“Amanda stepped off the elevator on the lower level of the parking garage. At ten o’clock on a Saturday night, the level was empty except for her car . . . and one other she didn’t recognize. A sound of dripping water and the soft scurrying of animal feet – rats? – made her throat close.
She swiveled her head in search of anything or anyone nearby then took a tentative step toward her car. Then another step and faster, faster, until she was almost at a sprint. Her high heels clicked on the concrete floor and echoed in the cavernous space. Finally, she reached her car. Damn, why didn’t she have her keys ready?
Amanda fumbled through her bag, her heart now ratcheted up, pumping blood through her ears. All she could hear was the furious whooshing sound of her own fear.
There, her keys, at the bottom, now in her hand. She clicked the fob and the latches opened. She reached for the handle, but before her fingers closed around it, she detected a breathy squeak of rubber soled shoes behind her. She dropped her bag, swung around with a gasp, hands clenched into fists, ready to defend herself and . . .”
So, what do you think? Tension? I always love the late-at-night parking garage scene. Scares the heck out of me, even now.
What is tension, really, and why is it so important in writing? Even if you’re not writing a mystery. Even if you’re writing non-fiction.
The noun tension has its Latin roots in “tendere,” which means to stretch, and tension occurs when something is stretched either physically or emotionally to its limits. Strained relations between countries can cause political tensions to rise. Tension can be added to a rubber band by stretching it to its limits. By the way, you can release nervous tension by shooting that rubber band at the local bully.
Tension is the means to get your reader to turn the page, particularly if it’s used at the end of a chapter as a cliffhanger. People, for the most part, don’t like to leave things unresolved. They want to find the solution, even if it’s an unsatisfactory one (that’s another story.)
While you cannot (or should not) distort facts when writing non-fiction, tension around real events can ramp up the readers’ pulse just as thrillers can. Take “The Monuments Men,” for instance. How tense can a situation be when you have a group of men and women trying to save the art and monuments of a Europe at war? When, finally the fighting ends, and they discover, in a dark, damp mine in Austria, a cache of hidden loot that would make King Midas gasp? When, they manage to “derail” an art train bound for Germany with stolen paintings of Masters like Leonardo.
Now that’s tension. That’s real life. Whew.
I welcome your feedback and samples of tension in your writing.
Writing mysteries is a “flexible” process and as an author I must be tuned-in and willing to make changes . . . often serious changes. Throw out chapters, throw out characters, add new locations, scenes. Pump up the senses: add fragrances, colors, cacophonous sounds.
I often reach a sticking point around the middle of the novel, which leads me to inject a “turn of events” into the story. This turn of events is often not planned, but gives the story a much-needed jolt.
In my current book, there are two NYPD homicide detectives, one in the past and one in the present. Both are following leads in a murder case (as detectives are wont to do.) Each lead spins off other leads, but in the end, the leads peter out (as my brain does) and they are left, frustrated, and wondering what the next step might be.
When this happens to me, I simply just murder someone. What? you say. It’s as simple as that. Murder someone.
Now, this “someone” absolutely must have relevance to the story. Please don’t bring in your next-door neighbor unless they’ve had a role in the story already. In addition, there must be a darn good reason to kill this someone off. If it’s your neighbor, the old “fence dispute” doesn’t cut it.
Yes, a fresh murder can get the readers’ (and writer’s) mind spinning in new directions. What did I miss? Why didn’t I see that coming? If X is now dead, she couldn’t have been the culprit.
A mid-novel murder is always good to keep readers on their toes, working to figure out the mystery. That’s the point. I write mysteries. The longer I can keep my readers baffled and confounded about what’s really going on, the more enjoyable the read.
One of the most important, but often most difficult part of writing a novel is selecting names for your characters. When you begin you might already have some in mind. But as the characters morph during the writing process, that name might no longer fit. If you’re writing a series and the same characters reappear, you still need to name new characters.
Villains’ names are particularly important to get right. Common sense tells you that “Melvin Fuddrucker” is probably not the best handle for a serial killer. Or is it? Do you want to throw the reader off and let him like or sympathize with your bad guy? Do you want the reader to think: Melvin, hmm, an accountant or a store clerk, when in reality, Melvin is a triathlete, computer genius, and serial killer? Obfuscation may be a good thing.
The good guys shouldn’t be shortchanged either. You want your characters to be memorable and to have your readers calling them by name six months after they’ve read your book. I have a hard time remembering names six hours after reading some books. But characters from other books stay with me for a lifetime. LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry comes to mind. How can you forget Augustus, Call, Newt, or for heaven’s sake, Pea Eye?
So how do you choose names? One thing to remember. Try not to have too many characters with the same first initial. So, Bob, Bill, Binky, Belinda, and Bruce would probably be confusing. A couple are okay, of course. My two main characters are Maggie and Mead. Duh. One’s a first name, one’s a last. But I’ve avoided other “M” names unless they are historically necessary.
Also, unusual names are okay but too many are dicey. Throw a few Jenovas in with the Jennifers. Don’t make them too hard to pronounce, either out loud or in the reader’s head. It’s frustrating. Of course, if many of your characters are from countries other than the States, throw that idea out the window. But, perhaps, giving them a nickname will make them easier to recall.
One problem with historical novels is that using the real names of people involved can present problems. For instance, in some books by Sharon Kay Penman, one of my all-time favorite writers of historical England, she explained that the spelling of some characters had to be changed to distinguish one Maud from another Maude. (Lots of Henrys, Johns and James as well. Yoiks!)
Timing is very important. Names fall in and out of favor over the years, so take care not to use a very modern YA name like Aisha or Brandon in a book about merry old England.
When you’re creating a character name from scratch, consider these: personality, looks, age, ethnicity, stature in the community, occupation, attitudes toward politics, etc., values, whether the character is single, married, gay. Does the character remind you of a good friend, a bad friend, a worker, colleague, television or movie character (Dexter? Miss Marple? Morse? Lynley? Zen?) Does the character have a sense of humor? Is the character always depressed, upbeat, brutally honest, or unbearably shy? What are their quirks, flaws, hobbies, passions, hates? Does he carry around a blue plastic bag instead of a briefcase like Tony Hill?
Do you want the character’s name to conjure up something in the reader’s mind? Like Charlie Parker in John Connolly’s books makes me automatically think of the jazz musician.
I had a difficult time giving my villain in TIME EXPOSURE a meaningful name. He was, by profession, a Shakespearean actor in disguise on the battlefield as a sutler (a guy who went around selling goods to the foot soldiers.) What name would this actor choose for himself? He selected the name Jack Cade for his cover. Why?
Jack Cade was actually a real person who led the peasants in the Kent rebellion of 1450. He was also a character in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 2. In the play he talks to his friend, Dick the Butcher, whose most famous line is “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” I thought my villain would get a kick out of that, and since he probably didn’t want to be called Dick the Butcher, Jack Cade he became.
Don’t underestimate the importance of your character’s names. If you want your readers to love a character, naming him Hitler or Attila would be a tough sell. Find names you like as you read books or newspapers, watch movies, or meet new folks at a party, and jot them down for the future. You might even try the phone book, but then you don’t have the advantage of seeing the name in action on a real person. Make something up, but explain in the novel what the name means to the characters involved.
While Shakespeare said “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” it would be hard to conjure up a picture of a beautiful flower if you called the rose, Skunk.
A writer friend asked me whether it was really a good idea to pay a professional editor to read her manuscript. My immediate response was yes, but the question made me pause and reflect on my personal experiences.
I have had all five of my novels edited by pros. Here are my thoughts.
There is huge value to editors who “copy” edit, that is, they read for spelling, grammar, syntax, etc. You always miss something: a comma where it doesn’t belong, the incorrect use of a semicolon. In terms of the broader picture: the plot, characters, structure, tension, conflict, on and on, the pro can be very helpful. . . or not.
In my Triangle book, the professional editor I hired was so intrigued with the historic story that her suggestions would have made me totally change the book. It would have become a historic mystery rather than a historic mystery that is solved today with modern technology. She had her own vision for the book. But who was writing this?
The editor I hired for my Civil War book, however, was extremely helpful. He gave me an idea for a dynamite ending that I hadn’t even considered. It totally changed the story for the better.
Before you consider hiring a pro, however, do your own self-editing. Believe it or not, there is a lot you can do to improve your writing before it gets the going-over by someone else. Some suggestions:
Edit in small sections at a time. If possible, reread the section before and then edit the current 5 to 10 pages.
Also, read aloud (or to your dog or cat.) I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. You’d be surprised what you hear that you didn’t think you wrote. Dialogue may sound stilted, tension weak, setting inappropriate. Often I will come away from my reading out loud thinking, ugh, did I write that?
Some things to look for when you’re self-editing:
- Do you want to turn the page?
- Did you stumble over awkward phrases or clunky words when you read aloud?
- Were you confused by your own plot twists?
- Did punctuation mess up your reading?
- Were your characters boring, too flawed (yes, that’s possible) or totally unbelievable (unless you write Bourne thrillers)?
- Were there plot inconsistencies ie: a character appeared after she was murdered?
- Were there setting inconsistencies? It was hot as Hades one day, snowing the next?
- Did you get your facts right? Very important if you want authenticity.
You can be your own best editor. But, just to be sure — reread, rewrite, read aloud. And again x 3.
Now hire a professional for the final read.
Your thoughts welcome.
Time Exposure is a mystery that takes place during the Civil War. I wanted readers to abandon the present and immerse themselves in those brutal, tumultuous years of the mid-nineteenth century. Scene by scene, chapter by chapter. I wasn’t there, so how could I paint a picture of that time period, accurately, vividly, and with painstaking detail?
Research, of course, but research using primary sources whenever possible. What does that mean? There are many books written about the Civil War. About the battles, about the people, about the politics — the operative word being “about.” These sources are written today by historians looking back in time. I wanted to go back there myself. How?
Primary sources are the ones that deliver the information firsthand. Photographs are an excellent way to learn about the past. In my case, tens of thousands of Civil War photographs are available, yes, through books and online, but also at the Library of Congress, where there are drawers upon drawers filled with folders of photos taken back then. The originals, if you can imagine!
Other primary sources of an historic period are letters or journals. Using the Civil War as an example, there are books of letters to and from soldiers and their loved ones. If you use credible authors, ie: Ken Burns, you can be sure these are the true words of the people of the time. If you are really lucky, you may be able to track down a diary written from the time period. A friend of mine’s ancestor was a soldier in the War and he passed down some interesting paraphernalia (no journal, unfortunately.)
Very important primary sources are books written by someone of the time period. An example, which helped me shape my scene at the Union Hotel Hospital, was a precious thin book called Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott. Louisa May was actually a minor character in my book. If you ever wondered what it would be like to volunteer as a nurse in a hospital during the Civil War, listen to Louisa May:
“My three days experience had begun with a death, and, owing to the defalcation (I had to look this one up!) of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, two typhoids opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patients, hopping, lying and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new ‘nuss,’ who suffered untold agonies, but concealed them under as matronly as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness, which I hope they appreciated, but am afraid they didn’t.”
From this one simple paragraph, I learned about the hospital, the patients, the illnesses and Louisa May’s (and other nurses’?) attitude toward them all.
In addition to Louisa May Alcott’s writings, I examined photographs, I read letters, poems and the words of songs written during the time. As I kept reading, I got a feel for the rhythm of speech of the period. I learned some of the basics: what the people of the time ate, drank, smoked, what they wore, how they amused themselves when they weren’t killing each other on the field, what their sex lives were like (there are some bawdy postcards out there!) Essentially, I learned how they lived and, sadly, how they died.
Bottom line: If you write historical stories, (or even modern stories about places you’re not familiar with,) what you don’t know can hurt you. The best way to find out what things were really like, is to do your research through the eyes of those who lived it.
There are no shortcuts. Ideas welcome.
As I write this, I’m listening to Antonio Vivaldi’s “Violin Concerto for Violin, Strings and Continuo.” I have a hard time writing to music with lyrics – the words tend to wind up on my page — so I opt for background music, usually classical.
Music is a terrific way to bring your characters to life. Let’s take a peek at a fictional guy, Ray Salvo. He’s eighty-five, fought in two wars, a widower with four kids, nine grandkids and two great grandkids.
Ray’s at home now, a small craftsman in southern California, dusty, threadbare, mostly because he can’t see well enough to care. He’s alone, as he often is. How can we paint a more vivid picture of Ray? Use music.
He rises stiffly from his old recliner, ambles to the record player, an old Kenwood turntable, and his large assortment of record albums. His kids want to get him a CD player, his grandkids, an iPod. He’ll stick with vinyl. As he sorts through his albums, memories blow in and out of his mind. Is he thinking of his dead wife? Good place for a flashback.
The albums are sorted by date, decade, actually. The 30 and 40s, when Ray was a kid, he was one of the lucky ones to have a radio. The sweet sounds of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Maybe Ray’s picturing his old family home in his mind?
The 50s. Elvis and Buddy Holly. The Isley Brothers, twistin’ and shoutin’. Ray picks up a photograph of his wife – ahh, she could dance the lindy.
The 70s brought the Disco craze: Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor and the Village People. Ray gives a few hip lurches as he hums “Y.M.C.A.” Ouch. He remembers watching Saturday Night Fever with his kids.
He flips some more. Classical albums: Ravel’s “Bolero,” hmmm. “Scheherazade,” by Rimsky-Korsakoff. Mozart, not his favorite, actually. He loves the Russian composers better. But classical is not the choice for today. Too maudlin. Good opportunity for description here. Maybe Ray’s worried about his finances, his son’s cancer?
He smiles when he gets to some newer recordings stacked on a side table — CDs that his grandkids have given him, in hopes he’ll upgrade from his turntable. He reads a jewel case label: “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. Or is it “Imagine Dragons” by Radioactive? Argh. Now he really feels old.
Which record will it be? This is the defining moment for the character. Is he locked in the nostalgic 40s? 50’s? What does he want to listen to? What is he thinking about, what is his mood?
Ray flips back to earlier albums and after a few seconds finds exactly what he’s looking for. Not swing or jazz or blues. His fingers grasp the music he loves best. Classic Rock. The Rolling Stones. Yea. Now, he can get some satisfaction. So can you. You have a better handle on this character, just through his music.