Writing Exercise: Scenery and People

Photo by Erin Penn (2013)

Scenery, especially personal spaces, can give a great deal of insight to a character. While easiest to see in movies, like the mural in Uncle Ben’s house in Star Wars and Andy’s bedroom in Toy Story, what a person surrounds themselves with at home, in a garden, in a car, or on vacation can fill in the blanks on how a person may be feeling or her history, even when the person is not the focus of a first-person or close third-person narrative.

Many writers focus on physical and clothing descriptions, but stop describing a room beyond, say, the paint on the walls. These descriptions combine with dialogue, inner thoughts, and landscape description, sweeping the story through strong and hard without ever letting us know who the people other than the main character truly are.

In Home Cooking Part 1, Troy studies Mrs. Carter’s apartment to learn a bit about her. The spoken dialogue reveals only what she presents to the world and who she was before illness took her: a strong-willed woman, older, southern. The worn out apartment tells of a life without money, no husband as support even though she uses “Mrs.”, a throw hiding the worst of the damage to a sofa, and, most damning, the one button on her remote control completely worn out – not on/off, or a preprogrammed channel, but search. She is locked in, unhappy, and has no options. A far cry from being ONLY a kindly but firm grandmother offering something to eat to her daughter’s new boyfriend.

Further, we gain insight into Troy, because he notices these things. Not the focus character in Honestly, I revealed very little about Troy, taking a significant portion of the story before divulging his disability in all its details. We don’t know much about his military service other than he got shot once. The only real inner feelings disclosed, other than his infatuation of Kassandra, is his (mild) jealousy of Dewayne, which the Home Cooking flash indicates is alive and well.

What he noticed in the scene first, the ability to walk through it, exposes his ongoing life struggle with footing. The rest of it, well, his ability to pull apart a room for a personality profile indicates something other than standard grunt-level training.

READING EXERCISE: Choose one scene in your present book and figure out what information you learn about the characters from the scene and what from the dialogue. If only the dialogue was provided, how would what you know about the characters be different?

WRITING EXERCISE: For a character from your present work in-progress (WIP), write a scene description of their favorite living space where they had control of the decoration – bedroom, desk at work, work room in basement, etc. from the viewpoint of a person entering the space to learn more about them, a spy, a date, their mother. Do not directly describe history or feelings of the WIP character, only what the person entering the space can see and infer. For example, I never out-and-out go into why a remote control writing may have worn off, but a great deal of information can be inferred.

Flash: Home Cooking Part 1

Book Cover for Honestly

Occurs between chapters 12 and 13 of the novel, Honestly.

“I gots it!” The high pitch of a child vibrated through the apartment door, followed by the thunder of small steps running, and the slow turn of the knob. Troy waited as the door shifted open and a four-year-old appeared in the gap.

Terrell’s eyes popped, the wide whites showing prominently against his summer-darkened black skin. “Mr. Troy, what are you doing here?!”

“Picking you up, Mr. James, if that is acceptable.” Troy smiled down at the little boy.

“In or out, don’t be a cat!” An older female voice carried from deeper in the apartment.

“Oops.” Terrell fell backward against the door, pushing it wider to allow Troy into the living quarters.

Stepping just inside the door, Troy helped Terrell close it as he waited for the other speaker to come into the living room. While waiting, he glanced around trying to get a feel of the person who raised the woman he loved. The walkways between cracked leather furniture were wide and one section, directly in front of the television playing Sesame Street, temporarily strewn with Terrell’s Legos, crayons, coloring pages, and one shoe. Threadbare carpet presented a bigger trip hazard, especially where some of the strings curled together in a mass at the one end of the sofa near a bright, colorful African pattern throw covering the failing leather surface. Four unlit lamps and a ceiling fan-light combo would turn the dingy white walls into bright reflective surfaces in the evening, if she lit them. Kassandra never turned on her lights to save money, and likely the mother followed suit.

Around the television were dozens of photographs of Kassandra from childhood to adulthood, some of them containing a matching woman slowly aging beside her. A few show Kassandra, the woman, and Terrell; in those, the woman’s health clearly has been deteriorating. The picture where a tired Kassandra is triumphily holding a newborn in a hospital bed, Troy would guess the woman to be in her early sixties although Kassandra’s mother should have been only late-forties. Arthritic hands twisted by the enlarged knuckles lay on her daughter’s shoulders, salt-and-pepper hair pulled back from a proud face, just beginning to have laugh lines about the eyes and smiling mouth. The most recent one, taken in this room four short years later, had a Terrell (slightly younger than he knew) reading a book while sitting on his grandmother’s lap. The steel grey hair a sharp contrast against the African throw as she bent over the child to see what he is pointing at; unkind light from the flash added sparkle into the young child’s eyes but turned her laugh lines into crow’s feet and the smile lines around the mouth carved into a permanent painful frown even with the clear enjoyment she experienced in the child’s presence.

No pictures of Terrell’s father appeared anywhere in the room. Nor any crafts or books. The two end tables had water rings etched into the wood by forgotten drinks, nearly all on the table by the throw, but at the moment it held just the remote with the channel search button worn off; the mostly dusted surfaces hid small dirt bunnies behind the lamps where the woman couldn’t reach. The other walls supported a set of windows covered by crumbling venetian blinds, a cross and warped picture of Martin Luther King Jr., and the entry into the kitchen where he could see cracked linoleum and pealing, but clean, cabinets. The woman, aged even further, was maneuvering a walker with bright green tennis balls on its feet from the linoleum to what was left of the carpet.

“You must be Kassie’s new boy.” Premature aging caused by pain added cracks to a strong voice. She nodded his way as she pushed along one of the two well-worn paths in the brown carpet. One went from the sofa to the kitchen, and the other led down a small hall, presumably to the bathroom and bedroom. Neither path led to the front door.

Troy nodded acknowledgment back from the door. “May I come in, Mrs. Carter?” With his head dropped, he studied the floor a moment. The carpet did show a slight wear of the walker going over it. When Kassandra had called and begged him to pick up Terrell because a co-worker didn’t show making pulling a double-shift a requirement at her present slave-wage job, she mentioned her mother arthritis issues meant she couldn’t care for the active child too long. Either Kassandra was in denial of the level of her mother’s disability, or the woman hid it as much as she could. Having dated the down-to-Earth goddess for just over two months, Troy guessed the later. Likely compounded by being too busy and already feeling guilty about asking her mother for help at all.

“Kassie did say you are a polite one.” The woman plopped onto the African throw, moved the walker to the side, pushing against the wad of loose strings, and, when she noticed he hadn’t moved, waved him over. “Come on, come on. Terrell, boy, bring him over.” A welcoming smile of healthy teeth erased ten years of pain from her dark face.

Grabbing his hand, Terrell started pulling Troy into the apartment. “Careful,” he muttered to the enthusiastic child. Even with nearly two years on the prosthesis, having a forty-pound weight actively pulling to the side challenged his ability to balance. Once close enough to be polite, he managed to disengage the boy by saying, “We need to be leaving soon, Mr. James, if you could gather your things.”

“Sure thing.” And the barefoot child rushed down the hall, quickly returning his backpack and throwing himself on the floor where his Legos warred with the crayons.

Smiling gently, sadly, after the ball of energy, Mrs. Carter turned to him. “Won’t you have a seat?” She waved at the separate leather chair. The least worn piece of furniture in the room and only one not facing the television.

“I am afraid not, ma’am.” Troy tapped his left leg. “Getting up and down is a production sometimes, and we do need to be on our way. I am sure you understand.”

Her brown eyes narrowed, dropping a moment to his leg, adding another frown line into the forest surrounding a mouth meant to smile. Kassandra had told her something. Well, it wasn’t a secret and his girlfriend … girlfriend, yea Gods … was breaking him free of the embarrassed shame-filled prison his scars and amputee injury had chained him into.

“Very well.” The flickering TV drew her eyes a moment, where Terrell had stopped moving to watch Grover fly around in a red cape and mask. Mrs. Carter grabbed the remote and turned off the show. When Terrell turned to protest, she raised her eyebrows then dropped her eyes to the task he had lost track of. Once the child returned to stuffing his coloring sheets into the backpack, her attention returned to him. “Can I offer you a drink or something to eat?”

He smiled, shaking his head. And Kassandra teased him about Southern Manners. “No, thank you, Mrs. Carter. I am fine.”

“I’m ready,” reported Terrell, standing.

“Mr. James, I am fairly certain you arrived with two shoes and socks.” Troy scolded lightly. He looked over at the seated woman who joined him in the fun.

“Oh yes, two shoes and his Elmo socks.” Mrs. Carter considered the lonely shoe. “It’s why today was a Sesame Street day.”

Troy nodded. “You wouldn’t want to lose those.”

“Look in the bedroom hon, I think they came off during naptime.”

The four-year-old tore down the hall looking for the rest of his footwear, leaving the backpack and shoe behind.

“Anything else I should look for?” he asked the woman.

She shook her head. “No jacket or hat needed in summer, so we are good.”

Coming back with two socks and two shoes, Terrell dropped to the floor and started pulling them on. Velcro ripped when he tightened the shoes.

“Are we going to the park?” Terrell asked, after standing, the solo shoe unexplained. His eyes went sideways, and he rocked from foot-to-foot. “Mom always takes me to the park to see the puppies and play on the slides after Nana’s.”

“She does not, Terrell Martin Samuel James, and I will not have you lie to this man.” Mrs. Carter’s voice ripped through the room with power.

Troy unconsciously came to attention at the drill sergeant tone, seemingly doubling in size and firmness to the little boy.

“I..I..I am sorry, Mr. Troy.” He started sobbing. “I just want to see the puppies.”

“Lying, even to get what you want, is wrong.” Troy said firmly, his eyes fixed on the bowed head covered in short black curly twists. “You do understand that, Mr. James, correct?”

The bowed head bobbed up and down.

“I’m sorry, Mr. James. I need you to answer me verbally.” The military, while not perfect, raised more than one wayward child and much of its mannerisms worked well during toddler interaction.

The bowed head shook sideways. Clearly verbal was beyond the four-year-old at the moment.

Nana wasn’t haven’t any. “You heard the man. Do you understand lying is bad, Terrell?”

The head snapped sideways. Eyes of two generations met.

Troy wondered if a dominance battled was occurring, or a begging for mercy, or some other telepathic exchange only family can do. Not standing between them, he couldn’t hazard a guess. Eventually Terrell’s eyes shifted away to meet his. Not a dominance battle, the four-year-old would have broken under Mrs. Carter’s will much sooner. The tears on the corners of the eyes were drying. Assurance and confidence, that was the exchange. How many times had his parents instilled those feelings in him with a look? How many times had his father bolstered him with energy and determination since he had come back broken?

“Yes, Mr. Troy.”

He couldn’t leave it at that. Not if he was going to be staying around Kassandra. Terrell needed to understand what would be expected. “Yes, what?”

“What?” Came a confused echo. The four-year-old eyes returned to the older woman, widening to ask for clarification.

“Yes, Mr. Troy, I understand lying is bad.” She supplied him the words and tilted her head, returning the four-year-old back to the conversation with the adult male.

“Yes, Mr. Troy, I understands lying is bad.” Terrell repeated.

“Good.” Troy touched the boy on the shoulder, stopping himself from ruffling the hair. They weren’t that familiar yet, though Troy ached sometimes in worry for the little boy. Every so often they roughhoused while Kassandra was prepping something, but in general, their getting-to-know-each-other dance was slower and more emotionally difficult than the one Kassandra was putting him through. Dewayne might be a total loser, but, as Terrell’s dad, he was in the picture and staying in the picture whatever Troy and Kassandra ended up being, and the child did not need any more confusion on that score. “So, the plan is, we are going back to my place and cook your mom dinner.”

“Cook?” Terrell gasped.

“Yes, cook. I thought your mom would like a nice cooked meal when she got home after all the work she did today.” Terrell wished he could easily kneel to look the child in the eye. Maybe he should have taken up Mrs. Carter on her offer to sit. “I left the bread rising and the vegetables are waiting to be chopped up.”

“Vegetables?” Terrell crinkled his nose while Mrs. Carter laughed.

Clapping her hands in joy on the couch, the woman commented, “Oh, you’ll do. You’ll definitely do.”

Troy quickly glanced her way. “Thank you, ma’am.” Kassandra may be a completely independent woman, but she was also completely committed to her family. “You are invited by the way, if you would like to come.”

Startled the woman’s face froze. “I couldn’t. I wouldn’t want to be an imposition. I just-“

Troy interrupted. “My normal Lyft driver specializes in the mobility impaired. I had been planning on taking the bus back, but I could see if she is available. She keeps two child seats in the back of her van so she can run families to doctor offices. Shall I see if she is available?”

“You were planning on cooking for just-“

“A small army. Where I learned to cook.” Troy looked down at the wide-eyed child. “Mr. James, get your bag please.” The boy had dropped it during the chastisement. Crossing the room, Troy carefully knelt beside the sofa arm and walker, and put his hand on her hand where it gripped the tired leather. “My father will be there and love the company of having someone his own age to talk to, and when was the last time you truly got to sit down and talk with your daughter? Do say you will come.”

Black and brown eyes met, both knowing the lie and the gift being offered. Lies are not always bad. Honestly.

Her eyes tried to break away, to find another excuse.

“If you do not come, Kassandra will try to help me clean up.” Troy clasped her hand in both of his. “Please.”

“Well, if only to keep Kassie out of the kitchen.” The tension released from her shoulders and hand, not in defeat but in acceptance and anticipated pleasure.

“Thank you.”

(Words 2,230 – first published 10/1/2017 – put into the unused 1/29/2017 timeslot)

Editing Rant: Be a Dear

People Speaking POV Stock Photo

Image Courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Characters need to sound different.

After everything is written down in the initial spew of words – go back over the dialogue and decide how the characters sound. Are they from different parts of the county? Different education levels? Different jobs? How do they communicate? Is one a leader? Get a feel for who they are, write down a few quirks, then go back over the dialogue.

Character speaking quirks also applies to nicknames – not everyone uses them, and they definitely should not be the same for everyone. One book I edited had males and females, whether 70, 40 or 20, use the endearment “Dear”. Everyone. Every.single.character. Not “sweetie”, “hon”, “lovey”, “buddy”, but every affectionate diminutive between lovers, parent-child, or pals was “dear”.

People are different – do more than just hair color, eye color and height!

Patterns of speech are driven by many different aspects of a character. You can give insight to a character or situation just through dialogue. 

What assumptions would a reader make about the following?

“Hey hon, what’s ya order?”

“Sir. Are you ready to order?”

In both cases, someone is taking a food order at an eating establishment. Both start with an attention getting mannerism, followed by a request. Yet I bet you have totally different visions on how the food server is dressed, what they are holding to take the order, what the restaurant looks like, maybe even how their hair looks and what type of napkins are on the table. All from 5 or 6 words of dialogue.

Book Cover for Honestly

In Honestly, after I was finished the initial pass I went back and decided to create some differences so people could know who was speaking without any dialogue tags. Troy does not use contractions, being bi (tri or quad) lingual adds a precision to his communication. He is naturally very formal. The only time you will see him use contraction is speaking one-on-one with a child.

On the other hand Terrell’s speaking is explosive and highly related to either understanding something or sharing information. I changed some of the more complicated words he used to simpler constructs, plus adjusted the languages of those people talking directly to the young child.

As for the main character, Kassandra uses different terms of endearments when speaking with her son and her lover. I adjusted language for age of the characters, cultural backgrounds, and education levels. While doing that some of the actions of the characters changed as I discovered education levels and different upbringings. Learning how my characters talked taught me more about who they are.

WRITING EXERCISE: For you present work-in-progress (WIP) choose a chapter and review the dialogue. Or write about 200 words with two characters talking. Do their word choices match their profession? How about their age? How about whether they grew up in a rural or urban environment?

READING EXERCISE: For the book you are reading find a section of mostly dialogue. Based on the two or three pages what information do you learn about the characters based on their speaking word choices alone.

Other Cool Blogs: Magical Words January 26, 2016

This week’s “other cool blogs” is another Magical Words author. You may know him as D.B. Jackson of the Thieftaker series (historical urban fantasy) or as David B. Coe  of Blood of the Southlands series. Either way the man writes some pretty amazing stuff, all character driven. And he obsesses about POV. Stories are viewed by the reader from the narrator’s Point of View (POV); usually the POV character is the hero or heroine of the book in genre fiction.

The January 26, 2016 blog, The Power of Secrets, is about … secrets (shhhh). Read the blog – link here: http://www.magicalwords.net/david-b-coe/quick-tip-tuesday-the-power-of-secrets/ 

WRITING EXERCISE: Create a secret for your present WIP.

For Honestly, Troy, the hero, has a lot of secrets. Some get revealed in the story, some get only partially revealed, and some never are shown but are driving him.

The most obvious of the revealed secrets is his amputee. Initially he hides everything under clothes and mannerisms. As he gets to know Kassandra, he shows more and more of this weakness.

The partially revealed secret is his present government work. He does translations. But for whom and why? … and what is he translating?

A secret I never shared with the reader since the POV character, Kassandra, did not learn about it during the story is how Troy’s mother died. Yet the secret drove him to quit school and join the military and even now drives several of his decisions. The reason he won’t let the pain control him lies with what happened to his mother.

If you are a writer, what secret does your characters have and how does it shape them? Are you going to reveal this to your audience or keep it a secret.

READING EXERCISE: If you are a reader, what is a secret in a recent story you read? How did it drive the plot?

Other Cool Blogs: Magical Words November 25, 2015

Meme: Alignments of Muppets

Copied from the Magical Words blog on November 25, 2015

Tamsin Silver is part of the Magical Words crew. Living in New York City she rarely slows down, regularly publishing books, writing the web series Skye of the Damned, and being an awesome panelist and blogger, willingly sharing her hard-won knowledge of writing, directing, and producing. She is an amazing person in writing and in person.

In November, she wrote an informative blog (Some People Just Want to Watch the World Burn) on character building using age-old D&D alignments. The grids she found (see above for an example), really help define things. I loved the Harry Potter one with the additional “between” alignments which increased the full range of alignments to 25. That one is an absolute must see to get the full impact of the discussion.

Central to the blog is characters do not need to remain one alignment. In fact, amazing writing happens when characters change during the story. For example, for me one of the most powerful plots within Babylon 5 is when Londo Mollari character flaws drag him from the seemingly chaotic good into evil because he really was lawful – totally loyal to his failed empire. And other characters move in reaction to his descent into darkness, G’Kar goes from slime to saint and Vir Cotto goes from bumbling to iron. J. Michael Straczynski was a virtuoso as he played with our expectations. His characters slid around the alignment chart like it was an ice rink.

WRITING EXERCISE: After reviewing the Some People Just Want to Watch the World Burn, look at your present work-in-progress. What alignment are your main characters? Do they change during the story?

Book Cover for Honestly

In Honestly, my self-published novel, Kassandra, the heroine, would be Neutral Good. She is just trying to raise her child right and get ahead within society. In the expanded alignment chart she would fall under Social Good. As she faces different situations, she may slide around the chart. At the end of the day her first loyalty is to family, not any particular moral code.Troy, the hero, is lawful good. Very little could change him from this position. But like Kassandra, he is loyal to family before all. I don’t see the lawful ever budging, but what will he do to protect Kassandra and Terrell?
Dewayne, Kassandra’s ex, would be Chaotic Neutral, himself before anyone, and on the expanded version he would be Rebel Neutral. He is never mean or cruel deliberately, but his selfishness, if he doesn’t get a handle on it, could slide him into Impure or even Evil. Kassandra’s son, Terrell, at the moment is the Chaotic Neutral of a child. The world should revolve around him, and he cannot even understand how it does not. The question will be as he grows, which of the adults around him will impact his moral code: Kassandra, Dewayne, or Troy? … I have some ideas and you may see these characters again, as they live in my Queen City Coven world.

YOUR TURN: Comment below on your WIP characters alignments, and speculate if their alignments are fixed or malleable.