Month: August 2013

Who, What, When, Where, and Why: WHERE (part two)


(The ninth post in a series that summarizes an entire semester of Journalism 101.)

imagesI’m going to branch out from a novel’s physical location to talk about the psychological setting. This topic deals primarily with your protagnoist and antagonist, and I think it’s important. How your characters became who they are creates a landscape that enables a reader to relate to your novel, leading to believable characters. And your characters’ mindset in each scene is a powerful tool for keeping a reader engaged.

The Past.    We’re all products of our past. Poverty, broken hearts, and opression—or education, opportunities, and success. (More realistically, mix up those influences a little.) Each becomes baggage or momentum that we carry to one degree or another for the rest of our lives. Our characters are no different. Share a little of your characters’ past with your readers. Enable them to understand why your characters are who they are. I have one villian who resents mistreatment from his childhood after immigrating to the newly formed State of Israel. I only mention his issues in a couple of sentences, but knowing about this period of his life provides a window into the reasons he makes bad choices.

The Present.    Sometimes one of the most interesting ways to convey a character’s mindset is toSt Chappelle, the Left Bank, etc. 042 have them relate to their location. If my heroine blows past a florist’s display tumbling onto the cobbles in Paris and doesn’t slow down to “smell the roses,” then she’s pre-occupied, angry, or dealing with something catastrophic. But I don’t tell the reader about any of those emotions. I show them via her disinterest in one of her favorite things—flowers.

The Future.     Hope springs eternal. (You know that or you wouldn’t be writing a manuscript.) Foreshadowing how your characters anticipate where the story is going—or where they think it’s going—teases your reader through the story. Hope, despair, plans, longing…emotions are building blocks for the human condition and create a mindset your reader wants to understand. Quite a few of my heroine’s assumptions about the future are wrong, but we see her intelligence and humanity with each erroneous assumption. Dig deeply.

Of course, to provide a psychological landscape for your characters, you have to know them at least as well as you know yourself. To that end, here are few good resources to get you started:,,

Do you have any favorite tools for exploring the psychological landscape of your characters?

Who, What, When, Where, and Why: WHERE


(The seventh post in a series that summarizes an entire semester of Journalism 101.)

Location, location, location. It’s a priority when buying and selling real estate, and it’s a priority when deciding where to set your manuscript.

Location is affected by the element of time. Speakers’ Corner in London looks different now than it did one hundred and fifty years ago. And as I’ve written before, there’s an authenticity to knowing a spot personally—seeing it, smelling it, listening to it—before writing about it. (Google Earth just doesn’t engage all the senses…yet.)

Setting as Environment.    Time, place, and circumstance are the classic elements of a setting. They form a kind of holy trinity, separate but equal (you’re lucky I’m not using theological terms—oh, what the heck—consubstantialis). Together, they impact each other and color your readers’ vision of their journey through your novel. Choose location carefully because a reader reads through the prism of location.

The Acropolis, Athens
The Acropolis, Athens

Setting as Character.    The more I write, the more I realize my settings deserve as much nuance as my characters. A setting is the envelope in which you put your letter (novel). You can have several settings. Settings have scents, like your heroine’s perfume. Sound, like a child’s voice. Show age, like a grandfather character. Treat the setting as carefully as your characters, and you’ll develop believable “time and place” that enhances your story, or even moves it along.

Setting as Metaphor.    Sometimes the worst things happen in beautiful places—a shark attack on a beach, or an avalanche in a mountain resort. Contrasting setting with story can enrich both. The added benefit can be a straight shot into redemptive values beloved by readers.

Wadi Musa, Petra, Jordan
Wadi Musa, Petra, Jordan

Setting as Active Element.    Weather is a great example of setting as an active element. I’ve touched on it in previous posts, and repeat that the natural world is full of setting markers that require few words to convey a lot of information. Saloon or Starbucks? The first telegraphs the Wild West, whereas the second is contemporary and, probably, urban. Tenement or Park Avenue penthouse? The first implies poverty and distress, whereas the second triggers thoughts of wealth and privilege. There are also inventive ways to provide contrast while using setting as an active element. For instance, what if you place someone who has just lost a family fortune in the penthouse? Pull in the distress and desperation your reader would expect in the tenement housing? Or strand an urban dweller in a tiny, Western saloon during the worst sandstorm of the century? Now that setting could create an apocalyptic masterpiece!

How do you use setting  in your work? I hope you don’t ignore it, or breeze past it without the thought and strategy it deserves. [subscribe2]

Who, What, When, Where, and Why: WHEN, part two

(The sixth post in a series that summarizes an entire semester of Journalism 101.)

Authors are told to “show, don’t tell.” That’s good advice that distinguishes professional from amateur. One of the best ways to “show” is via a crafted depiction of time.

I like pretty prose, although I don’t like getting bogged down in it. By evoking the element of time, I can share something lovely, stay within the “show-but-don’t-tell” rubric, and create a fulfilling experience that keeps readers in my story. Here are two examples—one external to characters, the other internal—of how to use time to “show.”

DSC01314Seasons.    Note seasonal changes in your settings. I’m a big fan of only writing about places I’ve visited extensively, studied, and preferably, lived. I realize that’s impossible if your story is on a space station or in a future world. But if you’re writing contemporary or historical fiction, in my opinion, there’s no replacement for the experinece of being on location. I can tell you how London smells in the autumn. How the air feels (and actually, looks) at the edge of the Dead Sea. I remember how light changes at the mouth of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul as day ends. And I know signs of changing seasons on the Amazon in Peru, Petrohue in Chile, and Snake in America. These small parts, from deisel-laden air to violet light to dismanteling a stilt hut to prepare for the rising of arguably the world’s longest river, convey the passage of time—beautifully.

Characters.    My herione, a middle-aged woman, ends the story looking slightly different from whenOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA the story began. More wrinkles, grayer, slower—although still fiesty! Her evolution signifies the toll adventure takes on her body, and I convey time by noting small changes. The same tactic can be used with maturing children, death, or a coming-of-age ritual, such as tatooos. (No. A better ritual is law-school graduation with honors.) But characters wear time’s passage in effective ways. And if your reader has bonded with your characters, he or she will relate personally to the passage of time.

How do you handle time within your plot? Do you use tools I’ve missed? I’d love to hear from you.

Who, What, When, Where, and Why: WHEN


(The fifth post in a five-week, five-subject series that summarizes an entire semester of Journalism 101.)

Time. The Rolling Stones (“Time Is On My Side”) and Jim Croce (“Time In a Bottle”) sang about it. The Bible (particularly Ecclesiastes) waxes eloquently about it. My mother-in-law is in denial about it. (Just don’t ask).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHandling time in a manuscript is an important way to create believability and draw a reader into a story. Here are three ways to use the element of time in your work.

Time and Your Characters—The unfurling of a story is a function of time, one marked by your characters’ behavior. As they go about the business of your story, their personalities deepen, and they should respond to time in appropriate ways. For instance, my protagonist is a middle-aged female. She’s up to her neck in adventure with her twenty-something daughter. By the end of a  day, Mom is ready for a cup of hot decaffeinated tea in her pajamas, whereas Daughter wants to go out for a double espresso. Because of their ages (time!), they react to the passage of time differently. They anticipate (a time function) differently, too. In dangerous situations, Mom remains cool, with a strong sense of the eternal, and decades of life experience to fall back on. Daughter becomes more impatient and slightly manic.

Time and Your Story’s Progress—I’ll admit it; I’m a freak about chapter endings leading into the next. I often use time to do this. I also am a fan of noting time, date, and location at the beginning of each chapter because I think, in our over-programmed and highly scheduled world, directly telling a reader that it’s noon in Amman is easier than expecting him or her to figure it out. The direct approach keeps readers in the story, and in the mindset to understand the chapter’s action.

Time as a Story Element—I love details. Orange leaves and wood smoke are details of time (autumn). Gray light and starlight indicate time (evening and night). There are so many beautiful, interesting, location-specific ways to convey time in your prose that it’s seldom necessary (in my opinion) to cite time within your manuscript. My writing is pretty lean, so I indulge myself in lovely details regarding time, shading my chapters with it. Come to think of it, I shade my characters as well—with wrinkles and gray hair, or smooth skin and tiny hands.

I’m interested in how you indicate time within your work. Care to share?[subscribe2]

Seven Lessons Writers Can Learn from Superheroes


(We interrupt the Who What When Where and Why series for this post about superheroes.)

I seldom read articles unrelated to archaeology, history, theology, women’s issues, or writing. But the headline of a Huffington Post article intrigued me, and I laughed at my desk when I realized how Seven Lessons from Superheroes applied to authors. I quote from the article, and encourage you to read it via this link.

wonder_woman_costume1. We all have alter egos. “You can use those different sides of yourself to tap into the “right one” for a given situation—the one that best helps you achieve your goals.” Access your alter egos to get into your characters’ heads, as well to craft believable dialogue and scenes.

2. The costume counts. “Based on how you appear, they make inferences about you (which may or may not be true). And those inferences will affect how they treat you, which will in turn, consciously or unconsciously, affects you.” This item applies so strongly to meetings with literary agents and acquisitions editors. I tell my adult children to dress for the job they want, not the job they have. Dress the part of a professional, successful author!

3. We are all different. “But the specific constellations of physical and psychological characteristics, and experiences, makes each of us unique.”  Write from your unique voice. Don’t try to copy someone else, or adapt to a genre because it’s selling.

4. Being different can give you power. “Decide how to use this way of being different to give you more meaning and purpose. Can you use it to help other people?” Again, your unique voice can rock your world, and hopefully, your readers’. Find a way to express and package it, then use it for the common good.

5. Adversity can be overcome. “Adversity induces us to challenge our beliefs about ourselves and the world, and then to develop new meaning, fulfillment, and connections to others as a result.” As my mentor stresses, conflict pulls a reader in. And the triumph that (usually) follows enriches your world (as an author), and theirs.

6. No matter what your abilities, life can still be frustrating. “The ability to persevere in the face of frustration is a superpower.” There’s less than one-half of a one percent chance an unpublished author will receive a traditional publishing contract. Enough said?

7. Running toward danger: overcoming your fears. “When we’re afraid of something, we try to avoid it, but in doing so, our lives may become narrowed. When this happens, we can take a page from a superhero book, take a deep breath, learn some new skills, and face our fears.” Whether a difficult scene, pitching at a conference, or choosing a publisher, writing can be scary. But you have to live to write, and embracing fear as an author will push you to a higher plane, enabling you to share growth and victory to engage your readers.