Monday, May 29, 2023

Characters who surprise us: Bring it on!


HALLIE EPHRON: Decades ago, I was on the upper west side of Manhattan, sitting in the window of a Chock Full of Nuts (that’s how long ago) on Broadway and 116th St., sipping my coffee and eating a cream cheese on raisin bread sandwich, when a man who was walking by and reading a newspaper walked smack into a pole. 

He dropped the paper and punched the pole, immedately cradling his hand and cursing. Then he froze and looked around. Picked up the paper and scurried on.

His reaction revealed a lot about that poor guy. Oblivious enough to walk down Broadway with his head buried in a newspaper. Ready to go to war with a post… 

So much rage! I wouldn’t want to be his wife. Or kid. Or dog. 

And I imagined how someone else might react to running into a pole (as is so easy today with most of us glued to our cellphones instead of the objects and pedestrians and cars around us.) One person might bounce back and apologize to the pole. Or look around to see if anyone is watching and skulk off, pretending nothing happened. Or… done something else that would have revealed the person's mood or circumstances.

Have you had one of those writing moments, when a character you were writing surprised you with an unexpected reaction that showed you something you didn’t know about them?

RHYS BOWEN: when I was writing Constable Evans he had to go to France and they took the Eurostar through the Chunnel. And he came up the other side green and sweating. Until then I had no idea he was claustrophobic. And of course my next thought was: right, my boy. I’m sending you down a slate mine in the next book!

HALLIE: Reminds me of Michael Connelly who sends Harry Bosch, who was traumatized by tunnels in Vietnam, into dark claustrophobic spaces. Interesting how something unexpected in the FRONT story triggers an idea for something that happened to trigger it in the character’s BACK story.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I found out something I didn’t use! In my early books, Rev. Clare Fergusson meets a charming and funny banker who spends time in the summer up in her area, which is a popular resort location. They never even kissed, although he was constantly flirting with her and hinting that she ought to visit him in NYC for some “one-on-one” time away from the prying eyes of her congregation.

She was talking about the relationship with one of her vestry, and I’m transcribing the conversation, as it sometimes feels like the author does, and the vestry member says, “My dear, he doesn’t realize that he’s gay, but surely you do.”

I was SHOCKED! I had zero idea. NONE. I sat with it for a while and wound up deciding to leave it out, because at that point, it would have added another subplot in an already over-laden story. So far, he never has come out, but it definitely affected how I wrote that character, and the relationship, going forward.

First time I found out something I didn’t know about one of my characters - and it was another totally fictional person who pointed it out.

JENN McKINLAY: In my latest book SUMMER READING, Emily Allen, the best friend of the main character Samantha Gale, is a librarian and when we meet her in the book, she’s doing research on cancer for a patron. Or so I thought.

It turns out she’s doing the research for herself – except she doesn’t have cancer. I will say no more to prevent spoilers but it sure surprised the heck out of me! Fear not, her story is completed in LOVE AT FIRST BOOK coming in May 2024.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Ah, every time. Every time. And until it happens, I worry.

BIG shock in TRUST ME. Massive shock in THE MURDER LIST. Even in Prime Time, my first book, I remember it happening, and how surprised I was that my brain was doing something I hadn’t planned or thought of. At one point Charlotte is getting yelled at by her boss for something unfair, and she stands right up to him and defends herself.

Whoa, I thought. Where did that come from? I had thought Charlotte was more conciliatory. But nope.

Even in one scene in my upcoming One Wrong Word, Arden completely goes on a tear, threatening lawsuits and retaliation. It was SO much fun to write, but again, I had not “planned” for that to be her reaction. She came alive, and that was magical. It’s why we write, isn’t it? To be surprised?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Nothing about writing is more fun than finding out these delicious things about your characters as you're writing. 

I had never even thought about why my detective sergeant, Doug Cullen, is a cop until I was writing a scene in A KILLING OF INNOCENTS where he's telling another character that it was assumed he'd get a law degree and join his father's firm when he saw a recruiting ad for the Metropolitan Police and signed up for an interview. 

It was his act of rebellion and I'd had no idea.

LUCY BURDETTE: Hayley Snow’s neighbor, Miss Gloria. I pulled her into the first book to have someone who could be bonked on the head and left for dead on the dock. She has blossomed into the most amazing character, the one whom people talk about and ask for the most. One reviewer called her “the poster child for senior citizens.” I had no idea!

HALLIE: Wondering if that ever has happened to you in real life: someone you think you know does something that feels so completely out of character that you find yourself wondering what else you don't know about them.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Are You Ready for Some Football? What We're Writing: Jenn McKinlay

 JENN McKINLAY: I mentioned last week that I was working on FONDANT FUMBLE (two NFL players buy a Fairy Tale Cupcake franchise and mayhem and murder ensue, natch) and I was reviewing my methods of murder. Now, of course, I'm in research mode and looking at cupcakes with a football themes. OMG, y'all, look at some of these brilliant cupcakes!

Nutter Butter Football Cupcakes

Chocolate Cupcakes with Reeses Peanut Butter Egg Footballs

Chocolate Football Cupcakes with Coconut Grass and a Truffle Football (Vegan, dairy free, whole grain)

Yes, writing this series is a real hardship. LOL. While these pictures and recipes do inspire, I'll be creating my own recipe for the cupcakes cobbled out of a little bit of this and a little bit of that. 

I have my own chocolate cupcake recipe that I like to use, but I am loving the green coconut, so that's a possible add. As for the football, the Nutter Butter ball is genius, so I might be tweaking that as well. I am definitely not someone who follows recipes exactly. I look at them more as guidelines to jumpstart my own creations. 

How about you, Reds and Readers? Do you follow recipes exactly or do you look at them more as suggestions? 

Saturday, May 27, 2023

What We're Writing Week: Structure and Scaffolding

 JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: My writing for my college classes is thankfully over until next September, and, like the proverbial In spring, a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, in May, a college instructor's fancy bemusedly turns to prepping other courses. 

In my case, I'm working up another one of my creative writing seminars. I've done them on creating suspense, on using setting to strengthen your writing, and on developing characters. Now I'm turning to story structure.

Not, mind you, outlining techniques. I'll leave that to authors far more skilled at them than I. But I'm someone who has long been fascinated by structure - by acts and scaffolding and playing with chronology. One of the first things that led me to writing a mystery, when I was a very unfledged novice, was the fact crime fiction had, as it were, a skeleton already provided, something I could drape muscle and skin over.

And yes, the fact that was literally the metaphor that presented itself to me all those years ago probably indicates I was choosing the right genre. 

Here's an example of how I worked on ONE WAS A SOLDIER, which had eight point of view characters (!) whose stories switched between the past and the present. 



I was very pleased with the book, and glad I was so creatively ambitious, but I do have to point out this was where I fell off the book-a-year cycle - this was published three years after the previous novel - and so far I haven't gotten back on that horse. Maybe simpler is better?

This is a fascinating look at screenwriter/director Christopher Nolan's process, which I can across while researching. I encourage anyone interested in structure to click through and read the whole thread, which also includes other examples of mapped story.


The amazing Jennifer Crusie, who is one of my writing goddesses, uses a story-creating technique so far from my comfort zone I wouldn't even know how to begin: she makes collages



And here's what I'm trying out for my current work-in-progress, a combination of Jessica Ellicott's Post-It note plotting on the framework of a classical four-act structure. 

Also, I really need to scrub off that door to my office. Usually the only person who sees that side is me.

Do you notice story structure, dear readers? Or does it get lost in the flow of a good book? And if you're a writer, what scaffolding techniques do you use?