A Bear Won’t Eat What A Bear Can’t Smell: When Real Life Provides the Dialogue

 

(purchased from IStock)

I’m currently living in the limbo that inspires fear and loathing in many writers, and drives others to query random Magic 8 Balls with the seriousness of a sugar-drunk eight-year-old at a slumber party: I have a manuscript on submission. For the sake of my sanity, let’s step away from the constant checking of email, the extra glass of wine after dinner, and the cold-sweat certainty that there should have been One More Edit before it went out.

So, tell me things, please. Specifically, I want you to think about the sayings you have in your family. They might be well-known sayings, or something you and your siblings picked up from a long lost television episode that stuck with you for whatever reason. Or it might be a saying whose origins are lost to history, but you still use it. These sayings don’t necessarily have the gravitas or moral spin of an aphorism, but when you use colorful or shocking or sweet sayings occasionally and appropriately in your dialogue, they immediately give your reader important information about your characters.

I’ll start. Here are some that show up again and again in the Benedict family, or came from my childhood:

People in hell want ice water. (my dad)

Smooth move, Ex-Lax. (also my dad)

Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite. (my mom)

We like the moon, because it’s close to us. (this video is at least 10 years old)

Biggie fries, biggie drink. (no comment)

Pretty makes up for bad. (this showed up around the time my daughter was five)

Pretty is as pretty does. (this one gives me the same hives it gave me when was five)

Does a bear poop in the woods? (dad, again)

Is the Pope Catholic? (yep, dad)

A bear won’t eat what a bear can’t smell. (from a Saran Wrap commercial–could only find the ad with a tiger)

Measure head size before ordering. (appropriate whenever, well, ordering something–I picked it up from an Elmore Leonard novel)

Same poop, different flies. (from husband’s family)

Cam down, Linwood. (MIL’s family–she said she has no idea where it came from)

Hold ‘er, Newt. She’s headed for the barn! (also from MIL’s family–she doesn’t know where this is from either. but I did find versions online)

Scratch your ass and get happy. (heard this at a family reunion–acquired it immediately)

These three came from workshop students:

It’s a poor ass rabbit that only has one hole. (meaning is fairly obvious)

You can’t look up a hog’s ass and tell the price of lard. (heh)

She’s a real Corinthian. (wish I’d written down the origin of this one–so many possible interpretations)

Your turn!

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Religion in Mysteries

While at Malice, I was on a panel about Religion in Mysteries. It’s a topic I really hadn’t thought about before. So how do mystery writers handle this subject? Fellow panelists were authors whose protagonists included a hospital chaplain (Mindy Quigley), a minister (Stephanie Jaye Evans), a rabbi (Ilene Schneider), and a Scotland Yard Detective (Anne Cleeland).

clergy  priest  rabbi

What made my series different was that my sleuth Marla is a hairdresser. As I told the crowd, women see their stylists a lot more often than their clergymen. They willingly confide in their hairdressers and overhear juicy conversations in the salon, whereas people confess to priests or to chaplains on their deathbeds. So while people approach the ministry to be absolved for their sins, Marla has to worm their secrets out of them. Thank goodness she’s a skilled conversationalist.

The moderator posed some interesting questions. If those other protags were not clergy, would it matter to the series? And if my heroine was more religious, how would that change things? Ask yourself this question about your main character. In Marla’s case, it would make a big difference. She’s not particularly religious but she has a basic belief in Judaism and follows the traditional holidays. As the series progresses, so does her romantic relationship with Detective Dalton Vail who isn’t Jewish. This probably wouldn’t happen if she were more devout. They enter into an interfaith marriage where they respect each other’s traditions and beliefs.

Here’s another question to pose to your characters: How does their view of religion color their view of the world? Marla’s outlook is more expansive. She encompasses other viewpoints with tolerance and understanding. A priest or rabbi’s attitude will be focused on their own kind, while a hospital chaplain has to minister to patients of all faiths.

What role does religion play in your books? Is it a central or peripheral part of your plot? Does religion influence your protagonists’ search for justice?

How important are your protagonists’ careers to the stories? Would the slant be different if they were police professionals or hairdressers or members of the clergy?

Do holidays play a role in your stories? I’ve had Passover, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and New Year’s in my series, if you count the book I just turned in. Holidays in my books are where friends and families gather and where their ties are strengthened. But you could easily have a contentious family gathering where tensions escalate instead.

seder table    seder wine

Perhaps this thematic content is something you haven’t considered before. But as a writer, your views of religion and sense of right from wrong color your perceptions. Do they influence your protagonist’s view as well?

Read my report on Malice 2015 here: Malice 2015

Contest Alert!
Enter May 7– 21 to win a signed copy of bestselling author Joanna Campbell Slan’s historical mystery, Death of a Dowager, and a $15 FANDANGO gift card to enjoy a movie this summer. Two runners-up will each win an ebook copy of Hair Raiser (Bad Hair Day Mystery #2). http://nancyjcohen.com/fun-stuff/contest/

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Internal Conflict

Nancy J. Cohen

When developing your characters, you’ll want to give them internal conflicts as well as external ones. What do we mean by this? The internal conflict is an emotional struggle that inhibits your protagonist from moving on. He could have trouble taking the next step to get a job promotion, making a commitment to his girlfriend, or deepening his relationship with his estranged father. Often something in his past has caused this crisis of confidence, and he can’t see his way past it. Adding these internal conflicts gives your characters added depth. It’s not only about fighting the bad guys. It’s also about fighting one’s inner demons. For examples, look at popular movies and TV shows that have captured your attention. Take notes on what bothers each of the characters. Here are some examples:

Outlander

Outlander3

Claire is forced to hide her knowledge in a land ruled by superstition.
Jamie is torn between his gentler instincts for Claire and his cultural expectations of a husband’s role in marriage.
Claire is torn between her love for two men.
Claire wants to go home but that means leaving Jamie.

Outlander1  Outlander2

Dig

Dig

The main character wrestles with guilt and grief over his daughter’s death while trying to prevent Armageddon. The bad guys exploit this weakness by luring him with a woman who resembles the dead girl.

Lord of the Rings

Lord Rings

Son seeks approval and recognition from father who favors his brother.
Man struggles against the pull of corruption.
Woman wants to fight in a world that belongs to man.
Woman loves man who loves another woman.
Woman must give up her station in life (or special power) to be with the man she loves.
Man fears he will succumb to the same weakness as his father. (This also applies to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. He fears turning to the dark side like his father.)

Battlestar Galactica

Galactica

Man blames father for the death of his brother. He’s unable to forgive.
Female hero has had to work hard to prove herself. This means hiding her vulnerability.
A man who traded sex for secrets discovers he’s responsible for the world’s destruction.
A woman who is dying from cancer is forced to take charge.

It helps in determining a character’s internal conflict if you examine their past history. What happened to motivate their present behavior? What is inhibiting them from emotional growth? How will your character overcome this hang-up? Layer in your motivation, and you’ll have a richer story.

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Using Fence Post Characters

fortitude My favorite stories, written by me or someone else, are those dealing with characters best described as “fence post” characters which usually possess at least two or more of these traits: they are out of their element; in at least potentially in trouble: they have little or no idea how they got where they are; and have to rely on their skills and wits, to get out of the situation, though they appear to be ill-suited to do so. Think of a turtle on top of a fence post, if that helps. Sometimes a character like that can make, or save, the story you are telling, particularly if it just isn’t working otherwise.

I thought of this while binge watching a new dramatic series named Fortitude. It’s on the Pivot Network, which you’ll find in the equivalent of the nosebleed seats of your cable television system.  Fortitude is set in a desolate section of Solvard, a Norwegian territory; the title is the name of the small town where almost of the story takes place. Two murders bookend the first episode, and at first it looks like your typical whodunit which will be investigated by a barely competent sheriff who may well be in the tank for some special interests relating to tourism as well. Everything changes, however, in Episode Two, with the arrival of our “fencepost” character in the form of Detective Chief Inspector Morton. Brilliantly played by the criminally underappreciated Stanley Tucci, Morton is 1) an American; 2) an ex-FBI agent now working for the London Metropolitan Police; and is 3) investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of one of the murder victims, who is a British citizen in 4) a God-forsaken area of Norway that looks like Boston (or Columbus, Ohio) did last week. Morton’s arrival puts almost everyone concerned in high dudgeon, particularly the sheriff (at least at first), but there isn’t much anyone can do about it because of some treaty of some sort which gives Morton jurisdiction. Morton no sooner sets foot on the slippery ice when he starts uncovering things, frozen ground and non-stop snowfall notwithstanding. Think of a cross between True Detective and Twin Peaks (the television series, not the restaurant chain) and you’ll have a vague idea of where things seem to be going. Morton, however, out of his element but not out of his league, is the fulcrum which takes the story off in an entirely new direction.

You can do this in your own work. If your story or novel isn’t working, change up your primary character. Make them uncomfortable in their own skin. Change gender or race or education level, just for a start. Even a small difference taken to its conclusion, logical or otherwise, can change the character and or the story dramatically. Downsizing your character’s abilities, such as they are, and throwing them to the sharks when they can’t swim works even better. I read a book several years ago — and I apologize out front for not being able to recall either the name or the author (yes; I’m getting old) — of an Asian father whose daughter disappears while attending college in England. He doesn’t speak English but makes the trip, determined to find her, armed with little more than fortitude and a keen power of logic and observation.

I do recall the name of a short story — because I have read it at least once a year since it was published — which puts a somewhat unassuming turtle on top of a very dangerous fence post. I’m speaking of “Duel” by Richard Matheson. “Duel,” in case you haven’t had the pleasure, concerns duela motorist named “Mann” who is terrorized along several miles of highway by a trucker. The story was written over four decades ago, some eighteen years before the term “road rage” ever entered the nation’s lexicon, but still reads well. Mann is not Jack Reacher, or even his baby brother; he is totally out of his element and just wants to be left alone to keep driving. It doesn’t happen, of course, but what does will keep you reading. Steven Spielberg made an excellent attempt at capturing Matheson’s magic in a made-for-television movie, but you have to read the story to really appreciate what Matheson did so well.

Now, if I might ask…authors: have you tried this? And readers: have there been any fish out of water characters that you have enjoyed in novels, stories, or films? Please. Share with us.

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Bad Boy, Whatcha Gonna Do?

By Joe Moore

If I asked you to name 5 of your favorite heroes and 5 villains, which would you think of first? Which would come easier, the good guys or the bad? If you’re an action-adventure fan and you read a lot of Clive Cussler novels, Dirk Pitt would probably pop into your head right away. Now, name one arch-villain in a Dirk Pitt novel. We all know or have heard of Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne and Lara Croft. But name the bad guys they fought against. The reason it’s harder to recall specific villains is because it’s harder to write memorable bad guys. There aren’t that many Hannibal Lecters out there. But there are quite a few Clarice Starlings.

If you’re working on making your villain memorable, here are a few tips to do so.

Your villain must have multiple layers, perhaps even more that your hero. Stereotypical 2-D villains are boring. Why? Because we’ve all seen our share of non-motivated antagonists. A bunch of teens go to a cabin by a lake and start getting chopped up one by one. Seen that before? The villain is a killing machine. Why? Most of the time we have no idea. How about a good guy who turns bad. The motivational layers are all there. Just watch BREAKING BAD or DEATH WISH.

Your villain must be intelligent. Perhaps even more so than your hero. The brilliant bad guys are the ones that make the hero work really hard to solve the conflict. Their meticulous planning and concentration make them memorable. To see a brilliant villain in action, watch DIE HARD or SPEED.

Your villain had to have baggage. Preferably enough to make the reader cheer for him at least once. This usually happens near the beginning of the story where we see what motivates him. There is a hint of sympathy from the reader. But it doesn’t last long. Mr. Villain does something nasty and the sympathy shifts to the protagonist.

Your villain must face a fork in the road—a point in the story when he chooses to become a bad boy. The reader must believe the choice was voluntary. No one is born evil. They must choose to become evil somewhere along the way, for a believable reason.

Most important of all, your villain must be convinced he’s right. He needs to believe that his course of action is the correct path. Whether it’s revenge or jealousy, or some other strong motivator, he must do what he does out of commitment to being right. He must believe it and so must the reader.

As you write your villain into your manuscript, remember that he is not a throwaway character. He must be accepted by the reader for what he stands for and what he believes. For most of your story, he has to be as strong a character, if not stronger, than your protag. Make him memorable.

Now your turn. Name 5 of your favorite heroes and five villains your love to hate.

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Villains Don’t Have to be Evil

Guest Post from: L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers
Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

As my guest today, I have mystery thriller author L. J. Sellers writing about one of my favorite topics: Villains. LJ shares her thoughts and asks you to share your favorite villains at the end of her post. And be sure to check out the great giveaway contests below. Take it away, LJ!

The villains in thrillers are often extraordinary human beings. Super smart, physically indestructible, and/or incredibly powerful because of their money and influence. As a reader/consumer, those characters are fun for me too, especially in a visual medium where we get to watch them be amazing. But as an author, I like to write about antagonists who are everyday people—either caught up in extraordinary circumstances or so wedded to their own belief system and needs that they become delusional in how they see the world.
 
In my Detective Jackson stories, I rarely write from the POV of the antagonists. That would spoil the mystery! But in my thrillers, I get inside those characters’ heads so my readers can get to know them and fully understand their motives. I’ve heard readers complain about being subjected to the “bad guy POV,” but that’s typically when the antagonist is a serial killer or pure evil in some other way.
 
I share their pain. I don’t enjoy the serial-killer POV reading experience either. But when the villain in the story is a fully realized human being, who has good qualities as well as bad, and who’s suffered some type of victimization, and/or has great intentions, then I like see and feel all of that. And I think most readers do too.

Sellers The Trigger_med
In The Trigger, the antagonists are brothers, Spencer and Randall Clayton, founders of an isolated community of survivalists, or preppers, as they’re called today. As with most real-life isolationists/cult leaders, they are intelligent, successful professionals—with a vision for a better society. But these everyday characters decide to mold the world to suit their own objectives and see themselves as saviors—becoming villains in the process.


From a writer’s perspective, they were challenging to craft—likeable and believable enough for readers to identify with, yet edgy enough to be threatening on a grand scale. On the other hand, my protagonist Jamie Dallas, an FBI agent who specializes in undercover work, was such a joy to write that I’m launching a new series based on her.

The first book, The Trigger, releases January 1 in print and ebook formats, with an audiobook coming soon after. To celebrate the new series, the ebook will be on sale for $.99 on launch day. Everyone who buys a copy (print or digital) and forwards their Amazon receipt to lj@ljsellers.com will be entered to win a trip to Left Coast Crime 2015. For more details, check my website.
 
If that weren’t enough, I’m also giving away ten $50 Amazon gift certificates. So there’s a good chance of winning something. But the contest is only valid for January 1 purchases.
 
Who are your favorite villains? Supermen types? Everyday delusionals? Or something else?
 
Sellers LJSellers medL.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery series—a two-time Readers Favorite Award winner—as well as provocative standalone thrillers. Her novels have been highly praised by reviewers, and her Jackson books are the highest-rated crime fiction on Amazon. L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon where most of her novels are set and is an award-winning journalist who earned the Grand Neal. When not plotting murders, she enjoys standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.
 
Other social media links for LJ: Website, Blog, Facebook

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