Finding Inspiration: Part Three- Characters Close to Home

Building Real Characters: How to Bring Them From the Page and Into Your HeartWriters find inspiration anywhere; at the grocery store, the bank, even the activities of driver sitting next to you at the red light, can get the muse flowing. Then of course there are my favorites: family and friends.

If you have a Facebook account, I’m sure you have seen the pictures posted by someone at least once a month that says: (in a nutshell): BEWARE, I’M A WRITER, ANYTHING YOU SAY CAN AND WILL BE USED IN MY NEXT BOOK.  I was at the bank the other day and had a lively conversation with my banker. Upon completion of my transaction, she asked me, ‘is this going to be in one of your stories?’ I laughed and said quite possibly.

It seems no matter how hard I try; my Muse is always working, always observing and cataloging the statements and actions of others, especially when it comes to my kids.

In the last few weeks, my children have shocked me with their ‘Remember when…’ tales. Being an only child, it never ceases to amaze me what  my four kids get into when they are unsupervised in their bedrooms. First, there was the ‘broken-glow-in-the-dark-stick incident’ that led to fluorescent yellow liquid being splashed over bedroom walls. (According to them, it wore off withing minutes, thus leading to doing it again in order to illuminate the room.  No evidence was left behind. Imagine my horror!!!) Of course a lot of sibling smacks upside the head, and then the sneaking to cut hair or trim their eyebrows disasters that ended with bad results. (Those I knew about, but it still makes me laugh to remember the results.) Funny stories that made my eyebrows shoot into the hemisphere and start to give the ‘you know better’ speech. But then I realized the issues happened months, even years ago. What’s the point?  All that’s left is ‘don’t do it again.’

Once the kids go about their evening activities, my Muse sorts through the information, while not inspiration for my adult characters’ lives, they make great character back story.

***Back Story: Insight into the protagonist nature or history through reflective flashbacks, scenes, or dialogue. This information is used to show how a character will react to certain situations.***

There are various ways to use back story.  Some authors like to use flashback during a scene or as a scene to show an incident that explains the reason for their character’s actions during the course of a story. (Think about the show LOST, whose episodes focused on the back story of a character’s life, decisions, made, and how they related to the present situation). In novels, the most common use is having a character allude to their past through dialogue, thought, or peppered in by the omnipotent voice. (Dialogue is the best way to share this information without slowing down your prose and boring a reader.)

How do you know what your characters back story will be?

By writing character outlines.

If you have  followed my blog, you know a large portion of my writing begins with focusing on deep character development. I love writing characters my readers can relate to either through their own personal experiences or someone they know. Creating well-developed back story can do that. Knowing where your characters have been, what experiences have affected them – good and bad – will give your characters a strong voice that makes them stand out.

Even if it starts from when they were kids.

In a nutshell, a well-developed back story lets you know your characters. Knowing and understanding your characters will explain their motivations. Motivations are what set up a plot. Reactions to plot twists/turns are what provide scenes. Scenes mixed with reactions are what create drama.

Whew!  Sounds like a lot of work, right? It is, but as with all things in life, you get what you put in. Taking the time to sit down and understand your characters will show in your writing. It will help you understand why they interrupt your writing, and no matter how much you want the story to go one way, they hijack your manuscript.

For more on writing character outlines and finding writing inspiration, visit my previous posts:

M.J.’s on Writing- Helpful Advice for Aspiring Authors

MJ

Life on This Side of Publication: Part Two- To Publication and Beyond!

Last week I shared my experience in query land. Today, I’ll continue with life ‘after publication’…the reality.
Yep, reality, sounds funny, right? 
Think about it, you’ve spent months, even years, living in ‘fantasy land’, then emerge from your writing cocoon in search of an agent or publisher. You’ve either signed a contract or decided to self-publish.  Your book is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an eBook or paperback. You’ve tweeted it, shared it, posted, and hyped it up. Anticipation has been growing and your future fans are lining up with dollars in hand for the big release day. Now all you do is sit back, relax, tell your friends and family they are  now looking at a published author, and watch the money roll in. Right?
WRONG!

This, my friends, is where the REAL WORK BEGINS! Yep, I said it! W-O-R-K!!!
Did I fail to mention a lack of sleep????
Sorry, I jumped ahead of myself again. Let’s back it up a bit….
Amazon Rank for October 4, 2012 – #16 Multicultural Romance  (Peaked at #4)  and #41 in African-American Literature & Fiction (Peaked at #17) – Paid Books #3181 (Peaked at #1717)
First, there are the days leading up to the big release. The contract has been signed, the publication date announced, and editor assigned. Your version of the final manuscript has been submitted and now you wait for the edits to start rolling in. A dead line is given. Then you’re off to the races! What happens next?
First you deal with your editor, your new best friend and avid supporter because they are now invested in the project as much as you are. You accept or reject suggested changes, they make sure the storyline is consistent, all the facts have been checked, and the character’s names have not changed. Once you both are satisfied with the results (and let’s face it, you’re a professional now and a deadline is a deadline!) the manuscript is next sent to the line-editor. Their job it is to check everything again…line-by-line, every period, comma, hyphen, exclamation point…yep, all the extremely technical stuff that you and your editor didn’t see. And believe me people, regardless of what level of publication you’re at, whether it’s self-pub and you hire an editor, e-pub and you’re working with editors, or even one of the Big Six-traditionally pubbed where thr is a team of editors…there WILL  be errors that make it into the work, regardless of how many eyes look at it…it’s called human imperfection! (I have read three Nora Robert’s new releases this year, all hardback, and every one of them had errors, be it technical, or even storyline, or   what character’s POV we were supposed to be in, and again, this is in books from a TRADITIONALLY PUBLISHED BESTSELLING AUTHOR!)
Once your book has been sent through the ringer, you now have the final read, your last chance to (hopefully!) find any errors and point them out. Final changes are made, then it’s off to publication!
Now what?
You now must figure out how to promote your work. Unless you have a Nora Roberts budget and backing from the Big Boys, it’s up to you to push your book. Blog tours, promos on Facebook , Twitter, Google+, websites…the list goes on and on. In the end, you get what you put in. The more work you do, the better the results. The less work you do…you got it, no results. The truth of the matter is, you can sit at your computer and talk about, copy/past, share, and tweet all day long, but in the end it’s up to the readers to choose your work. Just because you promoted in twenty spots does not me your going to get at least twenty sales for the day.  
So what do you do?
 Me and my manager, Lady Kayne of  Major Movement Inc.,  at my first official meet/greet as a published  author! 
You keep talking about it, keep promoting, and sell not just your work, but yourself as well.
But that’s not all! In the mist of promoting, you now must continue to write…because hey, one book wasn’t all you planed on publishing, right? Whether you’re writing a series, like I am, or you’re selling standalone novels…writing, plotting, and planning the next story doesn’t stop. If anything, your new readers will be craving more of you work!
Congratulations! You are now a published author with fans!!! And fans need to be sated!
Good luck with finding a happy balance between being an author, promoter, wife/father, and parent… and if you have a nine-to-five job, you’ve got to work to pay your bills, and manage all of this wonderful stuff in between!!!
But guess what, after all the headache, the sleepless nights as you struggle to keep your sales rankings up on Amazon, religiously check your ranking every hour upon the hour, even at two A.M….it’s all worth it in the 
end! 
MJ
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Why Do I Write?

That is a question I’ve asked myself for the past three years. Before then, I was never a writer, but man was I an avid reader!

I grew up in a rural area and my mom didn’t allow me to play with the neighborhood kids as much as I wanted to. Being an only child, I spent a lot of time by myself. Barbies, stuffed animals, and Strawberry Short Cake (the original version, not the new one!) were my BFF’s. Like any little girl, I spent time making up stories and acting them out. There were times when I would borrow my parents audio cassette tape recorder (omg, now I feel dated and old!), sit down with my stuffed animals, and make up stories and songs, record them, and use them to entertain my parents.

As I got older, dolls were put away, and books became my number one source of entertainment. Stories like, The Box Car Kids, A Circle In The Sea, and Homecoming were my favorites. I can’t remember how many times I journeyed to the local community and school libraries to check them out. If you were to look at the back on the little slip of paper where you signed your name when checking them out,  (dated again!) My name would be there repeatedly.

And then I hit high school. Alice in Wonderland became my favorite read. It was around this time I ran into books from Steven King and John Grisham. I remember being freaked out by Needful Things, unable to sleep at night, yet I couldn’t put it down. A Time to Kill brought tears to my eyes, the amount of emotion and feeling the father experienced was so well written. I remember the moment I finished that novel, I made a note to read each and every novel written by John Grisham. And for the next couple of months I did just that.

That was also when I discovered movies based on books, while good, are seriously lacking. No matter how well the actors portray the characters, no matter how well the screen writer adapted the film, there is absolutely NO WAY for the audience to feel everything the author put into the story. Explanations, feelings, and reasons why a character makes the decisions that drive the plot, can never be explained without taking the time to read the words the author slaved over to tell his/her tale.

Guess movies are the fancier version of Cliff Notes, huh?

But I digress…

Somewhere down the line I decided to start reading Sci-Fi . I love stories that follow a character as they grow and evolve, you know that elusive “they’ve found their HEA, but what happened next? Are they still happy???”

Around 2002, when Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was released, my family went to watch the movie. I had always been a Star Wars fan, having developed my love of the series as a child from my father. The original SW movies were mainly about Luke Skywalker leading the rebels to overthrow the evil Emperor and his henchman, Darth Vader. But then came the new movies based on events years in the past that lead up to the original motion picture. Talk about deep character development. It answered so many questions as to who Darth Vader was and why he became the man behind the mask. (Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader, by James Luceno tells you what the newly named Vader felt like in that suite!)

I found myself immersed in the world of Star Wars Expanded Universe novels. For those who have no idea what those are, let me explain. If you’ve ever watched the Star Wars movies, Episode 1-6, and I say IF because I have a family friend that has NEVER watched one in his life. (I threaten to tie him down and force him to watch a marathon, lol) For those SW die hard fans who have to know what happens after Darth Vader dies and is redeemed, the Expanded Universe novels follow Luke, Han, and Leia, their kids, and numerous other characters in a wide variety of series. The amount of novels are too many to count. How do I know? I’ve read over 40 of them, and there are more than that I have yet to read! Yep, SW geek!

As I’ve said before, I am a lover of stories that continue and don’t end with just one book. Another great series is The Lord of the Rings. Somehow I found myself reading the trilogy…twice. Tolkien was a master at not only creating worlds beyond your imagination, and characters that are memorable, he also created languages. It took him years to pull all of his stories together. Just think of the sheer magnitude of the work. Not to mention the fact that a portion of his novels were written while he sat in the trenches as a soldier during World War I as he watched his friends die around him.


What does any of this have to do with the reason why I decided to write?

Everything.

Authors write for different reasons. Some have over active imaginations that drive them to put pen to paper. Others do so as a hobby or to entertain people around them. A lot of authors write to heal while recovering from a painful memory. Be it diary, blog, endless notes, short stories, or novels.  There is some kind of a writer in all of us.

I was never one to keep a running diary. I tried it once and got bored with my life. But my imagination, on the other hand, has always run rampant, even as an adult. I found myself making up stories to keep myself entrained while waiting in the doctors office, sitting in rush hour traffic, even while lying in bed at night unable to sleep. But it wasn’t until several life altering experiences affected my family did I realize putting pen to paper and letting the emotions flow from my fingers into the lives of my characters did I start to heal. I realized I had a story to tell.

So, for me, writing and learning the craft of writing, has become my passion on many different levels.

The stories I tell, while they fall in the romance genre, are not just about romance. Yes, sex is involved because it is a part of life, but my stories will never be considered erotic romance. Contemporary romance? Yes, because my characters reside in the same day and age as you and I. Interracial Romance? Yes, because my characters are from various racial backgrounds. The love, the relationships, the bonds formed between the men and women that reside in my head go well beyond skin color. Women’s Fiction? It can fit here too because the topics I write about pertain to the many issues women today face.

Yet, my stories are not just about the women. They’re also about the men.

My stories are about love, redemption, healing, and evolving into something more than what they were in the beginning. My characters lives are like yours and mine. We ride a roller coaster of emotions. Some days are good, some days are bad. There are times of overwhelming joy, just like there are times of pain and grief. And even though my characters go through these growing pains, they come out on the other end as changed individuals, having learned from their experiences, and become better from them. And that, my dear friends, is the message I write about.

Hope, love, understanding….evolving.

Just like a butterfly…

And that is why I write.

MJ

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Sherry, Seline, or Shaniqua…What Is In a Name?

So, you’ve decided to write a story. Great. You know your plot, you know how the story starts and how it ends. You even have a cast of characters picked out. 
But what about names? Naming a character is like naming a newborn baby, a lot of thought must be put into the name. Whatever name chosen will be stuck with them forever more. Once the story is published, there will be no turning back.
There are millions of names to chose from, or make up. Whatever you decide, your character’s name tells the reader a lot about them before the first sentence is read. 
Names can tell your character’s ethnic origin…or confuse them.  Are they African-American, Caucasian, Hispanic, or Asian? Some names cross over between ethnic backgrounds, though the spelling may be different. 
Example: Christopher (English/Biblical) or Kristoffer? (Scandinavian) 
A name can also show what generation your character is from without mentioning their age.
Example: Edna is an older name, while Jada is from a younger generation. 
A great example of this is Twilight. Though the story has a modern day setting; some of the characters are younger than 18, while others are over 100-years old. Their names reflect that. The Vampires, who ranged from 100-years old, and older, had names from that time period: Edward, Carlyle, Rosalie, Emmet, and Jasper. Then of course there were Bella (Isabella), and Jacob who were obviously much younger. See the difference?
Now, back to your story. The name given to your character can be used to delve into their back story. What if they were born in say, 1994, yet their parents decided to give them a name from a previous generation for the sake of tradition? If your story is set in 2012 and the character is an 18-year-old female named for her grandmother, Rowena, how would she feel about that? Would she love and cherish that name because she was close to her grandmother, or would she loath it because of being teased as a kid? Explaining how the character feels about their name could be a key reason as to what motivates them in the decisions they make. 
Names can also relate to a character’s personality traits. For example, I have a son named Xavier. It has been my experience that nearly every Xavier I come across is just as hyperactive, hardheaded, and lovable. I couldn’t imagine him being name William, or Justin, the name just wouldn’t fit. But, that’s just me!
A name can also be the bases for character description. In one of my stories, the character, Yasmine (which is a different form of spelling of the jasmine flower) wears perfume all the time. It’s one of the things that grabs her boyfriends attention when they first meet. She also keeps her home, office, and car smelling nice. She’s living up to the meaning of her name, which is: a fragrant flower. 
Don’t forget about nicknames! The nickname given to your character by family, friends, and even enemies can relay to the reader exactly how someone views them. Is it short and sweet, rolling off the tongue with a lot of love? Or is it brash, harsh, and said with disdain?
Character names can also be the bases for a plot. Does the character love or hate the name they were given? Is it something they are proud of, or do they spend their life (or time during the story) running away from what it stands for?
Whatever you decide, remember, DO NOT use names for supportive characters that are similar to the key characters (Matt and Mathew, Jake and John). It’s best to choose names that begin with a different letter of the alphabet to avoid confusing readers. Of course, if similarity in names is a part of your storyline (twins, or the names lead to a case of mistaken identity), by all means, do so. Just be sure the reason why those names were chosen is pointed out so the reader will be prepared to notice the difference in characters.
Having problems finding a name off the top of your head? The simple remedy is to go on Google and search for the various name websites. Research anything from name origins, meanings, and ethnic backgrounds. Here’s a great one to check out: The Meaning of Names. 
Have fun!

MJ

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Character Descriptions – Creating a Picture With Words

Fat? Skinny? Tall or Short? What category does your character fit in?

Some of us have over-active imaginations which allow us to ‘see’ what a character looks like. Translating that picture in our heads to paper should be easy, right? Not always. What about when you have several characters floating in and out of scenes throughout the manuscript?

 How do you hammer out each description while ensuring none of them are alike? It takes planning, plain and simple.

One of my favorite things to do is have a working picture chart for each major and minor character for quick reference. I got this idea from a critique partner and I will never write without one again. My favorite place to look for character references are on the Internet, movies, and television. When developing a new character, I already have an idea of their physical attributes, the sound of their voice, and the way their body moves. Finding a picture I can study makes a world of difference when writing a full character description. If you only go by what you imagine, there will be things missing, such as, subtle quirks like the way a character stands, a twitch of the mouth, or that hidden mole. Your eye may not notice at first glance, but after studying a photo, you can add an extra layer of ‘life’ to the character.

Let me demonstrate.

In A Heart Not Easily Broken, there is a chapter where Ebony Campbell, the heroine, has the opportunity to study her future love interest, Brian Young, from a distance. He’s standing in her back yard trimming the grass along the fences edge with a weed whacker and not wearing a shirt.

Here’s the way that scene was written without having a visual reference to refer too (rough draft):

          Brian stood with his weed whacker, swinging it along side the fence. My eyes widened; the man was shirtless. The man had an incredibly strong looking back. His shorts hung off his hips and made his underwear visible, while a damp shirt hung from his belt buckle. Hmm, boxers or briefs? Sweat ran down his back to his shorts. 
          None of that compared to the way he looked when he turned around to one of the guys working with him. His body was free of body fat, with a little hair on his chest. Tight abs shown a ripple of muscles so tight I could barely see his belly button. 
          Brian’s tanned skin reminded me of a Greek statue, he must work outside a lot. His baseball cap was turned backward, hiding the blond curly hair I’d seen at the club. His damp hair hung below its edge, showing off his square facial structure and the angle of his nose. His blue eyes were bright.
          Brian was unbelievably sexy.

Could you visualize what Ebony sees? I’m sure you were able to get a decent idea. Brian’s working outside, he’s sweating, it’s hot, and Ebony’s attracted to him. But how about the version found in the book? (after a  picture reference, a thesaurus, a multitude of edits, rewrites, and an over active imagination!) This is what I finished with:

           Brian stood with his weed whacker, swinging it in a controlled arch along the fence. My eyes widened; the man was shirtless. The man had an incredibly strong looking back. His shorts hung loosely from his hips, exposing the top of his underwear from the weight of the sweat-stained shirt stuffed under his belt. Hmm, boxers or briefs? Sweat ran in heavy rivets down his shoulder blades, trickling to the already damp shorts. 
          None of that compared to the way he looked when he turned around to speak to one of the guys working with him. His long torso, free of unwanted body fat, sported a light sprinkling of blond hair between his pecks. A tight abdomen showed every cut of muscle I’d seen in high school biology textbooks. His abs were tight, his belly button nearly nonexistent. 
          Brian’s bronzed skin reminded me of a Greek statue, a testament of many hours spent working outside. His backward baseball cap hid the thick blond curls I’d seen at the club. The damp ringlets hung below its rim, accentuating his square facial structure and the shape of his nose. His blue eyes seemed to glow from deep within his skin. 
         Brian was unbelievably sexy.


Visual descriptive, right? Both had the same idea, but the second one took the time to describe every single detail Ebony saw. Because of this, the reader is guaranteed to feel one of two things, ‘wow, it’s hot, he’s sweaty, and could use a shower’, or since your deep in Ebony’s POV, your right a long with her thinking the sight of a hard working man tunes her on!

Perfect character descriptions do not usually appear while writing your rough draft. A Heart Not Easily Broken had so many rewrites and drafts I stopped counting at number eight, and believe me, there were still a few after that. But with each scene, I forced myself to take the time to write the descriptions of the characters in as much detail as possible. It didn’t matter who’s POV the description came from.

Since my books are written in first POV, one of the first things I had to learn was how to have a person describe themselves without it sounding clinical.

Here’s an example of Ebony describing herself physically when comparing herself to her best friend, Yasmine:

Not so creative writing (first draft):

          Yasmine’s light colored skin, skinny body, long legs and small breast suited her personality. There were times I wished my body was like hers. It would make shopping for clothes easier. I had a body like my Nana did when she was my age. If I looked at her photo albums, I looked just like her . We both had brown skin, shapely hips, big butts, and large breast. 

Oh man was THAT boring!

Now, here is the book version:

          Yasmine’s high-yellow complexion, slender ballet dancer body, long legs, and B-cups breasts suited her personality.  There were times I wished my body was more like hers, though. It would make shopping for clothes a lot easier. As it was, I had been blessed with the shapely figure my Nana called ‘bootylicious’.  According to her, and her photo albums, I looked just like her when she was my age, with caramel-colored skin, perfectly proportioned hips, a butt that drew major attention, and D-cup breasts, making it hard for a man to look me straight in the eye.

So much better, and (if you are a lady!) can probably visualize yourself as either character, right?

A word of advice: when writing a characters description (especially if being done from first person POV), it’s best to have them compare themselves to others, or stare into the mirror and describe what they do or don’t like, as a suggestion. Having them say, “I have long hair, brown eyes, and dark skin,” is not being creative. “My hair reached the top of my bra strap, my eyes were coals of molten like my mothers. I had her rich coco-colored skin, too,” sounds much better. Okay, I threw that one together, but hopefully you get the point.

So, with visual aid (come on guys and gals, searching for that perfect pic can be fun!), lots of imagination, and the ever handy thesaurus, you can write descriptive scenes, too!

Until next time, WRITE WELL!!!!

MJ

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