed histories such as this, again from Reichold Street:

He was looking at the old Cantwell Place. It was funny how no one back then thought of that old house as anything else. Cecil Cantwell, the only son of one of Brickdale’s founders, had built it. He had lived in it with his wife for more than seventy years. The house was there even before the railroad tracks were laid.

“Meet you by Cantwell’s.” Everyone in Brickdale, and in several other communities around it, knew that meant the east end of Reichold Street. People used it as a landmark.

Cecil had died the previous fall, about the time leaves started to turn. The maple in front of Mrs. Murphy’s house was a beautiful golden color the day I heard about his passing. I never knew exactly why he died. He was ninety-seven and I presumed he just wore out. His wife, a frail old stick, followed him a few days before Christmas.

The house had been empty since then. Someone came by and mowed the lawn each week, but no one tended the flowers, pulled weeds, or repainted the shutters from the old can of Leaf Green #502 on the shelf in the garage. Then the Toothpick Man showed up.

3. Motive
How can a setting have a motive? How can it want anything? You might be wondering, why should I care? Well, if you treat the setting as a character and consider what it wants, you add depth.

4. Secrets
This one may or may not apply to your setting but it’s a potent addition when it works. A setting with a secret is just as compelling as any secretive character. For example, take Stephen King’s spooky novel, The Shining. At the beginning of the novel, the Overlook seems to be an ordinary (although creepy) hotel. As the story progresses, we discover that the hotel has its own agenda and its own secrets.

5. Conflict
Great characters have conflicts, and so do great settings. listen to the implications of this excerpt from my novel, Blood Lake:

“Why did Luther call this Blood Lake?” I said. “I always thought this was the Watts Barr.”

“It is Watts Barr Lake,” Harold said. “You’d have known about the family name for it, if your father had done what he was supposed to.”

“Oh…” was all I could think of to say.

Harold pointed out into the lake from where we sat. “The stockade where Tsali was shot used to sit on the banks of the Tennessee River,” he said. “The natural flow of the river was right over there. At least it was until the TVA built the dam.”

“That doesn’t explain…” I started to say, still unable to complete my thought.

“There’s a lot of Burnett blood already in that water,” Harold said. “A lot of Cherokee blood, too.”

He went silent after that.

Suggesting a Setting’s Characteristics
I know you’ve heard me talk about show, don’t tell. It’s a fine rule of thumb. The same goes for describing a setting.

Show your setting’s traits through action. Cormac McCarthy didn’t just tell us the world was dangerous in The Road. He showed it by populating that world with marauders and cannibals. If your setting is trying to kill your protagonists, it’ll feel more like a character.

Developing the Arc of Your Setting
Characters have arcs. So, like characters, great settings often have arcs as well. This might sound like an odd concept at first, but it really can make a difference in your writing.

To build your setting’s arc, consider what your setting is like at the beginning of the story, what it becomes by the end, and what happens in the middle to make it so.

Maybe you start with an idyllic, pastoral country which ends up ravaged by war. Or your post-apocalyptic wasteland might be restored to beauty by the heroics of your protagonist. Or perhaps your setting stays just the way it always was despite what happened in the middle.

Whatever arc you choose, just knowing about it as you write should improve your setting.

Use these tips to make your settings feel like characters. You’ll be amazed by the results!

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I’ll be at Lev Raphael’s Master Class at Oakland University tomorrow. Then I’ll be joining other authors signing books at Detroit Festival of Books at Eastern Market on July 21 and at SterlingFest in Sterling Heights, Michigan on July 27.

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Gentle Readers, my books have all garnered some terrific reviews. You can see all of them by using the Amazon link below. Check them out. Better yet, buy one and read it. You just might like it.

buy now;

**********

You’re invited to visit my author’s website, BROKEN GLASS to hear the remarkable radio interview about my novel “Blood Lake” on The Authors Show. You can also like my Book of Face page, find me on Goodreads, or follow my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.

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Comments posted below will be read, greatly appreciated and perhaps even answered.

Author Interview

April 23, 2019

Author, Anca Vlasopolos

Today I’m not posting about my own books or commenting on the ins-and-outs of indie publishing. I’m interviewing the fascinating former Michigan author, Anca Vlasopolos.

Welcome to “Painting With Light,” Anca.
Thank you. Glad to be here!

You have a fascinating but somewhat frightening background. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
I was born in Bucharest, Romania, in 1948, about two months before the Communists were “elected.”

My father was of Greek origin, my mother was Jewish and newly returned from Auschwitz and three slave-labor camps. My father became a political prisoner of the Communists because he was a professor of Economics and criticized the Stalinist five-year plan. He died three years after his release.

My mother applied for a passport to leave the country permanently when the government decreed, in 1958, that the country needed to be cleansed of Jews.

We left in February, 1962, and when we tried to come to the U.S. we came up against the Immigration Act of 1927. It had such strict quotas for “inferior” people from South and Eastern Europe that the quota for 1962 was already filled.

We finally came to the U.S. in 1963, as U.N. refugees. We ended up in Detroit, where my mother had two aunts who’d immigrated in the 1920s. They had to sponsor us for us to be allowed in.

With all that turmoil in your life, what were you like in school?
I was extremely shy, and having to change countries, languages, and schools several times in my teens didn’t make me any less shy. But I decided by taking drama and joining the debate team I’d overcome my shyness.

Did it help?
It didn’t, though I learned to speak for myself and for others. I was also impatient when school was boring, so I could be somewhat of a hoodlum, throwing spitballs and otherwise disrupting classes.

When you weren’t disrupting things, you must have read a lot. Tell me, who are your favorite authors?
Ursula Le Guin, Virginia Woolf, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Blake, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, W.S. Merwin, Jane Austen … among many others.

Do you have any funny or peculiar writing habits?
I work on poems or passages of prose in my head long before I commit them to paper. My husband finds that strange.

For your fiction, do you work from a plot outline, or just see where an idea takes you?
I have a general notion of where I’m going, but I do let the book and characters take over. In my historical novel, I ended up with chapters about the Pacific theater in World War II, which I never anticipated when I started writing about a Japanese boy lost at sea in 1841.

Where do most of your ideas come from?
That’s tough. With a poem, it’s usually an image, an analogy I see in nature. With prose it very much depends on the piece—novel, short story, essay.

For my historical novel, two stories generated the book: one in National Wildlife about the near-extinction of the short-tailed albatross, brought about by a Japanese who’d traveled to the U.S. in the nineteenth century.

The other was a story told to me by a friend, who said that the public library in Fairhaven, MA, had Japanese effects sent by a man who’d grown up there in the 1840s, informally adopted by a whale-ship’s captain. The stories clicked … the man was the same in both!

Is a memoir more difficult than writing fiction or poetry?
I didn’t find it so.

What’s your favorite quotation?
The one that kills me is from King Lear, when Gloucester tells Lear, “Let me kiss your hand,” and Lear replies, “Let me wipe it first. It smells of mortality.”

When do you do most of your writing?
Whenever I please, now that I’m retired. The trick was finding time when I was working.

How have you evolved creatively since your first book?
I think others would have to decide. As I think all writers do, I write who I am at the time.

You taught English and Comparative Writing at Wayne State University in Detoit. What do you consider your proudest teaching moments?
My students getting jobs after earning their PhD’s.

How have you been promoting your work?
Not well. I am on some social media, and I have a website. It takes a lot of money to promote oneself effectively, or a lot of schmoozing, which I detest.

Do you have anything else in the works right now?
More poetry and either a long short story or a novel about a dying young painter.

Good luck, Anca … and thanks for doing the interview.
Thanks for having me, Ron. It was a pleasure.

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Please take a moment to visit Anca’s website and take a look at her interesting books. Her new book of poetry “Often Fanged Light” is available April 2019.


You can also visit Anca’s listings on Amazon, and try her work for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

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I’ll be joining other authors signing books at Detroit Festival of Books at Eastern Market on July 21 and at SterlingFest in Sterling Heights, Michigan on July 27.

**********

Gentle Readers, my books have all garnered some terrific reviews. You can see all of them by using the Amazon link below. Check them out. Better yet, buy one and read it. You just might like it.

buy now;

**********

You’re invited to visit my author’s website, BROKEN GLASS to hear the remarkable radio interview about my novel “Blood Lake” on The Authors Show. You can also like my Book of Face page, find me on Goodreads, or follow my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.

**********

Comments posted below will be read, greatly appreciated and perhaps even answered.

What About Character Development?

February 23, 2019


I’ve talked about this a lot. Fiction writers all have the same goal … to transport their readers inside the pages so they feel like they’re walking along as a part of the story.

Memorable characters are an extremely important part of making that happen. In fact, they should drive the story. Mine do it so well they sometimes argue with me.

So how does one develop effective, memorable characters?

Not every character merits equal attention. Of course, when you don’t devote enough time to him you get a one-dimensional character. It may be okay if his role isn’t very significant.

But if it is significant, trust me, that character needs to be fleshed out.

His actions should make sense with his role. To become believable and memorable, he should behave in ways that are consistent with how you’ve developed him.

If a character behaves in a way that doesn’t make sense, your readers will notice it. Inconsistency will jar them. In fact, it will probably jar them right out of the story.

Don’t Make Your Characters Perfect
It’s also hard to empathize with a perfect person. Perfection doesn’t exist in real life. The fictional characters we create need to feel like real people and everyone, no matter how noble, is flawed in some way. Learn to capitalize on those flaws.

Plus, if you don’t have a firm picture of each character in your own mind, they’re going to be shaky on the page.

That being said, there’s a tendency for some writers to throw too much at the reader all at once … to give a full physical description, tell the life story, and reveal the innermost thoughts of a character as soon as he is introduced.

But that’s not the best approach.

The Devil is in the Details
Think about each character you’re creating. The reader is undoubtedly meeting him for the first time. When you first introduce him, you should certainly include a few details, but his personality and motivation should be revealed gradually through his actions.

Just like real life, observing him interacting with others is how we really get to know him.

Base Characters on Real People
Some writers think this is cheating, but I do it all the time. I take a character and give him the personality of someone I know (either real or from observation). I create (for myself) a short biography of each character and then imagine what he would do in a “what if” question that’s the heart of most of my stories.

As I mentioned before, I like to observe human behavior … how they talk, their mannerisms, what they wear, their attitudes and body language. I incorporate all of that into my writing.

Everybody Has a History
Where we came from shapes us and molds us. And, even if you don’t reveal your characters’ past to your readers, you, as the author, should know about it. You should have full biographies of your main characters in your mind so you understand what drives them.

Why is this important?

Because if you don’t completely understand a character, your readers won’t either.

Don’t Neglect Secondary Characters
Sidekicks can be some of the most interesting characters in the story. They’re often the readers’ favorites … sort of like the supporting instruments in a symphony. Every one serves a purpose.

I hear other authors tell me the villain is their favorite character, the one they love to write about. Bad guys can be very tough to do well, and it can be even tougher to get readers to empathize with them. So, whenever you write about a villain, keep in mind that he needs to be just as well-developed as your main characters.

He should have redeeming characteristics, just like your heroes will have flaws.

Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” is a great example. He was one of my favorite characters in the story, even though he’s not a hero. Poor Gollum is obviously ruled by evil most of the time, but he’s also a well-drawn victim. We empathize with him, and feel sorry for him.

He is a great antagonist. We have hope for him … we wish he could be redeemed. A moment later we loathe and despise him all over again, and wish somebody would squash him like a bug, because he’s so annoying. Characters like this can be among the most difficult to create, but they are also some of the most satisfying.

Your readers will stay with you to the end of the journey, if you just remember, better characters make better stories.

* * * * *

Gentle Readers, my books have all garnered some terrific reviews. You can see all of them by using the Amazon link below. Check them out. Better yet, buy one and read it. You just might like it.

buy now;

**********

You’re invited to visit my author’s website, BROKEN GLASS to hear the remarkable radio interview about my novel “Blood Lake” on The Authors Show. You can also like my Book of Face page, find me on Goodreads, or follow my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.

**********

Comments posted below will be read, greatly appreciated and perhaps even answered.


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