Years ago I saw a terrific IMAX film called To The Limit. In it was a scene I never forgot. A champion downhill skier was sitting on top of a mountain, skis and poles by her side. Her eyes were closed and she was moving her arms and upper body as if she were skiing downhill. She was picturing the course with its turns and moguls as she traveled down the mountain in her mind. She forced her brain to prepare for those turns and bumps by visualizing the course over and over. Something similar to muscle memory ie: when you play an instrument and your fingers seem to move on their own almost apart from your brain.
This visualization technique can be very useful in writing. Close your eyes. Picture the scene you’re about to compose. A family about to sit down for dinner. What does it look like? How many people are there, who are they? Two adults, two children. What are the ages, sex, and ethnicity of the individuals? What are they wearing? What is the room like? Who sits where?
Sounds totally boring. But the way you set the scene visually, has a huge impact on your story. Close your eyes again. You’re in a kitchen, white crooked cabinets, dirty fingerprints on the doors, dishes in the sink. No windows. Floor is black and white tiles, heavily scuffed and greasy. The table has no cloth, just bare, scratched wood. Chairs do not match. Refrigerator has one child’s drawing stuck on it with magnet.
The adults are about forty, the man is black, the woman white. Mom is wearing tank top, shorts. Dad is in a spotty tee and jeans. The kids are a boy, nine and a girl, twelve, both with latte skin. The girl is wearing torn jeans, t-shirt falling off one shoulder and her face is in a perpetual sneer. The boy is chubby and his forehead and upper lip are sweaty. On the table is a platter of suspicious looking meat, kind of pink and gray. Rap music pounds in the background. Both parents and daughter text and surf on their smart phones.
No one seems to be interested in eating except the boy. He stabs at the meat and brings a piece to his plate. His nose curls up and he pushes plate aside, leaves the room. A huge gray cat jumps onto his chair, then onto the table. He begins licking the piece of meat on the boy’s plate. No one shoos him away.
If you painted this family portrait, you already had a definite image in mind. As a reader, however, you provided us with copious amounts of useful information. We know it’s warm, maybe it’s the summer in the south. We know quite a bit about the parents and the kids, in terms of attitudes and interests. We know something about their home life (at least at the dinner table.) We know a lot about their attitudes, toward themselves and each other. We see the interest they show their smart phones but the lack of interest, respect and caring for each other.
We also know the food was spoiled, but the cat didn’t mind. And I could picture the house (more likely apartment), the heat, the jarring sound of rap music, and the sad plight of the boy.
Visualization is more than just “description.” It’s not just a brown leather couch sitting atop a Persian rug in front of a teak coffee table. It’s not just a blond wearing high heels and red lipstick or a wet dog shaking after his bath. It’s about emotions, attitudes, the idiosyncrasies of the characters.
When my cop, Mead is feeling the acid rise into his throat, he doesn’t complain about it. He just pops a few Tums. When my character, Maggie, is anxious, she doesn’t whine. She paces the room, throws her arms around, babbles a mile a minute.
Your character might chew her nails to the quick and always be embarrassed about them. Or maybe she throws mugs against the wall (very satisfying as long as they’re not too expensive to replace.)
Visualize a woman. She’s not just a blond in a blue dress, wearing high heels and red lipstick. She’s a woman, teetering outside a motel room, black roots showing through the teased mass, blue dress torn at her hem, lipstick smeared like a clown. Picture her. There . . . there she is. You can see her clearly. You know her.
Write your scenes as if they were movies. Let us see what’s happening through your words. You’re the director.
A year ago I received this sweet poem in a Christmas card but am having trouble finding the poet. The closest I can come is a similar poem by Helen Steiner Rice. Both poems are lovely but if anyone knows who wrote the one below, please let me know. Thanks and have a wonderful holiday!
My Christmas Card List
*There is a list of folks I know
All written in a book,
And every year at Christmas time
I go and take a look.
And this is when I realizedf
Those names are all a part,
Not of the book they’re written in
But deep inside my heart
*For each name stands for someone
Who has touched my life sometime,
And in that meeting they’ve become
A special friend of mine.
I really feel that we’re composed
Of each remembered name,
And my life is so much better
Than it was before they came.
*Once you’ve known that “someone”
All the years cannot erase,
The memory of a pleasant word
Or of a friendly face.
So never think my Christmas cards are just a mere routine,
Of names upon a list that are
Forgotten in between.
*For when I send a Christmas card
That is addressed to you,
It is because you’re on the list
Of folks I’m indebted to.
And whether I have known you
For many years or few,
The greatest gift that life can give
Is having friends like you.
I had a surprising experience recently when I received the following review on my book, Pure Lies: “False Deception – I thought it was historical fiction. It’s just a sex thriller. I stopped after the first chapter. No thank you!”
I actually had to go back and read the prologue (not the first chapter) to see what the reviewer meant. Sex thriller? Did I actually write a sex thriller? For those of you unfamiliar with this mystery, it is about greed and depravity as underlying motivation for the Salem witch trials. And, as in all my novels, it is unraveled by modern technology years or, in this case, centuries later.
The last two paragraphs of the prologue depict a church deacon and a young woman committing a “sin” but it is wholly in the context of the story and lays the foundation for one of the villains in the story to show their true character. Or so I thought.
Pure Lies was the winner of the San Diego Book Awards for Best Published Mystery, Sisters in Crime in 2014 and has excellent reviews. It is historical fiction on one hand, and modern crime-solving on the other. Is it a cozy? No. But a sex thriller?
Naturally, every reader is entitled to their opinion. I’ve read “real” sex thrillers, and this review seemed far off the mark. But then I’m biased.
As a writer, it reminds me how important those first few pages are . . . to each individual reader. We need to consider our readers, but we have to be true to our writing. Would this opening scene to my book have been better without the “sin?” I think not.
Your ideas are welcome.
154 years ago last July, the brutal battle at Gettysburg was fought. In only three days, 51,000 men were killed, wounded or gone missing; 5,000 horses were slaughtered on the battlefield.
I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to gather details for my book, Time Exposure. I roamed the sites of its bloody history, Cemetery Ridge, Devils Den, Big Round Top, Little Round Top. The excursion provided me with background elements to set the scene. But it also elicited dark, yet poignant emotions to help me paint the picture of the grim aftermath.
I used the technique of letters and diary entries to bring out the human side of the Civil War. I excerpt here a letter from my fictional Civil War photographer, Joseph Thornhill, to the love of his life, Sara Kelly. All other characters and events are real history. This letter might well have been written at the time.
July 3, 1863
My Dearest Sara,
I felt I had to write you today, after three of the bloodiest days I have ever witnessed. I must get it off my mind, and I might not even post this letter, lest you be terribly offended. But I feel I must unburden myself somehow.
Rumors have it that General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia suffered great losses, maybe one third of their forces dead, wounded or captured. The Union Army is said to have lost a good deal, maybe one quarter of their troops, but it is safe to say we won the battle of Gettysburg. Lee’s army is retreating back to the South and Mead’s men are elated. Finally, victory, and an important one.
It is sad to think that this particular battle may have been fought over something as simple as shoes. There was rumored to be a large supply of shoes in the town of Gettysburg and on July 1 an officer under Ewell’s command led his men there to confiscate these shoes. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Union Army.
I was slightly wounded today, some shrapnel lacerating my arm. But don’t worry. The doctors have bandaged me up and say I will be fine, no permanent damage, and I take a bit of laudanum for the pain. Luckily my camera, which was caught in the crossfire suffered no harm.
I must admit that until now I had no real concept of the power our modern weaponry wields. The force of the injury knocked me clean off my feet. I think this experience will prove useful to me in my work.
The wound has not stopped me from working, however, although it is a bit difficult with one arm in a brace. I rely on my apprentice more. I’ve been busy photographing the town and its people. Now I’ll begin, once again, to shoot the battlefield remains. I am steeling myself to this task slowly, but have not made much progress.
Both Alex and Tim O’Sullivan–you remember, I mentioned this fine young man and competent photographer to you–will arrive in the next few days. I look forward to working with them.
Now, other gruesome scenes await my camera. Embalming surgeons, as they call themselves, have arrived. Although many of the dead soldiers are hastily buried where they fall, many end up in mass graves. Some are later exhumed and buried in military cemeteries, whether they’ve been identified or not– often with the headstone reading only: “A Union Soldier” or “A Confederate Soldier.” It is hard to imagine–dying in the name of one’s country but that country not even knowing your name.
On a lighter note, I have also photographed some of the Union soldiers and officers after the final skirmish, and they were truly in high spirits–dirty, sweaty, exhausted, some wounded, but all euphoric. There was optimism in the air and hope, hope that this war would soon end. But for now we must deal with the brutal aftermath of this battle. Hospital tents crowd the countryside and the small population of Gettysburg is inundated with the sick and wounded. I doubt this town will ever be the same.
Tomorrow is July 4. I wonder if anyone, in the midst of all this furor, will appreciate the irony that this day marks the eighty-seventh year of our nation’s birth.
I miss you, my dearest, and long to see you this Christmas. You are always in my thoughts as I pray I am in yours.
Yours ever truly,
While letter or diary writing is a device to take the reader back in time, it is an opportunity for the writer to truly bring the past alive. Ideas welcome.
Time Exposure was my first full-length novel. It was the great American novel, er, great American mystery novel. (Is there such a thing?) I had done my research, been to the places where I set my scenes, talked to the experts of the time. My writing was superb, just like a movie script. I figured I had a book contract cinched.
Was I ever surprised, when, after reading the first ten pages, the critique group leader, a college professor asked me this: “Do you write a lot of reports for work?”
“Excuse me?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“Your story has a great deal of potential . . . but it’s not a . . . story.”
I waited, blood thudding in my ears.
“It’s a report,” he said. “You tell, not show, you give us no way to visualize the characters, the action or the settings. You use too many adjectives and adverbs. The word ‘was” or ‘is’ shows up in every other sentence. And, there’s no emotion, no background, not much action–you give only the facts.” Ma’am.
I went home dumbfounded. Although I am proud to say I didn’t cry at the group session. That came later. Then I made a decision. Do I throw the manuscript in the trash or figure out how to fix it? How to write a good mystery, in other words? And that’s what I did. I took all the criticisms and read, researched, and re-wrote . . . again and again and again. Chapter by chapter, scene by scene, paragraph by paragraph.
Did I learn? I believed I finally made the grade from report writer to novelist, when my boss at the Science Museum said to me: “This sounds a bit flowery and dramatic for a report. Sounds more like a novel.”
It’s not easy keeping track of details in a novel that goes back and forth in time. Or any book of fiction, for that matter. What do I mean by details?
Details relative to the characters could mean simple and obvious characteristics such as eye and hair color, height, weight and age, gender, dress style, likes and dislikes, personality quirks, language and speech mannerisms. Believe it or not, it’s not always easy to remember all of these unless your characters re-appear in several books. I keep a list of all these traits for each of my characters. In fact, for each book that my main characters appear, I re-visit the list to make sure I’ve aged them appropriately. Even a year off will throw your readers into a tizzy.
More important, when dealing with generations of families, or when you go back in history to another time period, chart your way through the years, decades, or centuries involved. Ancestry maps can be helpful.
Deadly Provenance goes back to World War II with the “grandparents.” In modern time, the “parents” and “grandchildren” are featured. It’s vital to have all those years mapped out. How old were the grandparents in the 1940s? How old are the parents now? The grandchildren? When did they marry? Who did they marry? Trust me, it’s confusing if you just wing it. Your reader will definitely notice that the parents could not possibly have been born if the grandparents were already dead.
Another detail to be meticulous about and I must say I have been remiss in an early book, is language and speech. If a character is from Boston, don’t give him a Brooklyn accent or use an expression that is idiomatic to the wrong region. Same goes for dialect, and, by the way, don’t use too much of it. It’s distracting.
If you use foreign language phrases, please, please, make them correct. A Google translation will give you the basic words, but is the phrasing correct? Do the French, Germans, Slavs, Poles, speak like that? Make it authentic. Ask someone who speaks the language.
Even small details like what flowers bloom when and where are important. In a recent review of my book, Pure Lies, a reader reminded me that lilacs grow in May in New England. I’d had their scent wafting through the air in July. Wrong.
It takes time to get the details correct, but in the end, your work will be far more authentic. And your reader will thank you for it.