How Can It Be Real?
As an author of supernatural thrillers, it’s a question I’ve heard a time or two before. In my experience, the single most important aspect to good storytelling is what I call the “Reality Factor.” We’ve all read a book, seen a movie, that should have worked but didn’t. There are a ton of factors that may contribute to its failure, but at the core, I’m confident you’ll find a lack of reality as the main culprit.
You may have seen a similar idea floating around–suspension of disbelief. The term suspension of disbelief is defined as a willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.
While in the ballpark, I don’t altogether agree. Terms such as unbelievable, and sacrifice of realism and logic come down to one’s point of view. Where our viewpoints intersect, what we have in common, is in fact, reality. Reality is a point of view, nothing less and nothing more. Our viewpoints can be experienced, shared, and broadened by communicating our reality to others—in short, good storytelling.
To that end, ALL my stories are steeped in reality. At least, reality from my point of view.
Oh, Ye Of Little Faith
Allow me to elucidate. My most recently published Lance Underphal Mystery, Grey Daze takes on an eclectic variety of subjects. Not the least of which is the rise in crimes against the elderly. In and of itself it’s nothing new and about as real as it gets. Unfortunately, for my family and I, it came much too close to home.
My elderly uncle was in his mid-eighties at the time, living in his home alone in San Bernardino, CA. He was my mother’s brother, a teacher in the San Bernardino school system, and a bachelor all his life. He would make the trip out to visit us in Arizona during the holidays. Age slowed his step and we all noticed the slight diminution of his mental faculties. Otherwise, he seemed to be doing well. Little did we know.
Alarmed, my uncle’s financial adviser called my father out of the blue, concerned about large withdrawals from his retirement accounts. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in a short period of time. Out of character for my miserly uncle. Hell, we had no idea he had that kind of money saved up. More alarming, his financial adviser reported he was getting married, and that he’d been seen at the bank with a young Latino woman withdrawing large sums of cash from his checking account. This made no sense. My uncle was gay.
My father was bedridden at the time, suffering with rheumatoid arthritis. He called me and my brother to his bedside to inform us. We went to work. The first call I made was to my uncle, who vehemently denied everything and told me it was none of my business—a wildly uncharacteristic response. I heard the woman in the background coaching him. Next call was to the San Bernardino Police who claimed their hands were tied. It got worse, the situation deteriorated. We became concerned for his life when we found out there were attempts made to change the beneficiary on his life insurance policy to his supposed wife-to-be.
Eventually, I managed to convince my uncle that my mother, his sister, needed to see him. We immediately sent a private investigator to my uncle’s home to pick him up and bring him to Arizona. By the time we convinced him to stay with us, more than six hundred thousand dollars of his retirement savings had been stolen. He was left almost penniless, but at least he was alive and safe. He spent the rest of his days near my mother, in my brother’s home.
Of course, the uncle character depicted in Grey Daze is very different. After all, I write fiction, which is to say I embellish to my imagination’s limit and get to call it artist license. Yet as a starting point, the basis in reality is there.
Create Your Own Reality
I invite you to explore my stories for points of reality we can share. And just perhaps, you’ll take a small portion of my reality on faith.
Michael Allan Scott
The cross-genre supernatural mystery/thriller books, Dark Side of Sunset Pointe, Flight of the Tarantula Hawk, and Grey Daze, are available on Amazon. Cut-Throat Syndrome, the next book in the series, is due out soon.
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Fans of Ivan Doig’s storytelling will not be disappointed with his novel, Work Song. The tale picks up with the character of Morgan Llewellyn, alias Morrie Morgan, after he departs the cast of characters living in Marias Coulee in The Whistling Season.
Morrie, still mourning his loss of Rose to widower Oliver Milliron, finds his way back to Montana and the copper mining town of Butte. He takes up residence in the boarding house of the lovely widow Grace Farraday where he meets Griff and Hoop, the twin-like retired miners full of life, full of the love of mining, and full of themselves.
Morrie’s first job as a funeral crier introduces him to the woes of life for the miners and their struggle with the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and the Industrial Workers of the World. But it is his love of reading and a fortuitous trip to the Butte Public Library that lands him in the position of glorified errand boy for the enigmatic and terrifying ex-rancher turned library administrator, Samuel S. Sandison.
Before long, Morrie is dragged into the copper miners’ battle between Anaconda, the IWW, and the union all the while dodging company goons who try to peg him as an IWW agitator and Chicago mobsters still looking for him for the gambling debacle he perpetrated with his brother. As if that weren’t enough to keep him hopping, Morrie finds his plate even fuller when a former student from Marias Coulee, now engaged to the union leader, presses him into service on behalf of the union. The Latin-loving bibliophile can no longer stay neutral in the battle, but he must operate below his tyrannical employer’s unpredictable nature and ever-watching eye.
At the eleventh hour, Sandison, a large man with an even larger secret, comes to Morrie’s rescue. All is saved, yet Morrie, who has fallen in love with the Widow Farraday, knows he cannot stay in Butte for it is only a matter of time before the mob finds him. A final, well-placed bet secures the financial future for those Morrie has come to care for. His last goodbye to Grace, another widow he must leave behind, produces the best windfall Morrie experiences to date.
Doig’s tales of western life transcend the clichéd cowboy story. He writes from the working class point of view and evokes the joys and hardships of life in his beloved Montana. One of my absolute favorite authors, it was my sincere wish that he write a third novel summing up the lives of Morrie Morgan and the marvelous cast of characters spanning both the The Whistling Season and Work Song. Alas, with Ivan Doig’s passing in 2015, not only did his unforgettable characters lose their voice, literature lost one of the best storytellers known to man.
Contributed by HL Gibson
So I want to share a little of my experience on writing with you. Essentially, what I hope to accomplish is to give you some tools to help you succeed, as well as tell you some of the mistakes I made along the way so you can avoid those same pitfalls. So this is going to be a little stream of consciousness, and a little information dumpy. That’s not what I would call great writing, but it gets you a lot of what I have to tell in a short span of time and you can (hopefully) refer back to it later if you need to.
About me: My name is Robert L. Perrine. I’m a chef turned self-published author, and I write full time now. I write a middle grade series called The Bookshop. The first book, “The Bookshop and the Junglest,” was released in January and is doing very well. I’ll talk about making your book a success in a while, but for now that’s getting the cart well ahead of the horse.
To start with, I want to talk about beginning your story. So there are a LOT of ways to begin a story. Some authors plot every little thing before they start. David Baldacci does this. He literally outlines the entire story before he ever begins to write it. He actually writes the first paragraph of every chapter, then goes back and plugs in the rest afterwards. If this works for you great. I personally would feel very confined by a structure like that. The way I build a story is driven by both characters and environment. So that’s what I’ll speak to you about. As to environment, I’ll start by jotting down what might be found in a place. So since my stories take place at least in part in a bookshop, I’ll use that as an example.
What would be in a bookshop? Books, tables, sofas, chairs, a sales counter, a proprietor, pictures, posters, a hand cart, and hey, maybe an old cat. Bookshops have cats right? Sometimes, I’ll add subcategories to these because if we’re going to bring these things into our story, then we can certainly use them as more than just décor. So as subcategory examples, I’ll say books. Well, what sort of books? History, fiction, sci-fi, mystery, new release, etc. But more than that, I may look at individual items and ask, why does it matter that that’s here? So you have a sales counter, so what? Everybody has a sales counter. What makes yours special? Well mine’s magical of course! Maybe it’s fire proof and can withstand the flame of a dragon. That would make it special! And that would make it interesting. Or take the pictures on the walls at Hogwarts or all the different sorts of candies Rowling thought up. Sure, she could have made them just pictures or candy. But pictures that come to life and candy that turns into a living frog is much more fun! So think about your environment as it will provide you the tools and setting for your story.
There are entire webpages devoted to world building for authors. These can include anything from the flora and fauna of a place, the climate, the government, the religion, and even the modes of transportation, architecture, and music that make your world up. Yes, you can absolutely let these things develop naturally. But it’s been my experience that simply jotting some of them down helps you to find that world in your head and to make it real for the reader.
What about the old cat that was in the bookshop? Certainly we can make him special in some way too right? Maybe give him a personality? So I want to talk a little bit about character building. When I think up a character, the first thing I do is tell myself fifteen things about that character. These things may not even make it into the story or be important in any way, but they help me get to know them. And even if you don’t specifically write in your story that Brian never played baseball as a child, that persona will creep in. so that would look on paper something like this:
Plot: I personally don’t choose a plot before I begin a story. Or at least not a full plot. For the most part my stories begin with a simple question. The question for my first book was: “What if there was a magical bookshop that could take kids into stories?” Once I had the question, an idea of environment, and a few characters, all I had to do was put my characters into the environment, and see what they did. From there it was just a case of me recounting the events that took place. This happened, and also this. This too. And sometimes you’ll come to a place where the characters aren’t telling you what happens next. In my experience, that’s because there is another character waiting to tell their part of the story. So in these occasions, do terrible things to your characters! >:) Say you’ve brought them to a waterfall. It’s beautiful. We’ve all oooh’d and awe’d over the waterfall, but then you don’t know what to do. Introduce a new character! Maybe they find a cave behind the waterfall. What’s in the cave? A dragon? A wizard? A Troll? A porthole into the future? Dealer’s choice guys. Write whatever you like. But keep it moving and keep it fresh. As a rule of thumb, if it bores you, it will bore your poor reader to tears.
One more thing before we move on: Be fair to your characters. Let them lead you where they want to go. And understand that what they do needs to be rational to them. This is especially true of villains. If you make a villain mean just for the sake of being mean, they’re going to come across as unbelievable. It’s ok for their actions to seem crazy to the reader. But for the villain himself, his actions have to make sense to him. He has to believe that what he is doing is right and good for him.
First things first. Grammar does matter. Invest in a Strum and White grammar book. I find them at used book stores all the time. This will answer your questions like, “How do I punctuate this?” You will save yourself a lot of headaches by simply having a grammar reference book close at hand. Yes, you will have an editor later, but it’s not on an editor to hold your hand. You want to be an author. This is your craft. So take the time to learn your craft. In every way, it will open up worlds for you.
Adverbs/showing and not telling: I’m going to include these both in the same subject because they play off of one another. First though, I want to tell you that while there are hard rules to grammar, there are really no rules to writing. There are guidelines though. One of those guidelines is avoid adverbs as much as possible. The reason for this is they lead to bad writing. An example: He ran quickly. Quickly is the adverb. So here’s what’s wrong with it: First of all, it’s redundant. Saying , He ran, pretty much implies that he did it quickly. If he ran slowly, that would be jogging right? So immediately, “Ran quickly,” is bad writing. Avoid redundancy. But more than that, it’s killed any description you could have given. Try instead:
“Brian rounded the corner pumping his legs as hard as he could. His heart thrummed in his chest and his lungs ached for oxygen. He wasn’t going to make it.”
It’s better right? An adverb would have killed that. It’s the same with almost any adverb.
She smiled sadly.
No she didn’t!
She sat alone in her room with the moonlight reflecting off her tears. She forced a smile she didn’t mean and whispered to herself, “I can do this.”
So before you use an adverb, ask yourself, does it add to the story? Does it make the picture I’m trying to paint better? Or worse? Is it redundant? There are times to use adverbs. Just choose them wisely.
So that brings me to the next point as they’re tied together: Don’t tell me. Show me. Brian ran quickly, Is telling me. The second version is showing me. Another example of this is in characterization. It’s tempting for an author to say, Brian believes in doing the right thing. Or to have a friend of Brian’s say, “Man Brian, you’re always doing the right thing!” This is lazy writing. We’re here to tell a great story! In that endeavor, lazy writing just won’t do! So put Brian in a situation where he has a choice of doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Make the wrong thing tempting. VERY tempting. Then have Brian make the right call. If you’re writing in first person or third person omniscient, you can even take the reader along through Brian’s thought process. This lets the reader know and understand him better as a real person.
One more thing and then I’ll wrap this up for the night. We’ve covered enough to get you started anyway. So the last thing I want to touch on is passive voice. Passive voice is pretty easy to spot. Look for, was, had, has etc. words that imply past tense.
Brian had been coming to the pool hall for years.
Instead, try, Brian came to the pool hall every night.
It’s active. It’s more engaging. I had a hard time understanding this rule. I didn’t understand the why of it. But after having to edit passive voice out of my entire manuscript, I get it. Passive voice is timid writing. It’s the author not saying what they mean. Don’t tell me the class was boring. Tell me the class IS boring. Don’t tell me it was a hot day. It IS a hot day! Don’t tell me Brian was being picked on by the jocks. The jocks ARE picking on Brian. Another addendum to this is passive voice is frequently bulky and unnecessary. So for example, it’s tempting to write, The rock was sticking out ten feet over the gorge. It’s awkward to read right? It’s a mouthful. You could paint a clearer and more active picture by choosing the correct word. The rock jutted ten feet over the gorge. Much cleaner right? So yeah, active voice will make your writing much cleaner.
I think I’ll stop there. That’s enough for one sitting. But I’ll leave you with one final thought. The ONLY trick to writing, is to sit down and write. Get your butt between a chair and a keyboard and start creating. Then don’t stop. When I write, I don’t take more than one day off a week. I do that because I don’t want to lose my world or my characters. I need them to be fresh in my mind. Whatever works for you. But write. Don’t even edit. Just write. Any of the things I talked about above can be cleaned up in revision later. But it’s impossible to edit a blank page. I hope this helps you guys. Thank you for giving me your time, and thank you Mr. Schultz for inviting me to contribute to this! I hope your guy’s stories are amazing! Until the next time, metaphors be with you!
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Something a Little Different with Colin Cotterill
The setting in which a story takes place is one of the main dictating factors as to the people and events you are going to encounter. In general, authors tend to stick to what they know in real life, either reproducing or expanding upon the places they have visited or live in. For this reason, many books written in the English language take place in the anglicized world of North America and Western Europe, and while there is certainly much fodder for interesting stories, it's a setting that's starting to feel a little too common. After all, isn't there a world out there beyond New York, London, Paris and Rome?
The good news is that there are writers who strive to offer something different and unusual, a group that certainly includes Colin Cotterill. Living in Southeast Asia, Cotterill has spent many years observing the people, culture and history around him, and through his writings he shares his appreciation, thoughts and meditations on those. For the English-speaking audience, Cotterill represents an invaluable window into what life is like on that side of the globe, one that's been open for a long time thanks to instant classics like I Shot the Buddha and The Woman Who Wouldn't Die, featuring the ever-popular Dr. Siri Paiboun. More recently, he released another novel to add to the good doctor's series, titled Six and a Half Deadly Sins .
The Finger of Mystery
The year is 1979, and the events take place in Laos, following the afore-mentioned Dr. Siri. He is the country's retired national coroner and is simply trying to enjoy his life alongside his wife and idiosyncratic entourage. But of course, we know that such goals are an exercise in futility for a good protagonist: one day, he receives a traditional pha sin skirt at his doorstep. There is only one slightly alarming detail about it, and it's that it came with a severed human finger stitched into its lining.
Needless to say, the doctor never could resist a good mystery, especially one where someone's life might be in danger. Thus, his cohorts and him set out on a trip up North where he believes the skirt was made to try and unravel the web of intrigue surrounding it. However, not only are sinister forces working against him, but the Northern part of the country is about to descend into turmoil as violent eruptions occur along the border. The odds are certainly stacked against him, but that's just how the doctor likes it.
Strangers in a Strange Land
While I have no doubt that for many readers Laotian culture holds few surprises or mysteries, the same cannot be said for the countless ones among us who spent their lives immersed in the Western world. If, like myself, you are a stranger to Southeast Asia, then for that reason alone the book promises to be a kind of eye-opening excursion into a part of the world we seldom hear about (despite being the country which the United States bombarded the most). Cotterill takes the time to explore, describe and explain a world that feels very strange and different, almost becoming something akin to a tour guide.
In turn, this impression of being a stranger in a strange land has a palpable effect on the plot itself, always making you feel like you're stuck somewhere between the realms of logic and magical realism. There are times when you can't be quite sure of what's happening, or more precisely, whether an event is real or shrouded in imagination and impressionism. This only works to heighten the atmosphere of mystery surrounding the skirt, the finger in it and the identity of its owner.
A Chase Better than the Catch
For those who aren't familiar with Cotterill's works, I'll just say that the main attraction is the process of unravelling the mystery, rather than the ultimate revelations it brings along. While the ending is doubtlessly powerful and surprising to a certain extent, it's more about how we get there. In the process of finding out the truth the quirky characters we've come to respect and care for go through many unusual and testing ordeals, and seeing them use their wits (and on occasion, luck) to wade a path across complete chaos is its own reward. Even if you do know that ultimately there will be a resolution that puts everything in place, you will very rarely, if ever, be able to guess exactly what's coming on the next turn.
Speaking of the characters, they are another strong aspect of the book, all unique and memorable in their own rights. It feels as if the author specifically tried to differentiate them and make them stick out in your mind. He develops them at the right pace and knows how to make us care for them, revealing the right information at the appropriate times. As you get to the end, you'll find yourself feeling something for people that don't exist in a place you've likely never given much thought to... which just goes to show how skilled of an author Cotterill is.
If you're a fan of the author and his Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries then you don't need to think twice about getting this book as it continues with the proudly-established traditions without a hitch. It's everything you'd expect from a book in this series and does the author justice. If you are new to Cotterill and know nothing about the series, I'd say that this is a pretty good book to start with if you're looking for an exceptionally well-written quirky mystery with screwball elements, memorable characters and taking place in an unusual as well as under-explored setting.
Article written by David ben Efraim (bookwormex.com)
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