The Name Game

What names have you given your characters? Do they fit the growth the characters undergo during the course of the story? What emotional reaction do you hope for from your readers? A character’s name, especially for the hero and villain, is a way to offer a hint at characterization with a single word. The name needs to fit the character’s personality. What character traits does the name “Wiloughby” conjure? What about Augustus or Samson? We can paint a strong or wimpy character with his or her name. This name can make the reader like (or dislike in the case of antagonists) that character. We want the reader to root for the protagonist and boo the antagonist.

More than simply a name that fits, it needs to be a name the character can grow into (remember that characters need to undergo growth during the course of a story). Do you have a hero with a weak name? How will the reader believe that the main character is capable of great things (especially if he acts wishy-washy and his name reflects those traits)?

I have a character in a dark paranormal/fantasy story named Constance. I wanted an old fashioned, family name, one that she felt weighed her down, made her stand out. I wanted her to possibly be teased because of it. Her father calls her “Stancy” a nickname that is also as old as that family name. Her roommate calls her “Con” for short—and these nicknames are as important as the principle name. As the story unfolds, it’s clear she is not all that stable (look at the “old” family history she’s been straddled with) and “Con” fits her perfectly. In this story, the main character (protagonist) is not endearing or likable, but she has redeeming qualities. I want the reader to see and hope that she can change—both her actions and her attitude.

After explaining this to a writing client I’m coaching, he says, “This is ridiculous. It’s just a name. You really expect me to believe you put that much thought into all these little details, especially just a name?”

“Yes!” I say. Especially names. Names are as important for characters as they are for real people. Why else do people repeat the name of a person she’s just met (to ensure she’s heard correctly)? Why do we  correct a misstep? “It’s Lisa, not Linda.” Because names matter!

Names have meanings. You can use baby naming dictionaries or lists to help in selecting a name that fits a character’s personality. Keep in mind that when writing historical fiction, fantasy, or science fiction, the name of characters can offer a sense that this is not the reader’s current time and place. Again, looking at baby naming lists or The Character-Naming Sourcebook by  Sherrilyn Kenyon (Writer’s Digest Books) to find origins of names and nicknames is very helpful. Sometimes spelling the name “phonetically” can aid the reader and establish a “genre.” In a writing workshop I led, I asked participants to pass their story excerpt to the person next to them. This person read the story aloud during the critique half. (It’s a great way to hear excessively long or awkwardly phrased sentences in your own work.) One woman became agitated when her work was read. “It’s not Steven!” she said. “The character’s name if Stef-AHN.”

“But it’s spelled S-t-e-v-e-n,” I said. “Reader’s will pronounce it like the name they are familiar with.”

“But that’s not his name! How do I make the reader pronounce it the way I want?”

We discussed options, and since this was a fantasy, I convinced her it would be okay to spell it S-t-e-f-a-h-n so the reader would likely pronounce it as she intended. In the case of fantasy, an alternate spelling like this also helps the reader paint a “different world” setting.

While we are not sitting on the shoulders of our readers to “guide” them through interpreting our stories as we intended them, we can help the reader along, providing clues to characters’ personalities with a single word—their names.

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Scent-sational Holidays

It’s no wonder I focus so much on sensory detail in my writing workshops (and in my writing) since I naturally key into sound and scent. I was reminded of this as I decorated for the holidays. It’s not just the tradition of listening to Christmas carols while we decorate either.

musicalMost of my ornaments and decorations trigger childhood memories, especially those items given to me by my mother, so decorating turns into time for nostalgia. But this year I realized that many of the ornaments make sounds–bells are most common–and I have more than a few decorations with wind-up music boxes that play tinny versions of Christmas carols. Many of the decorations also include potpourri or scented candles. I recall my college days when bayberry candles were a staple of gift giving and I still buy that scent for holiday candles.

This year, as I miss my father, I find myself also missing my mother and have been flooded with memories of her holiday preparations. These began with baking (and freezing cookies) in early November. While we were at school, she began baking and decorating dozens of pinwheels and sugar cookies. I still love the smell of entering a house and smelling the mild scent of crisped sugar, nutmeg and vanilla, with undertones of chocolate. There were always nibbles of cookies (which she claimed got broken or burned) as after-school snacks.

pumpkinpiesAs Thanksgiving neared, the scents of apples, cinnamon, pumpkin, and spices from pies and quick breads greeted us after a long day of math, science, social studies, reading, and holiday crafts. But my favorite days were those a day or two before Thanksgiving when the tang of tart cranberry sauce and brown sugar and cinnamon sticky buns wafted from the kitchen.

cookiescoolingAs December’s snow and chill took hold, holiday preparations continued but the scent of baking now mingled with the odors of Thanksgiving leftovers and hot, nourishing but easy meals such as vegetable soup or beef stew. They simmered all afternoon while Mom wrapped gifts to hide under her bed and at the back of her closet. Progress made daily for holiday magic to happen.

By the time school let out for Christmas break, we children were banned to the basement to play, and it was the perfect opportunity to sneak frozen cookies from the freezer in the corner. While I served as lookout, my brother peeled back the plastic cover of Mom’s massive Tupperware container and nabbed a few cookies. We shared them, breaking off pieces and savoring the chewiness the of mouth-thawed treats and tried to find the willpower not to sneak another and another. Oh, she always noticed that at least a dozen cookies were missing (by the time she pulled them out late on December 23rd), but it never prevented Santa from arriving to deliver presents to the cookie thieves.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Though I’ve updated the traditions of which cookies and quick breads to bake, I do make sure to have a pot of soup simmering in my slow cooker and fresh dinner rolls rising and baking as I put up the tree and untangle the lights. Sausage, carrots, and lentils mingle with the yeasty scent of rolls and the lingering aromas of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon as well as the tinkling of glass bell ornaments. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

So, when you’re writing, pull out the memories and use them as a springboard for ideas and events in your current project. Even if you’re writing fantasy fiction, consider what holidays your characters celebrate, how they react to them, what their happy (or unhappy) memories about them are, what they would change if they could. And don’t forget to focus on sounds and scents as you write those scenes.

Happy Holidays, and happy writing!

Distracted by Mother Nature

Creek in the woods, northern Michigan (lower peninsula)

Creek in the woods, northern Michigan (lower peninsula)

Nature inspires me. It has since I was a child playing on dirt mounds surrounding the newly dug basements in my subdivision playground and exploring the fields and woods down the road. Last night I was inspired by the lunar eclipse.

They’re calling it the Blood Moon because this eclipse makes the moon appear reddish orange. (It’s also part of a tetrad–4 such events this year and next.) Reading about this phenomenon in the past few days has caused me to think about a YA fantasy WIP rather than complete revisions on an MG historical novel. (Again, Mother Nature distracting me.)

I’m glad I got to see this lunar eclipse though it wasn’t as “blood read” as I

Blood Moon April 15, 2014 via RT.com http://on.rt.com/el2l6s

Blood Moon April 15, 2014 via RT.com http://on.rt.com/el2l6s

expected. To me it looked more blush colored. But, I was fascinated by the up-wattage of the surrounding stars. I usually have a hard time seeing most of the constellations in the city, but not at 3:15 a.m. this morning. Good thing I got up to take a peek at Mother Nature’s nocturnal display.

That didn’t work out the way I’d planned, either. I originally set my alarm, based on a report I’d seen that this phenomena would be visible around 3:30 and 4:30 a.m. Then I fell asleep watching TV and woke around 3 a.m. Still half asleep, I noted that it seemed rather dark outside and that it was best to wait for the alarm to wake me — if I would even hear it. I powered off the TV and stumbled to bed but couldn’t settle. A nagging thought told me to get up and look out the picture window. I tried to ignore it, telling myself I still had 30 minutes to sleep.

I’m glad I listened. It was amazing and I fell asleep thinking, this is what Kaelyne sees one night on her quest — and this is how she knows she is close to a hidden magic only she can uncover.  I woke again around 4:20 a.m. and again that inner voice nagged at me until I got up to look again. The bright white moon was a crescent along the bottom of the eclipse but still the surrounding constellations where extra bright. They, along with the edge of visible moon, seemed to glow more intensely than ever.

This time I went back to bed thinking of a different project–Kaia on her SF world–and lapsed into vivid dreams about both settings. I’m glad I experienced this event, though it will frustrate my critique group. (They wish I’d stick to just one project at a time.) What can I say? “Please excuse the inconvenience. This round of revisions has been interrupted by a message from Mother Nature.” Based on what I’ve drafted, the distraction was worth it!

May you each find and draw inspiration from whatever source spurs on progress. Happy writing!

Insights on Aging from Charlie and Algernon

I’m plagued by thoughts of aging lately. Not so much in myself, though I’ll admit to moments of decrepit muscles and wormy memory. No, I’ve been shocked by changes in people around me. Perhaps it’s from having watched my father decline during the past year, but as neighbors return for “Season” I’m surprised that they seem much older and less spry. Because they are dressing younger and trying to act younger, my guess is they have aging on their minds too. It’s unsettling. I’ve always believed that you are truly as old as you feel and members of my family have been assumed much younger due to physical fitness and energy.

So where does this anxiety over aging come from? I’ve found clues in recently rereading Flowers for Algernon,  Daniel Keyes’ Nebula-winning novel. (Actually, the story has probably exacerbated my anxieties.) I had to read the novelette (which won the 1960 Hugo award) several times while in school. But I’ve finally read the novel, a goal ever since reading the book Algernon, Charlie, and I by Keyes about the writing of this award-winning story.

A writer's journey. Daniel Keyes shares insights about the writing "Flowers for Algernon."

A writer’s journey. Daniel Keyes shares insights about the writing “Flowers for Algernon.”

For those unfamiliar with the tale, the flowers are for the grave of a lab mouse named Algernon. Algernon was the successful subject of an experiment combining neurosurgery and a combination of enzyme and hormone injections to triple his intelligence. At least the researchers thought his results were successful. That’s when they decided to test it on Charlie Gordon, a young man with an IQ of 68. Within a few months his intelligence surpassed that of everyone involved in the research. Not until Charlie and Algernon are “displayed” at the annual psychological convention does Charlie realize a major flaw in the experiment.  By now his intelligence has peaked and Algernon is showing signs of decline. Charlie races against the time he has left to find a solution only to realize that the decline he will face is in direct correlation to the rapid increase in his intelligence. During the course of not quite eight months Charlie triples his intelligence and then returns to an IQ of around 70. The only problem is this time he holds a hazy understanding that the people around him whom he used to think of as mental giants are not as smart as he thinks they are. Unlike before the operation, he knows that when they joke with him they are really making fun of his low intelligence.

Award-winning story by Daniel Keyes.

Award-winning story by Daniel Keyes.

As I read this novel I considered what it must be like to go from docile acceptance and contentment in a simple life to super-intellect marred by an inability to relate socially or emotionally with others. One of several problems Charlie faces is finding no one to talk to since even the brightest could not sustain conversations with his font of knowledge. Yet, how is this different from aging? Not simply the mental decline which may show itself in senility, but even the slower response as an octogenarian gathers thoughts before responding during conversation. Or, the slower movements septuagenarians develop to maintain balance and avoid minor injuries.

Charlie begins to stumble and must “remember” to walk carefully to avoid tripping — “knowledge” he regains in order to survive again with a double-digit IQ. I also think of Charlie having a sense that he used to know things, such as remembering reading a particular book but not recalling what it was about and opening it to discover he recognizes only a few words. Do the elderly have such feelings? Do they also have a sense that they used to know about a topic but cannot articulate facts or add to a discussion about it? I believe I saw such realizations cloud the eyes of my father during the last year. Not that the elderly have below-average intelligence but those feelings of “knowing” they “used to have” sharper reflexes, better recall, something to add which is new and thought-provoking—those realities of aging must make them at times feel like Charlie with a sense that what he once had is lost and he knows it.

The most touching part of the story is watching Charlie try to retain his knowledge but watching it slip through his fingers. Like sand in an hour glass, youth slips away. We can do nothing about it, really, except perhaps slow it, try to make it move at a different rate than it does for others. In the end, aging is a natural part of the cycle of life. Whether we work hard, play hard, or both, we move through the process of growth and decline and are left with a “knowing” that we accomplished something, that we lived our life. For some, like Charlie, we can feel happiness despite not being unable to recall why.

It’s interesting that children want to age, be older. I recall trying to look and act older all during my teens. And then, when we finally have that wisdom and respect we seem to seek in our youth, we feel the need to try to reverse time’s influence by dressing and acting younger. This cycle of life is strange indeed. Thanks to both Charlie and Algernon, I think I have enough insight to alleviate my anxieties. Here’s to living in the present and enjoying the knowledge, wisdom, and physical abilities we have in this moment.

The Nature of Characters

Another season and semester of writing workshops is drawing to  a close. It’s been especially hectic during the past five months and my body is demanding a real break this summer. I’ve structured my schedule for more writing time and more time to wander and generate ideas.  I decided I need more time outside, enjoying nature, because that recharges my creativity. Of course,  I can’t wait to get started.

So, yesterday I wandered. I visited a local park to take a break from my writing and workshops. Today I’m wondering about what I saw when I wandered. It will filter into two stories I’m working on. I’ve come to accept that this is my writer’s brain at work.

Here’s what I saw. This park I visited has a fantastic nature center and fabulous pathways to wander. Few people realize that it’s a natural filtration system in the middle of a city. I wandered off the walkway to the nature trail that meanders through trees and other vegetation. Eventually I came upon a grouping of Ficus trees with I thought were incredible. Some looked like carved and woven “figures” but these were actually formed by the Strangler Figs wrapping the trees. Like cloud gazing, I let my imagination go and saw lizards, a tree nymph, alligators and other figures.

Fingers grasping trunk, or a giant insect climbing the tree.

Fingers grasping trunk, or a giant insect climbing the tree. This is what I see when the vine “strangles” the Ficus.

As my friend and I walked on, my relaxed mind began weaving what I’d just seen into a fantasy story I’m working on. This W-I-P is actually a book but I’m still in the planning stages. A scene came to me in which my main character (MC) will need to find magically dormant creatures that everyone assumes are somewhere in the Forbidden Forest (or some such place) and awaken them. No one realizes that these creatures are “hidden” in plain sight on the very paths they walk daily. But my MC will eventually figure this out.

Later, on another path we wandered, I was startled when a breeze caused a patch of plants and fish tale palms to move. I thought it was a giant preying mantas! It sort of looked like one. It was green with palm fronds moving up and down as the insect moves its pinchers. While my friend laughed, I realized I’d let my imagination soar. We did spend a little time looking at the patch and imagining shapes as we’d done with the strangler figs. Now ideas are forming for a plant-based species in my SF story I’m working on.

So, today I am wondering what it would be like to be a walking plant. How would I eat? What would I eat? How would I move? I’ve already figured out how my MC in that story will meet her first plant-based creature. It will be meditating (praying?) in a garden and my MC will try to pick a “flower” from its head thinking the poor creature is actually a flowering plant. A nice subplot to show my MC’s lack of experience and ineptitude in her multi-species environment. (She’s had a lot of mishaps that show how naive she is so this could build on it.)

I’m eager to put my wonderings to the test at the computer. First, I’m wondering where my wanderings will take me next. It’s going to be an inspiring summer!

Gatsby Fever

We have only a week left until Baz Luhrmann’s  adaption of The Great Gatsby opens in movie theaters. Have you been waiting patiently? If you’re really looking forward to seeing Leonardo DiCaprio star as Gatsby, you can view stills and nearly a dozen movie trailers here

There’s been a lot of hype and build-up. Even my favorite writing magazine, The Writer, features the upcoming film with just a hint at what writers can learn from Fitzgerald. So, as I lay in bed recovering from a serious virus a few weeks ago, I rented the 1974 version of the film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. It was a quiet movie  but adequately captures the voice of Nick Carraway as he reflects on events of the summer of 1922. The pace of the movie mirrored the novel with the “ups” in the film being the exciting party and car scenes. I love the Roaring Twenties and the dancing, music, cars, and costume were accurate. This movie also did a good job covering the events from the novel, though little is explained about Jay Gatsby’s background. As in the early chapters of the novel, it is mostly speculation. Unlike the later chapters of the novel, in which details of Gatsby’s childhood are revealed, this movie version suggests  it  is not important. This version of the movie gives us a glimpse of the goodness that was still at the heart of Gatsby when his father arrives for his funeral and he spends some time with Nick.

I truly hope Baz Luhrmann will hold true to Fitzgerald’s work because what we learn about Jay Gatsby — and more importantly how cleverly Fitzgerald imparts this information — is very important to the story. In the novel, Fitzgerald delays character revelation for Gatsby which builds him up in the minds of the reader just as his reputation precedes him in the reality of the characters. The reader doesn’t see or hear from Gatsby until chapter 3. Throughout the first half of the novel, the characters speculate about this man and how he gained his wealth. The reader learns Gatsby’s background, finally, in chapters 6 and 7. (Actually, he reveals details about his childhood in chapter 6 and in chapter 7 his criminal dealings are finally confirmed.)

I recall discussing the “mysteriousness” of Gatsby’s character when I read the book first in high school, again in college, and yet again (at least twice) in writing classes and as a source to study in developing my own writing. Another detail covered during those school-related readings was the dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is when the reader has information about the story situation that characters do not possess. I know that when I read this novel the first time (in high school) I remembered having little patience or empathy for Tom and later for Daisy. At the end of the book, I remember thinking, “They truly deserve each other!” I won’t spoil the story for those unfamiliar, but the 1974 version of the movie evoked that same response, so kudos to director Jack Clayton on that account.

After having watched the movie, and seeing the movie trailers for the upcoming Luhrmann film, I think I’ll read the book again. I’m curious about the pacing of events in the book, especially after a quick check to see when exactly the reader learns about Gatsby’s past (and watching a trailer that confirms his past will be explained/revealed in the 2013 movie).

I also realize, now that I am a writer and teach writing classes, that Fitzgerald  had choices in which character should be the narrator and his choice of Nick makes the book a standout. He couldn’t choose Gatsby, since that would pose difficulties in the final chapters. How do you wrap up a story after the death of the narrator or viewpoint character? And Daisy is too self-centered while Tom is too boorish to notice details or instill pertinent information to the reader. Nick is a great choice, and I like the way the story reads as a sort of memoir—the events took place long ago  and with the feel that Nick is looking through keepsakes as he recalls that summer and looks over the lists of party-goers he kept which are now yellowed and deteriorating at the creases.

Finally, I’m taken with the description of characters and places in the novel. Even the fictitious East and West Egg and the Valley of Ashes are so descriptive. I see the events and what they seem to represent. I look forward to seeing the latest version of the movie. I only hope (and from watching the movie trailers, I really hope I’m wrong) the music is true to the Roaring Twenties and not an updated hip-hop rendition of those fast-paced jazz tunes.

Sprawling Among Worlds

Wow! It’s been such a long time since I’ve posted. But I still managed to find time to work on my projects. Not a lot of progress, but a few revelations and plot twists. The problem’s been that though I have written whatever scenes have come to me, they haven’t always been for the same project.
For instance, I’ve discovered how a homeless character survives during the heat of summer and how another character plans to stand up to her mother. I’ve explored the streets of 19th century New York City with yet another character. I’ve also been to a strange and sandy planet with two science fiction characters and have flown over ancient ruins (and across that world’s time) on dragon back. I even found myself in the mind of a character who writes horror. (This new short story came to me on Christmas Eve.)
I guess these bits and glimpses of stories shouldn’t surprise me; I’ve been stretched out among various teaching locations all autumn and have gotten used to focusing on one and then switching gears to prep for another group, venue, and age group. As busy as it was, I came  to thrive on the different group dynamics so it seems I would also enjoy the variety among my various writing projects and the different worlds each presents.
Still, I’ll take this progress over none at all.  Whether writing or teaching, neither feels like work. For that I am grateful and plan to continue “sprawling.”