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.

The Longest Night

“A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.” –Steve Martin

winterwoods-MimiLuikIf you’re in the northern hemisphere, tonight (Sunday, 21 December 2104) is Winter Solstice. Winter officially arrives at 23:03 p.m. EST (that’s 6 o’clock in the evening on the east coast of the United States). The days now begin to lengthen. For those who love the snow and cold of winter, it’s time for rejoicing. Winter is here. For those who dread the frigid conditions and wild weather of winter, this is still good news since each days draws us closer to the warmer temps of springtime. (But, our coldest days are still ahead of us since the earth continues to lose more heat than it gains during “daytime” for several weeks yet. So just hang in there.)

Equinox-orbitsThis year, I’m intrigued by Winter Solstice for several reasons, one of which (no surprise) relates to research for a few of my fiction projects. (You know I love my research.) For one project, my characters need to know Latin (which means I need to learn some phrases) and while surfing the information highway, I discovered something I did not know: the origin of solstice is from the Latin solstitium meaning “sun (sol) stoppage (-stitium). During the winter solstice, the sun’s path reaches its lowest point in the sky. At noontime, the sun is directly overhead on Winter Solstice. But for a few days before and after the solstice, the sun appears to be in the same place each place. It looks “stalled” and this is how the name came to be.

sun treeThe other reason Winter Solstice has intrigued me is because of its history and celebrations surrounding it. Again, I have another fiction project that is fantasy based and so I’ve been creating holiday celebrations for these characters. Learning about Yule and Winter Solstice traditions led to exploring how Christmas is celebrated in different cultures. This led to other winter holidays and they all made me see connections–the springboard to creativity–for fictional winter celebrations in books, games, and other entertainment. For example, the Feast of Winter Veil and Greatfather Winter in World of Warcraft and Hogswatch from Discworld.

In addition to enjoying the preparations for this year’s Christmas (and New Year’s) celebrations, I’m having fun weaving traditions, customs, and repurposed details into the beliefs and festivities my characters will take part in. Even if your stories are set in the present world, note your own traditions (and those you’ve heard friends share) and select a few customs for your characters. Holidays and traditions (and a character’s reaction to them) are great ways to reveal a life-like character to readers.

Happy holidays, and have fun writing!

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!

With a Writer’s Eye

Wow, August zipped by in a flash so I had to remind myself how much I got done. More organizing, more planning for both career and business (including an itinerary to submit to a few contest and launch some ecourses), and more refilling of my creative well. I’ve blogged about some of these topics before and you can click the links to read more if you’re interested.

On way I refilled my creative well during August was through extensive reading and watching movies. Not only was I entertained and inspired with ideas for my writing, I had the chance to study how stories were pieced together to engage the reader (or the viewer). Reading with a writer’s eye is one of the best ways for a writer at any level to improve his or her craft. It’s what made the difference for me (more than 25 years ago, now) in moving forward to repeatedly selling manuscripts.

The idea is simple and on the first day of my writing workshops, I suggest all participants pursue it. In fact, at their request, I taught a course in June called Reading with a Writer’s Eye. Basically, after enjoying a piece of writing, go back and study how the author helped you so enjoy it. How did the author use sensory detail, metaphor, string words together into vivid and engaging sentences? In essence, dissect the piece and then ask how you might do the same in your own writing.

During the course, I joked that in the past year I hadn’t read as much as I did in the past though I did watch a lot of movies and TV series. In fact, I’d signed up for Amazon Prime and so I was able to do “marathons” of entire TV seasons. And in viewing episode after episode, I saw how and understood story arc as I never had before. I noted how the writers left the viewer hanging until the next episode (which I was luck enough to be able to immediately watch). As I joked about it, the entire group realized that this, too, could be an aid in improving plot and character development. The class sessions soon included sharing of the story elements we discussed for each short story we covered during the 6-week course, but each week people compared the stories to favorite TV programs as well as favorite authors. It was organic and thought provoking todiscuss story a different levels.

So, during August, when my body was exhausted but my mind was restless, I discovered that Amazon Prime also allows one free pre-release ebook per month and free borrowing. (If the author publishes using Kindle Select, he or she still receives a royalty.) Thus, my month of marathon reading and viewing to refill my creative well with stories and spark new ideas and motivation for my own writing. If you weren’t aware of this service, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial. It’s made a huge different in my life and writing.

Itching for Change

I have to confess a habit acquired from my mother. I get the itch to move about every 4 or 5 years. When I was growing up, if I came home from school to find furniture rearranged or I would now live in a new bedroom, it was a sign a move was in our future. It meant our large (and growing family) had, as Mom would say, “outgrown the neighborhood,” but it really meant we needed more space, or more space on a sprawling one-level (to save my mother’s bad legs from having to climb stairs).

It was also a convenient time to sort our toys and clothes and books and belongings to settle into our new home in a streamlined and organized manner. I recall finding games and toys that had been forgotten and choosing to keep those over frequently played items.

Ironically, we stayed in the same school district so I had the pleasure of attending 7 schools before heading off to college (instead of the 3-4 the average student attends). The good thing about this arrangement is that I knew so many more kids when I went to the district’s high school campus.

Once I headed out on my own, that “itch” followed me. I truly thought I would buy a home and stay put but I didn’t. And, like my family, I kept moving, first to larger apartments, then to more conveniently located homes. Like my family, I also used each move as an opportunity to thoroughly sort, toss, and reorganize. Then, as I settled into a new space, I created fresh routines in that different living environment.

Now I’ve been in this location for 5 years and am feeling that “itch.” But, having just cleared out my dad’s condo, the thought of packing up and moving my condo leaves me with sudden fatigue. Instead, I’m channeling that “itch” into reorganizing and creating new routines. (Okay, I’ll admit that I did rearrange my office.) It feels great to take action. It feels even better to clear out unused items (including new school and art supplies from children’s programs) and donate them so someone who can use them will benefit.

And while I’ve been busy doing all of this, I’ve been thinking about transition. Transitions in life are moments for growth. Taking action to create positive change in our lives. Most of us can’t grow without some change taking place. Of course, those changes we choose are certainly easier to navigate than those forced upon us.

Like real people, characters need to take action too. What is it your character needs to do? Readers also itch for change within characters. How do your characters grow? Or, at least your main character. How is he or she different at the end of the story than at the beginning? The growth part isn’t difficult since gained knowledge equates with growth but once the character takes action, real change is in store.

Think about yourself as a reader. Do you want to invest your time in a story only to discover at the end that there is no growth, no action taken, no realization on the part of the character? So, as a writer, think about all the times in your life that you’ve chosen to make a change (get married, buy a car or make a major purchase, attend college) or those times when you’ve been forced to make changes (find a new job, go through divorce, get transferred out of state). You survived, but whatever the source of the transition, you grew and changed and your characters can too. Hope you’re itching for change as much as I am!

For more on the story/character arc, see Veronica Sicoe’s blog  or Scriptlab on Character Arc.

Click the links for related posts on change and character:

Hello to Autumn’s Change

Out of Character

Summer Buzz

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.