Sunday, February 24, 2013

Secondary Characters And How To Use Them

While trying to decide on a topic for today's blog, I was torn between a writing type topic or a more general area of discussion.  Since last week's blog was a writing topic, I decided to continue along those lines.

A couple of days ago I was watching on old movie, the 1974 production of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express with its all star cast where almost everyone in the movie was a major character.  It occurred to me that there were very few characters other than the many primary ones.  So I started thinking about secondary characters and how they can be used to prod, shove and push the main characters into and along the necessary path for the story line.

So, let's talk a bit about secondary characters.

When I say secondary characters, I'm not referring to the minor characters that decorate a scene and maybe have a couple of lines of dialogue.  I'm talking about the characters who have a prominent place in your story but are not your main characters.  These are the characters you can use to maneuver your main characters into and along the path toward achieving the story goal.  They are a key factor in moving your story along and determining what direction it takes.

In developing these characters you need to decide what you want them to accomplish and how you want them to relate to and interact with your main characters in addition to each other in order to move your story line along to its conclusion.  Let's take a look at how a set of secondary characters can be used to move a story line in a specific direction.  Remember, it's not who they are, it's what they do and how they relate to the main characters and how the main characters respond to them.

Example:  You have a story about a teenager who is the leader of a gang that has been stealing cars for some mobsters.  You have two ways you can go with your main character, in other words, two directions your story line can take and you must choose one of them.  #1: he wants to leave the gang and make something of his life OR #2: he runs his gang with a iron hand and threatens anyone who wants out.

With scenario #1 your secondary characters who will influence the story line can be his girl friend, his little brother, and one of his teachers.  That tells you who they are, but doesn't tell you how they move the story.  His girl friend fears for his safety and finally gives him the ultimatum of leave the gang or she's leaving him.  His little brother idolizes him and wants to be just like him, but he doesn't want his little brother to make the same mistakes he did.  His teacher is mentoring him by helping him with his studies and finding him an after school job.

With scenario #2 your secondary characters can be his girl friend, a rival gang leader, and his contact with the mobster who pays him for the stolen cars.  Again, that tells you who they are but not what they do to move the story in a specific direction.  His girl friend demands more and more in the way of material things so he needs the money from stealing cars to keep her happy.  The rival gang leader is trying to take over his stolen car business so he has to watch his back at all time to protect himself and his own interests.  The mobster gives him access to the easy money he needs to keep his girl friend happy and the promise of being able to move into their organization and advance in the criminal world.

Each scenario has a girl friend, but her function is different in the two scenarios so that the character helps move the two story lines in two different directions.

One of the great things about secondary characters is that you can make them as outrageous, unconventional and over-the-top as you want.  You don't have the same parameters and cautions with secondary characters as you do with your main characters.  The main thing you need to be careful with in creating your secondary character is to not make them more interesting than your main characters so that they don't steal the show and shove your main characters into the background.

A good example of secondary characters being over the top was the television situation comedy Will and Grace.  The secondary characters of Karen and Jack were totally outrageous while the main characters of Will and Grace were more grounded.

Any comments about developing and using secondary characters in your writing?  Or any television shows, movies, or books where the secondary characters stood out in your mind with the way they were able to guide and manipulate the story line?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Research Can Be Fun

14th century tithe barn

There's no denying that research is a part of writing whether non-fiction or fiction.  And within the parameters of fiction, the genre somewhat dictates how much research is required.  Certainly, historical fiction requires extensive research into place and time in order to be accurate with details down to the simplest clothing items.  Techno thrillers, legal thrillers, and medical themed novels need to be accurate in terminology, science, and procedures.

But there is an area of research that is often considered trivial or inconsequential in the overall scope of your story.  And that's the location where your story is set. Certainly the setting is important, but as a matter of research seldom makes it to the top of the list.

A contemporary novel set in your home town requires little in the way of research for location.  You live there so you know about the terrain, weather, the businesses, the good neighborhoods vs. the bad neighborhoods, streets and highways, tourist attractions, places of special interest and historical interest.  That's easy.

But, what about setting your story somewhere that you have never been?  If that is the case, you have options available.  The most obvious for accuracy is to visit the location—take in the ambiance, make note of the geographic elements, study the activities of the residents, and grab the tourist brochures available in the hotel lobby.  All major metropolitan areas have certain must see tourist attractions that are common knowledge around the world.  The Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower.  Well known tourist attractions can certainly be included in descriptive passages of your setting or become part of a scene where some action takes place.  That gives the reader an immediate mental image reference to go along with your descriptive passages.

Travel and tour books can be a great help for general research information.  In the U.S., the Auto Club (AAA) publishes tour books for all the states that includes information about the major cities in that state and certainly the tourist areas.  A real estate search of a city will give you knowledge of the various neighborhoods.  A city's website will tell you about the educational system, shopping, cultural events, sports activities, etc.

My most interesting research experience was for one of my Harlequin Intrigue novels, THE SEDGWICK CURSE, a mystery romantic suspense recently reissued by Harlequin in ebook.

My story was set in a stereotypical English country village of the type found in the Cotswolds.  A large estate inhabited by the Lord of the manor—land and a title that had been in the family for centuries.  An annual festival that had been held on the estate grounds every year for over two hundred years.  And murder involving the titled rich and powerful from a century ago and from today.

I needed to research several things.  Certainly accurate information about the physical setting I'd chosen.  And then specifics (beyond what I'd gleaned from various British crime drama series on PBS' Mystery) about the way local law enforcement interacted with the privileged titled aristocracy when investigating a murder.

I had already been to England several times and had another trip planned, so I included spending one week in the Cotswolds to do the research I needed.  **This is where the fun part of the research came in.  :) **  I found a charming centuries old hotel in the town of Tewkesbury and used it as my base to explore the surrounding area.

My research started when I walked into the local police station, said I was a writer doing research for a novel, and asked if there was someone I could talk to about how a local murder would be investigated.  I was passed on to a Detective Sergeant who was very helpful and spent about two hours with me, which was an hour and forty-five minutes longer than expected.  I garnered far more information than I needed for that specific book, but great research material for future needs.

The next step in my research was the immediate location for my fictional Lord Sedgwick's estate.  This was a major stroke of good luck.  About three miles north of Tewkesbury is the village of Bredon that had everything I needed, including a large estate that hosted a village festival every year and the weekend I was there happened to be festival weekend.  I was able to wander around the grounds, take pictures, and get information about the estate straight from the owner's mouth.  One of the buildings on the grounds, the Tithe Barn pictured here, is part of the National Trust and dates back to the 1300s.  It is accurately described and used in my book, as are many of the features of the real counterpart of my Sedgwick Estate.

Obviously, traveling to a foreign country to research a location isn't that practical.  If the location is a well-known tourist attraction, you will have lots of research material available to you.  But what if your desired setting is a typical small town or village in a specific area?  That brings us to the more practical solution of creating a fictional small town as the setting for your story.

I have set many of my Harlequin and Silhouette books in fictional small towns.  But the one thing these fictional small towns have in common is that they are all patterned after a real place that I've been in the state where I've set the story.  And in lieu of that, there's always the ability of taking something like a beach town or mountain village you've been to and transplanting it to another state for the purposes of your story.

If there's someplace you've been, a vacation you enjoyed, and you want to recreate the feel and ambiance for your story setting without fear of getting some of the facts wrong about the real place, the best way to handle it is to create a fictional location.  Do some basic research on the general type of location you've selected for your story such as a fishing village on the coast of Maine.  That will give you basic generic facts for that type of setting.  Then you can take the feel of the real life place you visited and impose those memories and impressions on top of your researched facts for a fully realized story setting.  Your characters can then impart that sense of place to the readers with the words and actions you give them in addition to your descriptons.

Do any of you have any research tips for story setting that you'd like to share?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The World's Most Romantic Islands


In honor of Valentine's Day, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at a list of the world's seven most romantic islands, travel destinations that offer more than just beautiful beaches.

Behind the outer wrapping of a tropical paradise with beautiful beaches you will find an interesting and varied landscape. On the way to the summit of the Haleakala volcano crater you pass through vegetation that includes cactus. There are vast stretches of sugar cane fields, a 1900s cowboy town, and a rain forest with an almost primeval feel to it.

An archipelago in the Indian Ocean with white sand beaches, atolls, and secluded resorts.  This is the world's lowest elevation nation (overall elevation of high and low averaged). You will find a hotel with a coral nursery and an underwater nightclub. And how about a restaurant reachable only by boat?

This five mile long island was once a haven for backpackers with only the most basic accommodations.  Today it rivals many of the well-known Asian destinations.  Boracay starts with a forty-five minute flight from Manila followed by a boat connection to the final destination of White Beach with powdery sand that just might be the softest in the world.

This is the oldest of Hawaii's eight main islands and has the most dramatic scenery from wind sculpted mountains, red-walled canyons (Waimea Canyon is referred to as Hawaii's Grand Canyon), primeval rain forest, and a wide range of waterfalls. Kauai has also been the location for several movies including The Descendants, Avatar, Body Heat, and I think also South Pacific.

Every place you look gives you a postcard perfect view.  White washed buildings, colorful flowers, blue-domed churches all clinging to the hillsides of an ancient volcanic crater.  In addition to the spectacular scenery, Santorini offers a wide variety of diversions—fine wines, black and red and white sand beaches, archaeological sites including one referred to as the Minoan Pompeii.

This four-square mile dot in the Tyrrhenian Sea embodies la dolce vita.  There is a funicular railway to take visitors from the main port to the street of Capri town with its boutiques, restaurants, and romantic getaways.

What could be more romantic than staying in a bungalow above the waters of a turquoise lagoon?  At the heart of Bora-Bora is the jagged peak of Mount Otemanu and on its fringes are islets and a coral reef perfect for snorkeling to observe the varied and colorful marine life.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Who Was Emily Post?

Etiquette expert Emily Post died over fifty years ago.  In a recent Vanity Fair poll of 18-44 year-olds, forty percent of those queried had no idea who Emily Post was or why she was famous.

Society has changed quite a bit in the ninety-one years since the publication of her 1922 book, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home. So, how relevant are Emily Post's etiquette rules to modern life in today's fast paced society of five second sound bites, social media, and instant global communication?

Some of the topics she covered in her book seem totally irrelevant today.  Subjects such as one of my favorites—how to keep your fan, gloves, and napkin on your lap at fancy dinner parties.  That skill has always been a stumbling block for me at the many fancy dinner parties I routinely attend where I need to bring my own fan because there isn't any air conditioning.  :) 

Some of her other advice, however, is still relevant today.

Fashion:  For men she recommended suits for everywhere and all occasions except what she referred to as the country.  When on a country outing, breeches and polished leather riding boots were acceptable.  Her thoughts on female style, however, are more relevant.  She said most women were fashion sheep, that they should take the trends of the day and personalize them for their own style.

Conversational Skills:  After you dismiss all the complicated stuff about when to doff a hat or curtsy, a lot of her advice is still common sense today.  Things such as—will what you have to say be interesting to those around you, don't repeat yourself, let other people talk, and don't pretend to know more than you do.

At a Live Performance:  Her book has lots of advice about things like how to dress and whether it's acceptable for a woman to attend with a man who is not her husband.  Bear in mind that she was referring to the theater, opera, or the symphony.  Her two biggest rules are one hundred percent relevant today—don't talk during the performance and be on time!

Introductions:  She apparently loved all the formalities of meeting new people, presenting calling cards, and how to properly address each other.  In today's society it's very common for people to know each other even without having ever met face-to-face.  We're friends on Facebook, I saw your video on YouTube, I read your tweet.  I imagine that would have thrown Emily into quite a tizzy.  :)

Mustn't:  Emily Post had lots of mustn'ts.  Here are a couple of examples.  "A lady mustn't carry a bundle of anything on the streets, but if she has to, a man must carry it for her."  "If a man doesn't enjoy the conversation a lady has offered, a woman mustn't be offended, but rather keep fishing for topics he might find agreeable."  This sort of reminds me of that magazine article from the mid 1950s about how to be a good wife.  Definitely advice to make today's woman cringe.  :)

Houses:  Her advice in this area seems the most outdated and indicates that her advice was apparently intended for the wealthy.  She advised that a house must have servants on hand to collect a visitor's things when they visit.

It's easy to make fun of etiquette rules published ninety-one years ago, but Emily Post's most basic rule seems as necessary today as it was back then.  "Never do anything that is unpleasant to others."