A character, let’s call him Roger, is accused of committing a murder he didn’t do. Roger goes on the run, dodging the police at every turn. A chance meeting with a mysterious blond leads to a confrontation with a nest of terrorists. All is remedied by the end as we learn that Roger has the information the police need to thwart the terrorists. Roger drives off with his new love, the no-longer-mysterious blond.
That’s all well and good, and you may have a great story on your hands. But what did Roger do yesterday? Last week? One year ago? Can you have a compelling story without knowing your character’s history? Is it necessary to delve into your main character’s life story?
The more you know about your main character, the more we will care about them. While you don’t need to write an entire biography about Roger, it would be helpful if we knew some of the things that will factor into the story. If he has specialized knowledge that will help solve the problem at hand, what does he do that would give him this information? If he is reluctant to get involved with a beautiful woman, has he just been through a divorce and is afraid to commit again? Your character will have assorted problems, accomplishments and other traits that make his life fascinating.
All stories, regardless of length, begin in the middle of the main character’s life. People we drop into our stories have already lived a full life. Your story is the aftermath of the events that occurred prior to the first sentence you write.
Take some time to explore your main character’s life before the beginning of your story. Even something as simple as a paragraph detailing the build up to their predicament you’ll be writing about is valuable.
I have been writing off and on about an Anomalist named John Pentgram since 1978. He has changed a lot over the years. At first, he seemed to be a Scottish knock-off of Sherlock Holmes in modern times. He even had his own Dr. Watson, in the form of Amos McConnell.
In 2016, I decided to move his home and entire history to South Central New Jersey. This involved a complete re-write of every story and novel, plus the backgrounds of every major character. This would be a major challenge, and I jumped at the chance to create a more real and accurate world for John Pentgram. He still solved mysteries beyond the Borderland, but now he’s closer to where I live.
What’s Out There In The Dark?
I put Pentgram on the shelf for a few years, as I concentrated on other works. I hadn’t written a new story for him in years. Then, on a drive to Florida, a new story hit out of the blue. On the first page of One Room Unfurnished, John’s Mother and vineyard are mentioned. John in turn asks Amos about his girlfriend Allyson Haywood.
The Pentgram Vineyard
Wait, what? A Mother? A vineyard? A girlfriend? It turned out that the Pentgram Family owns a large vineyard at the northern edge of the Pine Barrens. John’s mother, Hayley is the owner and CEO of the Pentgram Vineyard. The girlfriend’s name is Allyson Haywood, daughter of John’s mentor and good friend Nicholas Haywood. All of these ideas hit me as they hit the page. They all made sense, but the biggest revelation came later.
A later story, The Dead Refuse To Lie Down, introduced us to Allyson in the flesh. At one point, John asks her if she were a licensed witch. She said no, not yet.
Witchcraft: A Real Profession
Whoa! A witch? A licensed witch? Here is where John Pentgram’s world veered from ours in a big way. In the America of John Pentgram, witches were not killed in Salem Village in 1692. by that year, they had become an important part of American culture and defense.
From the moment the first colonists landed in North America, the forces of Darkness attacked them. Hordes of Trolls, Goblins, Wild Men, Elves, Kobolds, and other paranormal beings assaulted these first citizens, from Plymouth to St. Augustine, Florida.
The witches, living in every colony, fled Europe where they were being slaughtered for mere existence. Here, with their new country under assault, they stepped forward. The Colonies survived only by the quick and skillful enchantments of the Witches of America.
At first, the Church resisted these actions, urging the citizens to step forward to kill each and every witch on the grounds that they practiced Magic. An uproar by those same citizens convinced the colonial governors to place all witches under the protection of the colonial governments. As long as they did not practice Dark Magic, they would be protected from any harm.
The true test of the American Witches came in 1692 at Salem Village, Massachusetts. Nineteen witches engaged in battle with Derylth, the King of the Elves, and his Para-Human minions. By the time the horde had been defeated, the witches had become heroes of the American People.
Songs, books and plays by the hundred were written and performed in the century after the Salem Witch Travails. The National Witchcraft Headquarters is located at Salem Village. All witches are required to become licensed by age 18. They are a part of the FBI’s Domestic Service. Article VI, Section 6 of the U. S. Constitution specifically details the licensing and protection of any natural-born witches, and that of any immigrants who have gone through the Citizenship process.
National Witchcraft Headquarters
In The Dead Refuse To Lie Down, I threw out a line about Allyson Haywood having her license. That one line created a firestorm of ideas in my mind.
I immediately knew that Pentgram had several friends who are witches, and a half dozen acquaintances. Several of them turn up in The Deadly Mile, which means I have to go back and re-write that one to add in the new histories.
The Pentgram Vineyard employs three witches, one each to protect the property, the personnel, and the products. Witchcraft in the Pentgram family goes back many generations. In fact, one of the witches in Macbeth is a Pentgram.
One small change in one story can cause ripples and seismic shifts in an entire Story Universe. I’m still debating with Hayley Pentgram, John’s Mother, as to whether or not she’s a witch. We’ll just have to see how her story unfolds in the future.
“One Room Unfurnished” will soon be published in the Corporate GothicAnthology from JWC Books coming in Spring 2021.
We are all comfortable reading the books we love. They’re like old friends, always there, always reliable. It matters not what you read, they are something you can hold onto and know that they will always be the same. They rarely leave the confines of their genre. That makes them something to look forward to.
As a writer, it is good to read in your genre to have a good feel for what you’re writing about. It would be difficult to write a fantasy novel if you didn’t know the difference between a Troll and a Paladin. But what is there to do if your writing begins to get stale, like everything else you’ve read before? That is the danger you face if you only read what you are interested in.
A good writer absorbs words and ideas that they encounter and read. That being said, if you only read one type of fiction, the kind you are writing, then you may only be versed well in that genre. It only makes sense. But there is another way to enhance your writing.
So much reading to do!
Your writing, and your reading scope, will increase if you take it upon yourself to read in other genres. Take some chances and pick something you’d never thought you’d read. There are a lot of great books in every genre, and a lot of them are free to read or listen to online.
A word about audiobooks: there have been many tests that show that anything heard is taken in and filed away in the mind. The same studies prove that if you listen to an audio story at fifty to one hundred percent faster than normal speed, you will recall it better. I myself listen to at least one audiobook a week as I write my new stories. I can tell you the stories in fine detail many months later.
Using the speed audio method, I have been able to sample some excellent books that I might never have taken the time to read. Here are a few genres I have read, some for the first time.
I am a big Western movie fan. The Old West ended about 125 years ago, yet it still lives in films and books. Everyone knows of the Old West, and yet it isn’t as popular as it had been 40 years ago and more. It’s a shame because the genre is rich with imagery and characters who will stay with you for a long time.
The Seventh Man by Max Brand
At random, I chose The Seventh Man by Max Brand. The story concerned Dan Barry, a man of great strength and pride. He takes on the seven men who have killed his prize horse, determined to kill each and every one of them on a crusade of vengeance. The authentic language of the cowboy, the outlaw, the gambler, and the lawman are here in fine form. Brand is one of the great Masters of the Western yarn, in the same company as Zane Grey.
I found the story to be well written and intriguing. It immersed me in the dusty trails and dense forests. The characters are people who could not be in any other fiction genre, so much a part of the world that they would not be able to survive anywhere else.
Hard Boiled Detective
Along with the Western, the Detective genre is another great American invention. Sure, others have created their own detectives, but the originals were created here in the U. S. A. it was Edgar Allan Poe who started things off. After that, there has been an explosion of detectives across every genre. I chose a few interesting novels by authors I know were among the best in their field.
Cop Hater by Ed McBain
The first story I dove into is Cop Hater by Ed McBain. What a powerful voice. The writing is crisp, clean and the dialogue real. Published in 1954, the language is raw, and often vulgar. The criminals are slimy and the cops have real lives. They all have fears, prejudices, and pride. A very good book. I’ll be reading more of the 87th Precinct in the future.
I then read The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald. It’s the book that introduces us to Lew Archer, down and out detective in the grimy and corrupt hell that is Los Angeles in the 1940’s. Little has changed about L.A. In the past 75 years, but that doesn’t matter. This is a classic detective novel, made unique by its laconic and indifferent narrator. Archer doesn’t care who is guilty or why anyone has done what they’ve done. He seeks the truth and will not stop until he’s dug up the roaches responsible. A good start to a character with two dozen novels to his resume.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. This book has been recommended by so many people over the years that I decided to read it. I actually read it and listened to it at the same time. I’m glad I did, because seeing and hearing Frankl’s words made them hit me much more.
Man’ Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl
The main part of the text concerns Frankl’s experiences in Dachau, the notorious Nazi Prison Camp. How anyone could survive under such circumstances is a testament to the tenacity of the Human species. Frankl studied the various types of prisoners in the camp, noting how different people reacted to their situation in very different ways. Some could not live under the harsh conditions. Many died trying to live to their next meal. A very few let the entire experience pass through them. They kept on, knowing that they would live to get out and return to their lives after the war. Frankl is one of these people. He committed himself to living and not giving up. Only those who knew they would survive actually did survive.
This is one of the most devastating books I’ve ever read. The horrors Frankl lived through are not anything anyone should ever do again. I would highly recommend this to get an uplifting view of the Human Condition and what people will do to their fellow Man.
In closing, I would recommend reading books in different genres for several reasons. First, it helps expand your reading horizons. Second, it will help your writing to see how other types of stories portray incidents you may run into with your characters. Third, the writer’s voice is always different in other genres. A cowboy talks far differently than a serial killer in Chicago. But that same cowboy would probably look and sound a lot like an asteroid miner in the year 2077. Both are on the frontier of their era. But you wouldn’t have known that if you hadn’t read either the Western or the SF novel. Reading one will certainly help you create the other in a more believable way.
Note: This post contains various affiliate links to the books referenced and as such, the author makes a small percentage of sales. This content is not influenced by advertisers or affiliate partnerships.
We all have days when we don’t feel like writing. Things get in the way. The kids need something, and they always need something. Your mom calls and asks you to help her with something she saw crawl out from under the sink. Or you might not be in the mood.
Writing as Therapy
Do yourself and all of us readers a favor. Write. Write even though every fiber of your being screams that you don’t have the time, or that what you’ll write will be crap. It’s okay. Write the crap and get it out of your system. Who knows? Some of that crap could lead to something interesting.
There’s a concept called “free writing.” Free writing is where you sit in a quiet space with a pad and a pen. For ten minutes up to thirty minutes, write down whatever comes into your mind. The key is to get the pen moving even if you write about not having anything to write about. You will soon be writing something. Free writing is used a lot by psychic mediums to pick up a presence in a place where there is a haunting, but it’s also beneficial to free your mind from the clutter.
Let the Ideas Flow
Stuck somewhere that is not usually a proper place to write? Write in this place whether you’re waiting for someone to finish their shopping or at the hospital’s emergency room. Pull out your journal and write something. It’s good therapy that can clear your mind and also take your mind off of worrying needlessly. Writing is good for the soul, and your thoughts never have to leave the journal.
Let your finished draft rest for two or three months. I know that’s hard, but absence makes the novel grow better. If you now look at your work as a reader, you’ll see what works better for the story. While you’re waiting, play with the story in a separate place. Where are the characters now? What were they doing before you set pen to paper? Are there other adventures waiting for your people now that you’ve gotten them to your story’s end? Think about it. What harm could it do to combine writing therapy with character and event exploration?
Are you stuck on where to take your current story? Take the opportunity to write out possible ideas for your characters and their predicaments. Even if your ideas make no sense or don’t fit with the story you’re writing, that’s okay. Write it out. You may find another story waiting for you in your rambling thoughts.
Writing is an intense and rewarding solo effort, as much as musical composition or painting is. There are no partners or helpers in any of these arts, nor can there ever be. The creation of music, painting or a story can only come from a single hand.
Just as Gershwin could only create the magnificence that is Rhapsody In Blue, so it is that a writer has to tap into their own mind, experiences and talent to craft something that they can only hope someone will want to read.
Writing can be a lonely, frustrating business, but don’t get me wrong. Some writers need that. Others need a more positive mindset. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of quotes from and by authors about their craft. It is my hope that you will find them inspiring to your inner genius.
What Inspires You?
“Writing is something you do alone. Its a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.” – John Green
“I write for the same reason I breathe – because if I didn’t, I would die.” – Isaac Asimov
“Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river.” – Lisa See
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” – Terry Pratchett
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” – Octavia E. Butler
“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” – Jodi Picoult
“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” – Stephen King
“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” – Ray Bradbury
“There is only one plot – things are not what they seem.” – Jim Thompson
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” – Stephen King
“Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.” – W.H. Auden
“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”– William Faulkner
“If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.” – Edgar Rice Burroughs
“Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.” – Ralph Keyes
“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.” – Neil Gaiman
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” – Stephen King
“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” – Louis L’Amour
“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” – Sylvia Plath
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov
“I’ve always been into ‘fast-paced, don’t bore ’em, keep it moving along, stick with the story.’ You know: tell a story the way I want to hear a story.” – James Patterson
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”–Stephen King
“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” – Orson Scott Card
“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” – Ray Bradbury
“If the book is true, it will find an audience that is meant to read it.” – Wally Lamb
“Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.” – Ray Bradbury
“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.” – William Carlos Williams
“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – Richard Bach
“I believe myself that a good writer doesn’t really need to be told anything except to keep at it.” – Chinua Achebe
Do you have a favorite writer’s quote? Share it with us on our Facebook page or over on Twitter!