Posted by: nancycurteman | April 17, 2015

11 Characterization Strategies

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A few weeks ago, I began a series of posts on writing craft. I listed 5 elements with brief descriptions of each. I indicated my next series of blog posts would explore in greater detail each of the 5 elements. I posted a piece about Plot. Now I will detail Characterization. In my general writing craft post I defined Characterization as the process an author uses to reveal the personality of a character either directly (author description) or indirectly (the reader must infer what the character is like). Here are 11 characterization strategies with examples:

Physical Description is the most common. It is not complex. You simply describe what you want your reader to see.
Dark brown hair cascaded over her shoulders almost touching an ample waist. Bright brown eyes, rosy cheeks and plump lips drew attention away from her large nose.

Names can tell a lot about a character’s background, educational level, profession and where they live.
A man who answers to the name Junior may not conjure up the same image as one who answers to the name Big Mike. Candy LaMar presents a different kind of woman from Elizabeth Goldmeir.  Janek Kitajewski may have a very different background than Jim Smith.

Actions depict how characters act physically or verbally and how they interact with other characters. Their behavior can indicate whether they are humble or arrogant, good-natured or mean-spirited, sympathetic or selfish, refined or uncouth.
She walked right past the new girl, refusing to even acknowledge her existence. She then approached a friend, cupped her hand to her friend’s ear, pointed at the new girl and sneered.

Environment refers to the world in which a character lives, or has lived. A person’s country, city, home or bedroom can reveal a lot about him and in fact, plays an important role on his development.
As soon as he mentioned he lived on a farm in the mountains of West Virginia, she knew he would have a difficult time fitting into her Manhattan, high-rise world.

Interests can be important in characterization. Frequently certain personality types fit certain kinds of interests. A chess player may have a very different approach to life than a fast-paced video gamer. A rock climber may view life from a different perspective than a beachcomber.
His intense interest in his gun collection made her uncomfortable.

Mannerisms are gestures, stances, repetitive behaviors. They can characterize story people as annoying, strange, lovable or any way you want to depict them.
He noticed she seemed to continually blink her eyes. Not a good habit. He decided to quit his own bad habit of cracking his knuckles.

Attitude describes how a character looks at life’s events, obstacles and little foibles. A character may view other characters and experiences with a positive, negative, biased, superior or neutral attitude.
She stopped making suggestions because he always greeted her ideas with a disdainful expression.

Dialogue is not just the words a character says, but the way in which they say them. The words they use can indicate intelligence, ignorance or educational background. The speed at which characters speak can indicate nervousness or relaxed. If the speech is overly hesitant, the character may be shy or unsure about something. Specific accents can indicate the speaker’s nationality.
He spoke in a slow drawl, halting every few seconds. She thought he might be a slow thinker from Mississippi or just plain scared to death.

Thoughts reveal the true feelings of a character. Are they confident or insecure, happy or sad, frightened or brave, honest or dishonest.
I have to get away from him before I go crazy, she thought. I’ll leave tomorrow while he’s at work. She kissed her husband and rolled to her side of the bed. “Goodnight, Darling,” she said.

The way other story people view your character is an effective characterization strategy. They can react to him any way you choose. They can admire him, hate him, envy him, feel uneasy, excited, anxious, angry or scared around him. You can have them view him quite differently from the way he views himself.
He smiled often, but his colleagues viewed him as a dangerous threat to be feared and watched.

Past experiences make us what we are. Your character is the product of everything that has happened to him in his life. Give your character a unique history to which he has responded in his own unique way and you will have a memorable character.
The freezing cold foxholes reminded Jake of the icy Minnesota winters of his boyhood. Maybe not quite so cold.

Careful attention to characterization will create a unique and memorable character.

 

5 Ways Negative Traits Make Mystery Novel Characters More Interesting
Perfect Characters are Paper Characters
Developing Characters is No Mystery


Posted by: nancycurteman | April 9, 2015

5 Plot Points in a Novel

villainRecently I began a series of posts on the elements of writing craft. I listed 5 strategies with brief descriptions of each. My next series of blog posts will explore each of the 5 elements in greater detail. In this post I will share ideas about Plot using a simple story as an example.

As I wrote in “5 Elements of Writing Craft:” Plot is a roadmap from the beginning of a story to its resolution. It is a sequence of connected, causal events that lead to the final dénouement. What does that roadmap look like? It has several points of interest that we have to travel through on our way to our final destination, the end of the story. We call these plot points. Here are the five basic plot points—Introduction, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Conclusion.

Introduction: The function of this plot point is to introduce the background information a reader must understand in order to know what is going to happen in the story and why. It introduces the main characters, their personalities, lifestyle, needs and goals. It presents the setting which includes where and when the story happens.

Two children, a shy little girl and her gregarious older brother, live in a cottage in the woods in England. Their father is out of work and money. Their stepmother complains that starvation is at their doorstep and tries to convince Father he must abandon the children in the dark forest to fend for themselves.

Rising action: This will be the longest section of the story. It’s a major portion of the novel because your character is headed toward her goal when an occurrence blocks her. In Rising Action the major conflict begins. The main character must deal with a serious complication or problem. The action gets moving when the main character tackles the problem. In this section you reveal the internal and external conflicts of the characters. Conflicts with society, nature, fate, or other characters. This also shows the progression of the story. In this part of the book, the main character is in crisis and driven to action. Excitement and suspense build. Tension increases. If done well, this section will drive your reader to intense worry about what will happen next.

The young boy overhears the stepmother’s plans. His hopes to attend the village school and become a teacher are threatened as is his very life and that of his shy sister. Now he sets a new goal—survival. He decides to drop breadcrumbs along the path as his father leads the children into the woods. His plan to follow the breadcrumbs home fails. Hungry and tired the two children come upon a candy house. Food! Now they will survive. Alas, an even greater problem arises when they discover the owner of the house is a witch who intends to gobble them up.

Climax: The climax is usually not long. It is the turning point of the story. This turning point may be physical, emotional or both. At this point it may seem the character will fail. The climax will involve suspense, excitement, fear and surprise on the part of the reader and the story people as the characters come face to face with the problem and try to resolve it. This is also the lesson of the story, the message or metaphor that you, the writer, hope to accomplish by writing the piece.

Locked in a cage and helpless, the boy can do nothing but accept his destiny. Fortunately, his little sister gathers her courage and seizes an opportunity to shove the wicked witch into her own fiery oven thus preventing the witch from dining on her big brother. Goal achieved.

Falling Action: The story is ending. Things begin to get back to normal. There is no more conflict. Falling Action shows the outcome of the actions or decisions the character has made.

Little sister releases big brother from the cage. They find the witch’s hoarded gold. They discover their father has been searching for them when he shows up at the front door of the witch’s house.

Resolution: Resolution ties up loose ends and alludes to what the future holds for the characters. The conflicts are resolved and the story concludes with either a happy or sad ending. Make this plot point short.

Father takes the children and the gold home to the little cottage where stepmother no longer lives. The little family is never hungry again.

Plot can make or break your novel, so give it a good deal of thought.

More Tips:

How Subplots Enrich Your Mystery Novel

How to Murder Your Mystery Novel Plot

How to Create a Plot for a Novel

Posted by: nancycurteman | March 31, 2015

5 Elements of Writing Craft

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th-1Writing craft consists of the basic elements that make our story readable. It consists of strategies such as plot, characterization, dialogue, pacing, dramatic structure, and point of view. Here are 5 elements of writing craft with a brief definition of each. In future blog posts I will explore each element in greater depth.

Plot is a roadmap from the beginning of a story to its resolution. It is a sequence of connected, causal events that lead to the final dénouement.

Characterization is the process an author uses to reveal the personality of a character either directly (author description) or indirectly (the reader must infer what the character is like). The descriptions may include how the character speaks, thinks, feels and acts. How others perceive the character as well as his physical appearance are part of characterization.

Dialogue is the way characters communicate. It may be conversation between characters or it may be interior thoughts.

Pacing is the variations in the rate of speed your characters move through scenes and chapters to reach the end of the story. Consideration is given to when to slow the action and when to speed it up.

Point of View is the perspective from which the story is told. There are three: first person, second person and third person. Sometimes authors alternate points of view.

It’s important to understand that it doesn’t matter how perfect your writing craft is if your story is not exciting, unique and compelling. Perfect craft will never take improve a boring, cliché story.

More Writing Tips:
Writing Craft Rules: Never Say Never

Posted by: nancycurteman | March 24, 2015

5 Ways to Show You Respect Your Mystery Readers’ Intelligence

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th-1Mystery writers need to respect the intelligence of their readers. Mystery fans have a natural interest in solving puzzles. Don’t spoil their enjoyment of sleuthing by explaining everything they should be allowed to discover. Here are 5 ways to show you respect your readers’ intelligence.

  1. Don’t insert yourself into the story by explaining the meaning of what’s happening. Allow the reader to respond to the characters and action on their own.
  2. Don’t overdue the use of adverbs in an effort to describe actions. Verbs should carry the weight of the description. Use the most vivid verbs you can find.
  3. Don’t overdue adjectives an effort to describe places, characters and feelings. Add just enough description to provide a sense of the whole character.
  4. Don’t tell your readers how they should feel. Provoke emotion through character reactions and interior dialogue.
  5. Don’t reveal your own personal biases through your writing. Better to write factual descriptions rather than explicit emotional direction. Better to remain invisible. Let your readers’ own emotional and psychological backstories and personal, intimate temperaments dictate how they respond to your characters and events.

Have faith in the intelligence of your mystery readers. Their personal input based on their own life experiences will increase their enjoyment of your mystery novel.

More tips:

Too Much Description, Too Much Explaining

4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.”

Posted by: nancycurteman | March 14, 2015

Edith Piaf: A French Icon

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thEdith Piaf was Paris. In fact, she was the symbol of all France. In the early thirties her penetrating, defiant, tough, pugnacious yet wistful voice rang out in Paris, first on the streets, later in the clubs and music halls and at last on record players. She sang of the hard times, hard luck and heartbreak that reflected her own life.

Edith Gassion, later renamed Piaf (sparrow) was born in 1915 in a doorway under a light post on Rue 72 de Belleville, a working class section of Paris. At two months old, her mother, a café singer, handed her over to her alcoholic, maternal grandmother who kept the baby’s bottle filled with red wine. Her father found her two years later, dirty, drunk and half starved. He sent her to live with her paternal grandmother who owned a brothel. The filles de joies took good care of her treating her like a baby doll.

At age 15 she became a street singer for coins and was discovered by Louis Leplée who gave her the chance to sing in his cabaret. There in a simple skirt and sweater before an audience that included Chevalier and Mistinguett, Piaf became an overnight sensation.

In 1939 Europe was on the brink of World War II. During the Nazi occupation Piaf was ordered to sing for Herr Goebbels. She flouted the order by arriving hours too late. But she willingly entertained French soldiers in POW camps.

In 1947 Piaf found two loves—Contender for world middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan and the United States of America where she would perform again and again. Her romance with Ceran ended with his death in a plane crash. Her romance with the United States endured the rest of her life. For each performance in the United States and in every country she always charged a flat one thousand American dollars per night.th-1

In the 1950’s life for Piaf who was barely 4’10” with stooped shoulders, ulcers and arthritis became a series of physical collapses that seemed to be ending her career. In 1959 she arose from a hospital bed and embarked on what the French press labeled “Piaf’s suicide tour.” Friends tried to dissuade her from the tour but she insisted on going, saying, “I much sing! Singing is all I have. If I do not sing, I will die.”

That Piaf was finished was the talk of Europe. She was a physical wreck—broke, broken and dying. Then the announcement came: Piaf would open at her traditional Paris stand, the Olympia Music Hall for a month’s engagement. Stooped, battered, ravaged, her hair a cobwebby nimbus about her face, Piaf stood before a packed house and sang as never before. Day after day people lined up in the street for tickets.

Piaf continued performing until her death in 1963. A hundred thousand French visited Piafs home in the weekend following her death. Four thousand attended her burial in Père LaChaise Cemetary. Edith Piaf will forever remain a cherished symbol of France.

Appreciation to Rory Guy

More on France

The Mystery of the Pear in the Bottle
What Do Ham, Chocolates and Bayonets Have in Common?
Le Petit-Beurre: A French Traditional Cookie

Posted by: nancycurteman | March 6, 2015

How to Avoid Melodrama in Sad Mystery Novel Scenes

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th-2Melodrama has no place in a mystery novel. Unfortunately, melodrama can creep into the sad scenes that are essential to a convincing murder mystery story and sabotage the hoped for effect. There are ways to avoid turning a serious emotional scene into a farce.

Don’t be too explicit. Words that tell how the character feels–heartbroken, devastated, sad, miserable, wretched–do not allow the reader to participate in the emotion. You need to let the reader imagine the emotion based on their real life experience with tragedy rather than telling them how to feel.

Show how your character is reacting to a tragedy through her body language. She moves in slow motion, her body droops, her speech sounds flat, lip trembles. She hangs her head, gulps back tears. Your reader will recognize these symptoms of sadness. Let the emotion come from subtext.

Make character reactions realistic. Consider how the type of character you created would react. A stoic male would react differently than a sensitive little girl.

Keep sad scenes short. A few paragraphs that show your character’s pain will have much more impact than a full chapter of dwelling on the tragic event.

Build up to the sad scene. In earlier chapters, emphasize close relationships between characters. In the case of a death, show the importance of the victim in the lives of other characters and emphasize his good qualities.

Draw a connection to a previous tragedy. Maybe your character’s mother died of cancer and now your character’s best friend has been diagnosed with the same kind of cancer.

Make character reactions realistic. No one in real life would say something like “This is horrid beyond words,” when they witness an accident or other tragedy.

These are techniques you can use to avoid melodrama in mystery novel sad scenes.

More tips:
How to Write Love Scenes that Generate Emotions Not Giggles
How to write Emotion into Love Scenes
5 Ways to Make Your Characters Tap Into the Emotions of Your Readers

 

Posted by: nancycurteman | February 26, 2015

Le Petit-Beurre: A French Traditional Cookie

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Le Petit-Beurre (literally “little butter”) is a delicious and romantic little rectangular butter biscuit from France.

The origin of the French Petit-Beurre dates back to 1886, when Louis Lefèvre created an original square butter cookie in his Nantes-based biscuit factory in the seaside city of Nantes. Lefèvre was the first to create a cookie factory in France. Married to the beautiful Mademoiselle Utile, whom he adored, he decided to place both their initials “LU” on every biscuit. To this day, the crunchy butter cookie with its scalloped edges, tiny holes on the surface as if pricked by a needle, and a small browned ear at each corner is commonly called Petit Beurre LU or Véritable Petit Beurre and is the symbol of Nantes.

LU’s biscuit factory today produces about one billion French Petit-Beurre a year. The “pure butter” cookie has become a worldwide success. The recipe has been imitated thousands of times, but never equalled! Petit-Beurre connoisseurs even assert that the traditional LU packets contain 24 cookies to match the 24 hours a day. The modern authentic Petit-Beurre indeed perpetuates LU’s reputation as an entrepreneur thanks to its unique brown golden color, square shape and funny “ears” at the corners. Petit Beurre lovers traditionally bite off those corners first!

The two main characters, Lysi and Grace, in my latest novel, “Murder on the Seine,” devour dozens of these little French delights. Try them. You will, too.

The Mystery of the Pear in the Bottle

What Do Ham, Chocolates and Bayonets Have in Common?

Posted by: nancycurteman | February 18, 2015

How Mystery Writers Use Narrative Distance

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In a mystery novel, narrative distance is the difference between the reader’s perspective and the point of view character’s perspective. It can go from the reader experiencing what characters experience (close) to watching them experiencing it (far). There is no right or wrong narrative distance. Narrative distance should suit the story the mystery author is writing. Mystery writers may choose to use near zero narrative distance or a far distance depending on the chapter, scene, or the story.

Far narrative distance puts space between the POV character and the reader. A far narrative distance can make the reader feel like the author is telling instead of showing the story. A zero narrative distance really puts the reader inside the POV’s head. Carried to extreme it can make the reader feel unnecessarily entangled in the character’s emotions.

What should a mystery writer do? The answer is use close or far narrative distance where appropriate in the novel. Here are two examples to illustrate my point—one where far narrative distance is needed and one in which close or even zero narrative distance is appropriate.

 

Far Narrative Distance

In my novel, Murder on the Seine, I needed a description of setting that my characters would see as they approached a small village in the Pyrenees but that would not need reactions from them that would detract from the story plot:

“Half-timbered stone houses appeared signaling the outskirts of Tare. As they crested a hill the town appeared below them. Cradled in a ring of Pyrenees foothills, it dozed in the shadow of a steep, craggy mountain.”

 

Close Narrative Distance

In my novel, “Murder Casts a Spell, I wanted my readers to feel the excessive South African heat my character was experiencing without telling the reader my character was hot.

Mandisa reached into an apron pocket, pulled out a lace-trimmed handkerchief, and swabbed her brow and neck. She checked the centigrade wall thermometer and moaned. Thirty-six degrees. Already the corrugated metal building radiated heat like a furnace, and the sun hadn’t even hit its zenith. She gulped down a glass of water, upped the desk fan speed to high and directed the air toward her face.

 

Mystery writers must let their story dictate their choice of narrative distance. The correct choice depends on the effect you want in each segment of your novel.

More tips:

How to Open a Mystery Novel

Questions to ask before adding details to your Mystery Novel

 

 

Posted by: nancycurteman | February 10, 2015

How to Write a Realistic Mystery Novel

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MurderTheyWrote

Mystery stories must be realistic because in real life we are bombarded with mysteries everyday—in the media, among our friends and acquaintances, among family members and in our own lives. The trick is how to write realistic mysteries. Here are some strategies I’ve used in creating my mysteries.

I begin by introducing my characters in their usual everyday surroundings. Characters may be going to work, to a conference or on a vacation trip or they may be at home reading a good “who dunnit.”

Next, I introduce a problem that disrupts my character’s peaceful world. Since I write murder mysteries, the disrupting problem is always a murder.

Once my characters are involved in the problem, they begin to look for a solution e.g. the perpetrator of the dastardly deed. At this stage of the story I introduce one obstacle after another. I allow characters to overcome one obstacle then trip them up with another, more challenging problem. Sometimes I complicate this process by adding conflicts within their environment or within themselves. To plump out my mystery, I like to add side problems to my characters’ repertoires of misery such as relationship, personality or value issues. All these challenges continue until the climax of the story which usually involves endangering my sleuth. Overcoming this last most serious obstacle and the secondary issues ends the story. This is the basic plot line.

In summary, mystery novel writers need to show that their characters have goals and are overcoming obstacles in pursuit of those primary and secondary goals which relate either directly or indirectly to solving the murder. These strategies produce a realistic mystery novel.

More tips:

How to Write “Killer” Scenes in a Mystery Novel
How to Write Gripping Mystery Novel Scenes

Posted by: nancycurteman | January 31, 2015

The Mysterious Link Between Paris and an Ancient Fishing Village

Ile-de-la-CiteThe mysterious link between the beautiful modern city of Paris and an ancient fishing village is shrouded in the dense fog of a long-ago time. Over two thousand years ago, a Celtic tribe of fishermen settled on an ideal island in the middle of the Sequana River that runs through the center of Paris. The Celtic tribe called their village of thatched-roofed, mud huts, Lucotocia, a pre-Celtic word meaning marsh, a perfect description of the swampy land on which they lived. Later the Roman conquerors renamed the village Lutetia or Lutèce.

This small village was the origin of Paris. The modern name for the Sequana River is the Seine. Lucotocia Island today is called Cité and is the heart of modern Paris with famous sites like Notre Dame Cathedral, Police Headquarters and the beautiful Sainte Chapelle.

There’s more. The name of the Celtic tribe of Lucotocia was Parisii which means Boat People. This name fit because the only way villagers could travel to and from their island home was by primitive boats. What is the significance of the Parisii tribe? You guessed it. The origin of the name of the city of Paris, one of the most important world capitols, comes from the humble Parisii people.

Historians have only scratched the surface of the mysterious links between Paris and these ancient Celts but the research into the mystery continues.

You can visit the Île de la Cité in my newest novel, “Murder on the Seine

More about the Paris mystery

The Arénes de Lutèce: A Roman Amphitheatre in the Middle of Paris

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